Preaching Lawfully

by Paul E. Koptak

Paul D. Koptak, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication and Biblical Interpretation, North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago.

This meditation first appeared in Ex Auditu, an International Journal of Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Volume 11, 1995; 4137 Timberlane Drive, Allison Park, PA 15101-2932.)


Whether we understand lawfully to mean according to the rules (2 Tim 2:5), or in line with the character of biblical law, those who preach must model sound preaching from the law.

The title for this message was inspired by 1 Timothy 1:8, which may be translated, "We know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully." Today I would like to extend that idea to preaching and add that the law is good and should be preached lawfully. Whether we understand "lawfully" to mean "according to the rules" (2 Tim 2:5) or "in line with the character of biblical law," we who teach must model sound preaching from the law, and we should tell those who will preach to do the same. When I speak of preaching from the law, I mean preaching that takes as its source the texts of Torah, but I also want to include all biblical texts that speak in the imperative voice, texts that teach what we are to do and what we are not to do. Preaching that engages these texts and their function as instruction makes lawful use of the law; we must encourage it. I say this because, in reaction to erroneous and harmful preaching on law, many seminarians and pastors avoid preaching law altogether.

At its root, this concern for harmful preaching is not too different from Paul's worry about teaching in the First Letter to Timothy. Those who want to be "teachers of the law" have forced the issue of the law's rightful use. As they teach, they show that they do not know what they are talking about. They do not understand (v. 7). Understand this, Paul says, the law is not for the innocent, it is for the lawless, disobedient, godless, and sinful (v. 9). This is a forceful statement, and the list of vices that follows is no less so. Whether it is inspired by the Ten Commandments or the lists of vices we know from classical literature, the words are strong, harsh, and stinging. They burn the ears and leave a bitter taste on the tongue. We recoil from them, and wonder where we are to stand in response. Would we identify ourselves with the innocent? No, we know that no one is innocent before God; we affirm this every time we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. But who wants to be numbered with killers, fornicators and liars? How do we hear this text and respond to it?

Some solve the problem by taking the words to mean that the law is no longer binding on the Christian, but this misses the point. Paul's point is that the law is used lawfully whenever behaviors that are "contrary to the teaching that conforms to the gospel" are called what they are. The law is not about myths, genealogies and speculations, it is about the divine training or plan, the oikonomia that is known by faith (v. 4). It is about behaviors and the attitudes that motivate them. The law is good and is used lawfully when it is used to name behaviors that are out of hannony with the gospel, even if it is unpleasant to hear. The law is binding on Christians along with all others who face its claims.

Paul's words seem intended to polarize, to divide people into camps, the way Paul has just separated Timothy from the false teachers. If we had to chose sides between good guys and bad, we would choose Paul and Timothy over the lawless. Are we caught by surprise then, when in vv. 12-13 Paul numbers himself with the bad guys? The man God entrusted with the gospel, strengthened, judged faithful, and appointed for service was also a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. Paul describes himself as lawless; are we surprised?

Perhaps not. We've heard Paul's story before, and we know the sad irony that he persecuted the church of Jesus with what he thought was holy zeal. But Paul is saying more. Notice how the rush of negative and positive terms flow together in vv. 12-17; Paul's ignorance and unbelief are overcome with overflowing grace, faith and love in Christ Jesus. Tenses move about from past to present so that Paul could say, I was a blasphemer, persecutor and man of violence and I still am the foremost of sinners. Moreover, this foremost of sinners lives on as the foremost example of Christ's mercy (vv. 15-16).

