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Preaching Law And Gospel In The Old Testament

Preaching Law And Gospel In The Old Testament


by Scott A. Ashmon

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from LF Winter 2013

“We often describe evangelization in terms of first preaching the Law and later the Gospel... But functionally, Law and Gospel are more often intertwined and alternate with each other—in the course of the pastor’s ministry and even in the liturgy and readings of the worship service.”

—Horace Hummel [1]

The law-gospel paradigm is central to Lutheran hermeneutical, catechetical, and homiletical theory and praxis. The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration devotes all of Article V to this paradigm. It explains that “the law... is a 'ministry that kills by the letter’ and that ‘proclaims condemnation’; the gospel, on the other hand, is ‘the power ofGod for salvation to everyone who has faith." It emphasizes that preaching the law is insufficient for “genuine and salutary repentance,” that the “gospel must be added to it,” and that “both teachings must be alongside each other and must be taught together, but in a proper order and with appropriate distinction.” By maintaining a proper order and distinction, the gospel is not turned into a law that “obscures the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of the comfort that they otherwise have in the holy gospel when it is preached clearly and purely.” [2]

The goal of comforting sinners with the gospel likewise motivated C. F. W. Walther to declare, “The Law must precede the preaching of the Gospel, otherwise the latter will have no effect. First comes Moses, then Christ; or: First John the Baptist, the forerunner, then Christ.” Moreover, Walther warns, “if you come out of your pulpit without having preached enough Gospel to save some poor sinner who may have come to church for the first and last time, his blood will be required of you.” [3]

While not often given with the same level of lawful threat, a common recollection of Lutheran pastors about their homiletics courses is that they were repeatedly told that there is a fixed paradigm to preaching: first the law, then the gospel, period. This paradigm surely has much to commend it. In the Old Testament, this pattern is evident in the macrostructure of many prophetic books. Ezekiel moves from oracles of judgment (law) in chapter 1–32 to prophecies of restoration (gospel) in 33–48. The pattern of judgment followed by restoration is also evident in books like Jeremiah (1:1–16:13 and 16:14–21; 17:1–23:2 and 23:3–8; 23:9–29:32 and 30:1–33:26), Hosea (1:1–2:13 and 2:14–3:5; 4:1–10:15 and 11:1–12; 12:1–13:16 and 14:1–9), Joel (1:1–2:11 and 2:12–32; 3:1–16 and 3:17–21), Amos (1:1–9:10 and 9:11–15), Micah (1–3 and 4–5; 6 and 7), and Zephaniah (1:1–3:8 and 3:9–20).

The judgment-restoration pattern dominates so much that it appears to be the proper order of prophecy. Not only does this judgment-restoration pattern match the law-gospel paradigm, the purpose of the prophetic pattern also matches the motives of the Formula of Concord and Walther. Unbelieving and disobedient sinners—Israelite and Gentile—must hear of their just judgment from God and repent before they are ready to hear and trust in God’s merciful promise of salvation.

Old Testament Grace-Law(-Grace) Patterns

There is a solid, salvation-oriented purpose to the law-gospel pattern in Scripture. But is it the pattern, the only proper order? Or are there other models at work? If so, what are they? How and to what end are they used? In pursuing these questions, the following will highlight some Old Testament passages where a grace-law(-grace) pattern is evident. In examining these texts, it will help to use synchronic form criticism to elucidate each text’s literary setting, its particular form/structure, and how those are related to its function.

Starting at the beginning, Genesis 1 does not begin with the law. Instead, it recounts God’s gracious love toward creation in general, and humanity in particular, by giving them life, making them “exceptionally good” (tôb me’oˉd), and giving them all they need for an “exceptionally good” life. [4] It is only after God has graciously created humanity that He commands them to multiply, fill the earth, and have dominion over it, and, in Genesis 2, prohibits them from eating of the tree of knowledge. The pattern here is grace-law. Admittedly, this is prior to humanity’s fall into sin. Nevertheless, this text establishes that God’s relationship with humanity begins with grace, not law. The law follows grace as a revealed and obligatory response to God’s grace. [5]

So too in Genesis 12:1–3, God begins with grace, not the law. Here God calls Abram, who is undoubtedly a polytheist, to move to a new land and promises to make him into a great nation, bless him, and magnify his name such that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. Certainly the call to “go” is a command, but this is akin to a “gospel imperative,” which is a gracious call of election. God does not begin with the law in addressing Abram, even though he is a sinner, but with grace. Only later does God, based on His gracious election of and promises to Abram, obligate him to live uprightly (Gen 17:1).

