Disclaimer: All biblical and Reformed preachers must preach the law in both the pedagogical and normative or moral uses (first and third uses, depending on who’s numbering them). Any preacher who does not preach the law in those two uses is not preaching the whole counsel of God. So, this post is not a diatribe against preaching the law. This post is a diatribe against the abuse of the law.

Symptoms: A legal preacher is a preacher who majors in the law to the neglect of the gospel.  In practice, he preaches nothing but law. He thinks that mentioning Jesus periodically or even regularly means that he’s not a legal preacher and he can’t imagine that people are concerned about the tenor of his preaching because he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. It’s the sort of preaching he heard as a young man and it’s the sort of preaching he heard in seminary and it’s the sort of preaching he admires in other preachers.

He turns every passage into a law, because he doesn’t know any other way to read the Scripture and he doesn’t know any other way to preach. He preaches the law and he doesn’t even know he’s doing he it, even when, in his mind, he’s preaching the gospel. When he finds a bit of good news in his passage, he doesn’t end with that because he doesn’t want his people to get the idea that there are no obligations to the Christian life.

He’s heard talk about a distinction between law and gospel but he’s pretty sure that’s a Lutheran way to think and talk and beside, he never heard that when he went to seminary and he went to a good school where, were it important, he would have heard about it. He’s suspicious of the fellows who do talk about law and gospel. They don’t seem to be nearly as interested in sanctification and obedience as they should be. Certainly those fellows aren’t as interested in it as he is. He suspects that those fellows are just lazy.

He’s heard about the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives but it was a lot of reading and he hasn’t really had time. He’s had other things on his plate. He’s not really sure what the big deal is. After all, those guys in Moscow seem like good fellows. They believe the bible and they understand that the culture is going to pot around us and they publish some pretty good things on the family and school.

Every so often he mentions grace and faith but he doesn’t dwell on it or get caught up in it. When salvation comes up in a passage at hand (e.g., the crossing of the Red Sea) he covers it but he doesn’t leave the people there. In his application he presses them as to whether they really believe it enough and whether they’ve really obeyed God. Is God really pleased with them? He doesn’t want them to become lazy or presumptuous. We all know what the gospel is. In our age what we need to do is to get busy applying the Scriptures to everyday life and getting after the hard work of obedience and sanctification.

One of his parishioners once asked him, “Pastor, are you unhappy with us? You seem dissatisfied with us.” He thought to himself: “Yup, that’s right. I’m not really satisfied with you folks and why should I be? You have a long way to go.”

Diagnosis: Our legal preacher doesn’t know the law from the gospel, the good news from bad news. To him all of Scripture is law and all of it is gospel. There just two sides of the same coin. There’s no real difference between them. The gospel is that God is sovereign and that he has sovereignly decreed his will for his people.

Ironically, his second problem is, at bottom, that he doesn’t really know the first use of the law. For the legal preacher,  it’s all gift, it’s all guidance. He has not been smitten by the law, struck by its righteous, powerful blows—or if he has, it’s been so long ago that he’s forgotten the horror. He doesn’t see the law for what it is: a completely holy and righteous condemnation of sinners, a terrible and relentless judgement that will swallow him up and from which he needs a deliverer.

Third, because he doesn’t see the law for what it is, he no longer sees himself for what he is, apart from grace, a vessel of wrath and condemnation. Yes, he knows intellectually that he’s a sinner but his sins seem almost vanilla, pedestrian compared to those he’s faced as a pastor, those he’s had to address in session or in the counseling room. Sometimes when he prays the prayer of confession during the service, he’s hard pressed to think of anything to confess.

Fourth, not surprisingly, he isn’t really enamored with the gospel. Sometimes, when he hears people going on about how great the gospel is, he’s not really sure what they’re talking about because it hasn’t gripped him personally, at least not for a long time.

Fifth, he has a lot of folks aiding and abetting him. The congregation likes his sermons. They like the lists he gives them and the practical, detailed instructions he gives them about the Christian life. He knows how to make his congregants feel guilty. He’s heard their confessions. He knows their struggles. He knows which buttons to push. They’ve come to find a kind of satisfying guiltiness in his preaching. They know that they’ve been to church because they’ve felt that familiar pang of guilt and they leave knowing that they need to do better. The preacher’s grim face is a reminder of God’s attitude toward them.

There’s a final problem. As a legal preacher has control of his people, of his church, of his session, of his whole life—his identity. As long as people have the idea that they have to do something to earn favor with God or keep favor with God, he preacher is in charge. The moment they learn that it’s a free gift, he’s no longer the boss. He’s just a minister announcing good news. That’s a demotion for which he’s not ready.

Written by: R. Scott Clark ( Professor of Church History and Historical Theology @ Westminster Seminary California)