Here is law used lawfully. It named Paul as lawless, but it did more. It brought him to mercy, it delivered him to grace not just at some time in the past, but in one ongoing moment of judgment and grace. Yes, there was an event in time on the Damascus Road, but there is something more here, a way of life, a way of trusting and acting. It is well described by Richard Lischer:


Christians now experience the law through their relationship with the gospel. The two tones are sounded together.... Thus the death of Jesus reveals God's wrath and love; the call to discipleship both stings and encourages the Christian; the parable of the Pharisee and the publican sends a delicately mixed message, depending on the character with whom we identify.1


Encounter with the law can be a part of the Christian's past, but it continues into the present and future experience of grace. Bruce Cockburn puts it in verse:


Fascist architecture of my own design

Too long keeping my love confined

You tore me out of myself alive

Those fingers drawing out blood like sweat

While the magnificent facades crumble and burn

The billion facets of brilliant love

The billion facets of freedom turning in the light

Bloody nose and burning eyes

Raised in laughter to the skies.2


Paul's use of himself as an example tells us three things about preaching the law lawfully. We have already seen that the law names behaviors for what they are and sounds the harmonious tone of grace. Paul's self example also says that law is for me-first. The journalist and historian Paul Johnson tells of a time he was attacked in the press, the attack so severe and unfair that he planned to write a scathing reply.


But as it was Sunday morning, I went first to church. The lesson was from

Ecclesiasticus: "Resentment and anger," it read, "these are foul things. He who exacts vengeance will experience the vengeance of the Lord." The service continued with that famous passage from St. Matthew's Gospel in which St. Peter asks Christ how often he should forgive a man who wrongs him. Should it be as many as seven times? Christ answers: "Not seven I tell you, but seventy times seven." My critic had wronged me not seventy times seven, or even seven, but once. I did not write the article.3


Law is preached lawfully when it is for the preacher before it is for anyone else. In corporate worship and private reflection, preachers relive the experience of the apostle as they submit themselves to the law and believe the good news. As sins are named and sinners are received, law and grace are lived before they are preached, and they are preached with compassion and conviction.

To preach law lawfully, one must submit to law. Otherwise, the result is at best hollow and at worst ruinous. This is why Paul calls Timothy to faith and good conscience twice (vv. 5, 19) and follows each exhortation with negative examples. Those who have rejected faith and conscience end up with nothing but bad teaching and shipwrecked faith (vv. 6, 20). A look at the structure of Paul's discourse on law shows that he begins and ends by urging Timothy to decide. By associating the false teachers with Paul's lawless past and inviting Timothy to emulate Paul's grace-filled present, Paul has set up the choice between faith and false teaching, between conscience and meaningless talk.

Now, at last, we who hear this text know where we are to stand; Paul's rhetoric on the good law and its good use forces us to choose sides. We who would identify with Timothy must choose Paul's way of law and reject the way of meaningless talk and blasphemy. Paul would have us identify with his life in grace, not with his earlier life of blasphemy, as the blasphemers Hymanaeus and Alexander have done (vv. 13, 20).

We know where to stand. Like it or not, we are not the innocent, perhaps not guilty of the crimes Paul lists, but certainly capable of "whatever else is contrary to sound teaching," in word or deed. Paul knew it from his own life, and he saw it in the lives and teaching of those he hoped would listen. To Timothy (and we who would identify with him), Paul says, would you become like I was and they are? If you would, just reject conscience and faith. Use the law for something other than self examination. But if you would become as I am now, join me in saying, the law is for me. Let it search you. Let it bring you to grace.

Paul not only invites Timothy to join him in submission to the law, he calls him to teach it lawfully, so we must return to the need to preach biblical law rightly. The statement may seem obvious at a conference on law and liberty; why state what we already know? Here's why. Most of us here today are involved with the theological education of pastors and ministers of the church. We have done a good job of warning them against the dangers of moralism and of preaching law without grace. But sometimes, in sermons and in conversation, I find people guilty of the other extreme-preaching grace without law.

It is true that preaching from the laws of Moses, the commands of Christ, or the imperatives of Paul can depart from the context of grace and fall prey to the dangers of authoritarianism and legalism. Principles and guidelines can be crowded out by oppressive lists of do's and don'ts. But does this mean that we refrain from telling people how to live?

No, the opposite of preaching law badly is not avoiding law or moral instruction, it is preaching law lawfully. Scripture typically gives directions for everyday living in public and in private, at work and at worship. Appropriation of these ancient texts requires a responsible hermeneutic as we hear the message for that day and adapt it for our own. This call to interpretation gives us reason to remain faithful to scripture's imperative voice, not to avoid it.

