Shall We Preach the Gospel or Morality? Part One: Laðra Spella

May 31, 2013

Morality cannot save. All true Christians understand this principle. Humans have already been constituted sinners by virtue of Adamic guilt (Rom. 5:12-19). Because of the pollution of sin, even our most righteous deeds constitute an offense to God (Isa. 64:6). Consequently, the pursuit of morality can never make anyone acceptable before God. Indeed, the only way to be saved is to abandon one’s own righteousness and to submit one’s self to the righteousness that comes from God (Rom. 10:3). If we wish to preach the gospel, we must preach against morality as a way to God.

Not only so, but we are instructed to avoid any offense that would create an impediment to the gospel (1 Cor. 10:32). Paul was unwilling to exercise any personal prerogative or to claim any right that would drive people away from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Depraved people sometimes find morality offensive (Rom. 1:32). The preaching of the cross is its own offense (1 Cor. 1:23). Consequently, Paul determined to put nothing into his message except the crucified Christ (1 Cor. 2:1-4).

Given these truths, some contemporary Christians have inferred that it is wrong ever to address moral issues before the general public. On their view, we are allowed to confront the unsaved with the truth of the gospel. Any argument for morality, however, confuses the issue and runs the risk of driving people away from the gospel. Preaching morality, whether individually or corporately, is viewed as unproductive and perhaps as a sin.

According to this position, the problem is compounded when the moral issue is also a political issue. The advocates of this view seem to think that churches and Christians are obligated to recuse themselves from public discussion of all political issues, including those that have moral dimensions. To the degree that Christians become publicly identified with political positions, they necessarily lose their credibility and influence as preachers of the gospel.

While this position wraps itself in a veneer of piety, it is mistaken. It is badly mistaken. It is so badly mistaken that it cannot be viewed as anything less than a shocking betrayal of the Christian’s biblical responsibilities. While Christians must never preach morality as a means of salvation, morality is certainly a public concern of Christians. Moreover, at least within the Western democracies, Christians cannot rightly escape their duty as advocates of right morals within the public (including the political) square.

The gospel itself implies that Christians must be concerned with the morals of the lost. The point of the gospel is that Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). What is a sin? A sin is a falling short of the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:23). As the catechism puts it, a sin is “any want of conformity unto, and transgression of, the law of God.” Even dispensationalists believe that God has a moral law, and that this law establishes the line between right and wrong in all human conduct. God’s moral law applies to all people at all times and in all places.

Much of God’s moral law is vertical in nature: it applies to the relationship between humans and God. It is always wrong to worship anything other than the one, true, and living God. It is always wrong to bow down before idols. It is always wrong to take God’s name in vain. These are matters of morality, of right and wrong. By placing ourselves on the wrong side of these precepts, we merit God’s just condemnation.

God’s law is not only vertical, however. It is also horizontal. It applies to relationships between humans. Dishonoring one’s father and mother is wrong in every possible universe. Under no circumstances could murder ever be right. Theft is sinful, always and everywhere. Adultery can never be made into a virtue. Perjury and covetousness will always be vices. God has one law for all of these sins: they could never be right anywhere or anywhen for anywhom.

Both tables of the law contain moral precepts. These are not arbitrary rules that God devised and that He could conceivably alter at will. They are grounded in His very character, such that they would always remain the law for every moral universe that He could ever create. Humans are condemned, not only by their failure to adhere to the first table of the law (the vertical precepts), but also by their repeated violations of the second table (the horizontal precepts). God judges us not only for what we have done against Him, but also for what we have done against each other—for every sin that we commit against each other is first and foremost a sin against God (Ps. 51:4).

The gospel is the good news of how God has addressed our condemnation and provided for our forgiveness. But the good news of the gospel makes no sense unless we have first become convinced of the “lathspel” (laðra spella, bad news) of condemnation. The good news is only as good as the bad news is bad. Indeed, the gospel is simply nonsense without the prior message of condemnation.

In other words, we cannot preach the gospel without preaching morality. People cannot receive the good news without first believing the bad news, and that bad news is that they are lawbreakers and rebels. They must understand that morality is not an arbitrary convention, but that it stands over them in judgment and that it is a matter of divine imposition. The gospel is not that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives. The gospel is that God has done something about our sins.

We cannot call the righteous to repentance. No one can be saved who has not first been condemned. No good news can be offered until the bad news has been believed. The bad news arrives in the form of God’s law and its penalty—“the wages of sin is death.” As long as we hope to see people believe the gospel, we must reprove their want of conformity to, and transgression of, God’s law. We are given no permission to omit the horizontal precepts—God’s moral law is a unity. In other words, if we are committed to proclaiming the gospel, then we must proclaim right morals, and our proclamation of morality must be just as public and unashamed as the proclamation of the gospel itself.

I’ll Priase my Maker While I’ve Breath
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath,
and when my voice is lost in death,
praise shall employ my nobler powers;
my days of praise shall ne’er be past,
while life, and thought, and being last,
or immortality endures.

Why should I make a man my trust?
Princes must die and turn to dust;
vain is the help of flesh and blood:
their breath departs, their pomp, and power,
and thoughts, all vanish in an hour,
nor can they make their promise good.

He loves his saints, he knows them well,
but turns the wicked down to hell;
thy God, O Zion! ever reigns:
Let every tongue, let every age,
in this exalted work engage;
praise him in everlasting strains.

I’ll praise him while he lends me breath,
and when my voice is lost in death,
praise shall employ my nobler powers;
my days of praise shall ne’er be past,
while life, and thought, and being last,
or immortality endures.

This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.