Some recommend that we must always preach the law before we preach the gospel. How does that square with the Scriptural pattern (Ephesians, Colossians, etc.) of telling us first what Jesus has done (gospel) before we are told what to do (law)?
Yes, for example, William Perkins made that point in his book on
preaching. However, in some extreme forms of Puritanism and pietism
(Lutheran and Reformed), it became two distinct and often prolonged
stages. You went from the “law-work” stage to “gospel assurance.” I
don’t believe it’s that formulaic in Scripture. We are always hearing God’s law and gospel as distinct words throughout our Christian life.
Think of Romans. First, there’s the pedgaogical (first) use of the
law in the first three chapters: all the world condemned. Then there is
the proclamation of the gospel for eight chapters. Then in chapter 12
you have the transition to the third use of the law: “Therefore,
brothers, in view of God’s mercies, present your body as a living
sacrifice…” Even in making specific commands, the gospel soil in which
they’re grounded is never forgotten. We love because we are loved by
the Father in Christ. We contribute to the welfare of the saints because
we have received all of God’s riches in Christ.
The Heidelberg Catechism follows this logic: Guilt, Grace, and
Gratitude. The second question and answer tell us that we know our sin
and misery through the law and our salvation in the gospel. But the
place where the Ten Commandments are unpacked in their didactic use is
in the third section: Gratitude. It’s only in view of our the gospel,
which has done away with our guilt and the tyranny of sin, that we can
respond appropriately to the law in its third use.
The danger comes when we turn back to the first use at this
point, threatening believers after we have directed them to Christ alone
for salvation! Often, this comes in the form of a final point where,
after treating the exhortations, we ask, “Does this describe you?” The
sensitive Christian conscience will have to say, “Well, no—at least, not
enough.” What then? Is the gospel enough to save me when I
don’t see enough fruit in my life? Paul’s answer is to say, “Yes, I’ve
already told you [in chapters 6-8] that it DOES describe you! Now live
as if you really believed it!”
I once heard a preacher say that the law sends us to Christ
for justification and then Christ sends us back to the law for
sanctification. This seems to indicate a law-gospel-law paradigm.
This relates to my point above. We have to follow the text. Some
passages will pick up at a different place on the law-gospel business
than our previous sermon. We don’t preach the DISTINCTION between law
and gospel; we preach the PASSAGES, clearly distinguishing between law
and gospel. It’s certainly true from the New Testament that Christ
delivers us from the curse of the law only to wed us to himself and
therefore to his commands as well as promises. It would be blasphemous
to suggest that we could be married to lawlessness. To be united to
Christ is to love his Word—the law as well as the gospel. Yes, we make
only “a small beginning” in sanctification in this life, but as the HC
also reminds us, every believer begins at the moment of conversion to
turn from sin and follow Christ.
The danger of law-gospel-law, though, is that it can turn the gospel
into a means to a supposedly greater end. The gospel becomes a brief
rest stop where God is good, Christ is sufficient, justification is
complete, and then we leave it behind on our steep ascent of
sanctification. The gospel always has the last word over a believer.