MEMBERS: Legal Preaching (Transcript)

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Jon Moffitt: Welcome to the members’ podcast. For those of you that have been listening, if this is your first one, we’re glad that you’re here. We hope you enjoy. Just to give you a heads up, this is the post-conversation. This is where Justin and I are going to talk to you as if you are in the studio, and we are no longer on air. It’s just some afterthoughts. To be frank, sometimes, we have clarity after the podcast is over, and we don’t really have time or energy to go back and record that podcast again. So we save our good stuff for later, not on purpose – it just kind of happens. That’s where we’re at today.

I want to say thank you for supporting our ministry, and I mean that wholeheartedly. Without our membership, we do not have enough donations to cover our expenses, and we are working on many things. It might be out by now, but for those of you that don’t know, here’s a little secret to all of our members – we’re going to start letting you know about stuff before we let other people know. – but we do transcripts now. 

You may think that, “Oh, I listen to the podcast. Why would I want to read it?” Well, there are two reasons why transcripts are important. First of all, you may not know, but there are 45 million Americans who are hearing impaired. They cannot listen to podcasts, so they would not be able to interact with Theocast – only through our written material. I know that many of you have benefited from the podcast. Now you can share this with communities. If you are aware of someone who is not able to hear but would like to read this material, you can now share that. 

Two, transcripts also allows us to then take this material and put it into books to use for further advancing of this message. It’s already out. So if you go to the website, go to the episode and look down at the bottom of the page where it will say transcripts. You can read and share those. We’ve got some other ideas coming; maybe some live interactions with Theocast through Zoom or something like that. You never know. I may randomly send out an email and say I’ve got six slots for a conversation on Law-gospel. There will be an hour and 45-minute conversation. Who wants in? You just may never know. Those are coming. Randomness from Theocast is the best. 

Let’s get back into this topic, which is an important one. I’m going to talk a little bit about my transition, which will lead to some helpful conversations. 

I remember the first time I read R. Scott Clark’s article on legal preaching. I had already come out of it. I was no longer in it, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. When I read that article, I thought that’s the best way to describe it. It’s called legal preaching. And it is the intention of the preacher to really get Christians into shape. It’s says, “Listen, you need to act better.” 

The biggest distinction between who I was in my preaching and who I am now is I’m not trying to get people into shape, but I am actually trying to change the way they think – the way they think about God, the way they think about the gospel, and the way they think about the Bible. Every Sunday, I find that it is my mission to take their eyes off of themselves and their own righteousness – and I don’t care if it’s a legalistic person or a person who’s stuck in sin. My position is that I’m trying to change their view off of themselves and onto Christ. It is harder than it sounds because someone who has had a heavy diet of legalism or legal preaching doesn’t want that. They want to hear about them. It’s narcissism on steroids.

That’s something I wish I would’ve said in the other podcast, but hey, membership podcast bonus.

Justin Perdue: I would agree with you. My ammo in preaching is very similar. I’m thinking every week about how do I can take people’s gaze off of themselves and fix their gaze upon Christ? How can I extol the mercy, the grace, the power, and the sufficiency of Christ anew to my people from the text? How do I take away any confidence that they could ever have in themselves? I want to explode that. I want to erode that. But then I want to put the rock of Jesus Christ under our feet every week. 

It’s a fundamental shift in how we view the Christian life. And what I want to do in extolling the excellencies of Jesus is to allow that and help people see how that is not only their assurance, safety, and their peace, but how that is what propels them forward in the Christian life.

It’s not like being berated, scolded, threatened, and being unsettled that should motivate them. It’s actually being told that they’re safe and that Christ is enough that will drive us and propel us and carry us forward. It’s a fundamental reorientation of how we view everything.

It is hard as a preacher for our own sakes. You and I have had to walk through these shifts personally. We’re pastoring people who are walking through massive shifts in their theology and their thinking because it’s nothing like this kind of legal mindset that we’ve been discussing in terms of legal preaching on the regular podcasts, and we’re continuing to think about now. 

I know you were going to talk a little bit about your own transition. Do you want to do that now? I may talk a little bit about mine even. 