With this in mind, I will risk telling you what to do to preach lawfully. First, our preaching should become more simple. By simple, I do not mean that our ideas should be simplistic, but that our words should become more clear and direct. Robert Wuthnow has observed that "Liberals are fond of charging fundamentalists with oversimplification and pointing out the need of complexity." He goes on to show how complex thought gets translated into complex and incomprehensible sermons. He quoted one sentence of seventy-one words! Another sermon by another preacher shows the same movement from simple to complex.


The sermon opens with a four-word assertion: "Everybody loves a parade." Its main point, which comes only two sentences from the end, is expressed this way: "To those to whom truth has been revealed, who continue in the tradition of the Holy One's followers, the call is not only to offer words of praise, confessing that Jesus is Christ the Lord, but to offer our lives as the instruments of this Lord of peace and justice." You get the point. Or did you? The sentence has five major clauses involving forty-nine words.4


Here is a preacher telling the congregation what to do, to work for peace and justice, but the message is lost in the sea of words.

Second, our preaching should become more specific. It should name, it should call behaviors and attitudes what they are, and it should point to grace. In April of 1995, a group of students at Steinmetz High School in Chicago were suspected of cheating in the statewide Academic Decathalon by receiving the answers beforehand from their coach. Both coach and students denied that any cheating had taken place until a week later, when the students confessed and the teacher was fired.

A pastor at one of the city churches took the opportunity to talk about telling the truth. Expressing his sadness over the Steinmetz situation, he told the church how truthfulness builds up relationships while lying tears them down. He held up truth telling as a way we can love others, and warned that it is easy to let lies creep into our relationships. He challenged his listeners to live lives of truthfulness in the power of the Spirit.

When incidents of racial hate took place in the neighborhood, this pastor's church hosted a joint service for racial reconciliation. He did not preach, but the pastor who did denounced racism and told those present what was wrong about those acts of hate. He made the surprising claim that God used to be a racist (because God favored Israel) but changed his mind. However we may judge his premise, his vision of racial reconciliation in the kingdom of God helped those present examine their attitudes and consider what they might do in response. In both cases, the preachers spoke simply and specifically.

Finally, we should preach with love. Both sermons assumed that if God had brought those people to listen, then God would move them to respond. There was no brow-beating or parental tone. The preaching was in accord with 1 Timothy 1:5: "But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith." These preachers understood that they were preaching to sinners, but sinners in whom God was at work. Because law and grace are inseparable, they preached law with a voice of love.

Moreover, preaching lawfully is itself an act of love. It is loving to talk directly and specifically about behavior. It is loving to teach right from wrong as we preach. We need not shy away from it because it has been done poorly. The flood of talk shows and self-help books tells us that people are looking for help in living their lives. There are plenty of voices to tell people what they should and should not do. A recent issue of Vital Speeches of the Day is revealing. The Chair of the Federal Communications Commission called for legislation to mandate increased children's educational programming. An executive in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints entitled his address, "The Integrity of Obeying the Law: I Have an Individual Responsibility"; the Vice President for National Issues of the National Audubon Society urged citizens to demand that the government stop giving away our public lands.5 You get the picture. Our public discourse, our daily diet of media and advertising, and our everyday interpersonal interactions are loaded with persuasive messages. A thousand times a day we are told what to do and what not to do. In this aspect, preaching is no different from all other forms of communication. We are in the business of telling people what to do.

The law is good if we use it lawfully. We are called to preach the law with love, to risk telling people how to live as an act of love, even as our Lord looked with love at the man who asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"





1. Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981), 56-57.

2. Bruce Cockburn, "Fascist Architecture," from the album, Humans. Millennium Records, BXLI-7752,1980.

  1. Paul Johnson, "Why I Must Believe in God," Readers Digest 126 (June 1985), 124-125
  2. Robert Wuthnow, Christianity in the Twenty-first Century: Reflections on the Challenges Ahead (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 128-129.
  3. Vital Speeches of the Day LXI, No. 22, (September 1, 1995).