We've been talking about preaching that cuts like a hammer. Such preaching has an impact, but it's not incisive, it's blunt. There's a power to it but it's also vague and leaves you feeling battered.
Last time we saw two problems: firstly, a failure to distinguish law and gospel (and to properly preach the latter); and secondly, a falling between two stools when it comes to the third use of the law. Cuts-like-a-hammer preachers kind of believe the law applies to Christians but they kind of don't too. So they preach (vague) advice to the Christian (3rd use-ish) but in more of a guilt-inducing way (2nd use-ish). Instead of judicially pronouncing death for sin, the preacher 'steps on our toes' for failures of discipleship. And it all cuts like a hammer. For more, read the previous article. But here I want to press into a crucial third distinction that we must understand...
The Flesh and the Spirit
This line from Luther's commentary on Galatians 2:17 is transformative if we grasp it.
"Get things straight. You let the Law talk to your conscience. Make it talk to your flesh."
(For more pearls from Luther's commentary see my collection here)
This discernment between flesh and conscience (or flesh and Spirit) is the very heart of the Christian life, of all pastoral wisdom, and it must inform our preaching. Let me explain.
The realm of the flesh is Adam's—a realm of weakness, folly, suffering, sin, law, and consequences. All of us are born into this realm, it is our natural state. But also—here's a crucial truth to acknowledge—we remain in the flesh even after we're born again by the Spirit.
That is made clear by Paul just three verses later:
I was crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Christ came into our world of the flesh (John 1:14), taking on our human nature. On the cross he even took our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). Having taken us to himself, Jesus died our death. Shielding us in his own body, he bore the wrath, curse and condemnation our Adamic lives deserve. He then crashed through to the other side of death, sin and wrath. He stands again on the far side of curse and condemnation: risen; vindicated; glorified. By the Spirit we have been united to Christ and now his curse-bearing death counts as ours.
So then, in Christ I am crucified to the old realm, and at the same time I live in this Adamic world. Galatians 2:20 is very clear about that. Though I have Christ's Spirit, until resurrection I remain in Adam's flesh. And here's the central point of this post: the law totally applies to my flesh.
Law and the-old-world-order and the flesh and consequences all go together. And while I live far above these realities by the Spirit and in Christ, I live slap-bang in these realities according to the flesh. The law does not define my standing with God, it does not grant me any righteousness of my own, it does not condemn me before heaven and it cannot actually achieve in me the holiness it commands. But it is God's good life proclaimed to me, it is 'holy, righteous and just' (Romans 7:12) and it absolutely applies to Adam's flesh and Adam's world. Which is where I live till Christ returns. So while the law can never tell my conscience "You have sinned yourself out of God's love." The law can—and must!—speak to my flesh to say 'No, that stuff is death, and you're dead to it'.
Once we make this Spirit / flesh distinction it frees the preacher to return to that first distinction: law and gospel. We can preach the text, applying it to the Christian, exploring its details, letting it bite, calling for repentance in specifics, letting conviction fall where it may, and—this is crucial—proclaiming the perfect obedience of Jesus, his sin-bearing death, his resurrection-righteousness and his priestly intercession for us, sinners that we are.
To those in the flesh, the preacher gives it both barrels—the law that kills and the life-giving gospel: "the Son of God loved you and gave himself for you." And to the degree we're assured of a life-giving gospel, we will be able to press into our sin and failures without self-protection or self-justification. We can let the law talk to our flesh.
Or else, just preach a random assortment of commands, examples and doctrines and instead of 'killing and making alive', just tread on some toes before saying 'Tricky, isn't it? Let's pray for God's help.' But that kind of preaching is a slow and painful death. It cuts like a hammer.
Stay tuned for one more post of this series where I'll apply these distinctions to another area of the Christian life: our experience of God's discipline.