Yesterday, I listened to sermon that was almost a Christ-centered, grace-filled, hope-full encouragement to pray and consider the fathomless beauty that Christ our Lord intercedes on our behalf to the Father. Almost. At the end, it fell painfully short and ended up being little more than a veiled exhortation to try harder to be godly. A sermon of only Law and no Grace. A sermon that drives to despair and--if repeated too many times--kills the soul by rending it hopelessly condemned by an unbearable expectation.
Things started out well, looking at Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17. Among other things, Jesus here prays for the church and all those who would come to believe throughout all of time. Imagine the joy of knowing that our Messiah, our Mediator, our Lord intercedes on our behalf! How hopeful is it to know that we know not how to pray or are too scared / ashamed / confused to confide in others that Jesus prays for us! From there we jumped to Jesus' exhortation in Matthew 5 to pray for our enemies. Ultimately, this command relies on the fact that we are children of grace, as Lenski points out:
So great is our Father whose sons we are, and such is his character, namely heavenly, which is far different from all that is merely earthly. And we are related to him as sons. His grace has put us sinners into this wonderful and blessed relation through the great Son himself to came to make us sons.
Unfortunately, instead of hearing an encouraging and grace-focused applications as these, the pastor stopped and said, "Jesus' commands are for us a measuring stick of our own prayer lives." There were those words, hanging almost as if in a bubble over his head--"measuring stick." This is third use of the law, upon which Lutherans and the Book of Concord unanimously agree. That said, we cannot overlook the reality also affirmed by Concord that "the Law always accuses us." For this reason, we cannot simply preach or teach the Law, because there is no way to heal the despair which its preaching creates. We must hear the Gospel.
In this specific example, after we have been led to recognize that all of our prayer lives most certainly fall short of Jesus' perfect example, how encouraging would it have been to include simple words of Gospel truth. For example, "Though your prayer life no doubt leaves much to be desired, take heart, for Christ is interceding for you! Though we doubtless fail to pray as we ought, find comfort in knowing that your Lord pleads for you for grace and strength to follow his example."
Preaching only the Law, preaching only a message of "try harder" will ultimately lead the soul to despair--hopelessly concluding, quite rightly, that it cannot be good enough, perfect enough, righteous enough to merit the love and forgiveness of God. Pastors, please don't kill the souls trusted to your charge. Give them Law, we sinners certainly need to be driven to Christ...but give them also the sweet balm of Christ's gospel.