Preaching the Law
The fairest face on earth, which was endowed with the most comely features, would soon become ugly and unsightly if one feature continued to grow while all the others remained undeveloped. No matter how well formed are beautiful the mouth, if it became ten times the size of the eyes or ears, how repulsive it would appear. Beauty is principally a matter of proportion. So it is with the Word of God: its beauty and blessedness are best received when it is presented in its true proportions. To be all the time dwelling on the love of God, and silent about His wrath, or to be constantly expounding His righteousness and say little are nothing about His mercy, is to present a caricature of the Divine perfections. So also to preach ten sermons on the Gospel of God’s grace to one upon God’s law, is to lose the balance of truth, and to present the truth disproportionately.
It has long appeared to the writer that the greatest and most deplorable defect and modern “evangelism” is the almost total absence of the preaching of the law. Before a servant of God is warranted in setting before the unsaved the Divine way of salvation, he needs to make very clear wherein lies the need of salvation. This is the order of Scripture throughout. The Old
Testament precedes the New. The ministry of John the Baptist comes before that of the Lord Jesus Christ: and the former came “in the way of righteousness” (Matt. 21:32), calling to repentance. Rom. 3:10-20 (Read it!) precedes Rom. 3:21-26, and so it should be in all preaching.
“By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20): then why not preach the law! Does not the apostle to the Gentiles tell us, in that wondrous and blessed biographical passage of Rom. 7, “I had not known sin but by the law” (v.7)! Fellow-preachers, the knowledge of God’s law is absolutely necessary in order to a true knowledge of sin. Because God’s law is the rule of man’s conduct, of all his heart exercises and outward actions so that he is sinful or not just in proportion as he conforms to the law, or does not conform thereto, it necessarily follows that he cannot possibly judge of his own character and determine whether he be a sinner or not, if he is completely ignorant of the law; and he must be ignorant of his own sinfulness, however great a sinner he be, just in proportion to the degree of his ignorance of the law he is under.
“Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4); therefore where there is no law, there is no sin; and he who has no idea, no apprehension or knowledge of the law has no real idea of sin; it is impossible that he should have, for every person’s notion of sin will be according to his notion of the law. If he thinks God’s requires that which it does not, then he will judge that to be sin which in truth is not so. If he thinks the law he is under does not require what it does (for example , heart-purity), then he will look upon that to be no sin, which in truth is so, and so far as he sees not the ground and reasonableness of the law, he will be ignorant of the crime or real sinfulness in transgressing it. While he is ignorant of the excellency of the law, and the authority of its Giver, and so sees not the glory of the law, he must be blind to the turpitude of sin, and can have no true idea of it.
There is a threefold knowledge of sin and the law. First, a speculative knowledge. Men may have, to a considerable degree, clear and sound intellectual views with respect to the law of God and sin. They may perceive the reasonableness of God’s law, the
obligation they are under to obey it, their great lack of conformity thereto, and the infinite evil there is in all sin. They may reason accurately about these things and yet their hearts remain quite unaffected by them. They may live at the greatest ease, trouble not themselves about their disobedience, and continue sinning with a high hand. So it is with Israel of old; and so it is with many who are familiar with the letter of God’s law.
Second, there is a convictive knowledge. Unregenerate persons may have their consciences awakened so as to attend to these
things in some measure as solemn realities, and with particular application to themselves. They may feel themselves condemned by the law and under the curse of Him against whom they have so grievously rebelled. They may have such a sense of the majesty,
holiness and power of God, the dreadfulness of His anger and their constant exposedness to be cast in hell and to fill them with sore distress and horror. Self-interest, the instinct of self-preservation, and the movings of self-love may cause them to be greatly concerned how they shall escape the wrath to come. Later, their convictions fade and disappear.
Third, there is a regenerative knowledge. Those who have been born again have a heart-realization of the superlative excellency and glory of the Divine character by which He is infinitely distinguished from all other beings, and they feel the deep obligations they are under to love Him perfectly with all their hearts forever. They discern the reasonableness, the spirituality, and extent of the law in such a manner and degree as produces a heart approbation and love to it, and their souls exclaim “The law is holy, just and good.” Hence they perceive what sin is. It appears to them infinitely odious and ill-deserving, a dreadful opposition to the Divine character and law, and they hate and abhor sin, and wish to be done with it forever. “They who have quite wrong ideas of the law of God will have equally wrong ideas of their own character as sinners, and, consequently, wrong ideas of the character of the Mediator and the grace revealed in the gospel. The gospel has such respect to the law of God, and the latter is so much the reason and ground of the former, and so essential to the wisdom and glory of it, that it cannot be understood by him who is ignorant of the law; consequently, our idea and apprehension of the gospel will b e erroneous and wrong just as far as we have wrong notions of God’s law. The character of the Mediator is necessary, excellent and glorious only in this view and on this supposition, that the law of God, which requires perfect persevering obedience, on pain of eternal damnation, is unchangeably right, just, excellent, and glorious, and, consequently, sin infinitely criminal and odious; for the most essential part of the character of the Mediator consists in His honoring this law, and making atonement for sin. He, therefore, who does not believe there is any such law, or does not view it in this light, and so does not see sin in its true demerit and hatefulness, cannot possibly understand the gospel, but must be blind to the true wisdom and glory of it.
