Is your preaching little more than religious moralism?

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the Advance 09 conference in Durham, N.C. Admittedly, I was walking in where angels fear to tread. The lineup of speakers was at one time thrilling and concerning. If you read ET’s you know that we all share an affinity for John MacArthur and all of us have served in significant ways at GCC. Needless to say, John has taken issue with some of the speakers. Going to this conference did not come without calculated risks. But Piper was coming and it was within driving distance so I took it.

That being said, I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the challenge and encouragement some of these men were to my soul. Clearly they were outside of my “ilk” when it comes to dress, style, methods, etc. But despite our differences, I found some very helpful conviction and challenge in what they said.

What stood out to me and what I want to reflect here is a call to evaluate the “application” in our preaching. This post can be considered my contribution to the “second person” application post a few weeks back on ET.

For the record, I am a committed application guy and I often use second person, but not always. For me it simply relates to the text before me that week. But in their respective messages at A09, Matt Chandler and Brian Chappell (especially) challenged me to ask if my second person application was little more than religious moralism. I have to admit, the question was an insult when I first heard it. My heart cried out, “No way!”

Here’s their point and where my conviction began. If our preaching simply conveys a “do more, try harder” emphasis in the second person then people will seek to do what the Bible commands apart from the grace, strength and power of the Gospel. We might, I’m afraid, be guilty of telling them to commit the Galatian heresy – to finish in the flesh what God began/does in the Spirit – without even knowing it. Chandler related how people who live like this often put God in their debt. They do all the right things but when things don’t go well, they question God! I don’t deserve this! I did everything you asked! I was good and THIS is how you repay me!?!? If you counsel at all, you’ve seen this perspective many, many times. As I reflected I could see traces of commands to obey without a call to do it in and by the grace of the Gospel. And I wondered why change I thought to be so obvious and needed, never came.

Chappell gave some VERY helpful advice in balance. To make sure that your preaching is Gospel filled and Christ exalting remember this – every passage says something about God (who he is, what he requires, etc.) and every passage says something about us (who we are in light of God, what we are required to do, etc.). Then he asked, “What is the only thing that connects men to God in a way that is acceptable to him? What is the only power we have that allows us to do what God commands? The Cross!”

That thought has helped me immensely in these past weeks and I trust, has made my preaching and application more Christ exalting and more helpful to the people who listen. Commanding people obey is good preaching, Paul’s writings are full of it! But commanding them to obey in their own strength and effort is simply religious moralism because if they are able to make progress on their own, they will pat themselves on the back and not give the glory to God!


Lord willing I will be posting additional thoughts from the conference as it relates to preaching in the coming weeks.

(Matt Waymeyer fell off his chair upon reading this last sentence. Please pray for his recovery)

22 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jeff Dolan on June 17, 2009 at 11:16 am

    I knew a guy named Rich Ryan once. Rich, rest assured that I will run by the church office to see if Matt is in need of smelling salts or possibly a 911 call. I think you should take it easy on my Pastor. Maybe a little advanced notice would help the shock factor. Looking forward to more of your posts by the way. Good to see that you are doing well.

  2. Rich, it wasn’t the last sentence that knocked me out of my chair—it was your byline! Looking forward to reading the post once I recover. Jeff, the door is unlocked, and I’m on the floor in the corner by my Green Bay Packer shrine. Smelling salts are in the top drawyer. I’m writing this from my Blackberry, which I managed to snatch up just as I was falling. This makes vertigo look like child’s play.

  3. Posted by Mike on June 17, 2009 at 11:45 am

    I am currently taking preaching class where we were required to read Bryan Chapell’s book “Christ-Centered Preaching.” I have to say that I really enjoyed his book and am seeking not preach religious moralism. When I started reading the book my chief concerns was that this would be a book that showed how to “magically” make Jesus pop out of every text. My concern was relieved and this is what Chapell writes about Christ-centered preaching, “…Christ-centered preaching rightly understood does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ” (p. 279). This book is currently being very helpful to me as I am growing in my preaching. I look forward to future posts on preaching!!

  4. Posted by James Sizemore on June 17, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I believe at some point all preachers have to come face to face with this approach to preaching. I was dealt with a good many years ago on this topic. Man will always attempt to “save” themselves by change of behavior even if it is in subtle ways.

  5. One of the things I’ve taken from the podcasts of Advance ’09 is a question to ask of any message that I hear or preach. Would this be true without Jesus? If so, then it is not Christ-centered.

