Law and Gospel Done

Reading Time: 6 mins

Christ is not an idea. He isn’t a concept. He isn’t a religious notion or sentiment. He isn’t a product. He is the Savior, flesh and blood.

This is an excerpt from chapter 4 of “Let the Bird Fly: Life in a World Given Back to Us” written by Wade Johnston (1517 Publishing, 2019).

Sometimes students come to me and it’s different than the normal visits. They’re not coming for help with research or a question about an assignment. They’re lost, or getting there quickly. They come to me, and I think they fully expect me to be shocked by what they tell me they are struggling with, whether lately or for long as they can remember. Such moments take me back to the parish, when, whenever someone would come in with that look in their eyes, I’d assure them, “Don’t worry, yours is not the first sin to come through the door today, and it’s not the worst. Mine was, and mine is, because mine is what will take me to hell.”

Sometimes students come and they’re scared—not of me, but of God’s judgment. They’re desperate. At such times they tend to confess. They often confess with great shame that they’re struggling with sin and frequently, specifically with a sin that they’re convinced is on the brink of unseating their true identity as a baptized child of God—as if God were not greater than our hearts!2 Tears welling up in their eyes, they tell me they’re angry with God, because they’re knee-deep in temptation and do not think they can take anymore. Yet, it keeps coming. My reply? “Praise God!” You see, they’re sure their struggle is evidence they are losing their faith. They say as much. On the contrary, I’m confident it is proof their faith is alive and well, wrestling, clinging to Christ even as their heart is eager to chase rabbits. I usually suggest they go ahead and let God have it, that He can take it, but in the end I’m sure He has no intention of letting go. He certainly is not an angry God in such moments but one of mercy, although His face seems hidden. He is God in Christ our Jesus.

Do me a favor. Take a break and read Romans 7 aloud. And don’t be a know-it-all. Listen to it like a sinner struggling with sin—and if you have to work too hard to do that, perhaps you should stop in to see a pastor! Isn’t it striking that St. Paul, the great Christian missionary, had such a daily struggle that he had not moved beyond it, that every hour was baptismal, dying and rising, buried and raised. Did you know that some argue that this couldn’t possibly be Paul talking about himself in the present? They say he must be talking about his past or some hypothetical believer with weak faith or someone else, but certainly not himself as he is in the moment. Why? They see the Christian life on a spectrum, and they simply cannot imagine Paul wouldn’t have moved beyond such struggles by this point. But here we meet Paul, honest as can be, making his struggle plain, painfully clear, and we know it all too well.


Isn’t it striking that St. Paul, the great Christian missionary, had such a daily struggle that he had not moved beyond it, that every hour was baptismal, dying and rising, buried and raised.

The Reformation was to a great extent a crisis of preaching—both a response to the lack of it and its abysmal content. Christ’s presence had become associated almost exclusively with the sacrament, which itself was hedged by the law. The task of the homily, when there was one, was often didactic, instruction from the law, Christ as Exemplar and Judge. A ladder was presented, not for God to descend but for man to climb. The homily provided a tape measure and a rod, a carrot and a stick. Sadly, this is a crisis from which the Christian church has never quite emerged despite Luther and the reformers’ efforts. There is nothing to say we cannot kick against the goads in a godly way, though.

That leads us to the completely unoriginal and hopefully completely uncontroversial thesis of this chapter: preaching is a means of grace. I pray this strikes your ears as a quite boring assertion, a given, something about which little need be said. I pray so. But even if it does, perhaps it presents an assessment tool, not only for what we think preaching to be, but for what we actually do when we preach, for how, why, and what we preach…The ultimate measure of our preaching, if preaching is a means of grace, becomes nothing more and nothing less than the presence of Christ as Savior, as Mediator of a new covenant, as He who saves, He who saves sinners, of whom we are chief. [3] The chief (not the only, but certainly the chief) work of the law, then, is as mirror and pedagogue, exposing our need and driving us to Christ, who alone can rescue, enliven, redeem.

