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Your Preaching Cuts Like A Hammer

This was the way an American visitor described to me the preaching he'd heard across many UK churches: "It cuts like a hammer."

This is not how cuts are meant to be made, nor how preaching should feel. But there was something about the description that rang true. Have you heard preaching that 'cuts like a hammer'? I have.

Cuts are meant to be precise. The preaching this visitor heard, though, was occasionally forceful but rarely targeted. There was a kind of power but it was not incisive. The Bible's commands and examples were preached but the effect was merely to convict the hearer of a generic sinfulness—an ill-defined but pressing sense of unworthiness.

I recognise the dynamic. And I think I know some of its drivers. To uncover them I need to use a few key terms over a number of posts. First we'll think about the 'law and gospel distinction', then we'll think of the different uses of the law. In a future post we'll press into a third distinction: the difference between flesh and Spirit. In short, I'll argue that cuts-like-a-hammer preaching mashes up the first distinction, fudges the second and seems oblivious to the third.

Law and Gospel

The law and gospel distinction is the sort of thing laid out in Galatians 3 or 2 Corinthians 3-4. There Paul contrasts the promise and the law; the gift and the command; the Spirit and the letter — one brings life, the other brings death. Luther summarises it in the introduction to his Romans commentary:

“The law uncovers sin; it makes the sinner guilty and sick; indeed, it proves him to be under condemnation... The gospel offers grace and forgives sin; it cures the sickness and leads to salvation."

These are different ways the word strikes us. In command-mode, God says "You must" and the aim is obedience. In promise-mode, God says "I will" and the aim is trust. Of course the two cannot be divorced (obedience arises from faith, after all, Romans 1:4), but they should not be confused either. The trouble is, they are very commonly confused. It's what Mike Horton calls "golawspel."

When the point of the sermon is simply explaining the next ten verses of Philippians everything is given the same weighting, purpose and tone. The victory of Jesus may well be referenced (or assumed, it's rarely preached), and the law is likewise brought, but not too heavily or specifically because we're aware of the dangers of legalism. Our antidote to legalism, however, is not a life-giving gospel raising us from the dead. Instead preachers give a generalised, "Gosh, it's tough isn't it? I struggle with this (in non-specific ways), don't you? Let's pray for the Spirit's help." It's golawspel. And it cuts like a hammer.

The Three Uses of the Law

Classically the three uses of the law are described as a curb (its civil use), a mirror (its theological use), and a guide (its pedagogical/teaching use).

So the law brings...

...order in the world,

...conviction to the sinner, driving them to Christ, and,

...guidance to the Christian, (though only the gospel can empower such obedience).

The preaching that 'cuts like a hammer' tends to have an ambivalent attitude to the third use of the law. It kind of believes that the law can teach us the good life. Certainly such preachers have no problem deriving 'applications' from their texts — "What this means for Monday morning, etc, etc." But these applications fall along well-worn lines (Bible reading, prayer, evangelism) that bear little relationship with the actual commands and examples of the text.

Such mid-level guilt is actually surprisingly popular. The praise of choice from congregants meeting the preacher at the door is still: "Thank you, that was faithful, clear, and challenging." That's the chilli sauce we like to have on our biblical expositions: application—challenging application. We like to put ourselves under the word, to bear its burden and accept its heavy weight, then we've done business with God.

In effect, such preaching falls between two stools. It avoids getting too specific in its 'third use'  applications and it avoids being too condemning in its 'second use' proclamations, so it ends up just making people feel quite guilty about their Bible reading, prayer and evangelism. It cuts like a hammer.

Next time we'll look at a third distinction: between the flesh and the Spirit. But for now, do you recognise the 'cuts like a hammer' stereotype? What do you think drives it?

4 thoughts on “Your Preaching Cuts Like A Hammer

  1. Pingback: Let the Law Speak To Your Flesh – Christ the Truth

  2. Pingback: God is disciplining you – Christ the Truth

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  4. Nita Wiebe

    Hey Glen. It’s been awhile since I’ve sat under your online teaching, and want to thank you again for ‘faithfully, clearly, and challengingly ???? putting it out there. Not so much a challenge to ‘run harder’ as to ‘run well and apply wisdom to the race.’ I skipped ahead and started reading at the ‘rejoice God is disciplining you’ segment which was a God-send at a very specific needy time. How usual it is to throw up one’s hands when strife or hurtful times come and say, ‘isn’t this just sick. I’m so sick, sick, sick of living in this gravity ruled, downward spiral, sin cursed world…(so much for incorporating the anti-gravity resurrection truth of Easter that I had JUST
    celebrated.) Yup, God had something to redeem, people to hone in the sick situation. So you ask the question ‘why do we ‘gravitate’ to the ‘cuts like a hammer’ approach? Firstly, I suppose it’s because our flesh has a terribly strong gravitational pull to err on the side of ‘I need to take care of this, myself; take the Eden fruit so I can somehow take control - even if we think we do it in cooperation with the one who wants to care for us. Secondly, because the message to toe the line is taught to most of us from a very young age and it’s terribly difficult to escape those very deep and hardened ruts. ‘Your consequences are a result of your disobedience so your must not keep on crying but submit to the rotten outcome of your choice.’ It is a rare parent who has taught the facet of , ‘let me love you by walking through this with you and teaching you what grace and redemption looks like. What a great opportunity to grow closer!’ Nope, wrong choices don’t draw the majority of families closer, or result in deepened love or wiser living. Just, ‘avoid that!!!’ ‘Now I’ve told you so.’
    Anyway, when grace does dawn on a person, the gospel goodness, it is a paradigm shift. It rocks the world and upsets gravity. How we need it, so keep preaching it and basking in it and working hard to do it right. Just kidding. But isn’t that what the ‘challenging’ part is? To be challenged to float in the waters of grace and not thrash about trying to keep one’s head above water? To be supported by that medium we are not ‘meant’ to walk on?

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