    I always think of the book of Ephesians. The second half of the book preaches great, but only if the first half has been appropriated. We can’t possibly live out the imperatives unless we are in Christ. If we just jump to 5:22-31 without addressing the first half then we’re basically preaching moralism to a couple. Dr. Phil can do that.

    • Dittos.

      I am trying to preach through Ephesians this summer. As I was considering what book to preach from I remembered something I had read about how Ephesians could be used as an outline or guide through almost any counseling situation and I thought wow that would be great to work through and equip the body to handle and counsel each other with God’s Word. As I looked at Ephesians I noticed that all of the counsel about family matters and issues occur in the second half of the book. I realized that I would probably not get all the way through the second half of the book of Ephesians and the temptation was there to just start in the middle of the book with all of the Biblical advice on relationships and start dishing it up each Sunday morning. But the more I thought about that idea the more something was bugging me. If that information is so practical and good what is the first half of the book concerned with? Why even have it? Lets just get to what we are supposed to do and get our lives and relationships in line with God’s Word.

      But I have discovered that the first half of the book is the match head and the striking pad. The first half is what should set our hearts burning with passionate love for God that then naturally carries over into biblical action that spreads the fire of the love of God in our lives, our marriages, our parenting, our speech, our actions, our work. The first half of the book opens our eyes to the reality of who God is, what He does and what His motivation for doing it is. That is what should cause us to ignite! To try and pass on the fire of the love of God in all our different walks of life without having any fire burning is just pointless.

      Loving Ephesians

  6. Mike,

    I agree. I shared the same concerns about the peek-a-boo Jesus approach. Chapell brought the same helpful clarifications to the A09 messages that you pointed out from his book. Is was very helpful in many ways. BTW – for those who know them both, doesn’t Brian Chapell reminder you of a “calmer” version of Steve Lawson? Those two could be separated at birth.

  7. Amazing timing Rich. I am reading “Christ Centered Preaching” by Bryan Chapell right at this very moment. Specifically his chapter titled “A Theology of Christ-Centered Messages” and the section titled “Recognizing Non-redemptive Messages, The Deadly Be’s.” What you are bringing up is exactly what he says in this chapter. I am finding it very helpful. This also comes out in the very shot appendix of Milton Vincent’s book “A Gospel Primer for Christians” in which he describes his frustration with trying to please God, what he discovered and why he wrote the book.

  8. Rich,

    I think Chapell has made a number of contributions to the task of preaching with his book “Christ Centered Preaching.” On issues of nuts and bolts he can be very good. Never the less I have noticed a trend among books on preaching and some conferences to get after some nebulous thing called “moralism.” I have also read few reviews of Chapell who have critically examined why he writes what he does. If you pay close attention to what he writes he is trying to carry the mantle of Gerhardus Vos who ironically disavowed specific forms of application (Barth did the same).

    The redemptive-historical school of preaching talks a lot about “Christ-centered” aspects and “fallen condition focus” but look closer still. Reading Chapell and Dennis Johnson after him (even Tim Keller) they all manifest a form of application that is deeply theological which views every passage of Scripture through the lens of the NT. There are manifold problems with this which have been addressed many times here at ET. The irony of it all is that those who are speaking a lot about making application and avoiding this thing called “moralism” rarely make specific applications beyond patterns of thought, attitudes, etc. The moment the preacher speaks of in specific application he is charged with moralism.

    As for my own two cents I think they are failing to make a careful and clear distinction between moralism and morals. Additionally I think there are some significant hermeneutical problems with redemptive-historical preaching but we have beat that drum many times before. Rich I think you bring up some great points that we moralist need to examine more carefully. I’ve just watched a number of popular preachers throw up the moralism flag lately and I’m not sure it’s as well developed and sound as it once appears.

    godspeed and War Eagle!

    • Matt – see what happens when I come out of hiding? And you wonder why I don’t post much.

      Seriously – I’ve sat on this post for a while Paul for some of the reasons you bring up above. By way of parallel, I have the same concerns about some of the CCEF counseling. I really appreciate those guys so much but at times, the theory is difficult to put into reality. It’s so very broad and nebulous. Sometimes I need to simply deal with my kids “body” because “heart” work is impossible given the circumstances. How and what that looks like is always a challenge to me. I’ve even asked Tripp about that at a conference and he agreed that there is a needed and difficult balance.

      I’ve not read enough of Gerhard Vos (really only used his John commentary) to know his views on preaching. But yours is a helpful caution. I did think about the boundaries of these moralism critiques while listening to the message and I do get the sense that Chandler et. al. were addressing more of the, “Three ways to be a David” or “Slaying the giants in your life,” preaching that is simply deriving and repackaging self-help from Bible stories. So I’m not sure they would direct those comments at me, per se. I think the wounds were self inflicted.

