The Law/Gospel Distinction, Moralism, and Preaching | Johnny Zacchio

by | Apr 30, 2024 | Practical Theology, Preaching, Systematic Theology



How important is the right preaching of the law and the gospel? Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, once observed, “Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.” Preaching Christ from all of scripture comes as a result of upholding this distinction.

Holding out Christ in this way not only protects the church from antinomianism and licentiousness, but it also protects the church from moralism— a pervasive practice in many “churches” that not only comes out explicitly, but in the tone and tenor of the preacher. God’s people often walk away from the sermon, unintentionally believing that those justified by faith are actually justified by faithfulness. The remedy lies in distinguishing between what God commands (law) and what God graciously provides (gospel), as reflected in differentiating scriptural indicatives and imperatives. This process eliminates self-sufficiency and directs attention to Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of the law, surpassing even historical figures who sought to embody it.


Indicative/Imperative Paradigm

Rightly dividing the Word of truth entails that the preacher knows the difference between scriptural indicatives and imperatives. Indicatives are statements of fact; imperatives are commands that could naturally flow from that fact. One could say, “the room is dark.” That’s an indicative statement. The imperative would necessarily be, “Turn on the light!” Often in scripture, these two elements are connected by the word “Therefore.” You have indicative statements from Paul— those in Christ are not condemned and that nothing can separate them from the love of Christ (Romans 8), and then he’ll proceed by saying, “therefore… present your body as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). Pastor Jim Savastio argues that believers must “live on both sides of the ‘therefore.’” Our obedience always grows from who we are objectively in Christ in such a way that a lot of the New Testament imperatives can boil down to: “Be who you are!” Thankfully, imperatives grow in the soil of the indicatives of who we are in union with the Lord Jesus.

Knowing this distinction between law/gospel and the closely related indicative/imperative paradigm will effectively keep the church from moralism. As the preacher exposits the Word of God, never ignoring the commands of scripture nor the positive examples of figures in redemptive history, Christ can be exalted.


Keeping the Church from Moralism

The Scriptures are filled with imperatives and positive human examples. True Christian discipleship would not be a reality if others were not being taught to obey all that Christ had commanded (Matt.
28:20). But moralism grows when discipleship is divorced from the indicatives of the gospel and union with Christ. What makes Christian discipleship Christian is the fact that it is rooted in gospel grace. Dennis Johnson eloquently defines moralism as the

homiletical practice of issuing ethical demands without grounding them in the gospel or showing how they are integral to a grateful response to the redemptive work of God in Christ. The result of such moralistic preaching is that hearers come away with the impression that God’s favor towards them rests to some degree on their (always imperfect) performance of obedience and love rather than wholly on the perfect obedience and vicarious suffering of Jesus Christ. ((Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures. (P&R 1 Publishing, 2007), 233))

This kind of preaching can either produce or feed this natural inclination for self-sufficiency and self-worship.

Apart from Christ, the natural inclination of men’s hearts is to follow a moral code to achieve their salvation. In the gospel accounts, Jesus speaks of the Pharisees and shows that their legalism is symptomatic of a deep problem in the heart. They drew near to God with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Matt. 15:8). This kind of living is meant to exalt man rather than God; man is now the focal point, and the worship of God is redirected. Geerhardus Vos reveals the depths of this wickedness: “Legalism lacks the supreme sense of worship. It obeys but it does not adore.” ((Geerhardus Vos, Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke, (CrossReach Publications via 2 PublishDrive, 2017), 70.)) The inevitable result of law-driven, works-based living is one of two sins: pride or despair.

An example of how this takes place is by taking a book and Biblical characters such as Nehemiah. Someone will expose the text, drawing straight-line applications from his life to the lives of the people, and go no further. The application can sound something like, “Nehemiah was a man with a broken heart for people, you all should be broken-hearted over lost people and seek to go reach them.” Or “We should be a Nehemiah to our communities– stepping up to be strong leaders amid much opposition.” Of course, this is not necessarily untrue. The Apostle Paul does tell us that the things written in the past were written for our example so that we may learn (1 Co. 10:11). But subsequent revelation tells us that Christ is the fulfillment of these themes and characters.

For instance, in a text like Nehemiah chapter 8, God restores the spiritual lives of His people after restoring the city walls. We then see Nehemiah, a compassionate man, leading well and, in essence, shepherding them towards deep joy in God by telling them to “Drink sweet wine” and that “The joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10). The people are then seen pursuing God through confession and obedience to His law. But one will quickly find, in a rather abrupt and obscure ending of the book, that human leadership is insufficient. The covenant people of God are seen breaking their covenant with God. They are taking foreign wives and not living out the commands of the Torah. Nehemiah is then seen responding in violent and harsh ways to reprimand the people.

What the text looks forward to, and what the preacher should note, is that a new heart is what is needed and therefore, a better Nehemiah is needed. A better leader who is both God and man– who leads with perfection, humility, and boldness– is the kind of leader needed to restore true covenant faithfulness and true joy. Jesus Christ is the one who wept over the city of Jerusalem and extended compassion towards the broken (Luke 19:41-44). Jesus Christ is the one who restores and rebuilds His people (Matt. 16:18). Jesus Christ is the restorer of true joy and displays this as He begins His public ministry, not by offering sweet wine, but by turning water into wine (John 2). At this moment, He is declaring that He alone is the restorer of true joy and the one who shepherds His people into all of God’s promises. After all, they find their “yes” and “amen” in Him (1 Cor. 1:20). Nehemiah points us to a Messiah who, because He is both God and man, can accomplish true restoration because He took the place of those who can’t restore themselves at the cross. Despite the opposition facing Him, He conquered the ultimate enemies of sin and death and took upon Himself the infinite weight of the wrath of God. Three days later, He rose again, securing and providing new life for all of those who would trust in Him. He is the leader that man desperately needs.

Understanding this keeps the church from legalism and moralism. Now, the people of God look to Christ and His grace alone not only for their justification but for their sanctification. The application can shift from, “Here’s what Nehemiah did, be like him. Let’s pray.” to, “Here’s what Nehemiah did. You can’t accomplish this on your own. Look to Christ as the one who did this perfectly and, through your constant trust in Him as your substitute, you not only have a desire to carry out these commands but you will be given the power.” This renewed desire given to God’s people will result from the right preaching of the law and the gospel and thereby, holding out Christ to the listener each Lord’s Day. And so writes Ralph Erksine, “To Run, to work, the law commands, the gospel gives me feet and hands. The one requires that I obey, the other does the power convey.”

About the Author

Johnny Zacchio (MA Theological Studies, Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as one of pastors of Faith Community Church in Carlsbad, California. He is the author of This Reasonable Response a 60-day devotional on growing as worshipers of God. He and his wife Faith have been married since 2016 and have three children, Josiah, Maeve, and Owen.


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