In my last post, we began to look at the problem of preaching that uses the Bible but misses the point of what the Bible is saying. In the next three posts, we will look at three common forms of unbiblical preaching - moralistic preaching, allegorical preaching, and gnostic preaching. There is a lot of overlap between these three but they are distinct enough to put them in separate categories - even though they may all show up in a single sermon. In this post, we’ll take a look at moralistic preaching.
Moralistic Preaching and Buddhism
Moralistic preaching is all about getting people to be good. Thai Buddhists believe that the point of every religion in the world (including Christianity) is to teach people to be good. And if they listened to the sermons in many churches on Sunday morning, their belief would be confirmed. Instead of telling listeners about Christ, the cross, and the drama of redemption which winds through the whole of Scripture, moralistic preachers tell people, “Be good and God will bless you.” The need for forgiveness is not emphasized nearly as much as the need to try harder to be a better person. This type of preaching is familiar to people from a Buddhist background because it is the same type of sermon that Buddhist monks give.
Many people in churches know that they need to be better and moralistic sermons address the felt need of people who want to be good and start over. Bible stories are mined for their moral teachings so that the accounts of the life of Abraham become warnings against lying and against having a second wife, instead of evidence of God’s faithfulness in preparing a people for Himself from all nations to be redeemed in Christ. Granted, lying and having a second wife are bad and Christians should know that these are sinful, but if all you hear from the pulpit week after week is “Stop being bad”, then something is missing. Namely, the Gospel.
The Bible contains a system of ethics but if that is all it contains, then Christianity is not much different from Buddhism or any other religion. The Bible is not primarily an instruction book on being a good person. Of course Christians should desire to live moral lives and there certainly are moral imperatives in the Bible. A moral life is a response of gratitude to God’s grace in your life. But if Christianity is merely about being a good person, then all my Thai Buddhist friends would be right - all religions are the same. And if that were true, then Christian preaching and Buddhist preaching should differ only in the stories used to illustrate and drive home the same moral lesson.
Moralistic Preaching Fails to Deliver
Besides failing to grasp the bigger picture of the redemptive narrative in Scripture and pointing people to Christ, moralistic preaching fails to deliver what it promises, namely a more moral life. Hearing week after week of rousing appeals to live a victorious Christian life, many listeners become more and more discouraged at their repeated failures in living the victorious Christian life. Some people eventually give up, saying “This is too hard. I’ve tried so hard and I am still struggling. Hopefully God will understand and forgive me for living a compromised life of sin.”
The really ironic thing about moralistic preaching is that the more you tell somebody “Be good”, the harder it becomes to actually be good. Berating oneself for not being good only works for a time and then the same old temptations come back again because there is insufficient motivation for being good. Sin just looks too appealing. Moralism combats the attractive offers of sin with just one word - “Don’t”. The more I tell myself, “Don’t think about getting revenge”, the more I am going to fall into thinking about how to get revenge. And if “Don’t” is all you’ve got to fight sin with, then sin is going to win. “Just Say No” doesn’t work very well unless you present people with the greatness of the thing that they are supposed to say “Yes” to - in this case, the glory of God revealed in Christ’s redemptive work.
Fixing Your Eyes on Christ, Not Self
Biblical preaching certainly includes moral imperatives because the Bible includes moral imperatives and calls to holiness, but Biblical preaching does not leave listeners with merely a command to be good. Biblical preaching always takes us back to the cross to behold the grace and mercy of a bleeding Savior who is full of compassion for we who are so unworthy. The Bible never gives an unfunded moral mandate but encourages us and gives us hope by pointing to Christ who is shaping us and forming us (Phil. 2:13), and will certainly perfect us (Phil 1:6) and bring us to glory (Rom 8:30) because of the power of his indestructible life (1 Cor 15:54-57).
When we fix our attention upon who Christ is, how wonderful He is, and what he has done for us, then strangely enough, our lives begins to conform to the character of Christ. When your focus is on the glorious victory that Christ won at the cross rather than whether your own life is victorious, then you actually start to see a victorious Christian life taking shape in you. However, you may not realize how you are changing at first because you are not thinking about yourself, but about Christ. One would think that the more that you focus on being moral, the more moral you become. However, the truth of the matter is that the more you focus on the character and nature of Christ, the more your own character and nature becomes like Christ’s.
In my next post, we will take a look at the second of three common forms of unbiblical preaching - allegorical preaching.
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 1: Missing the Point
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 2: Moralistic Preaching
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 3: Allegorical Preaching
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 4: Gnostic Preaching
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 5: Consequences
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 6: Sources