If preaching is a means of grace (thesis!)—and in case I’ve not made it plain yet, it is—then preaching isn’t a lot of other things, at least not primarily. In what follows, we’ll examine what preaching is not, if it is a means of grace, and then return to what it is. In so doing, I pray we’ll all find plenty of which to repent and, at the same time, new life and living hope, for the same Jesus we are called to preach is Jesus for us.

The ultimate measure of our preaching, if preaching is a means of grace, becomes nothing more and nothing less than the presence of Christ as Savior, as Mediator of a new covenant, as He who saves.

Sometimes when my boys get a little precocious and need to listen, I take them by the ear. My mother and father did the same to me. Their parents did likewise. This is what God does with preaching, too. He takes us by the ear, and as the Father told Peter at the Transfiguration, He says, “Listen to Jesus.” [4] God does this especially with the gospel. He wants the word of Christ heard. He wants the good news to sink in, because it doesn’t come naturally to us. Paul reminds us, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” [5]

God certainly does this with the law as well. God wants us to hear it. Law comes naturally to us, however. Perhaps its not God’s law in particular always, but law nonetheless. We make our own when we don’t like his, after all. Every people has its own laws. Even when we throw out God’s law or old laws, we still come up with new ones; in fact, we multiply them. No man is truly immoral, that is, without morality. (Even Nietzsche was not, try as he did.) No, they simply trade one morality for another. And so God especially takes us by the ear when it comes to the gospel. He wants us to listen, because in listening is life.

So if listening is life, and life is of the gospel, not the law, what does that mean for preaching? What is it not, at least not primarily? I can’t cover everything, and what I get to I will get to with different levels of engagement, but preaching is not (certainly not primarily) a mere passing on of information (a Jesus of my imagination); it isn’t therapy (Jesus simply as a better way) or persuasion (playing to the pews); and it isn’t a shot in the arm (Jesus as spiritual meth) or moral reform (the old man gets religion). No, preaching is a means of grace and not any of these things (certainly not primarily) or it’s any or even one of these things and not a means of grace. Each of these propositions could be a book in and of itself, but I pray that, at the very least, their short treatment here will prove a springboard for further reflection and fraternal discussion. Such reflection and discussion, after all, ought to be part and parcel of our vocations as preachers or hearers of the word. The German text of Article V of the Augsburg Confessions says it well, “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments.”6

Jesus is more than a set of facts or mere information to get into people’s heads. Luther writes, “For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.” [7] He explains, “True faith with arms outstretched joyfully embraces the Son of God given for it and says, ‘He is my beloved and I am his.’” [8] Christ is not an idea. He isn’t a concept. He isn’t a religious notion or sentiment. He isn’t a product. He is the Savior, flesh and blood, named Jesus, born of Mary, seated at the right hand of God, knee-deep in our baptism, acquitting sinners through the preached word.

The Samaritan woman at the well learned this lesson. [9] She met the Word made flesh in person, and it made her uncomfortable. So what did she do? She turned the conversation to information, to theology. But Jesus would have none of it. He was standing right there. He wasn’t something about which to speculate. He was him. And he wasn’t doing theology in that moment. He was preaching. And when the woman realized this, her life changed, her shame disappeared, and she became an evangelist, a walking testament to grace.

Christ isn’t only a person. He is a person who is for me. This was the crux of the Reformation. Christ is for us, for me. What a marvel! Christ isn’t only for some people; He is for you and for me. Luther made clear that those are some of the most important words in the gospels. Those words are the basis of our preaching and the sacraments.

This chapter is slightly revised from an article originally published in Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 27, no. 2 (2018): 27–31. Thank you to Logia for allowing it to be republished as part of this book.

This is an excerpt from chapter 4 of “Let the Bird Fly: Life in a World Given Back to Us” written by Wade Johnston (1517 Publishing, 2019). Pgs. 33-37.