Fast forward to 2020; there’s no need to recap everything but you’ve got Covid, BLM, mask and vaccine mandates, etc – you remember, you were there. Anyway, here we have a key moment in time when the practical instructions of the Bible, God’s laws, become absolutely essential to how the church should respond. Startled and harassed bodies of believers across the world, under pressure to conform on all sides, actually needed to know what to do. They needed to know this in detail, with clarity and with conviction. And because of the lack of attention paid to God’s law, this gospel-centered movement didn’t have a great answer.
Picture the scene: You’re a young-ish preacher preparing for what may be something around your tenth sermon ever. You’ve been on a steady diet of Gospel Coalition, Together For the Gospel, and Acts 29 for a good couple of years at this point, and so you know that the Bible is not about you. Whatever happens in this upcoming message, you are determined that the main focal point should not be anyone who is present by any means other than the Holy Spirit. If you do, you’re terrified someone may stand up and shout something akin to, “You’re not DAVID!” and lead a mass exodus from the room, after which you’ll never preach again. Unfortunately, you’ve hit a snag: your text for the week is one of those awful bits in the Bible that talks about something practical. You know, like the second half of most of the epistles, or the bulk of the Torah, or most of the prophets, or significant portions of Jesus’ teaching.
“First Use of the Law”
At this point, you’re left with two options, one of which is to use the text as a “first use of the law case.” If you don’t know what that is off-hand, it means to use it by saying that this is God’s standard, this is how you’ve broken that standard, and this is how Jesus fulfilled the standard for you. And before you know it, you’re preaching Christ’s penal substitutionary death again for most of your time on stage. (Which, by the way, I give a hearty ‘Amen’ to, and which can be legitimately done, because the gospel is the foundation of all our practice as Christians.) However, the problem is that by the time you’ve done all that, you’ve not done a whole lot of unpacking what the hearer is practically supposed to do after all this. Of course, that is by design: you’ve been told not to insert yourself or anyone else into the story. One must not learn courage from Daniel, faith from Abraham, or boldness from David; perish the thought.
The other option is worse though: that would be to actually spend the time talking about the practical implications of the text, properly applying them to the hearer in today’s context in a way that would help them live their lives faithfully to Christ, trusting them to understand that this is done in a broad context of being Christ-centered and, yes, even gospel-centered, but in which your particular message would be mostly about the hearer. And the problem with doing this is that you would feel guilty for doing so because it’s verboten. Borderline heresy, one might say.
You choose option A, everyone says you preached the gospel well, but in reality they learned very little.
This may be a slightly hyperbolized version of events, but only very slightly, and I say that because that was almost exactly how I used to feel when preaching, and if I were a gambling man, I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of others out there who felt the same way. A practical sermon was, in my mind, a poor one. Thankfully, over time I learned to just follow the text and not stress so much about fitting it into a particular paradigm, but I didn’t really have language for this until I recently hosted an interview with Joel Webbon, and he pointed out how limiting God’s law to merely its first use was so common in this movement.
Why It Fell Apart
On the face of things, there wouldn’t appear to be much wrong with using the law in this way, and many people heard the gospel through this kind of preaching and were saved.