The Truth "versus" Love 

Project VI

The Greg M. Johnson Homiletics Award, a $2500 sermon-writing contest for ELCA seminairans 


Greg M. Johnson is a lay member of an ELCA congregation who has served in the areas of Social Ministry and the education of adults and children 


  • Received entries as of 3PM 11/26/08:    373737
  • Here is the link for the personal information file: 123456.txt (11/26/08)
  •  Moved official web address to this one. (9/22/08 8PM)
  • Contest officially open. (9/22/08)

Preamble of the Project

Does the Bible make us meaner? Some atheists have charged that the Bible encourages indifference to suffering if not outright participation in brutality. Richard Dawkins has for example predicted that if a giant fireball were to appear over New York City, that the hearts of many Christians would be filled with delight at its sight. Even if we were to disagree with the biblical scholarship of these critics of Christianity, anecdotal evidence abounds in the antics of contemporary Christians. One need look no further than the public policy positions of many religious broadcasters (and AM radio personalities who wave the flag of the Judeo-Christian tradition).  On anything from waterboarding to the bombing of civilian targets in Lebanon to legislative proposals to penalize Christians who meet the humanitarian needs of aliens. These broadcasters and the bleeding-heart atheists seem to agree on nothing but one thing: God's law in a straightforward reading of the bible inspires and requires brutality. This cultural landscape is the rocky and thorny field in which the Christian preacher sows seed.

Even within mainstream Christianity, I believe there are ditches on either side of the road for one to fall into. Ditches where one may end up emphasizing, one at the expense of the other, of either Truth or Love, theological orthodoxy or compassion, Gospel or Law. 

In one ditch, some folks may have a very sound view of how the humanitarian crises of the world should be seen through the lens of God's Law, and be able to name personal and corporate sins that exacerbate the problem. Their naming of such sins is well within the tradition of the church historic, from Augustine to Luther to 19th century evangelicals to the papal encyclicals.  Sometimes their answer however is not so much a Theology of the Cross (which drives one to contrition and faith in Christ's work) but rather a celebration of our own good works and an urging of legislative advocacy.  One might rightly ask just how different is this theology from an appeal written by the Red Cross or Amnesty International. One is tempted to ask, "Where is the rest for the weary that Jesus talked about?"

In the other ditch, one may find folks who rightly uphold the primacy of gospel and forgiveness of sins in the Christian witness. Yet in hearing them preach, one might be tempted to ask, "Forgiveness from what?!" Some may dismiss all talk and preaching on specific sins as legalism, doing so to a degree that is closer to Bonhoeffer's definition of  "cheap grace" than to Luther's Theology of the Cross. Some may dismiss the church's deliberation on matters of violence and money as "issues" or  "ethics" or "left kingdom obligations" or "social agendas" rather than being a part of God's Law which the church has traditionally confronted sinners with. They may oppose not only third use of the law but also the first and second uses when it comes to social sins. They confuse the omitted good of second-use law preaching with the bad of works righteousness. Luther told Spalatin, "By making our sins small, we make Christ small." One ends up with a witness that is devoid of "terrors of the conscience"-- the starting point of faith-- and risks leaving folks in a state of "heedlessness" regarding sins of omission and commission related to your neighbors' (or enemies') physical well-being.

Back to the center of the road, in several examples of Luther's preaching, I see both a Theology of the Cross and a grappling with our terrors of the conscience on social questions like unjust wars ["Whether Soldiers..."], economic exploitation ["Sermon on Trade and Usury"], and oppression of the poor ["Admonition to Peace"].  There's even a tract on "Whether one May Flee a Deadly Plague."  This stuff is not only in Luther's extra-confessional musings but also in the Large Catechism's Explanation to the (Fifth and Seventh) Commandments. 

I ask, do we have to choose between theological orthodoxy and compassion?  Can anyone write a sermon that speaks to social issues with the incisive insight of John Paul II and follows through with a Theology of the Cross in the tradition of Gerhard Forde? Is anyone currently "weeping for those whose life is hard" [Job 30:25] and striving to be faithful to unchanging doctrines? Can anyone confess a Jesus who is truly both "a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life"?  Can anyone preach a law message that offends us in our comfortable conservatism, and a gospel message that offends us in our liberal moralisms? 

