Legal Preaching (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)
Thomas Boston, Works

In a sermon on Isaiah 61:1, Thomas Boston mentioned in detail what it means to have a broken heart which the Lord binds up and heals. It’s quite a good sermon, but the older English isn’t always easy to decipher. At one point, citing Psalm 51:17, he mentioned that a broken heart is contrite or repentant. He used this illustration:

The heart, though before sometimes like an adamant [hard rock], which mercies could not melt, nor judgments terrify, is now kindly broken and bruised betwixt the upper and nether [lower] mill-stone —the upper mill-stone of the law, a sense of God’s wrath against sin; and the nether [lower] mill-stone of the gospel, of divine love, mercy, and favor, manifested in Word and providences.

It seems to me that the illustration means the law comes and breaks the heart into pieces – and the broken pieces have a soft landing: the gospel, mercy, love, and favor of God. He continued the illustration by saying,

If you lay the hard heart upon the hard law, and strike it with the most dreadful threatenings of hell and damnation, it will either not break at all, or at least it will not break small. But lay the hard heart on the bed of the gospel of mercy and love, and then let the hammer of the law strike, the heart will go asunder.”

In other words, the heart cannot be made contrite, soft, or broken (in a biblical sense) with all law and no gospel. Right after the above quote, Boston said it like this:

Legal preaching, which casts a veil over gospel-grace, is not the way to make good Christians. Joel lays the hearts of his hearers on mercy, then fetches his stroke with the hammer of the law, and cries, chap. 2:13, “Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” But it is the Spirit of the Lord that carries home the stroke, else it will not do.

 Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Sixty-Six Sermons, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 9 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1851), 555.

If anyone has any comments or clarifications on this section of Boston’s sermon, I’m all ears! Either way, this part of the above quote is worth repeating (and memorizing): “Legal preaching, which casts a veil over gospel-grace, is not the way to make good Christians.”

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015