“This has been, and now is, the sad case of multitudes under the gospel. They hope and expect to be saved by Christ; they
speck much of the grace of the gospel, and the wonderful mercy of God to sinners; but at the same time they are ignorant of the
Divine law, and never were reconciled to it as holy, just, and good; so never saw sin in its true odiousness and ill-desert. Let such rise as high as they will in their admiration of gospel grace, and, though they are affected even to raptures, they are wholly ignorant of the true grace of God, of their need of a Mediator, and of the way of salvation by Him. So important are right notions of the law. He who fails here must be in darkness with respect to the whole system of religious truth; the true gospel will be hid from him; and to him Christ crucified will be nothing but a stumblingblock and the most perfect foolishness.
“There are many who speck out and say, `We do not believe there is now any such law binding on men which requires perfect
obedience on pain of eternal damnation. This law is wholly set aside by the gospel, and we were never under it, nor indeed would it be just in God to hold us to it. Christ blessed by His name! has introduced a more mild dispensation so that we are now not
under law, but under grace!” But, pray, what grace is there in abolishing and freeing you from a law which you never could be
justly under, and which, therefore, ought in justice to be set aside? And what need of a Mediator to die to deliver you from
this law and introduce a more mild dispensation? Must there be so costly a sacrifice to induce the great Law-giver to give up
that which He could not justly insist upon, it being itself unreasonable? But if it is in itself reasonable, being founded in the reason and nature of things, it cannot be given up and abolished on any consideration whatsoever. Surely, such, how ever they may `to be teachers of the law, understand neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm’ (1 Tim. 1:7). When will such horrible jargon and blasphemy be banished from the Christian world? How far are such from knowing their own characters as sinners, and the true grace of the gospel whereby the sinner saved!
“And suffer me to add here a hearty submission to, and acquiesce and delight in the law of God, rightly understood, and so a true hatred of sin must take place in order to any degree of true approbation of the gospel, faith, and trust in Christ. For so far are we from approving of the law of God in our hearts, and a since of the hatefulness and ill-desert of sin, just so far shall we always be from being pleased with the atonement of Christ, rightly understood, in which the law is set up and honored as most excellent and glorious, and sin is condemned in the highest possible degree, and its infinite odiousness and ill-desert set in the most clear and striking light imaginable. Indeed, this approbation and since of heart is implied in a true idea and knowledge of the law in its excellency and glory, and of sin in its true odiousness ill-desert; for the very idea of duty and excellence consists in a since of heart, and is itself a pleasedness with that beauty and delight in it; and there can be no distinction between seeing the true hatefulness of an object and hating it.
“Thus evident is it that the sinner who comes to Christ for salvation comes a true penitent, and that repentance, which most
essentially consists in a since of heart of the true odiousness and ill-desert of sin, is not only implied in faith in Christ , but is necessary in order to this faith; and the former takes place before the latter, as there must be the knowledge and approbation of the Divine character and law, and a sight and since of the ill-desert of sin, before there can be any true knowledge of the Mediator and faith in Him. Thus it is only the humble, contrite, broken-hearted penitent who is revived and comforted by Christ, as none but such did or ever will know His true character or are prepared to receive with approbation and joy the good news He proclaims. This is so plain and demonstrable that it may be reasonably concluded that many who have objected against the notion that repentance toward God is anteced-ent to faith in Christ, and before it, as being heretical and absurd, have done it through some misunderstanding of the matter.
“There are those who zealously contend that a sight and belief of the grace of God through Christ, and a view of God as reconciled to the sinner by Him, is the first and only thing that begets love to God and His law, and repentance of sin, and that it is impossible that the sinner should be reconciled to God and the Divine law in any other view. I leave the attentive reader to observe and reflect upon the absurdity of such a notion. It is certain to a demonstration that they who are not heartily reconciled to God and His law, and do not hate sin and abhor themselves for it, do not know and are not reconciled to the grace of God through Christ. Nor can they attain to the latter if not first brought to the former, but will remain eternal enemies to both. They, therefore, who have never been reconciled to God and His holy law in any other way but first seeing and believing in the grace of God through Christ, are yet ignorant of the true grace of God, and enemies to it. And all their love to Christ, and supposed reconciliation to God, all their repentance, religious affections, and rapturous admiration of the love and grace of God is nothing but mere enthusiastic delusion, bottomed on that selfishness which is perfect enmity against God.” (Samuel Hopkins, 1880 in close fellowship with Jonathan Edwards.)
