We’ve all heard the standard account by now, or at least some variation of it: overemphasize God’s justification of sinners through the Gospel, apart from the Law, and then the Law has no positive use in the lives of Christians. In addition, it is often argued the Gospel—preached too vigorously and too freely—then lets those who are secure in their sins take advantage of God’s mercy.
According to this telling of the story, we fail to adequately reinforce the necessity of changed behavior in the lives of Christians by preaching the Gospel so unconditionally. We retreat to the mere threatening and restraining features of the Law’s work without lifting up its role as a positive guide in the lives of believers. Though debates about what the third use of the Law is and what it isn’t have been rehearsed elsewhere, we often miss an important element of that dispute.
Popular efforts to rehabilitate a positive function of the Law do indeed reveal a fear that the Gospel–if it is preached too aggressively and offered too freely–will authorize the license to sin. Those who are secure in their sins will be encouraged simply to sin all the more because Jesus, like an enabling parent, is oh-so-willing to forgive them; or at least this is the typical characterization.
What we notice less often is that this same fear wonders about both the efficacy of the Gospel and the Law.
What we notice less often is that this same fear wonders about both the efficacy of the Gospel and the Law. This is the fear that God’s work in the Law won’t quite “take.” It is the fear that repentance depends upon something within the sinner, not the efficacious working of the Law, to bring about true contrition in the heart. Something more than the application of the Law, bringing about the confession of sin in repentance, must be added so that one does not take advantage of the Gospel.
At this point, either the Law or the Gospel is brought in to do the trick: in the first case, it is a version of the third use of the Law that is designed to make sure people are really ready to be forgiven; in the second, an attenuated version of the Gospel passive aggressively shames people into feeling guilty about how “put out” God is by the whole salvation arrangement.
But the problem is that so many commit the error they condemn; precisely by being so suspicious of God’s ability to work true repentance with His alien work (opus alienum) of the Law. God does indeed carry out the alien work of repentance so that He may then bestow his proper work (opus proprium) in the preaching of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47). Here it is critical to recall that God is the one who uses the Law–not the preacher, and not the person listening to the announcement of divine judgment. No one can hide from the God who is close at hand, whose word is “like a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces” (Jer. 23:29).
We needn’t fear that God is incapable of working repentance through the Word but may trust in Christ that God will do precisely what He promises to do, both through the Law and in the Gospel.
Instead, the problem lies with the underlying suspicion that God is incompetent to work repentance through His word; that He needs the help of the ones called to preach it. That is true antinomianism. Indeed, this fear leads to a devaluing of the Law itself as God’s own instrument.
Just as when God works faith when and where He pleases through the life-giving Gospel of Christ–and in a way none of us can really take credit for (1 Cor. 3:5–6)–so also God will use us as the means through which the Law is preached and disclosed. Even so, God will do this entirely apart from our interest in taking credit for the repentance He will surely bring about in those to whom the Law is addressed.
In this way, the Gospel also applies to those called into the preaching task–and all others led to announce God’s Law (and Gospel). We needn’t fear that God is incapable of working repentance through the Word but may trust in Christ that God will do precisely what He promises to do, both through the Law and in the Gospel. God will sustain and comfort those who announce these words, since it is His faithfulness, and not our own, which assures they are effective for the task He lays out for them.