There might not be a topic on which professing Christians are more confused about, and more neglectful of, than the law of God. You could certainly say that the gospel itself ranks higher on that list, and you would not necessarily be wrong in saying so. But in some ways ignorance and confusion regarding those two things are inextricably bound up together, aren’t they?
For if you get the law of God wrong, it is seemingly impossible to get the gospel right. In some ways it may very well be the virtual absence of the law of God in the preaching and teaching of the church that has led to much of the perceived impotence of the proclamation of the gospel in our day! John Murray (1898-1975) writes:
“When the proclamation of God’s law is neglected, the significance of the gospel is correspondingly reduced in our presentation and in the apprehension of men. The gospel is the gospel of salvation, and salvation is, first of all, salvation from sin in its guilt, defilement, and power. If our emphasis on the judgment of God upon sin is minimal, correspondingly minimal will be our esteem of salvation and of the Savior. One sometimes wonders whether the faith in Christ which is demanded of men in the presentation of the claims of Christ can have any real content in view of the beggarly conception of the gravity of sin which is presented as its presupposition and concomitant. Faith in Christ does not arise in a vacuum. It arises in the context of conviction of sin and it is to the creation of that conviction that the ministry of judgment ministers.”Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol.1, p.144
At the preaching of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, the hearers were so convicted of their sin and guilt before God (“cut to the heart”), that they said, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (v.37). They were really asking the same question that the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas in Acts 16:30, when he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” In our day, with the lack of preaching of God’s law and corresponding lack of conviction of sin, one may be far more likely to hear someone say, “Why do I need to be saved?” or “Saved from what?”
Murray goes on to say that “Our age needs the ministry that will make men tremble before the awful majesty and holiness of God and in the conviction of the reality of his holy wrath.” (p.145)
Such was the preaching that God used to stir up a revival of sorts in the great city of Nineveh in Jonah’s day. The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2, ESV) Now, it took some doing to get Jonah there, but when he finally arrived at the city, what was his message? In Jonah 3:4–5 we read:
“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.” (ESV)
And God showed mercy on them, didn’t He? But He used the proclamation of His just judgment and wrath to bring them under the conviction of sin, and to grant unto them the grace of repentance and belief.
Likewise it was this kind of preaching that the Lord used to stir up revival during what has come to be known as the Great Awakening in the 18th century. The best-known sermon from that awakening was no doubt “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“, by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). It is as fire & brimstone as the name suggests, but God used it mightily in bringing revival to New England.
Ministers of the gospel must preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23), and to do that we must also preach the law. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) writes:
“Old Robbie Flockhart used to say, “It is of no use trying to sew with the silken thread of the gospel unless we pierce a way for it with the sharp needle of the law.” The law goes first, like the needle, and draws the gospel thread after it . . . .”Lectures to My Students, p.338
He goes on to say that “No man will ever put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness till he is stripped of his fig leaves, nor will he wash in the fount of mercy till he perceives his filthiness.” (Ibid)
These things are clearly taught in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Not only does he tell us there that “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV), but even the very flow of thought or argument in the epistle displays this for all to see. For right after speaking of the gospel being the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), Paul spends the better part of the first three (3) chapters of the epistle expounding at length the bad news of the doctrine of the sin and depravity of man before giving us the good news of salvation in Christ, justification by faith alone, sanctification, and glorification in the chapters that follow (4-8).
May the Lord in His mercy grant that the ministers of the gospel in our day might not neglect the preaching of the law in connection with our preaching of Christ. And may He use that to awaken many unto their desperate need for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in drawing them unto Him by faith for salvation.