Law/Gospel Structure

And His Name Was the WordOverview

This sermon structure organizes the sermon on the basis of two experiences that God’s word creates in the lives of the hearers:  repentance and trust in the work of Christ for the forgiveness of one’s sins.  This structure has similarities to the problem-solution structure (of the thematic designs) and the Lowry-loop structure (of the dynamic designs) and it has recently been popularized by Paul Scott Wilson in The Four Pages of the Sermon.

At its heart, the law/gospel sermon structure is divided into two parts, law proclamation and gospel proclamation, with greater attention preferably devoted to the gospel proclamation.  In each section, the preacher references both the text and the lives of the hearers (sometimes starting with the text and then moving to the hearers; sometimes starting with the hearers and then moving to the text).  The first portion focuses upon law proclamation:  it depicts the sin or trouble that is present both in the life situation of the text and in the contemporary lives of the hearers.  The second portion focuses upon gospel proclamation:  it depicts God’s gracious intervention to forgive people their sins both in the life situation of the text and in the contemporary lives of the hearers.

In using this structure, the preacher needs to be careful that he is not misusing the text.  For example, a preacher could select one word from the text (e.g., prayer) and using that word to create an experience of law for the hearers (e.g., we don’t pray as we ought) and then an experience of gospel (e.g., Jesus prays for us on the cross, asking God to forgive our sins for the sake of his suffering and death) regardless of what that word meant in its original context.

Four Pages of the Sermon:  Paul Scott Wilson has popularized the law/gospel structure through his work, The Four Pages of the Preacher.  In this work, Wilson speaks of four rhetorical units in the sermon, two of them based upon law and two based upon the gospel:  (1) trouble in the text, (2) trouble in the world, (3) grace in the text, and (4) grace in the world.

During the course of the sermon, the preacher will take his hearers through these four experiences.  As Wilson notes, the preacher can vary the way in which he orders the references to these four rhetorical units in order to create some variety with this design.

The sermon could offer a comprehensive movement from trouble to grace.  Here, the sermon begins by presenting trouble in the text and trouble in the world and then proclaims grace in the text and grace in the world.  This structure works well when approaching a sin that is difficult to speak about in the congregation as it allows the text to begin conversation leading to a confession of that sin.  Or, the sermon begins by presenting trouble in the world and trouble in the text and then proclaims grace in the text and grace in the world.  This structure works well when a particular sin is widely known and experienced in a congregation and the preacher desires to help the congregation see how they, in this way, are very similar to people in the biblical text.  Preserving the placement of grace in the text at the major turn of the sermon allows the preacher to highlight God’s gracious intervention as recorded in Scripture as the source of our present trust and hope.

The sermon could offer a recurrent movement from trouble to grace.  Here, the sermon has two moments of turning from law to gospel:  one situated in the text and one situated in the world.  For example, the sermon begins with trouble in the text and then moves to grace in the text.  Then the sermon continues by exploring trouble in the world only to move to proclaiming grace in the world.  By dividing the sermon between an encounter with the text and then an examination of the world, the sermon mirrors the flow of the text-application structure.  It also allows the preacher two opportunities to proclaim a life changing moment of grace in the sermon, one in relation to trouble in the text and one in relation to trouble in the lives of the hearers.

Law/Gospel/Application:  a variation of this structure, arising from a misreading and misapplication of Caemmerer’s goal-malady-means complex, is a sermon that has three parts:  law then gospel then life application.  In this case, the preacher proclaims the presence of sin in the life situation of the text and his hearers, proclaims God’s gracious intervention in the life situation of the text and his hearers, and then concludes by depicting the faithful response of God’s people.

© 2011 David Schmitt. All rights reserved.

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