The Law and the Already Terrified Conscience
This essay is the last in a set of three reflections on the relationship between the Law and the Conscience. In them, I have been trying to organize thoughts about why we preach the Law, and about the “what” and “when” which follow the “why.” This article is especially about the “when” and is properly an attempt to address the inevitable follow-up question about when and how the preacher preaches not only the Law, but also the Gospel.
The key phrase for all these articles has been the “terrified conscience.” This is not my own invention, but drawn from the important Lutheran Confessional writing, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. The mentions of terrified conscience and synonymous phrases in that document are practically countless. To miss their importance is, I think, to miss the lessons of this document for bringing the Gospel to those who do not have it.
Of course - and I come to this in the second article - the people whose consciences are discussed in the Apology are often those with falsely terrified consciences. All manner of demands have been placed on them as a means to please God, even though each of those demands were of human design and in no sense justified in their requirements. The falsely terrified were those who could not see those demands for the sham they were.
A different but related group consists of those whose consciences are already terrified, but rightly. These are not those who have failed to meet arbitrary papal demands, but those who have discovered their own sin in the face of God’s demands. For these people, the question I posed in the previous article, about whether to forgive something which is not really sin, has no relevance. They are feeling the contrition tied to breaking the actual Commandments of God, not the arbitrary expectations placed upon them by men, society, and themselves.
There is no doubt such people are all around us. It is important to realize they are people for whom the Gospel is the only hope. The damage that has been done cannot be undone, so all other “hopes” are to be dismissed right away. The harm they have done to another person may be forgiven, but seldom ceases entirely to be a part of the relationship going forward. Broken things can be repaired, but the scars always remain.
So, who are we talking about? Family members asking themselves hard questions after their sibling/child/parent no longer there to finally be loved. Spouses whose selfishness has finally driven the other away. Indeed, everyone whose love of self has finally cost them the people they love. Those whose dishonesty has, in one turn, cost them more than it had previously brought them. I formulate the examples this way, absent of any specific Law preaching, because even though we really are discussing the people who have realized their sin, these are not those who have realized it midway through the sermon. These are the “already” terrified consciences - the ones whose sin has given them a glimpse in this life of how it threatens to crush them in the final judgment.
The apt Biblical example of this type of sinner is Zacchaeus from Luke 19. There is no account of any preaching to Zacchaeus at all, but only of a man seeking the Lord. This is quite unlike the story of the Rich Young Man in Luke 18, who aims to earn his righteousness and receives a lesson in the Law. When Jesus comes to Zacchaeus’s home, the man immediately repents of his wrongdoing as a tax collector, unto salvation. The reader might presume some unmentioned preaching, or the mere presence of Jesus evokes knowledge of sin, but more obvious is to assume Zacchaeus felt his exclusion from society, the loneliness his riches cost him, and knew also what the cause was.
Like Zacchaeus, the “already terrified” are not “scared straight” by the consequences of their sin. Humbly, I submit this is a phenomenon preachers cannot long believe in, or at least they cannot believe in its permanence. If the Devil overplays his hand on one commandment, he still has nine more sins to tempt us with. No, they have not been scared straight, but they have been scared into contrition. It becomes the preacher’s task to help them know what to do with it.
To put things a bit simply, this is a time to be light on the Law. This suggestion probably raises some eyebrows, so an attempt to dispel the obvious concerns may be warranted. This is not about going easy on the Law because it ostensibly turns people off to the Church. Neither does it grow out of a covert attempt to replace the repentance that awaits absolution with the brokenness that seeks therapy. Rather, it is a time to be light on the Law because the Law’s work has already been so heavily applied. Where contrition is evident, the conscience has already been prodded, piqued, finally terrified. More Law only serves to confirm the lie this person is already at risk of believing: that the last work of the conscience is also God’s last word. But God’s last word is the word of absolution, not the confirmation of the conscience’s testimony, but now its contradiction.
Only one thing might still be left to the Law, always finally in service of the Gospel. It may be necessary to make explicit the conscience’s alignment with the Law. I have personally experienced wise father confessors do a version of this. Upon hearing the confession, they have aided the one confessing in naming the commandment violated. This is not always an easy task, but the sin is always actually a sin against God. This legal instruction confirms and clarifies, making the ultimate truth visible: When God forgives, He does so with ultimate and final authority.
Such preaching of the Law is far less about eliciting contrition than about laying the groundwork for faith. In a manner of speaking, it is even merciful, because although it may stoke the conscience’s terror for a moment, it only does so in order that the fulness and comprehensiveness of the forgiveness might be realized.
I will attempt to summarize: The person whose conscience is already and rightly terrified needs only to hear the Law in as much as it is necessary to show them the true reason to be terrified. But this demonstration on its own is of little value, since it does not change the terror, which stands before and after in contradiction to saving faith. What it accomplishes instead is the disarming of all other accusers, so the person finally stands before God alone. In good Law preaching, the preacher collects every other weapon being wielded against the sinner for himself, only to lay them down and proclaim the Gospel. The moment of increased terror in the face of God’s representative targeting you with everything available is superseded by the way he lays all weapons aside.
I suspect the “already accused” do not form a subgroup among the people to whom we preach (not even of those to whom we could preach), but rather the overwhelming majority. As malleable and fallible as the conscience certainly is, it is still fundamentally God’s gift to us for knowing our sin. Surely it hits the mark often, perhaps more often than it misses. But if this is true, then the rest follows constantly, almost regardless of to whom we are preaching.
Concluding that nearly everyone belongs to the “already accused,” however, does not imply it comprehensively describes them. Just as we all suffer the damage sin wreaks on our lives, so we are also daily spared many of its consequences. This is why the plea of these articles on the terrified conscience is not at all to leave the preaching of the Law to the world, but rather to give attention to its presence in the world. The people to whom we preach are broken by their sin, and they are persistent and stubborn in it. They are Zacchaeus and they are the Rich Young Man. These are not two distinct groups, but the very same people. To preach to them only as one or the other is to withhold from them something they dramatically require, and for which they rely on us. God grant that we not remain blind to our own failure to provide it. And God grant us forgiveness for our failures.