How hard it is to preach the gospel! Judith Simonson, in Homily Service in 2006 wrote about the proclamation of good news requiring that the preacher know how to distinguish between law and gospel. The preacher, then, does not leave people thinking that the gospel is something we achieve. It is well to think of this every Sunday.
Paul Scott Wilson (The Practice of Preaching) distinguishes in this way: law is what human life is, what we do, and what we are to do. Law is about human action. In contrast, gospel is what God is doing. This can be a handy check for preachers.
Almost nothing makes me a stronger believer in the doctrine of original sin than the difficulty we have in keeping the message of the Gospel clear. There is something, apparently, in the human makeup that prompts the clergy and laity alike to confuse law and Gospel and use them interchangeably. Perhaps the good news does not seem so good to those who really do want to earn the love of God.
. . . I heard it again the other day in one of our churches. I was listening to a well-delivered sermon, but beginning to wonder if it were not more of a lecture than a sermon. The preacher apparently also felt some need to inject a bit of the “Gospel,” proclaimed that intention, and proceeded to quote the lines from Matthew 22:37–39, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Ignoring the next verse, which speaks of “these two commandments,” we were urged to conduct ourselves as befits Christian people because that was the “Gospel” Jesus proclaimed.
I behaved myself and did not rise up to challenge the preacher (although I shall find a way to do it privately). . . because this is where our message gets so muddled and loses its power.
. . . Jesus understood the law in a radical way. He was forever pointing out that the letter of the law was one thing, but that the children of God were called to express the intent of the law— the good of the other. When he challenged the rich young man with that radical expectation, his disciples questioned him and were told that, of course, it was impossible to satisfy the law from a human point of view; that it took God’s intervention.
It is that intervention, in the person of Jesus himself, the embodiment of God’s grace, that constitutes the Gospel.
. . . Here we have come full circle from Ash Wednesday when we were urged not to display our piety in public. . . to fast and pray privately. Now we hear words about light and darkness and are urged to come into the light. – Judith E. Simonson
The images of death and of healing in the Gospel of John and in Numbers turn us toward honesty about our struggles and the fact that looking at the causes can begin the healing.
Just as Moses turned the serpent, something that was originally the cause of suffering, into a means of saving lives, the gospel writers made the cross, originally a symbol of shame and suffering, into a symbol of eternal life. – Jonathan Lawrence
[T]he concept [here] is of God providing a way to rescue the people from the situation they found themselves in due to their sin, offering a logical parallel for the gospel of John. – Jonathan Lawrence
Ephesians 2:1-10Writing to the church in Ephesus, Paul clearly reiterates the difference between law and gospel: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (vs. 9)
Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.
Judith Simonson is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 44-52.