The Gospel of Law: The Brutalizing of Sinners

billy sunday

I will mostly “unplugged” for the next few days. Here is a re-post to fill the gap.

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In the last post I reflected on how, like the wider culture they seem all too quick to accuse, mainstream evangelicals seem to have slid easily into an age of religious comfort and ease themselves. There is a disconcerting coziness with God and his law, a subsequent cheapening of grace and a “greasy familiarity” that produces dainty disciples who exude an easy piety and breezy spirituality. Typically indicated by such slogans as “let go and let God; just as I am; or give it all to God,” these pieties only help the watching world to scoff at Christian faith and the church as it shrinks from lives marked by thoughtful consideration of both the sovereignty of God and human responsibility—or as one writer put it, “working out their salvation with fear and trembling.”

But while it is true that some soft-peddle the doctrines of sin and grace, others brutalize sinners in misguided attempts to perhaps compensate. We may do well to take a lesson from history and consider that, “The Radical Anabaptists during the Reformation also challenged the Reformers for preaching a ‘sinful sweet Christ,’ while they preferred to follow a ‘bitter Christ.’” (Christ the Lord, p.52).

As W. Robert Godfrey of Westminster Seminary has said, this has been a temptation of the Church all throughout history: to make Jesus Christ the “new Moses,” the new Law-Giver. Medieval art depicts Christ cradling the Book of the Law whilst glowering at sinners. There is in such pieties a sense of a tortured sanctification, one in which sinful saints are compelled to live lives above and beyond, harassed on a regular basis to lesser or greater degrees, to attempt something that they should understand has already been done for them. Sinners today often are unnecessarily compelled vaguely to “be different from the rest of society” for the sake of “being different or counter-cultural,” naturally left to come up with their own set of rigid rules culled from Scripture but mainly man-made. Sinners feel bound to overly examine themselves, analyzing the “jots and tittles” of Scripture or their own sense of righteousness within. They then get caught up in every little detail of their lives, wondering if they can do this or should refrain from that. Legalism creeps in, first festering within the individual then manifesting outward within groups. Weighed down under heavy yokes, it asks modern equivalents of, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” or, “who sinned-this man or his parents that he is blind?” or like Eve who added her own human law to God’s commandment “not to eat of the tree,” saying, “God said to not eat of the tree or to touch it.”

Brutalizing, like the Just-As-I-Am syndrome in its coddling quest for a “personal relationship with God,” is completely unmediated. Despite all the “Christ-centered” lingo which attends so much of them, the thing which seems common to these false gospels is that they are highly subjective rather than objective. They seek something within the sinner instead of pointing the sinner to that which is without him. Brutalizing seeks to deal with the sinner without mediation or insulation, the exact opposite of Christ-centeredness. In its human-centeredness, it naturally emphasizes sin and under-realizes the holiness of God, brow-beating sinners. This is because it wants them to feel as if there might be something they themselves can do about it. It is anymore quite popular to point out how sinners don’t like law preached to them in order to make the point that we are natural enemies of it, placing onus off the church and onto those “afar off.” While this is quite true, we do live in a context of religious history which suggests an equal, if not greater onus on the church. With deep-seated memories of being burned over with “hellfire and brimstone,” it seems that sinners also instinctively know they are being postured to take matters into their own hands, even after being told “salvation is not by works.” In other words, total depravity is not only resisted because it is natural to do so, but also because sinners seem to know they simply cannot bear up under the anticipated call to fix themselves instead of simply gazing upon the serpent raised upon the rod.

But if sinners have learned how to resist more obvious forms of brutalizing, they also seem to have a blind spot for being killed softly. Usually sneaked in by way of relevant language to a populace used to seeing itself as both sovereign and entitled to the pursuit of happiness, one might hear the phrase “biblical principles” to any host of human interests. Mike Horton has routinely spoken of two versions of law, one “hard law” and the other “soft law”:

…the Law is reduced to practical tips. As a result, the bad news isn’t really that bad, and the good news isn’t really that good…So when people preach (or read) the Bible as a handbook of helpful tips or as a practical guide for happier living, they are not really encountering the Bible at all, despite their appeal to it. If one comes to the Bible always looking for the ‘practical,’ that usually means that one will come looking for watered-down ‘Law.’ Remember, this is already our tendency, as Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, reminds us: ‘The Law is natural to man…But the gospel is a supernatural doctrine which our nature would never have been able to imagine nor able to approve without a special grace of God. (Modern Reformation magazine, 1999).

But law is law is law, and it isn’t the gospel.

There is a supreme difference between making sure we always remember the weightiness of our sin in the light of God’s holiness and simply battering sinners. One has it in mind to spring the gospel on weighed down sinners with all hope, spurring gratitude and soberly obedient living couched in grace. The other, more brutal one, if it ever gets around to it at all, simply lays the gospel before the sinner like a disgruntled Jonah. Sin here is rubbed in the sinner’s face again and gospel becomes a deflated gift, if it can be called that at all. Sinners are compelled to be constantly thankful for a gift they are also constantly disallowed to also enjoy.

It is famously told that exchange between Luther and Melanchthon in which the latter was prone to a self-examination that produced a lot of doubt and unnecessary angst with regard to his status before God, and seemed to suggest two things: first, and this correctly, that he located the problem within himself; second, and this incorrectly and what may have accounted for so much gloom, that he seemed to locate the solution within as well. Again, inasmuch as they seek un-mediated and inward solutions to the problem, both coddler’s and batterers seem to make this same mistake. Luther’s advice, though, is some of the best going even if it strikes these false gospels as profane: “Go and sin boldly; the gospel is completely outside you.” It may be that the category of “sin” doesn’t register (or is at least fuzzy) or that the suggestion to do so “boldly” is scandalous (or is at least a bit disconcerting). If so, then it may be that despite whatever attending gospel-ese, the gospel has been quite missed.

This entry was posted in Law/Gospel Distinction, Legalism, Reformed piety. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Gospel of Law: The Brutalizing of Sinners

  1. Chris S says:


    Thanks for the (re)post. I am curious, where do you see this “brutalizing” toady? I have seen/experienced it first hand, but thought surely that “church” was isolated in it’s school of thought.

  2. GLW Johnson says:

    But the Bishop of Moscow and Grand wizard of the FV says otherwise- it is ALL gospel according to him. Doesn’t his status carry any weight around here?

  3. Zrim says:


    The better question might be where don’t we see this today? If you listen closely enough you can hear law all over the place. And I would suggest it is mostly “law-light” or the sort of law we all think is a good alternative to being brow-beaten.

  4. David Wayne says:

    Wow! Thank you for this. I am with you – I can’t think of a place in the church where we don’t see this “brutalizing of sinners.”

  5. Chris S says:

    “Law light” is easy enough to hear anywhere today. It’s the brow beating types that struck close to home for me. I sent a link to your post to a friend who attended the same “church” as I used to, their response was, “Wow, I guess this is more widespread than we knew or this man couldn’t describe it so perfectly. eh? “

  6. Chris E says:

    ‘Law-lite’ remains the law – the flip side of all of those sermons teaching Christians to live the perfectly satisfied abundant life with harmonious relationships, perfect families and fulfilling jobs is how it makes Christians who experience some or none of those things.

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