Jon Moffitt: I’ll definitely go back to that. I don’t know if I mentioned this in the regular podcast or a conversation. We’ve been talking a lot this morning, but I can remember being in church, and I was new to reformed theology. I was listening to a lot of reformed guys that were very popular at the time who were taking over YouTube and were strong in the pulpit. I was impressed by their love of God’s sovereignty and Calvinism. I just had this heavy dose of legal preaching. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was legal preaching.

Not all of their sermons are legal preaching. There were some great gospel sermons that I loved, but I would say the majority of my diet was legal preaching. When I got in the pulpit, I sounded angry and mean, and the tone was I was looking down upon people and scolding them for not respecting God’s holiness. I was scolding them for not respecting sin, for not seeing how horrendous their sin was, and how dare they hold onto their sin and in the face of God? I wasn’t handing them grace. That’s the candy. That’s the dessert that comes at the end. I’m going to pound this down into you. It’s almost like the parent: “Once you finish your dinner, then I’ll give you the dessert. But if you don’t finish your dinner…”

Justin Perdue: Once you’ve demonstrated an adequate level of concern, an adequate level of discipline and devotion, you’re contrite enough, and you’ve been utterly devastated by the holiness of God, then I’ll talk to you about grace.

Jon Moffitt: But then it never comes. It’s like it’s promised, but it’s never there. The false sense that I had is if I get these congregants, and even myself, to respect God and his holiness, then they will truly demonstrate it in their lives. The struggle was sin. The bondage of sin was a lack of dedication. It was a lack of trying. It was a lack of effort. The guys and ladies that were struggling with the same sin for years and years, I thought if I could just establish holiness and the fear of God in them… God’s love and mercy was on the back burner. I was saying, “God’s love got you into this thing. How dare you respond to God’s love like that?”

Justin Perdue: We want people to fear the Lord, and we want people to know God as He has revealed himself. By all means. We preach His holiness, His righteousness, His justice, and all those things. We must preach the first use of the Law – we preach the Law and all of its holiness and righteousness, but we do God a tremendous disservice when we only preach holiness and not grace. Or when we only preach holiness and righteousness, and not mercy and steadfast love. How does God describe Himself? Exodus 34:6-7, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, who will by no means clear the guilty.” If you don’t present all of that, then you are not accurately presenting the Lord. 

What makes God remarkable? Allah is frightening. But what makes the Lord unique is the fact that he is holy and righteous, and at the same time, He is full of mercy and grace and steadfast love to sinners through Christ. If you’re not preaching that, then what are you doing?

A rabbi can get up and terrify people with the holiness of God in an Orthodox Jewish setting. A Muslim teacher can get up and say things about the Law that will terrify everybody. We’re not just simply trying to scare people with the holiness of the Lord; we’re trying to say God is holy, and He is gracious. Let me tell you about His grace in Christ, where He saves people in perfect harmony with His holiness because Christ has accomplished it for you. 

As I was transitioning into Calvinism, some of these things that we talk about on Theocast were apparent to me pretty quickly because my church upbringing was just really bad. I had a lot of wrestling for a long time. But then I, like anybody, could fall off the other side of the horse, and did at points, with respect to the sovereignty of God or the glory of God – God defending His own honor and vindicating His own holiness and all that. It was important for me to be reminded at points and to be struck by things in the text. 

But part of God’s glory is inextricably tethered, not just to His holiness but also to His grace and mercy. If I’m not talking about both, I’m wrong. I’m misrepresenting God and giving people the wrong idea. I think it’s interesting that if we seem to get this lopsided presentation of God as though He’s angry with His church.

Jon Moffitt: God is angry with the wicked every day.

Justin Perdue: He is disappointed and that He is frustrated and that we need to get a better handle on his holiness and righteousness. But again, his holiness and righteousness pop off the page when we consider them next to his grace and mercy. 

Jon Moffitt: You and I both received the question, “Can we disappoint God?” The question in Ephesians when he says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.” In your position as a child adopted in union with Christ, you cannot disappoint God because it is not ever established by you. It was always established by Christ through faith by grace. You, in your standing before God, cannot disappoint Him. Now in your responsibility to love your brother, love your neighbor, and in preaching the gospel, can you do it in such a way that is contrary to the nature of God? Absolutely. This is why we repent constantly. This is why we confess our sins. But you cannot collapse the two. Your position and union is not the same as your obligation. It is not connected. The danger is if you connect those two, you will create legalism and Law. That’s also what’s called pietism.