Purpose of Project

The purpose of the Truth "versus" Love Project is to encourage traditional law and gospel preaching about bible passages which have been viewed as a source of humanitarian concern.


  • $1000.00
  • $750.00
  • $500.00
  • $250.00

This Project has no intent to refuse prizes in the event no entrants of sufficient quality were submitted.

Criteria for Contest

  • Provide a sermon of 1500-3500 words in DOC format. Any use of OpenOffice open formats or Google Docs is of course also welcome.  Make up a random six-digit number and name your sermon  "sermon123456.doc".
  • The sermon document must not include your name or other identifying info.  (You can of course tell stories about your life.) The sermon is to be emailed to the address provided by the date provided. It is better for the sermon to be written to a hypothetical audience of your future parish rather than to the contest judges.
  • Provide a separate file with the required personal contact information.  Name this file "info13456.txt", substituting your 6-digit number.   Every effort will be made to judge the sermons "blind", so that the reader(s) have no personal information about yourself at the time of reading.
  • Sermons should include a law message. God's commandment of what is to be done or what is not to be done. An indictment of something specific in history, your personal observation, or current events.  An affliction of the comfortable. A pointing to the bruised reed.  A terror of the conscience.  We do wrong.
  • Sermons should include a gospel message. God's promise to forgive sins for Christ's sake. A free gift. A rest to the weary. A promise not to break the bruised reed. A comfort to the afflicted. An end to moralistic hand-wringing. Christ did all.
  • Sermons should tie in some theological content from all of the bible passages. 
  • Give Greg M. Johnson permission to verify your enrollment in a seminary of the ELCA.
  • Give Greg M. Johnson a nonexclusive, transferable right to publish your sermon in any media, including print and web. You could publish it in your memoirs but I could include it in a book if I  were to receive enough sermons.  


The Greg M. Johnson Homiletics Award is open to all students of ELCA seminaries enrolled in the Fall 2008 Semester, regardless of race, gender, ethnic origin, nationality, or even denominational affiliation. This explicitly includes seminary students serving as interns during this period. I am personally more interested in supporting ELCA seminary students who can write good sermons, regardless of their religion, than members of ELCA congregations who are studying elsewhere. 


  • "First Reading"   Isaiah 58
  • "Second Reading"  Isaiah 55
  • "Gospel" Isaiah 53


Deadline is November 29,  2008, 11:59:59 PM, EST.


A quote from James Nestingen

[James Nestingen, professor emeritus of Luther Seminary, is in no way affiliated with this project. What follows is an excerpt of a lecture he gave earlier this year that I found on the web.]

"The gospel is the truth of God in Christ Jesus by his Spirit. The Spirit tells us the truth-- you are a sinner. That is the reality. You have not only sinned, but you ARE a sinner. This is the Gospel's bite.

"When I was first teaching and starting to travel in the church, I would go to visit congregations and I would run into people whose pastors I knew (they were my former students). And they would say things to me like this, "Grace, grace, grace, I'm so sick of grace I could puke. If I hear one more thing about the love of God, I'm just going to get up and leave."
You know my initial suspicion was that they were legalists. But I knew better. These things were being said to me by faithful believers. I knew the students who had become their pastors. I could not for the life of me figure out what in the world was going on. So I asked the students to send me copies of their sermons. I read them. I found out what was going on. They were skipping this intensification. They were declaring the Gospel as a kind of universal acceptance without confirming the reality of people's sins. It was like gagging on sugar. It was so sweet. It had no bite whatsoever. It's critically important to recognize this point right here. Here is where repentance yields its right of way to faith. This intensification by the gospel, this underscoring-- the Spirit making of the Law a teacher-- makes the difference between the faithful witness of the gospel and Gospel reductionism, that reduces everything to grace and cannot for that reason speak of the law. Both must be set out together. If one is neglected, if gospel is neglected or law is neglected, we go awry.
James Nestingen, Australian Lutheran College on Wednesday 15


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