The Law and the Terrified Conscience
This and my next two Craft of Preaching contributions will explore the relationship between the Law and the conscience. In particular, I have in mind the effect of preaching the Law on the hearer’s conscience, but no less the importance of understanding this effect as God’s “strange” or “alien” work, next to which the work of the proclamation of forgiveness predominates.
There are a few reasons why this topic is so important. Of course the Law must be properly preached, since otherwise the Gospel is preached to people unable and unwilling to receive it, creating a true “pearls before swine” situation. And of course, if we as preachers do not understand well the contours of the Law, we risk undermining both it and the Gospel as we mingle the two with one another. But arguably neither of these is as significant as this: Whether the Law is preached effectively or not, the conscience is present and active. Left unchecked, the conscience contradicts the Gospel’s promises and, if believed, condemns a person at the final judgment. So somehow, in order to bring a person to salvation, the preaching of the Gospel has to respond to and do justice to the condemnation of the conscience. Typically, it must do this while following on the heels of the Law preached in the same sermon.
In other words, separating the Law from the conscience is not just bad because it makes the Law ineffective. If the Law and the conscience are not brought together, it also means leaving the conscience unaddressed and unassuaged when the Gospel is preached. This is not to say the Law and the conscience are equally correct, forceful, or authoritative in their condemnation of a person. The human conscience is certainly not equal to the divine Law, but even so, it can rob a person of faith in Christ’s forgiveness, the very gift we give as we preach. For that reason, it cannot be ignored.
The burdened conscience, and preaching to it, will be the subject of the rest of this post. A second part will cover the place of the Law in forming and correcting the voice of the conscience. In a final part, I will try to address those situations where it seems like most of the accusatory work we ascribe to the preaching of the Law has already been done before the preacher begins. For now, though, the burdened conscience.
We know the language of a “burdened” conscience, or of a “guilty” conscience. In the Apology, Philip Melanchthon calls it a “terrified” conscience. Here is one of many examples: “We say that contrition is the genuine terror of a conscience that feels God’s wrath against sin and is sorry that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when the Word of God denounces sin” (Ap. XII:29).
The preacher is right there, wielding the Word of God to denounce sin, and in so doing, terrifying the conscience - producing contrition. The role this plays in the context of justification by faith is easy to see. The conscience is a tool of self-reflection, and it is awakened and sharpened by the preaching of the Law. The terror comes in the realization that the person in whom you trust the most - yourself - is in fact entirely unable to save you from your sin. Eliminating any false hope is the necessary step on the way to preaching into existence faith in the only true Hope, Jesus Christ.
It is helpful to think of the conscience as the field on which the battle for a person’s soul is fought. When the Lord holds the field, a person is aware of their sin and its consequences, but trusts in the Gospel for forgiveness and salvation. When the Lord holds the conscience, a person is repentant. The Adversary’s goal is to take any part of the field. Trust in one’s own righteousness instead of the Gospel is a victory for the Adversary, because it is a false assuaging of the conscience. But also just slashing and burning across the battlefield - the destruction of the person’s confidence through unending accusations - is a winning tactic. Here we must remember that the more accusation there is, the broader and more penetrating the Gospel must be. Furthermore, in as far as the Gospel and the Law coordinate in the same act of preaching, the Law must be just as broad and penetrating.
Preaching penetrating Law is challenging, because most of our hearers already know how the sermon ends. The sermon as an exercise occurring in the intellect is predictable, and the knowledge of the Law is not so troubling to the mind of a hearer who knows it is shortly going to be superseded by the knowledge of the Gospel. There is certainly some value in a sermon which reminds a congregation of their former condition and invites them to joy and thanksgiving in view of their standing as God’s baptized children, but that is only a very truncated model for the proclamation of Law and Gospel. Two things, I think, can help to overcome this problem.
The first is to recognize the Law is a guide for the whole life of a person and can be divided up in precisely the same way in which the many aspects of a life can be. Instead of preaching to the sinners, you are now preaching to the unfaithful spouses, the lovers of money, or the despisers of God’s Word. The reason is not solely to narrow your focus, so you will have more time to dig deep. It is also, and more significantly, that a Christian may place his faith in Christ in general, but reserve trust in his own righteousness for some particular situations. The battle is for the whole Christian, and for the Christian’s whole conscience. Many a Christian has maintained the decidedly unchristian sentiment: “I know I’m a sinner, but at least I’m not a thief/adulterer/apostate.” The preaching of the Law, across the lectionary, tests and purifies a person’s faith by seeking out weak spots and exposing them, so they can be reinforced by the Gospel. These weak spots are, to be precise, areas of life where accusations can trouble the conscience, because faith is not placed in Christ. Only the preaching of Christ can soothe the conscience troubled by God’s Law in a way that is not a deception, but eternally true.
The second help for avoiding a predictability which softens the Law’s blow against the conscience is to realize it is not only a matter of intellect, but also of experience. Although at times a Christian may compare his life to the Law and come to contrition, the preacher must assume this does not normally happen, that his hearers will stop short of condemning themselves. It is the preacher’s duty to make sure his hearers not only know the Law, but also feel its judgment over their sin. Its truth must become an unavoidable personal reality for the hearers. They must feel the risk of its condemnation becoming the defining factor in their lives. They must be brought so close to the edge of life under the Law that they experience the ground crumbling beneath their feet. Then they can be reminded of what does (Christ) and does not (themselves) keep them safe from slipping over the edge.
It bears reiterating that in Melanchthon’s talk of terror, fear is not a goal in and of itself, but simply the response of any person to a real interaction with the Law of God. To illustrate, consider how, for a moment, it would seem like those Christian haunted houses you can find around Halloween hit the mark, but their momentary fear goes away again when the lights come back on. In contrast, the true terror of the conscience gets worse, not better, with better light and more clear sight, effectively making it impossible to look away from one’s own failure, hopelessness, and ultimately condemned state. This is the despair Luther diagnoses as one of the possible reactions to the Law.
Consciences which have been brought to this state, however, belong to people who are now the best prepared to receive the Gospel. It is not just old news for them, because now the Law’s condemnation is not just information, but dangerous reality. Instead, the Gospel now becomes as specific as the Law was. Christ bore this particular sin to the cross. The Father knew in advance of this particular failure, and intentionally did not exempt it from the scope of His Son’s saving work. If this is true, then the self-accusations must stop here as well, because no one can condemn someone whom Christ has liberated and absolved, and that includes you condemning yourself!
The more effectively the Law terrifies and condemns, the more forceful the application of the Gospel must be. The preacher never walks back the content of the Law, though, as if God’s wrath were less severe than the conscience’s accusation. The once-piqued conscience will recognize this charlatanism right away. The separation of the Law from the conscience can only happen through the Gospel, never through a softening of the Law. But the Gospel accepts nothing less than full agreement (from the conscience!) that every, last bit of divine condemnation has been shifted to Jesus Christ.
Luther calls this condemnation of the Law God’s “alien” work, because it works against His goal of the redemption of mankind. The construction metaphor of demolition as the first step in renovation is apt. The old structure is trust in oneself. When this is torn down and a person has no where to live, no one to trust in but only a troubled, terrified, and guilty conscience, then God’s alien work is done, and the proper work may begin. This work is accomplished through preachers and is a vital part of the creation of faith - the craft of preaching.