Wesley on Preaching Law and Gospel

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What’s the relationship between law and the gospel of grace? In some theological circles, the gospel and the law are diametrically opposed to one another, with the gospel superseding the need for the law. John Wesley, on the other hand, understood that the law and grace work hand in hand in the life of the Christian, with “gospel” defined as the love of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the “law” defined as adherence to Jesus’ commandments, especially the Sermon on the Mount (on which Wesley preached extensively).

In a December 20, 1751 letter to Ebenezer Blackwell, a London banker and benefactor of the Methodist cause, Wesley outlined how good Methodist preaching reinforces both the gospel and the law in relationship to one another. His advice continues to ring true for preachers in the Wesleyan tradition who focus not only on the new birth made possible by the gospel, but also on the sanctifying grace that enables us to more fully conform to the way of Christ:

I mean by ‘preaching the gospel’ preaching the love of God to sinners preaching the life, death, resurrection and intercession of Christ, with all the blessings which in consequence thereof are freely given to true believers. By ‘preaching the law’ I mean explaining and enforcing the commands of Christ briefly compiled in the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, it is certain preaching the gospel to penitent sinners ‘begets faith’; that it ‘sustains and increases spiritual life in true believers.’ Nay, sometimes it ‘teaches and guides’ them that believe; yea, and ‘convinces them that believe not.’

So far all are agreed. But what is the stated means of feeding and comforting believers What is the means, as of begetting spiritual life where it is not, so of sustaining and increasing it where it is.

Here they divide. Some think preaching the law only; other, preaching the gospel only. I think neither the one nor the other; but duly mixing both, in every place, if not in every sermon.

I think the right method of preaching is this. At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners and His willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law in the strongest, the closest the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel, in order to beget faith, to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath rain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may web suppose that many of our hearers are still unconvinced, but because otherwise there is danger that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly: therefore it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner that we should preach nothing but the gospel.

If, indeed, we could suppose an whole congregation to be thus convinced, we should need to preach only the gospel; and the same we might do if our whole congregation were supposed to be newly justified. But when these grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ, a wise builder would preach the law to them again; only taking particular care to place every part of it in a gospel light, as not only a command but a privilege also, as a branch of the glorious liberty of the sons of God. He would take equal care to remind them that this is not the cause but the fruit of their acceptance with God; that other cause, ‘other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, even Jesus Christ’; that we are still forgiven and accepted, only for the sake of what He hath done and suffered for us; and that all true obedience springs from love to Him, grounded on His first loving us. He would labor, therefore, in preaching any part of the law, to keep the love of Christ continually before their eyes; that thence they might draw fresh life, vigor and strength to run the way of His commandments.

Thus would he preach the law even to those who were pressing on to the mark. But to those who were careless or drawing back he would preach it in another manner, nearly as he did before they were convinced of sin. To those meanwhile who were earnest but feeble-minded he would preach the gospel chiefly yet variously intermixing more or less of the law, according to their various necessities.

By preaching the law in the manner above described, he would teach them how to walk in Him whom they had received. Yea, and the same means (the main point wherein it seems your mistake lies) would both sustain and increase their spiritual life. For the commands are food as well as the promises; food equally wholesome, equally substantial. Thee also, duly applied, not only direct but likewise nourish and strengthen the soul…

…Not that I would advise to preach the law without the gospel, any more than the gospel without the law. Undoubtedly both should be preached in their turn; yea, both at once, or both in one. All the conditional promises are instances of this. They are law and gospel mixed together. According to this model, I should advise every preacher continually to preach the law — the law grafted upon, tempered by, and animated with the spirit of the gospel. I advise him to declare explain, and enforce every command of God. But meantime to declare in every sermon (and the more explicitly the better) that the flint and great command to a Christian is, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ’: that Christ is all in all, our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; that all life, love, strength are from Him alone, and all freely given to us through faith. And it will ever be found that the law thus preached both enlightens and strengthens the soul; that it both nourishes and teaches; that it is the guide, ‘ food, medicine, and stay’ of the believing soul.

So, how are you preaching both law and gospel in your sermons?

We at Seedbed believe that a new revival of that movement is poised to once again break out in churches and communities across the world and the Preaching Collective is designed to give those who bring God’s Word to people, be they men or women, clergy or laity, serving in small rural churches or suburban megachurches, the tools, ideas, and resources that we pray will enable us to “shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Just about the most helpful and brilliant thing I have ever read about law and gospel. required reading for all preachers!

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