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?