Justin Perdue: You said pietism. I didn’t say this on the regular podcast – I thought about it at multiple points, but I didn’t want to constantly say pietism – but legal preaching is inherently pietism. Pietism produces legal preachers because, as we have been clear over the course of a long time, it’s a constant refocusing on the need to look at and examine your heart, your mind, your affections, your disciplines, your performance, your obedience, your righteousness – it is saying you need to concern yourself with these things. 

It’s not that Christ isn’t preached; don’t hear us say that Christ is not preached by a legal preacher, but the emphasis is very clearly on the Christian and not Christ. Christ is in the background. He’s the backdrop because He has made all this possible. We’re trusting in him, and we’re all sinners – we intellectually understand that. But now what we really need to move on to is focusing on ourselves and our understanding of God’s holiness or our disciplines, or our own obedience and performance. If we’re not concerned enough about those things, then we need to be concerned about our standing. Otherwise, it’s not going to go well for us. Pietism is inherently a part of this conversation; it’s inextricably linked to legal preaching. I think that needs to be said. Our members are certainly going to be aware of that category, and maybe we should’ve said it in the regular podcast.

Jon Moffitt: I’ll share another part of my story. For those of you who are new, please hear me: I am not here to question these men’s motives. I’m not here to question their holiness or even their ability to preach the gospel. This is just a story that’s true. 

I was a youth pastor in Utah, and my entire world was being turned upside down. My father, who had been my pastor for 18 years, had passed away, and I was coming out of a very fundamentalist background, from heavy legalism. One day, someone sent me a sermon by Paul Washer. I remember I had a pounding migraine, football was on, I had my laptop open, and I decided to watch it, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

I had never heard anyone preach like that. I have never even heard of the guy. It just shook me to the core that this guy was saying what I think because I was in a fundamentalist Baptist background. I felt like people weren’t taking the gospel seriously, and it was all Law. What Washer said really resonated with me.

I began to listen more of his famous sermons online, and it endeared my heart to reformed theology. I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know what he was actually saying. I started reading John MacArthur and started listening to John Piper. Between the two of them, I started learning about expository preaching. I heard someone speak positively about John Calvin, which I’d never heard someone speak positively about John Calvin before. Then I realized that Spurgeon, who all the Baptists love, was a Calvinist. All of a sudden, I’m studying Calvinism, I started reading the 1689 London Baptist Confession, and I started reading more of the reformers. Before I knew it, these guys pulled me out of the confusion and gave me a love and respect for the reformers and Calvinism.

John Piper specifically helped me understand the glory of God’s sovereignty. John MacArthur gave me a love for expository preaching – preaching the truth, upholding the truth, no compromising in the truth. Unfortunately, I also learned a lot about lordship salvation, and my legal preaching started to get fuel from many of these. These three men probably had the biggest impact on my life. That’s when I began to see the legalistic preachings. 

When I would hear them uphold reformers, I decided to stop reading John MacArthur, John Piper, and listening to Paul Washer, and I started to read the actual reformers, which then led me into the Confessions. That’s when I discovered people like Michael Horton, who was saying things like Law-gospel distinction, covenant theology, and redemptive-historical understanding. I started to read Vos. My language expanded past modern-day preachers into the older. Every time Michael Horton would quote somebody, I would take a pen out, write down that book, and then I go find it and buy it. I read the book. I was glad Horton said it, but I wanted to know where he got it from. My library expanded. Some of those guys are hard to read if you haven’t read it – if you’ve never read Vos and you have struggling sleeping at night, just go read Vos, and you’ll go to sleep pretty quick.

What I’m saying is this podcast today is bred out of my own experience of being a legal preacher.

Justin Perdue: I was not preaching regularly in that same time that you were. I was preaching in the church where I was before, but I was not the main preacher.

 My experience is a little bit different than yours because I grew up in a liberal environment where it was liberal theologically, but yet it was still very legalistic and moralistic with respect to how we were to live. The focus is essentially on you because doctrine doesn’t matter. So just focus on yourself and be good, and all will go well for you. There were still many kinds of Victorian notions of morality that were basically preached as Christianity. That was a little bit frustrating, to say the least. 