Hence it appears of what great importance it is that the law should be preached and held constantly before saved and unsaved,
as this is absolutely indispensable in order to give a proper view of the Gospel. Alas, how many poor souls are being deceived
through preachers studiously keeping the law out of their sight, yea, making remarks derogatory unto the holy law of God. Not-
withstanding the high-sounding phrases which may be employed in favor of the Gospel, and no matter how much the grace of God may be magnified in words, they are, in truth, without meaning, and convey no proper idea of the true grace of God, and the real Gospel of Christ is neglected; for the Gospel is a message of glad tidings for those who are sick of sin, who desire to be conformed to the law, who are groaning under a felt anguish for their transgressions of it.
1. Make clear the absolute and infinite authority of the Law-Giver. This is of first importance, not only that God may be honored, but that the sinner may the better perceive the infinite enormity and unspeakable guilt of openly defying the Most High. The law is the voice of God to His creatures; it consists not merely of good advice but of Divine commands. It is the rule which the Almighty Jehovah has set up, and therefore it is clothed with His authority. Because of His excellence and greatness, He is exalted infinitely above all creatures, and it is His right to dictate to and dispose of them. Failure to submit to His authority, disregard of His righteous law is the crime of all crimes: it is spiritual anarchy.
2. Explain the inexorable demands of the law. It requires perfect, perpetual and personal obedience. It is given for the regulation of all the faculties and powers of the creature, and all their exercises and conduct, both internal and external, both of the thoughts and motions of the heart, and all their outward behavior. It is the one unchanging rule of every moral agent, in all places and at all times; not leaving him at liberty to act without regard to the law in any one instance so long as he exists. No allowance is made for the slightest infraction. The obedience which it requires is not a forced or feigned obedience, but most be a cordial and loving one.
3. Expound its spirituality and extent. The law of God is a perfect rule, being neither too strict nor too lax. It requires not too much or too little in any instance, but points out and prescribes what is exactly right and fit in all cases. Hence every voluntary exercise of the creature is either in perfect conformity to it, and so is perfectly right, or so far as it is not so, is wrong and a violation of it. There is no medium between right and wrong, between virtue and sin. God requireth truth in the inward parts (Psa. 51:6), and every ungodly thought, imagination, or desire, is a violation of the law: Matt. 5:22-48.
4. Announce its fearful curse. There is a dreadful penalty annexed to God’s law which consists in a threatening to the disobedient: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal . 3:10). This is peculiar to a law. Where a rule and directory of conduct is given, and where it is clothed with authority, it must be enforced by the authority of the legislator. A rule which carried in it no threatening to the transgressor, is clothed with no authority at all, has not the force of the law. The penalty (or evil threatened) by God’s law corresponds exactly to the authority of the Law-Giver and the just desert of the transgressor: it cannot be anything short of eternal punishment, infinite misery.
5. Insist that every member of the human race is under God’s law, and will yet be judged by it. Show that this must be so, for otherwise there would be no rule by which our actions could be squared and the whole of our conduct would posses no moral
quality. “Where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15), “sin is not imputed where there is no law” (Rom. 5:13);
but God does impute sin to all men, therefore all men must be under His law: were it otherwise, they would be irresponsible and
sinless creatures. Rom. 3:19 makes it plain that “all the world” is under the law and under its curse.
6. Point out that Christ did not abolish the law. He expressly announced, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The very phrasing of this declaration shows that so me men do “think” He came here to abrogate God’s law; but their thoughts are utterly erroneous and highly insulting to the holy Son of God. Instead of abolishing the law, Christ constantly expounded and enforced it, and was Himself subject to the law as a perfect example for us to follow. Nor has Christ delivered His people from the law as a rule of life: 1 Cor. 9:21.
7. Show what is that salvation which Christ came to purchase for His people. First, the gift of His Spirit (Acts 2:33), to
overcome their enmity against God’s law (Rom. 8:7), and to work in them a love for it (Rom. 7:22). It is by this we may know
whether we have been regenerated. Second, to bring us into a hearty and cordial consent to the law, so that each true Christian can say “so then with the mind I myself serve the law of God” (Rom. 7:25). Third, to deliver from the curse by dying for our sins of disobedience against the law, Himself enduring its penalty in our stead: Gal. 3:13.
Only as the first five points above are faithfully preached, is any real foundation laid for the Gospel message! Without that
foundation the preacher is building a house which will not stand; yea, he is throwing dust in the eyes of the people, bolstering
them up in a false hope. Until the law is given its proper place in the pulpit, and is preached regularly, plainly, authoritatively, the tide of lawlessness which has swept over this favored land (and throughout all the so-called “civilized nations”) will continue rising higher and higher. Well may we pray. “It is time for Thee, Lord to work: for they make void Thy law” (Psa. 119:126).