Exodus 20:1–17 exhibits the same grace-law pattern. God, Who has already graciously elected His people in the Abrahamic covenant, begins the Decalogue by reminding Israel about who He is and what He has done for them. Setting the foundation with God’s gracious and faithful deliverance of them from Egypt (v. 2), God then reveals Israel’s covenantal obligations to Himself and to their neighbors as a response to His grace (vv. 3–16). As has been frequently observed, the Decalogue mirrors the form of an ancient Near Eastern (particularly Hittite) suzerain-vassal treaty. The treaty begins with a preamble and historical prologue that identifies the king and describes what he has done for the vassal. The next section stipulates what the vassal is obligated to do in response. Exodus 20 reflects this treaty formula. [6]

The book of Deuteronomy can also be viewed as a treaty, but its macrostructure is perhaps best understood as a three-part sermon (1:1–4:43, 4:44–28:68, and 29:1–30:20). In the first section, Moses reminds Israel about how God graciously and faithfully delivered them from Egypt and preserved them—despite their sin—during the wilderness wandering. In the second and longest section, Moses outlines Israel’s corresponding covenantal obligations to God and neighbor, starting with the Decalogue and ending with God’s curses on disobedience. Moses concludes his sermon by renewing the covenant with Israel (ch. 29)—again in response to God’s grace—and revealing to them that they will break the covenant and be cursed (ch. 30). After they have done this, Moses calls them to repent in faith, seeking God’s forgiveness, and he promises that God will graciously restore them (30:1–8). Finally, Moses exhorts Israel to have faith in God and be faithful to the covenant so that they may have life (30:11–20). In sum, the macrostructure of Moses’ sermon follows a grace-law-grace pattern. The goal of this sermon is to maintain and motivate the faith and faithfulness of God’s elect people Israel, based on God’s grace to them, and to remind them that when they sin they can and should turn back to God in repentant faith, knowing that He will forgive and restore them to a blessed life.

Psalm 78 also displays a grace-law pattern. In verses 1–4 the psalmistspeaks about recalling Yahweh’s glorious deeds—especially the Exodus (see vv. 12–16)—and recounting them tothe next generation. Verses 5–8 then explain the purpose of this teaching: that the next generation might know and trust their great and gracious God, and then know and keep God’s commandments. Luther comments:

"Now observe the order of the words. First God shows works, and then He gives commands, for 'Jesus began to do and teach' (Acts 1:1). Hence, here, too, the psalmist says first 'that they may not forget the works of God' and then 'that they may keep His commandments' (v. 7). [So also in the past, He first did wonders in the sea and in Egypt, and afterwards He gave the Law...] It is impossible for one who fixes the works of Christ in his heart and believes His words to be true not to become eager to keep His commandments." [7]

Here the grace-law pattern was meant to motivate faith and faithfulness in the youth of the believing community of Israel.

A final Old Testament passage to consider, but by no means the last in the Bible, comes from Ezekiel 36:22–32. [8] Here God promises exiled Israel that He will graciously deliver them from captivity, return them to the promised land, forgive their sins, give them a new heart and spirit so that they will obey God’s ways, and make their harvests bountiful. All these gracious promises of forgiveness, deliverance, renewal, and blessing, though, are for one purpose: to vindicate God’s holy name among the nations (vv. 22–24). And how will God do this? First, by restoring Israel, and then by Israel—in light of God’s great grace—remembering their wickedness and loathing themselves (vv. 31–32). This text also displays a grace-law pattern, but with the purpose of eliciting shame over sin in an exiled but to-be-restored community.

What Does This Mean for Preaching?

Given the above examples, it is clear that a law-gospel pattern is not the only order by which God or His prophets communicate. There are abundant passages, especially in the prophets, where the law (condemnation of sin) and gospel (proclamation of forgiveness and salvation) pattern occurs in the Old Testament. But even this pattern, it must be said, can be extended to a law-gospel-law pattern. Consider this statement by Walther:

"Let us pass on to the apostolic epistles, especially to that addressed to the Romans, which contains the Christian doctrine in its entirety. What do we find in the first three chapters? The sharpest preaching of the Law. This is followed, towards the end of the third chapter and in chapters 4 and 5, by the doctrine of justification—nothing but that. Beginning at chapter 6, the apostle treats nothing else than sanctification. Here we have a true pattern of the correct sequence: first the Law, threatening men with the wrath of God; next the Gospel, announcing the comforting promises of God. This is followed by an instruction regarding things we are to do after we have become new man. [9]

This “true pattern” resonates with Article V of the Formula, where law and gospel are described, and also Article VI, where the “third use” of the law is explained as “the Holy Spirit using the law to instruct the reborn and to show and demonstrate to them in the Ten Commandments what is the ‘acceptable will of God’ (Romans 12[:2]) and in which good works, ‘which God prepared beforehand,’ they are ‘supposed to walk (Ephesians 2[:10]).” [10] Thus, law-gospel-law is another biblical pattern that preaching can emulate when instructing the New Adam and New Eve in Christian living.

If the law-gospel pattern, which is for preaching justification, can be expanded to a law-gospel-law pattern, which ends with gospel-motivated instructions for sanctified living, then what about other patterns? What about grace-law or grace-law-grace sermons as seen in the Old Testament?

If the setting of a sermon is apostate sinners or the unconverted (à la the prophets and Walther), then a law-gospel pattern is appropriate for the purpose of salvation. If the setting is not before unbelievers or not directed to simul peccator but simul iustus Christians instead, then a law-gospel-law pattern (à la Romans) for gospel-motivated instruction in Christian living is entirely appropriate.

