What to listen for in a sermon

God’s Word speaks to us in two ways. In law and gospel.

God’s law helps to keep us from disintegrating into ch aos, personally and corporately, and (theologically) it kills us off, brings us to our knees in repentance and drives us to Christ. The law is demand… pure and simple.

The gospel is what gives us life. It is promise, pure and simple. The gospel isn’t the law and the law isn’t the gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is not gospel, but law. There is no life in it. 

How can that be!  Jesus is speaking those words to us!  Remember…God speaks to us in law and gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, it just so happens that Jesus was using the law to kill us off to any foolish notion that we will be made right by anything that we do. The life was not in the demand of the law that Jesus was giving, but in the person of Himself.

It’s not always easy to distinguish the law from the gospel for people not taught to do so.

Since the law is demand, one ought listen to hear that. If it sounds like someone is using scripture, or other words to get you to do something, or to think something, or to feel something, then you have just heard the law. “Now that you are in Christ Jesus you should read your bible more, attend Bible studies, help those in need.” That is law. Are those bad things?  No they are not, we ought try and do those things. But they will never make us  right with God, or make us a better Christian. Can those things be bad things? Yes they can, if they are emphasized to the point where one believes that he or she will be gaining something towards Heaven if they are doing them.

A preacher needs to proclaim God’s law. But not to spur people on to be ‘better Christians’. That will backfire. That will create different congregations. That will create despair in those who finally realize that no matter how hard they try they can never get there (sometimes the kind of despair where they will never again enter a church door). And that kind of ‘how-to’ preaching will create phonies. Those that know that they cannot live up to what is being asked of them, but not wanting to look less than Christian’ or out of place, they will fake it. They will play the game and look and act the part. The last group of people that you will end up with are those that actually believe they are doing what the preacher is telling them they ought be doing. Now, these poor folks are guilty of pride, and that may be the worst place to be.

So, if a preacher understands the purpose of the law correctly, he will not use it to spur on better behavior towards making people better Christians (that is totally  not necessary since we can never become better Christians than at the moment we were baptized), but will use  the law it was intended in it’s theological use, and that is to kill people off to their self-righteousness project.

If you leave a worship service and you now realize that you’d better get busy with X,Y, or Z, otherwise you are not a very good Christian, then you ought reconsider going back there because you probably won’t hear the gospel there.

The gospel is ‘yes you are a sinner, yes you do not do, say, feel, or think the right things, yes you engage in the wrong things, often at the expense of your neighbor…but Jesus Christ loves you and forgives you. He died for people that are just like you (and that is everyone). Because of that cross and resurrection, and in your baptism, He has promised to you new life and the forgiveness of your sins, and salvation.

That is the gospel.

It’s not a little of both, either.

It’s not a little law mixed in with a lot of gospel. One drop of poison in a glass of water ruins the whole glass of water. (the Galatian letter)

So hear the law, the full law, the hard, unmitigated law…and die to yourself. Die to your religion project.

Then hear the gospel, the sweet, pure sound of the love and forgiveness of the One  who knows what you are up against and who has done something about it in the person of Christ Jesus. And in that new found freedom in that Word of forgiveness, go into the world and do what you will to express that love and freedom that Christ has won for you and given to you.

By the way, the law and the gospel are not something that you apply, God is applying them TO   YOU.  He IS DOING them to you…for His purposes…for those that by God’s grace, have ears to hear it.



I know that this is a radical notion to many of you, and that many of you do not like having ‘what you need to do’, taken away from you.

But when you realize that what I(the scriptures actually – God actually) am saying is the truth, and that it is biblical, and that God is the one that wills to make you whole and righteous totally on His own…without your help…it is liberating like nothing else is liberating.

Can you handle that kind of freedom?  It’s not always easy, you know. Living by faith and not by sight is a very tough way to live.

What do you say?

46 Responses

  1. Very good post. Lutherans need to have the proper distinction between law and Gospel. The proper distinction between the old and new covenant.

    I have a new post about my history of thinkology leading me back to a Lutheresque stance.

  2. Christians need to answer this question: what makes someone a good Christian?

  3. Darius,

    What do you think makes somebody a good Christian?

  4. Someone who, through the awakening of the Holy Spirit, humbly believes in Christ’s work on the cross to save him from God’s wrath and repentantly puts their faith in Jesus as both their Lord and Savior… any works done out of that faith are mere fruit of the vine of Christ.

