Desperately Seeking the First Use of the Law
At the midpoint now of my biblically allotted threescore and ten, I have come to the sad conclusion that anybody is capable of anything. I have also, not coincidentally, come to the conclusion that one of the worst failures of our Lutheran churches has been the widespread abandonment of preaching on the first use of the law. I can’t remember ever, since childhood, hearing a Lutheran sermon simply expositing the Ten Commandments, telling me in plain speech that this action is pleasing to God while that action is not...
At the midpoint now of my biblically allotted threescore and ten, I have come to the sad conclusion that anybody is capable of anything. I have also, not coincidentally, come to the conclusion that one of the worst failures of our Lutheran churches has been the widespread abandonment of preaching on the first use of the law. I can’t remember ever, since childhood, hearing a Lutheran sermon simply expositing the Ten Commandments, telling me in plain speech that this action is pleasing to God while that action is not.
We Lutherans can manage to preach Christ as gospel (well, some of the time… look for an article in the summer 2011 issue calling even this into question). We can manage to preach the second use of the law. Actually, though, I think we’re a little intoxicated with the second use. We see so many people whose lives are falling apart, from their own doing or as victims of others’ misdeeds, and quite naturally we want to offer them solace and hope. It is a good and holy thing to reach out to the suffering—even suffering because of their own self-chosen sin—with Christ’s forgiveness and the chance at a regenerate life.
But what happens when we only do that? What if the first use is abandoned or silenced? For one thing, it makes it very hard for the sinners to see why, exactly, what they did was so bad. In our hyper-psychologized culture, there is a pervasive sense that the only real sin is malice, deliberately doing evil for evil’s sake. Certainly, there are those who are guilty of this kind of sin. Augustine’s story of loving the transgression of stealing the pears sheerly because it was transgressive points to that reality.
But I doubt there are really very many who love evil for its own sake. Most of us pursue our loves, and the problem is that our loves, falling short of the love of God and not being ordered by the love of God, compete with each other. One love loses out to another; a lower love displaces a higher. (Example: when love of country usurps love of all people in God’s image, we are saddled with the sin of nationalism, even though it is not wrong in itself to love our country.) With no first use of the law to tell us what God desires in our dealings with one another, we are left with a free-for-all among our competing loves.
If our sins are the by-product of our loves, then it also means that nearly all of our sins are understandable. Another tacit myth of our psychologized culture is that if a sin is understandable, then it can’t really be all that bad, or it can at least be excused. Without the first use of the law, there is little incentive to recognize that the horribleness of sin is exactly how one sin, however understandable, gives rise to ten more, not only in the first sinner but in all those affected by his sin. Witness the terrible frequency with which children grow up to commit the exact same sins of their parents. Understandable, isn’t it, that they copy what they saw? Or that the hurt react by hurting others? That the trapped lash out and the powerful guard their power in fear of the coming retaliation? The understandableness of sin is good cause for mercy, but it is also good cause for countering sin’s logic with the logic of God’s law. Those people tempted or victimized by understandable sins have other options; they can follow God’s way instead of sin’s way. And, astonishing thought, proclaiming this law might just prevent the outbreak of such sins in the first place, along with all their collateral damage!
For really, if a church preaches only the second use and never the first, what has it become? It has become a predator on human misery. A church that cannot say how God intends human souls and communities to be—loving and fearing God above all things, honoring parents, remaining faithful to spouses, restraining the urge to steal and covet, speaking truthfully about others—is like a scavenger lying in wait for the wounded to fall. Then it pounces, at no risk to itself, to snap up all the shattered pieces. It can offer little more than a spiritual bandaid to the damage and has no way of helping to reconstruct what has been destroyed and lost, no vision of God’s good intentions to guide that reconstruction. It has done absolutely nothing to prevent the fall of the wounded in the first place.
And defending this absence of the first use in the name of Luther is certainly a violation of the Eighth Commandment. In the preface to the Large Catechism, after citing Psalm 1:2 (“blessed are those who meditate on God’s law day and night”) and Deuteronomy 6:7-8 (how we should meditate on God’s precepts at all times), Luther concludes: “Oh, what mad, senseless fools we are! We must ever live and dwell in the midst of such mighty enemies like the devils, and yet would despise our weapons and armor, too lazy to examine them or give them a thought!”
Pastors: preach the whole law, in all its uses, to your congregations; arm them! Parents: teach your children the Ten Commandments, discuss them, practice them! All Christians: offer your friends, your colleagues, your neighbors, your distant relatives and your near ones, your fellow churchgoers, offer them all the words of the Word of Life, the law that protects and guides life, the law that drives us to Christ, the gospel of forgiveness of sins, the gospel of the Holy Spirit given for a new life!