When I encountered Calvinism, it was, in God’s providence, an interesting season in my life in terms of even the things that I was given to read. I was reading some of the contemporary men that you mentioned and listening to sermons from guys in the Together for the Gospel arena and The Gospel Coalition world. I was also reading Luther, Augustine, Calvin, and BB Warfield.

Even from a contemporary perspective, I was also reading RC Sproul as much as I was reading anybody else. I had this reformed, covenantal, Law-gospel stuff influencing me alongside the contemporary Calvinistic evangelical stuff. I was wrestling with all of my transition to Calvinism.

Even as I was living in the heart of the Calvinistic evangelical world for a while, I think I was wrestling with a number of these categories already. I don’t know that I was ever a full-blown legal preacher. I do know that even for myself in the earliest years of CBC, and when I used to preach before in the church in DC where I was, I definitely still had this notion of transforming people’s thinking. I was shaming them in some ways that they don’t think appropriately about God or even the scandal of the gospel. Whereas now, I don’t think any of us grasp the scandal of the gospel as we should; I want to try to help us see how marvelous Christ is and how glorious the grace of God is. It’s just a very different thing. 

Rather than, “You need to get in gear and see all this the way that you should,” now it’s more of, “Guys, this is incredible. Let’s consider Christ together and rejoice in what the Lord has done for him and us.” The tone and the tenor of my ministry and my preaching are different in recent years. 

I’m mindful of what Thomas Boston’s friends said about him. Thomas Boston is who many may know as a part of the Marrow Controversy situation in the Church of Scotland in the 1700s. He wrote substantial footnotes to The Marrow of Modern Divinity. As he was crystallizing in his theology in a very similar theology to what we would have here at Theocast, Thomas Boston’s friends talked about there being a tincture in his preaching that was evident, a tincture that tints and colors and flavors the whole thing. There was a tincture in his preaching that was unmistakable, and it was just flavored with the grace of God and the mercy of Christ.

I can’t speak for certain, but I hope that that’s what’s happening in my own preaching. I know that you would say the same if people said that there is just a tincture about this guy’s preaching that it is full of the grace of God and the mercy of Christ for sinners. That’s what we’re striving for. That’s different than legal preaching, 

Jon Moffitt: Sinclair Ferguson – I would describe his ministry this way. RC Sproul’s sermons were riddled with the gospel. Michael Horton. These are men that I respect, and they understand Law-gospel. 

I need to say one thing as we close this down: I’m not saying that Washer, Piper, and MacArthur – I’m not saying they’re legalistic in everything that they say, so please hear me. It’s just more of the tone. Go listen to Shepherd’s Conference. Go listen to T4G. With an open mind and open heart, listen. What are they trying to lead you to, and how are they doing it? Maybe you’ll begin to see what we’re talking about and maybe not. The biggest thing is if those sermons are leading you to rest in Christ, and you find a greater affection outside of yourself, then praise God. That’s what’s most important. 

Justin Perdue: Those men that we’ve mentioned, in our contemporary setting, absolutely preach the gospel, and they say so many things that are true and helpful. What we’re trying to point out are the things that they say that are less than helpful and seem to be inconsistent with even their presentation of Christ in the gospel. Those inconsistencies can be damaging, especially when a guy has a large following and a high profile. 

We’re just trying to just shed some light on some of this and are grateful for those men and how the Lord has used him in our own lives. We are certainly aware of the fact that we have blind spots, and we don’t get it all right either. We hope people deal charitably with us in our error. 

Jon Moffitt: Longer podcast today. Hopefully, it was beneficial. I felt like I opened up my closet and let you all see the hidden skeletons I have in there. Hopefully, it was an encouragement to you.

We are always encouraged to hear from you, so please call in and leave us a voicemail, let us know how we’ve been of help to you. That one helps us, and it also encourages us to know how to keep moving forward with the different topics that we choose. Believe it or not, we choose our topics based upon our listenership. We do hear what you are concerned with and your feedback, and we hope that that helps us to know what to talk about. 

We will see you next week, Lord willing.

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