  5. That would certainly seem to me to be a fitting description of a Christian to me.

    Not a “good Christian” or a “bad Christian”…but just a Christian.

    One who is declared righteous for Jesus’ sake, might be another good way to put it.

    Thanks, Darius.

  6. Yeah, I don’t think there is any such thing as a good Christian or bad Christian. One is usually using those terms to talk about works. Jesus said that a Christian will be recognized by their fruit. So if you’re a “bad Christian,” you’re either NOT a Christian and have bad fruit or just an immature Christian still coming to a better realization of God’s will for his life.

  7. If anyone wants a good laugh, go to Darius’ site ‘Echoes in Eternity’ and check out the list of the Top10 Things to do if you want everyone to know that you are a “good Christian”.


    It’s funny, but in many cases, sadly true.

  8. That is a very well written article. Purpose of the law was never to make us righteous, rather, it was to kill us; so that we will come to Jesus for Life.

    Very well said!

  9. Thanks, Bino.

    We (Lutherans) also believe that the law was given so that we could live together in this world as best as sinners can, without a total breakdown into murder and mayhem.

    Many Lutherans also believe in a “third use” (as guide for Christian living), but I do not subscribe to that idea.

    But, the theological use for us is clear. Not to make us better…but to kill us off to the self-righteousness project.

    • Not just Lutherans, so many Christians hold on to the faulty belief that law is a ‘guide’ for Christian living. Jesus, as he was talking to the disciples about the coming of Holy Spirit, He said, the Holy Spirit will guide in all truth (not law). He didn’t say Holy Spirit will ‘help’ us to obey the law.

      A person who is indwelled by Holy Spirit do not need law. He is internally driven by God’s Holy Spirit. In fact He is dead to the law, Bible says!

  10. Bino,

    We agree on the Spirit being the inspiration to do the ‘good’ that God desires.

    We are dead to the law for righteousness sake, that is for sure (thanks be to God).

    But we do differ, in so far as the Law is concerned, because we still have to live in this world and get along, and the law is still in effect for our own good.

    So we keep the law (as best we can – or maybe not) not for righteousness, but becauyse we want to, and because things work better when we do.

  11. the law is still in effect for our own good.

    Steve – Yes, I disagree with that statement. Bible says, law stirs up sin in us (1 Corinthians 15:56). That is why I stay away from it.

  12. We do disagree, Bino, and that is ok.

    That Jesus tells us that not one jot or tittle of the law shall be removed until the new Kingdom comes, is what keeps us under the law (not for righteousness sake – but for the order in our world and in our personal lives).

    So, on this point we will have to agree to disagree.

    But we have rightly heard each other, I believe.

    • Yes Steve, we have to agree to disagree 🙂 And that is ok!

      Yes, Jesus said that and it is still applicable. But not for believers though. Law is what leads UNbeleievers to Christ. But once you are in Christ, you are free from it.

      Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. – Galatians 3:23-25

      Have faith come for you and me (as believers)? YES!

      Then, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

      • OK, Bino…thanks.

      • Bino,

        I can agree that we are not under SUPERVISION of the law…. but can the law still not INFORM me and give me avenue for grateful response to Him for all I have been given? (not to measure up… but out of joy… a spontaneous “here am I, send me)

        If not, what do you do with all of Pauls admonitions to believers in the epistles to do something?

      • Patrick,

        The issue is, we are not saved by the law and we are not perfected (sanctification) by the law. We are saved by FAITH in Jesus and we are perfected (sanctified) by FAITH in Jesus. You cannot walk by faith by being under the law. It’s a contradiction in itself.

        About the advices Paul give in NT, I do not see them as ‘laws’. Paul said, “Everything is permissible”, which means we are totally from any law.

        But he added, “but not everything is profitable”.

        So when I am faced with something in life, the question I ask myself is NOT, “is this permissible?”, instead I ask the question, “Is this profitable?” In other words, is this in line with my righteous identity in Christ? Is this going to benefit me or the people involved? etc…

      • Bino,

        I like that… that’s helpful. I agree. The law neither justifies nor sanctifies.

        My question is… Can we agree that some things are universally profitable?… like say… “praying without ceasing, giving thanks in all circumstances, putting off falsehood, loving one another etc.”… they are not demands for the believer (law) but available opportunities that are in line with who we are. Correct?

