I’ve been slowly blogging my way through Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching (here and here) and now reach Christopher Wright’s chapter on “Preaching from the law.” Given the author, I was expecting this chapter to be excellent, but it’s actually outstanding – probably the best chapter in the book. Here’s a summary of the ten most important points, largely in Wright’s own words:

1. On the basis of 2 Timothy 3:15-16, write above every OT chapter, including legal chapters, “This Scripture is inspired by God and is useful…” [47].

2. “Before we preach law to people, we need to make sure they know the God who stands behind it and the story that goes before it. It is the God of grace and the story of grace” [48].
This is perhaps the most important sentence in the chapter (if not in the book), and if fully grasped would transform most people’s view of the law in particular and of the Old Testament in general.

3. “The law was given to people whom God had already redeemed” [48].
“Grace comes before the law. There are eighteen chapters of salvation before we get to Sinai and the Ten Commandments…I stress this because the idea that the difference between the Old and New Testaments is that in the OT salvation was by obeying the law, whereas in the NT it is by grace, is a terrible distortion of Scripture” [48].

4. “Obedience is the only right response to having been saved, and the way to enjoy the fruits of redemption, not to earn them” [49].
Always preach OT law on the foundation of God’s saving grace. Anything else will lead people to legalism, or to despair, or to pride [49].

5. By shaping Israel in the image of God, the law had a missional purpose [51].
“The law had the function of shaping Israel to be that representative people, making the character and requirements of God known to the nations. That is a missional function…The purpose of the law was to make Israel visibly different, in such a way that would draw interest and comment, and essentially bear witness to the God they worshipped” (Ex. 19:6; Dt. 4:6-8)” [51].

“We should preach OT law in such a way as to remind Christians not only of the grace of God to which they must respond, but also of their mission responsibility: to live distinctively as God’s people among the nations” [52].

“Imitation of God is a strong theme in OT law, but it does not stop there. It is the same basic principle that undergirds the teaching of Jesus about our behavior. We are to model what we do on what we know God is and does (Matt. 5:45-48; Lk. 6:27-36)” [54].

6. The law hangs like a hammock between the two poles of God’s past and present grace [52].
“The law is suspended like a hammock between two poles: the past grace of God’s historical redemption, and the future grace of God’s missional promise. Between these two poles Israel, and ourselves, are called to live in the present as those who know where we have come from and where we are going. The law in other words, makes sense within the whole story of redemption, past and future” [52].

7. Preach the law in a God-centered not man-centered way.
“Our preaching of OT law should not merely be moralistic – focusing on the minutiae of behavior and burdening people, as the Pharisees did. Rather we preach the law in such a way as to point to the God who stands behind it, asking what it reveals of his character, values and priorities. That seems to have been the thrust of Christ’s preaching too” [54].

8. The law was given for human benefit (Mk. 2:27; Dt. 4:40), as the Psalmists certainly appreciated (Ps. 19:7, 10; 119:45, 47) [55].
“The least one can say about people who express such enthusiastic sentiments for the law is that they were certainly not groveling along under a heavy burden of legalism. They were not anxiously striving to earn their way into salvation and a relationship with God through punctilious law-keeping. They were not puffed up with the claims of self-righteousness or exhausted with the efforts of works-righteousness. They did not, in short, fit into any of the caricatures which have been inflicted upon OT law by those who, misunderstanding Paul’s arguments with opponents who had distorted the law, attribute to the law itself the very distortions from which Paul was seeking to exonerate it” [55].

“Jesus became angry when the law was turned into a burden, instead of a benefit to the needy” [57]

“There is plenty material in the law that shows the heart of God for the needs of human beings, especially the vulnerable, those who are socially, economically, ethnically or sexually disadvantaged in our fallen world” [57].

9. “Old Testament law anticipates failure, judgment, and future grace” [57] “We should not imagine that the failure of OT Israel to keep God’s law somehow surprised God so much that he was forced to come up with plan B…Deuteronomy 29-32 make clear that the fault is not in the law itself, but in us” [58].

10. The Old Testament preaches the Gospel [58] In this next paragraph, I believe Wright is using “law” in the wider sense of the whole Pentateuch, or at least the Pentateuch’s exposition and application of the law.

As Deuteronomy 30 contains a powerful evangelistic appeal to return to God…”we can preach OT law, not to drive people only to despair at their failure but to lead them from the realization of failure back to the love and promises of God – as contained in the law itself. Failure is a fact. Failure is foreseen. But failure can be forgiven through the grace of God. The law itself expresses all three great Gospel truths and can be preached accordingly” [58].

Before giving an example sermon, Wright closes with a couple of priceless pages on how to move from OT law to a message for today, and concludes:

As I work towards a preachable sermon from the legal text with such questions in mind, I keep in mind also the above core principles: God’s grace as the starting point; the need for God’s people to live for the sake of God’s mission; the paradigmatic function of Israel’s law for future generations; what the text teaches about the character of God and the demands of human well-being; the realities of sin and failure and the need to preach all God’s Word with the profound sense of preacher and audience alike being sinners in need of forgiving grace [60].

  • http://eardstapa.wordpress.com Jeremy Walker

    Good stuff, David. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I am increasingly tempted to bag the book. Is it worth adding to the groaning pile (if only for this particular essay)?

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Yes, Jeremy, I’d say it’s worthwhile for a number of the chapters.

  • Jason Keller

    I simplify it like this. We are saved by grace. When we sin, God punishes us. When we do good, God blesses us. But because we are saved, And Know it, We all strive to do good and better ourselves. Because we are saved. Not to be saved. :) Love yall