In 2012, The Guardian published an excoriating email sent by retired Royal Navy officer Nick Crews to his son and two daughters. It quickly became a viral sensation. The letter lists, in remarkably colorful language, all the misery that the three grown children had put him and their mother through, from failed marriages and careers and poor finances and fears about their grandchildren's well-being. The final paragraph is particularly vicious:
I can now tell you that I for one, and I sense Mum feels the same, have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children's underachievement and domestic ineptitude's. I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about. I don't want to see your mother burdened any more with your miserable woes - it's not as if any of the advice she strives to give you has ever been listened to with good grace - far less acted upon. So I ask you to spare her further unhappiness. If you think I have been unfair in what I have said, by all means try to persuade me to change my mind. But you won't do it by simply whining and saying you don't like it. You'll have to come up with meaty reasons to demolish my points and build a case for yourself. If that isn't possible, or you simply can't be bothered, then I rest my case.
I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed.
Wow! Any parent can relate to Mr. Crews' frustration. And many of us can probably relate to his children, and the disapproval they must have felt. It does not sound like Mr. Crews is making things up. He and his wife apparently have every reason to be so bitterly disappointed and angry. Like the Law itself, the content of his missive may be well-founded, and their standards for their children may be perfectly reasonable (and righteous). But expectations, as they say, are planned resentments; law and bitterness are frequent bedfellows. We expect people not to be self-centered sinners and when they turn out to be just that, we get angry and blame them!
Do you think that the letter had the effect Mr. Crews intended? Absolutely not! I don't care who you are, no one responds to a letter like that by saying, "By golly, Dad, thanks for pointing these things out. Now that I know how much pain we've caused and how irresponsible we've been, starting tomorrow, that's all over." Of course, the law may work… for a little while. Guilt and fear can be powerful motivators in the short run. What they cannot do is change a heart from self-seeking to self-sacrificing. The letter may have succeeded in scaring the kids straight for a spell, but fear of further berating would be the driving factor, not the genuine desire to fly right. What's much more likely is that the children were so hurt and offended that they struck back at their father by releasing his letter to an international media outlet, so that he might be castigated and humiliated by the public. Which is precisely what happened. His email backfired. Instead of bringing his children closer, it pushed them further away. This is an echo of what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote that "the law was added so that the trespass might increase" (Romans 5:20)
It makes me sad that some pastors invoke Mr. Crews' tactics from the pulpit. Frustrated with their congregation's failure to come to church enough, get involved enough, give enough money, pray enough, read their Bible enough, invite their friends enough, so many pastors use their position to send verbal letters, "How can you afford your fancy SUV but not give more to the church?! How can you take your kid to their soccer game every Sunday but never bring them to youth group?!" Pastors who resent their congregations are just like husbands who resent their wives-the resulting guilt may produce some modified behavior for a while, but estrangement and rebellion is inevitable. The only difference is that a congregation has every right to expect that their pastor will preach a little Good News every Sunday. Make no mistake: over time, preachers who major on law and behavior rather than grace and faith will empty their pews and create refugees. Human DNA simply cannot bear the weight of the law indefinitely.
Musician Rich Mullins once wrote, "I have attended church regularly since I was less than a week old. I've listened to sermons about virtue, sermons against vice. I have heard about money, time management, tithing, abstinence, and generosity. I've listened to thousands of sermons. But I could count on one hand the number of sermons that were a simple proclamation of the gospel of Christ." It's not just Rich. I received the following letter a few weeks ago from someone I've never met. He wrote:
Over the last couple of years, we have really been struggling with the preaching in our church as it has been very law laden and moralistic. After listening, I feel condemned with no power to overcome my lack of ability to obey. Over the last several months, I have found myself very spiritually depressed, to the point where I had no desire to even attend church. Pastors are so concerned about somehow preaching "too much grace" (as if that is possible) because they wrongly believe that type of preaching leads to antinomianism or licentiousness. But, I can testify that the opposite is actually true. I believe preaching only the law, and giving little to no gospel, actually leads to lawless living. When mainly law is preached, it leads to the realization that I can't follow it, so I might as well quit trying. At least, that's what has happened to me.
So sad. And frustrating. The ironic thing about legalism is that it not only doesn't make people work harder, it makes them give up. Moralism doesn't produce morality; rather, it produces immorality. The Onion brilliantly parodied this dynamic with its article, "Where Are All These 'Loose Women' My Pastor Keeps Warning Me About?" in which a fictional 17 year-old kid laments that he never seems to run into any of the promiscuous ladies that he hears about at church so often. The humor is based in reality. It is no coincidence, for example, that the straight-laced Leave It to Beaver generation preceded the 'free love' movement of the 1960s. We live in a country where the state most known for its wholesomeness and frugality, Utah, also leads the country in rates of pornography consumption and antidepressant prescriptions.
We make a big mistake when we conclude that the law is the answer to bad behavior. In fact, the law alone stirs up more of such behavior. People get worse, not better, when you lay down the law. To be sure, the Spirit does use both God's law and God's gospel in our sanctification. But the law and the gospel do very different things. The law reveals sin but is powerless to remove it. It points to righteousness but can't produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. As Martin Luther said, "Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God." The law apart from the gospel can only crush; it cannot cure.
(Excerpted from my forthcoming book One-Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World)