        That has been how I define the 3rd use of the law… It’s not for the purpose of salvation or sanctification… but rather it simply informs me of things that are beneficial… done (most often unconsciously) out of gratitude & joy. They can sound like law and are indeed law to the unbeliever.

      • Patrick – I see what you are saying. It sounds very logical to use law for the things which are universally profitable. The thing is, when I am driven/lead by the Spirit within myself, I will not contradict God’s law. The spirit always direct us in the righteous path. Thats the freedom. I don’t even have to know the law.

        For example, when I understand I am driving through a school zone and see kids around, I will reduce my speed, knowing that I might be putting the lives of the kids into danger otherwise. Do I need to have a sign (law) saying “Reduce speed”? No! As a person, who is indwelled by a loving God, by nature, I don’t want to put the kid’s lives into danger. It’s our very nature to live righteous, not because we follow some guidelines (laws). A person, who is made righteous by God will NATURALLY do righteous things…

      • Bino,

        True… but what if you don’t see the children?

  13. Luther said in his HD that at the Cross God truly reveals Himself as the creator, for His love does not “pop into being” based on an object that is lovable (fallen love/religion/man), but rather loves that which is unlovable. Thus God calls into being the Christian by forgiving and doing all for the sinner, that is to say the unlovable nothing darkness.

    So the answer to, “What do you think makes somebody a good Christian?”, is really in a way unanswerable from man’s side of the equation. What makes a good Christian? The Son of God ex nihilo by His death on the Cross and all His righteousness imparted to us without the support of works, yesterday, today or tomorrow, or ever entirely – is what makes a good Christian. The answer to the question is not things we do, not even reflectively such things as faith and repentance. That does not make a good Christian at all, in fact it can make a false Christian. False faith and repentance can often speak this way, “how do you know you are saved”, “I believe in Jesus”. Faith and repentance should really speak thus to the same question, “Christ alone”, or some similar answer. In other words faith and repentance truly do not speak of themselves, but like the Holy Spirit, speak of Christ and Him alone.

    When we answer the question, “What do you think makes somebody a good Christian?”, with answers toward our belief and our repentance we are really speaking about ourselves and not Christ and not at all answering the question. In fact we are denying the truth in doing so. It would be like me sculpting a sculpture and someone asks the sculpture, “What do you think makes you a sculpture”, and the sculpture answers, “because I believe in the sculptor.” Rather the sculpture would say, “He did!”, and point to the sculptor.

    It’s easier to understand “What do you think makes somebody a good Christian?” by asking a parallel, What do you think made light?”. Well, this did, God said, “let there be light”. Thus, the answer to, “What do you think makes somebody a good Christian?”, is this “Christ alone”, and out of nothing the Christian is made or created or eschatologically speaking re-created.


    • Why call any one good at all, there is only one who is good. Even that one asked why call him good?

      Matthew 19:17
      And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.

      Since we do not keep the commandments as God would have then we are left again on the hands of God who has mercy, in Christ.


  14. Was it Booth or Moody who said, “The law can only take us the foot of the blood-stained cross and no further.”?

    The law was given to lead us to Christ; a school master or tudor.

    One could argue that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ Christian either. The bible points out that there is none good, no not one. The standard of good is God Himself and, even as a Christian, I fall short of being anywhere near that standard.

    God is sanctifying me. Through Him and His word I continue to learn and develope as a Christian.

    I am thankful I don’t have a ‘what you need to do’ list that many seem to fixate upon to gauge my pilgimage by.

    I am also thankful I am no longer the milk drinker I was when I got saved and am now eating solid food and producing God pleasing fruit through His directives.

  15. Ezekiel 36, 24-27…….”For “I” will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. (SEPERATION)! Then “I” will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; “I” will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, “I” will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and “I” will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. “I” will put a new Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.

    Your last two sentences are correct.

    “By the way, the law and the gospel are not something that you apply, God is applying them TO YOU. He IS DOING them to you…for His purposes…for those that by God’s grace, have ears to hear it.”

    As a side note…..all believers will appear at the bema seat of Christ to recieve a reward. Some will get many and others will be saved as by fire. What are your thoughts on this…Steve?

  16. Ike,

    I guess that could happen. Scripture states as much. Whether it will be that way or whether it is just rabbinic hyperbole, we will some day find out.

    I do think that if it is on our minds (doing for rewards) then we have shot our motives all to hell.

