Preaching, Application & “Moralism”

Aggressive Sanctification (part 10)

According to Tchividjian in Jesus + Nothing = Everything one of the significant reasons the “wrong view” of sanctification is almost universally held by Christians is that most of the preaching they receive from Sunday to Sunday is misleading. Tchividjian insists that a Christian’s

idolatrous self-focus is only intensified by what is typically taught and preached in our churches. The fact is, a lot of preaching these days has been unwittingly, unconsciously seduced by moralism. Moralistic preaching only reinforces our inner assumption that our performance for God will impress him to the point of blessing us. (p.49)

As we have already pointed out, the Bible clearly asserts that a Christian’s good deeds do in fact please God, and that our righteous acts as regenerate people are responded to by God with a variety of blessings, both temporal and eternal (see part 9: The Doctrine of Rewards). Unfortunately Jesus + Nothing = Everything conflates the idea of God’s pleasure and the rewards related to our sanctification with a legalism related to our justification. He writes,

A Christian may not struggle with believing that our good behavior is required to initially earn God’s favor; but I haven’t met one Christian who doesn’t struggle daily with believing—somehow, someway— that our good behavior is required to keep God’s favor. So many contemporary sermons strengthen this slavery to self. “Do more, try harder” is the constant refrain. (p.49)

Besides Tchividjian’s outlandish claim that everyone he knows is perpetually trying to earn their place in God’s family, his idea that preaching which exhorts Christians to expend effort to be holy is wrongheaded and injurious to God’s people, could not be further from what we find on the pages of the New Testament.

From the first descriptions of New Testament preaching we find clarity from John the Baptist concerning how the gracious remission of sins takes place (i.e., “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” – Jn.1:29), while at the same time strongly exhorting the penitent to do good works (e.g., “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” – Lk.3:6). There was no confusion or apprehension about proclaiming the redeeming work of the Lamb and the saving work of the Spirit, right alongside of God’s call and desire to see his repentant people “give”, “share”, cease “threatening” and “extorting”, rebuff greed and be “content with their wages” (Lk.3:10-17). These strong moral exhortations from the same “pulpit” as the joyful proclamation of the regenerating work of God, were all described by Luke in this way: “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people” (Lk.3:18).

The “proclamation” of our forgiveness and right-standing with God secured for us in Christ, stands happily juxtaposed with strong “exhortations” to press on in holiness, on page after page of New Testament preaching. To recommend that we mitigate moral “exhortation” to protect Gospel “proclamation” is a misguided suggestion, foreign to what we see illustrated by Christ, the apostles and in all the New Testament epistles.

The inclusion of both gospel proclamation and moral exhortation is not only illustrated in Scripture it is also commanded. In Paul’s last extant epistle, he strongly instructs Timothy regarding his pulpit ministry.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

The work of an evangelist cannot take place without a focus on the doctrine of Christ’s finished work on our behalf. And yet, preaching ministry is not limited to the “indicative” of the “completed work of Christ”. The work of a preacher, according to this God-breathed text, includes descriptive words like “reprove”, “rebuke”, and “exhort”. Let’s consider these important words one at a time.

The Greek word elencho, translated “reprove,” is used by Jesus in Matthew 18:15 to explain how to point out a brother’s sin and move him to change his behavior. Jesus said to “go and tell him his fault (elencho),” that is, “go to show him his sin and summon him to repent and do differently” (Kittel, TDNT, Eerdmans, 2:474). James equates aspects of preaching to a stark reflection of ourselves in a mirror (Jms.1:22-24). Preaching, if it is ever to “reprove”, must not only point to Christ as the source and reason of our secure standing with God, but it must also boldly reflect the disheveled and deficient aspects of our sanctification that need our attention.

The second clarifying word Paul enlists in 2 Timothy 4:2 is the word epitimao, translated “rebuke.” This word also focuses on the change of behavior Timothy should expect in the lives of his hearers. Lexicographers define the word as speaking or warning “in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end” (Bauer, Gingrich & Danker, AGELNT, Univ. of Chicago, p.303). It is the word used to describe Christ’s statement to the wind and the waves when he commanded them to cease their activity (Matthew 8:26; Mark 4:39; Luke 8:24). Preaching that “rebukes”, as the Bible says it must, cannot unendingly restate the indicative truths of our justification, it must insightfully call God’s people to stop their sinful activities and pursue holiness. As Paul instructs Titus regarding his pulpit ministry: “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Tit.2:14-15).

The third word Paul employs in 2 Timothy 4:2 to describe the preaching that should exist in our pulpits is the word parakaleo, which is translated “exhort” and sometimes “urge”, “entreat”, “plead” and even “beg”. Though the use of this word is broad in the New Testament, in this context it complements the previous two verbs, while conveying an added intensity. This intensity is seen in Paul’s use of the word in 2 Corinthians 12:8, when he “pleaded” (parakaleo) with the Lord three times to remove his painful ailment. Or consider Paul’s heart-wrenching call for peace in Philippi between Euodia and Syntyche, when he “entreats” (parakaleo) them to agree with one another (Phil.4:2). In Ephesians 4:1 Paul’s preaching passion is seen when he writes, “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge (parakaleo) you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Throughout the New Testament we can consistently see that Christian preaching does and should call God’s people to make distinct and specific adjustments in their lives as they aggressively advance in their sanctification. (For much more on this topic see my book, Preaching That Changes Lives.)

Cries of “moralism” and “legalism” cannot change the biblical instructions and the examples of preaching that we find in the Bible. God’s undershepherds are called to preach in a compelling and persuasive way that brings God’s truth to bear on lives. Our progress in sanctification requires it. As J. I. Packer put it, “Preaching is essentially teaching plus application…where the plus is lacking something less than preaching takes place” (J. I. Packer in Dick Lucas, et. al. Preaching the Living Word: Addresses from the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, Christian Focus, 1999, p.31). Spurgeon poignantly adds, “Where the application begins, there the sermon begins.” Packer aptly summarizes this concern:

Far too many pulpit discourses have been put together on wrong principles… some have expounded biblical doctrine without applying it, thus qualifying as lectures rather than preachments (for lecturing aims only to clear the head, while preaching seeks to change the life); some have been no more than addresses focusing on the present self-awareness of the listeners, but not at any stage confronting them with the Word of God… Such discourses are less than preaching… but because they were announced as sermons they are treated as preaching and people’s idea of preaching gets formed in terms of them, so that the true conception of preaching is forgotten. (ibid.)

True “legalism” (i.e., attempting to earn one’s salvation) is deplorable. Actual “moralism”, as they call it, (i.e., seeking to be good without regeneration) is damnable. But Christian preaching that is predicated on Christ, revels in our unmerited acceptance before God, presents Jesus as the source, the reason and as the enabler for all that is good, and also passionately calls Christians to forsake sin and do what is right, is neither legalistic nor moralistic – it is biblical!

-- Pastor Mike