But so is a grace-law-grace pattern, as in Deuteronomy, when addressing a community of believers. Reminding the simul iustus of God’s grace can encourage them in faith and move them to faithfulness. Instructing them in how to live out their faith before God and neighbor naturally follows. And, as with Moses, knowing that parishioners (as simul peccator) will sin, the Deuteronomic sermon pattern rightly points believers back to God’s grace in Christ, where there is forgiveness and new motivation for faithfulliving.

Even a grace-law pattern, as in Ezekiel, can be appropriate when addressing a believing community that is acting sinfully. This pattern occurs repeatedly in Luther’s “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School.” [11] First, Luther explains to his hearers how the spiritual estate that God has graciously established in Christ not only gives them eternal gifts but also sustains the temporal life and worldly estates they so richly enjoy. Luther then lambastes his audience for not having their children liberally educated so that some of them can serve the spiritual estate and sustain God’s eternal and temporal gifts among them. Later, Luther explains how God has also graciously blessed them with the peace and prosperity that comes from the temporal estates. Again, Luther lambastes his audience for failing to have their children liberally educated so some can serve God’s state and sustain the many blessings they enjoy. Luther concludes his sermon with these words: “You have heard your prophet. God grant that we may obey his word, in praise and thanksgiving to our dear Lord for his precious blood so freely offered for us; and may he preserve us from the abominable sin of ingratitude and forgetfulness of his blessings. Amen.” [12] Clearly, Luther’s rhetorical moves from grace to law are meant to shame many Christian parents for their thanklessness in response to God’s gracious eternal and temporal gifts and to persuade them to have their children educated so that they can serve God’s church and state and sustain God’s gracious gifts among them.

The Benefits of These Preaching Patterns

What might the benefits of observing and employing these—and possibly other—biblical patterns for preaching be? One benefit is that they let Scripture direct the form and function of the sermon, rather than placing Scripture and the sermon into a fixed, form-critical straightjacket. In other words, they let exegesis predominate in interpretation and proclamation, not eisegesis.

Another benefit is that they free pastors to proclaim the whole tôraˉh (“teaching”) of God from grace to condemnation to justification to sanctification as is appropriate to the text and audience at hand. That is, they let a pastor select and vary the form and function of each sermon based on the settings, forms, and functions of the lectionary readings to fit the spiritual needs of the people in the pews.

Finally, this variety in homiletical patterns and purposes will benefit Lutheran parishioners, who—hopefully not confused about being saved by grace through faith—sometimes seek out church bodies that talk about the good works that God has prepared in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10). But these churches often muddle law and gospel in the process and so trouble once-comforted consciences. Lutheran preaching can counteract this with homiletical variety that faithfully mirrors the intertwined and alternating patterns of law and gospel in Scripture. Such preaching would not only bring parishioners into and  through the whole Christian life but keep their consciences consoled.

Scott A. Ashmon is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Concordia University in Irvine, California.


[1] Horace D. Hummel, Ezekiel 21–48 (St.Louis: Concordia, 2007), 1243.

[2] “The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis:Fortress, 2000) [hereafter cited as bc], 581, 584–5, Article v:1, 15, 22.

[3] C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel: Thirty-Nine Evening Lectures, trans. W. H. T. Dau (repro. from 1897 German ed.; St. Louis: Concordia, 1991), 83, 409.

[4] It is worth noting here that Psalm 136 memorializes creation as the first example of God’s enduring “graciousness” (hesed) before moving to God’s second great gracious act, namely delivering Israel from Egypt.

[5] For similar points, see Luther’s explanation to the First Article, “Of Creation,” in the Small Catechism; Joseph H. Deibert, “Law-Gospel or Gospel-Law?” Scottish Journal of Theology 15/3 (1962): 225; and Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theo-logy: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 148–9.

[6] The full formula concludes with blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, a list of witnesses, and a provision for archiving the text and periodically reading it publicly. For further discussion of this treaty/covenant formula, see George E. Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday), 1179–1202.

[7] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., eds. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955ff.) [hereafter cited as LW], 11:47. The brackets indicate a marginal addition that Luther himself made.

[8] For some other Old Testament examples, see the “Old Testament creed” in Exodus 34:6–7 and its repetition in several other Old Testament books, the Day of Atonement preceding laws for holy living in Leviticus 16–27, and the Israelites’ corporate confession of God’s grace and their sin in Nehemiah9:6–38.

[9] Walther, 93 (my italics). Cf. Luther’s five chief parts of Christian teaching for pastors: 1) preaching the law, 2) preaching the gospel, 3) mortifying sinful desires, 4) works of lovetoward the neighbor, and 5) emphasizing the law to unbelievers. Listed in Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 53.

[10] bc 589, Article vi:12.

[11] Martin Luther, “A Sermon on Keeping Children in School,” LW 46:213–58 (see especially 219–23, 226–29, 237–41, 254–55).

[12] Ibid., 258.

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