    When Jesus told those in front of Him for judgment, ‘when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty, etc, etc.’ …and then they said, “when did we do that?” there was no self consciousness on their part of the doing. They were just filling the need when they saw it.

    If people are being told of the rewards they will recieve for their good works, do you think that they will not have that on their minds?

  17. The verses that came to my mind as I read your post are these:

    Rom 2:14-16 “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
    They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

    Php 2:12-13, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

  18. “The apostle Paul said that he pressed on for the prize.”

    Right…’the prize’…not the ‘prizes’.

  19. Dorci,

    Excellent verses, highlighting the work of Christ in us.

    Thank you!

  20. They also highlight our own responsibility to walk with Christ accordingly.

  21. I have heard folk though give the Gospel without the Law and the Gospel becomes no Gospel at all.


  22. Isn’t the gospel that the law has been fulfiled through Jesus Christ?

    • Dorci,

      Our salvation is a story. The Gospel is about our debts being paid by Christ. If there is no debt, then paying for it would not make sense.

      The sinner first must be given the Law so he might be convinced that he is a doomed sinner, deserving of eternal and temporal punishment. Only then will the Gospel become sweet.

      Fine folk can get into this trap of giving the Gospel without giving the Law.

      Recently a friend of mine who has a dying friend went over to see him about his eternal destiny. This friend of mine gave the Gospel without the Law. You see it is rather offensive to tell dying folk (so I think he surmises) that they are doomed sinners. This can sound awful. The Gospel is the solution, but there is no need for a solution if there is no problem to be solved.

      The Gospel matters nothing to those who think they are good enough and that God will be kind enough anyway – with or without Christ. It only makes sense to those who have been crushed by the Law and they won’t be crushed unless the Law comes in full steam.


  23. If anyone is interested… this is a classic for understanding Law & Gospel…


  24. Ah, I see. You’re talking about at the point of salvation the “law” or our sinfulness must be understood before we can receive the gospel. Correct?

    But after salvation, Jesus becomes the fulfillment of the law and the law is written upon our hearts and we are then convicted by the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, when we sin so that we can repent of it.

  25. Correct. We need to hear both the rest of our lives because our sinful nature wants to revert back to self righteousness again and again.

    The Gospel is not intuitive. It has to come from outside all the time being declared to us.


  26. Well, I posted this scripture above, “Rom 2:14-16 “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

    And this is why, and what I believe it is saying: once we are saved, we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit, therefore, “the work of the law is written on their hearts.” Right and wrong is indwelt with the Lawmaker. Because of that, we now have a holy conscience, if you will, wherein the Holy Spirit, as we seek God Himself, not just the law, will reveal to us His will, convicting us of our errors and bringing us to repentance.

    Too many seek the law itself, trying in the flesh to be made righteous, rather than seeking the Lord, Who will sanctify us, purify us and make us holy.

  27. But at the same time, I should say, we do have a responsibility to obey the Lord, which really should not be done begrudgingly, but out of a heart of love for our Lord.

    And can I add, that while we may not be “good” or “bad” Christians, we can certainly be faithful or unfaithful, abiding or unabiding, obedient or disobedient Christians.

  28. “Believe in the one whom He has sent.”

    That is what it means to be faithful.

  29. Believing is the starting point. Then that belief will give us the ability to abide, then the abiding gives us the ability to trust, then the trust gives us the ability to obey.

  30. Sorry, I keep coming up with afterthoughts. With those abilities, though, we have choices whether or not to follow through with them. That is why Jesus tells us to abide, because we have a choice to abide. And if we don’t abide, if we are not faithful in that, then he says he will not abide in us. But if we do, then we will bear much fruit.

  31. Believe/abide/trust are the same thing… they are a gift from God through the ministry of the Word… “ability” has nothing to do with it. God gives to us what he demands from us – in Christ. Jesus IS our righteousness, holiness, redemption, & obedience.

  32. Jesus IS our ability. Believing and trusting are not the same. I can believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, but when my father dies of leukemia at the age of 65 when I’ve barely gotten to know him, can I trust God that this is His will and that He will strengthen me to get through it? When I have headaches every day for 3 years, though I believe in Jesus, can I trust Him to get me through each day without wanting to die? The more trials I allow the Lord to bring me through, the more I will continue to abide in my relationship with Him and the more I will trust Him to get me through the next trial.

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