Gospel food for thought...
In the passage from which the above verse is taken, Peter is commanded twice by Jesus to "feed" his lambs or sheep and once to "tend" his sheep. What does this mean? What is feeding the sheep? What is the food, and what is it aimed at, i.e. what is nourished or strengthened by that food? Whatever the answers, Jesus emphasizes its importance by twice commanding Peter, "Feed My..." This command is at the heart of what should be more in focus when it comes to the preaching of sermons, for it leads to a fundamental question - "what is the purpose of preaching?" Is it to teach? to edify? to inform as to the how to's of Christian living? How the question is answered will determine what will be offered to the sheep by the preacher.
Cutting to the chase - I don't think the sermon is primarily intended to show us how to live the Christian life. It is not essentially an essay of Biblical truth communicated through properly exegeted passages of Scripture in order that believers would walk in a godly manner. It is not implicitly or explicitly intended to be an "if - then" message to God's people. If you trust, if you believe this, if you allow the Spirit, if you walk this way - then blessings...
Any "do this" teaching, in and of itself, is essentially the giving of law. And law inherently proclaims what many Reformers referred to as the works principle - 'do this' and receive blessing, fail to 'do this' and receive curse. As important as it is to hear God's law taught, preaching should present more than just expressions of law. It should by intention also dispense a certain kind of necessary food - a sure means of grace - to the sheep; not an admonition, not examples of faith, not a demand or requirement, but food.
From The Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Question: How is the word made effectual to salvation?
Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them [converted sinners] up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
Indeed it is the Holy Spirit who is at work applying God's grace to us believers, believers who are still yet sinners. The sermon is meant to address a condition, and that condition is not an information problem, an encouragement problem, etc. The problem, if you would, for the believer is the same problem for the unbeliever. It is the moral problem resulting from the knowledge of God's law and the presence of sin - the ever present reality of how, in and of ourselves, we fall miserably short of the perfection required by God's law. And ever-lurking on our shoulders is the judgment of that law. This is not just some external template. It is written on our hearts, our consciences bearing witness.
From Romans 1:
19 because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them...
32 who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practise such things are worthy of death...
and Romans 2:
13 for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified:
14 (for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves;
15 in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them);
David VanDrunen in his essay "Natural Law and The Works Principle Under Adam and Moses" (The Law is Not of Faith) writes: ... they [many Reformed theologians] teach that it is precisely the image-bearing nature with which God created human beings that makes his imposition of the works principle [moral law] upon them appropriate and even that the image-bearing nature itself impresses this natural knowledge of the law and its consequences upon human consciousness. [pg. 288]
As a sinner made in the image of God I'm inwardly aware of God's law and its consequences. I can't escape that. And as a sinner saved, I am also aware of an internal conflict between my new right-willed heart desiring to do good and my all-too-often reflexive sinful nature that does evil.
The Apostle Paul gives expression to this reality in the believer in Romans 7:
19 For the good which I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I practise...
21 I find then the law, that, to me who would do good, evil is present.
22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
23 but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members.
24 Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?
Someone will say, "but we have been forgiven - justified - saved from sin!" Indeed the penalty for our sin has been borne by our Savior. By faith we have been accounted as righteous for Christ's sake. As our Mediator, Jesus has fulfilled our obligation to the law. But please don't assume that this is just information or truth which everyone has already absorbed. Jesus said, "Feed My lambs." We are but lambs who need to be fed again and again that gospel food for our comfort when the Word is preached. As Article XI from the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion states in part: "...Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort..."
So here is a lamb sitting in the pew as law (do this) is preached - preached as it should be. Whatever is required of him - Old Testament or New - triggers an automatic image-bearing reality within him, uncomfortably reminding him not only that he has fallen short in the past (sins) and that of his own works he will fall short again in the future, but also of an evil resistance (sin) to holiness very present in him. And this corresponds to the true state of things as noted above by Paul. In this case the resultant judgment in his conscience is no trick of Satan, the Accuser of the brethren. Instead, it is the just verdict of God upon the things he has done and left undone in thought, word, deed and upon the very principle of sin which dwells within him. From whence comes his comfort?
OK, back to the WSC - Question: How is the word made effectual to salvation?
Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
The word rightly preached is an effectual means of grace applied by the Holy Spirit to sinners when the announcement of God's free gift of righteousness in Christ is proclaimed, heard, and believed. It declares good news that sinner-saints need to hear - news that strengthens faith and is laid hold of only through faith. We find no righteousness that faith can receive nor rely upon either in the law (it only demands and doesn't give) or within us. Preaching must cause us to look not only within, which the law does as it highlights our plight - our sinful condition - causing us, out of desperate need, to look for another righteousness. The sermon also needs to present God's comfort - the gospel - which invites us to look away from our rags of failed righteousness to the perfect righteousness of Another, One who has accomplished for us what we should do but can't. The food that feeds our faith is Christ Jesus crucified for our sins... Christ raised for our justification... Christ our substitutionary law-keeper. There in Him, our mediator, we find credited to us the verdict of "well done." In Him we find justification now and cause for a sure hope... the hope of righteousness on that final day. It is in the proclamation of this good news that the Holy Spirit leads us to the food of God - the Lamb slain for lambs. It is the very same food of grace that is offered and received by faith when we partake of the Lord's Supper. Food that convinces, converts, and builds holiness and comfort in sinners through faith which finds its object only in the always needed good news of the cross of Christ... And it is that gospel food that nourishes the sheep. And their response by the grace of God... is thankfulness with encouraged hearts and renewed obedience, walking by faith that looks not for a righteousness within themselves but a faith that looks away unto Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:30)
All Scripture verses from the American Standard Version.