How Not to Preach

Many pastors fill time on Sunday morning by addressing issues pertinent to their particular congregation. While the Word does speak to many contemporary issues (and it might be appropriate sometimes to address these concerns), it is the preaching of the Word that must motivate and change people, not the preacher who uses the Word. These pastors attempt to solve problems by delivering sermons intended to make the church feel guilty for what he perceives as their lack of performance in certain areas. These preachers are often heavy on the application.

While some congregations require and “desire solid explanations whose relevance is more fully spelled out in down-to-earth application,”[1] and while “the healthiest preaching does not assume listeners will automatically see how to apply God’s truths to their lives; it supplies the application people need,”[2] the application must be founded on clear exegesis and interpretation. Many Christians have difficulty adequately and soundly interpreting the Scriptures because they are forced to follow the example of their pastor who interprets it any way he pleases in order to get the maximum performance out of his people or push his own agenda.

Some are guilty of this same tendency but for more noble reasons. Hoping to encourage their parishioners to advance in the Christian life, they make their messages soundly practical. These messages are strong on method but short on fundamental issues of theology and Bible truth. The believer who sits under this preaching knows four different ways to have a quiet time, the eight steps to reaching your goals, nine reasons for growing the Sunday School and five different ways to do it, but they have no idea what any of this has to do with their being “in Christ.” This practical instruction, while necessary, has been divorced from the purpose for such practical instruction in the first place. Either the believer will fail to understand the necessity for walking with God daily and will fall by the wayside or their preferred method or their pastor’s preferred method will become “the method” and they will lapse into legalism.

Even moral preaching can quickly turn from moral instruction into moralism. As Jay Adams notes,

It is easy to become moralistic while preaching. While there is nothing wrong with preaching morality, in contrast, moralism is legalistic, ignores the grace of God, and replaces the work of Christ with self-help.[3]

Adams is right, moralism involves blind adherence to a rigid code of laws that may or may not be Scriptural. These laws or “standards” or “convictions” eventually become the end purpose of the Christian life and may usurp the place of the Scriptures in the life of the believer. These standards then inevitably become the test of fellowship or the gauge by which other Christians or churches are judged.

True Christian morality, however, has its foundation in theology. What I believe about God determines the way I live my life before God. “The important fact is that in the Bible a duty always grows out of a doctrine. Even in Proverbs and in James the sacred writers base morality on theology.”[4] Notice the Ten Commandments, the ultimate moral instruction. The law begins with “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). The gospel comes before the law and the duty of the believer grows out of this objective knowledge of the redemptive work of God.

Moralism, however, demands that people do things rather than be something. Paul was not shy about dealing with moral issues that trouble the church even today, but Paul constantly reminds his readers of their position in Jesus Christ. Paul is encouraging his readers not to do what they can do, but to be what they are supposed to be in Jesus Christ. The doing will follow the being.

Adams reminds the preacher,

You must not exhort your congregation to do whatever the Bible requires of them as though they could fulfill those requirements on their own, but only as a consequence of the saving power of the cross and the and the indwelling, sanctifying power and presence of Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit.[5]

[1] Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 86. The reference here is to blue-collar verses white collar congregations.
[2] Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 44.
[3] Jay Adams, Preaching with Purpose, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 146.
[4] Andrew Blackwood, Doctrinal Preaching for Today, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956), 79
[5] Adams, Preaching with Purpose, 147.


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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