Making the Law and Gospel Distinction in Youth Ministry

As a DCE with more than two decades of ministry experience, I rejoice in the great gift C. F. W. Walther provided the LCMS in the form of his work on understanding and properly distinguishing God’s Law and God’s Gospel. The whole of Scripture can be divided into one of these two categories.

When in the course of our teaching, admonition, and yes, even counseling of the youth in our care, each passage of God’s Word that we utilize can and should be identified properly as conveying Law and/or Gospel.

Walther warns in thesis VIII that “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you preach the Law to those who are already in terror on account of their sins or the Gospel to those who are living securely in their sins” (2010, p. 113). There is much potency in our use of Law and Gospel in all aspects of our work and ministry with young people. Walther additionally notes in thesis III that “To rightly distinguish Law and Gospel is the most difficult and highest Christian art – and for theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in combination with experience” (Walther, 2010, p. 49).

God’s Word is an essential tool in our ministry toolkit, but like all tools it takes skill to best employ their use.

Just as you would not want to make use of a sledgehammer to drive a nail, our use of God’s Word requires wisdom and prayerful finesse in order to properly assist the Holy Spirit in His ministry to the young people we have the privilege to be a part of.

This means that we have a need to understand well the texts from Scripture that we make use of in our teaching in order to properly understand the context of the passage. Just as importantly, we need to know well the young people we are called to minister to as supportive adults. Understanding the context of their lives guides us as we seek to apply particular passages of God’s Word. Whether in formal Bible study or in conversational spiritual counseling, our use of God’s Word must always take both of these contexts into account.

We learn from thesis VIII that we are to avoid heaping terror upon terror upon the head of a young person just as we are to avoid allowing a young person to remain securely in their sin. I cannot know the heart of a young person if I am not actively in relationship with them to get a sense of where their heart is at. Challenging them well take a time and deep listening. Regardless of the size of our ministries, we need to find ways to take the time individually with young people in order to listen long and deeply enough to ascertain if the Law has already been at work in them or if they still have need for the Law to work before the joyful release of the Gospel restores them once again.

But more than just the time needed for good listening to take place in the moment, cultivating long term relationships with young people allows us to note changes in their demeanor from one encounter to another. As you teach God’s Word, pay attention to the non-verbal reactions that the power of that Word is having. Do you notice that when you mention a particular temptation to sin, that a youth no longer is able to make eye contact? That is a cue for you to speak further, one-on-one with that young person to bring God’s Word to them more personally.

This more personal application of God’s Word works best when you are trusted by the young person.

As a supportive adult, the youth you minister should know you truly care for them and have their best interest at heart. When they do, they are likely to be far more relationally open to you and open to hearing you when you challenge them with God’s Word.

Just as Aslan in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was describe as not being tame, our God is not a tame God, and neither is God’s Word. The writer of Hebrews got it right when noting that “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s Word cuts and at times cuts deep.

When despairing due to the conviction of sin, we all feel the bite of God’s Word.

When you have the trust of a young person, earned through a well formed relational connection, they are more likely to trust your use of God’s Word in their lives and from that trust are more likely to avoid resisting the work of the Holy Spirit to both convict them of sin as well as restore them through the grace of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

While it may be true that in youth ministry we have a limited time access to the young people in our ministry, nonetheless, taking a long view of our ministry is necessary if we are to utilize the tools God has given His church in the Law and the Gospel well. So, as you consider how to structure your ministry think about how to build in space in which you and other leaders in your church can build relationships with young people, preparing the soil of their hearts to be tilled with God’s Word and filled with God’s love.

About the author

Dr. Dave Rueter has been in DCE Ministry for more than 20 years. He currently serves on staff at Our Savior, Livermore, CA. He is husband to Andrea and father to James and Wesley. Dave is the author of Teaching the Faith at Home and Called to Serve both from CPH.
View more from Dave

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