Now That’s Commitment!

I was taught that there is a clear divide between preaching Law and preaching Gospel.

Law talks about what we should do; Gospel talks about what God does, has done, and will

After reading a book called The Last Full Measure, about the 1st Minnesota Infantry in the Civil War, I’m no longer so clear on the distinction. Few people are aware of how this group of men saved the Union cause at the crucial Battle of Gettysburg. During the second day of fighting, a Union general made a disastrous mistake in positioning his troops too far forward of his army’s lines.

That invited devastating fire from the Confederates on three sides, which routed the exposed Union forces and created a huge hole in their line. A force of 1,600 Alabamans were pouring through the hole. In a matter of minutes the entire Union army would be driven from the field and likely annihilated.

General Hancock, inspecting the lines, saw this and searched desperately for a way to stop the disaster. But the only troops available were the 1st Minnesota, which totaled 262 men. Hancock ordered the vastly outnumbered Minnesotans to charge the Confederates bursting through the gap.

It was a suicide mission. But without hesitation, they threw themselves at the enemy. While suffering a casualty rate of 82%, they stemmed the Confederate advance long enough for reserve forces to arrive and fill the breech.  Reading their letters to home, it’s obvious they did it because they believed in the cause.

I could preach this story in a law context: the life of a Christian disciple demands commitment on the scale of the 1st Minnesota, who believed so passionately in their cause, that they did not hesitate to give their lives.

I could preach this story in a Gospel context: Jesus set the example for this story by unhesitatingly sacrificing himself for us so that we may have eternal life.
But I won’t do either. I won’t preach Law with it because what makes the story so incredible is the superhuman commitment. Hancock later said, “There is no more gallant deed recorded in history.” There is no “should” here, no expectation that humans perform the superhuman, and no shame in failure to do so. I won’t preach Gospel with it because, despite Hancock’s statement, what Jesus did stands alone and above this act. It does not need a Civil War charge to modify it.

Yet the story is valuable for preaching because it can give perspective and raise our sights. It can cause us to say, “Imagine what is possible! I thought my level of commitment was high, but in the light of this story commitment has a whole new meaning. What if my commitment to Jesus, his teachings, and his call to love and justice approached the commitment level attained by the 1st Minnesota? What would creation look like then?”

I doubt that I’ll ever be called on to display the level of commitment shown by the 1st Minnesota Infantry, nor do I know if I could do it if asked. But after reading the story, I have a better sense of what is possible regarding commitment.

Is it heresy to suggest that there is a land between law and gospel — one drawing on the Gospel of new life and new possibilities that Jesus brought, as well as drawing on the Law for inspiration, perspective, and impetus for action?