Law and Gospel in Youth Ministry


I feel sorry for those of you who missed David Zahl’s zinger of a workshop at last week’s Rooted Micro-Conferences – so sorry, that I’m going to give you a little sneak peek into the awesome meat of what you missed.

As both parents and youth leaders will have likely observed, the performancism of high schoolers today is off the charts. Just look at social media, social status, physical appearance, achievement, and college applications. Zahl, who recently authored the highly acclaimed Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, notes that “the life of a teenager is fraught with anxiety, guilt, worry, stress, and judgment. In this atmosphere, a culture of Law reigns.”

“Luther said that the law is ‘a constant guest’ in our conscience,” said Zahl. “You might say that the little-l law is the air we breathe as human beings, the default setting, the quid pro quo that characterizes our internal life and much of our external one as well—especially as teenagers. Its underlying logic is embarrassingly familiar: To get approval, you have to achieve. Behavior precedes belovedness. Climb the ladder, or else. No wonder Hebrews tells us that the law is inscribed on the conscience (Heb. 8:10).”

I don’t know about you, but this rings true in my own life, not to mention the lives of today’s teenagers. Zahl says:

“To be clear, the law and gospel hermeneutic has proved no more immune to abuse than any great theological concept. Proponents have sometimes mistakenly given the impression that it divides the Bible in half (equating the Old Testament with law and New Testament with gospel), or that it dismisses whole books and chapters as strictly one or the other, in effect shackling the text (and the One to whom the text refers).

Nothing could be further from the truth. The law and gospel distinction has less to do with imposing a straightjacket on the Bible text than engaging with a living God. If anything, reading the Bible through the lens of law and gospel safeguards the Word from being read predominantly as an instruction manual—basically the default of teenagers—rather as a living instrument of the Spirit that proclaims God’s work in the world on behalf of sinners in need of saving.

Indeed, the distinction between law and gospel is a powerful explanation of how the Bible doesn’t just sit there; it reaches out and grasps us, shakes us, transforms us, frees us—it kills us and makes us alive.

…The basic demarcation is straightforward: The law tells us what we ought to do; the gospel tells us what God has done. The law shows us that we need to be forgiven; the gospel announces we have been forgiven. The law paves the way for the gospel by revealing our plight, and the gospel proclaims the good news to those struck down by the law. But there’s more to it than that.

The second word, gospel, means good news. News is not command. Command comes in the imperative voice—“Do this”—and news in the indicative voice—“This has been done.” For Christians, of course, the good news is Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, taking the whole of God’s wrath upon himself and setting us free. The gospel announces that on account of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even by who we are, but by what Christ has done and who he is. It is a gift with no strings attached, a great and glorious surprise. Our guilt has been atoned for and the deepest judgment satisfied, opening up the reconciliation of sinners with a holy God and life eternal.

While the law is conditional—a two-way street—the gift of Christ is unconditional. Like all true gifts, it arrives unbidden—a great and glorious surprise, a Savior given to those who don’t deserve one. His affection cannot be leveraged or merited. In the Cross, the all-encompassing love of God speaks louder than his voice of condemnation.”

At Rooted, we want this to be the axis of the message that youth ministers and parents speak into their children: that the all-encompassing love of God speaks louder than the voice of condemnation. To hear Zahl’s workshop in full, as well as the rest of the talks from the Rooted 2020 Micro-Conferences (and so much more!) check out Rooted Reservoir, your online source for youth ministry training and curriculum.


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