      What struck me was the implication of John 15 and fruit bearing to my preaching. It seems pretty clear that meno is essential to the bearing fruit, glorifying God and loving him. Which I think we would all agree is the goal of preaching in application. If people are going to change (do anything – Jesus words), then it must come in connection to abiding in Christ. So maybe my point in all of this is better stated by asking – how do we connect practical application to abiding in Christ so that change can and will take place?

      Is it a call to devotion, prayer, intimacy (something else)? How are we to understand that and weave it into our preaching?

    • Posted by Mike on June 17, 2009 at 3:46 pm

      The danger is not in teaching morals, but teaching morals apart Christ’s redemptive work. For example, Christians are to be forgiving people. We ought to teach our people to forgive. Why? Because Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32, Col 3:13). It is not about making application, but making application apart from what Christ has done for us and in us.

  9. Interesting note from Lig Duncan, “We are not to shrink from moral exhortation in our preaching of the Bible, whether from Old Testament or New, because the preachers of the Old Testament and New, under divine inspiration, do not shrink from bringing the imperatives of God’s Word onto the hearts and lives of believers” (Preaching the Cross, 64).

    An interesting article from a few years back is “Is Application Necessary in the Expository Sermon?” in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, (Summer 99), pp.70-84 .

    • I’ve listened to several messages from these folks and I don’t think anyone would say that one should avoid moral application altogether. Rather, the point is to make sure that everything has grounding in the gospel.

      Using the Ephesians example again, we can’t very well expect wives to submit to their husbands if they haven’t first submitted to Christ. We can’t expect husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church if they don’t understand what Christ’s love means. Taking Ephesians 5:25-31 by itself is nothing more than a self-help book without the context of what it means to follow Christ.

      I believe that the cry against “moralism” is the same as the cry against “religion.” The goal of preaching is not to give people assurance of salvation because they vote Republican and avoid beer. Of course, no one would put it quite like that in their preaching, but that’s what might be communicated if the preaching is not “Christ-centered,” as these folks call it.

      I’ve heard Matt Chandler tell the story of his church in Texas several times. He always thought he would minister to the prodigal, but he has ended up with the older brother. This cry against “moralism” is to help the older brother understand what faith in Christ means.

  10. I think this is a very healthy and helpful discussion. Please continue.

  11. Rich, I really appreciate how you’re thinking this through and helping us in the process. I’m right there with you on your concerns (e.g., CCEF) with those who do some marvelous ministry yet seem to be vague for pastors in the trenches. I think one of the solutions which to be fair I believe redemptive-historical guys would agree with is that preaching shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. Here’s a couple of thought:

    First, expository preaching is only biblical when it finds its anticipation (OT) or it’s fulfillment (NT) in the Messiah’s person/work. That doesn’t mean that the preacher has to make Jesus magically appear in every verse. The full application of the message is to be carried out through the life of the church. So pastoral counseling, formal and informal discipleship, fellowship, serving, singing, reading, missions, et al, are all opportunities to apply the redemptive message of the gospel. No sermon, no matter how good the preacher may be can apply his message in all of these areas. Sermonic application bears fruit in the congregational response.

    Second, the issue is not always application but implementation. So we hear things like, “we need to be missional” or “we need to be redemptive” in our preaching. Trying to define such a thing is like nailing jello to a wall. Maybe a better question is in what specific ways are we going to leave a mark on our community for the sake of the gospel? I have never mentioned, not even once anything about being missional to our church. Yet I think our people our learning and implementing what it means to be salt and light in our community and around the world in some very specific ways.

    Third, I will gladly join the fight against any and all forms of legalism. Religious commitment without the cross is demonic. A message that fails to find an axis at the cross is graceless. This doesn’t mean that good preaching must be vague and nonspecific. Biblical preaching will be specifically profitable in its offer of reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. If we preach the divinely intended meaning of a passage it will be impossible to twist that into graceless moralisms such as “slaying giants in your life.”

    I will post next week on applying OT law today and will say more then about the general subject. Thanks for all the great comments.

    • Posted by Mike on June 18, 2009 at 11:02 am

      I’m a little confused. Who is saying that preaching needs to be vague and nonspecific?

      • Mike,

        No one is saying it in those words but the counsel that not a few writers/preachers offer on application is exactly that. However to answer your question, Gerhardus Vos, Karl Barth, Charles Dennison, and Gary Findley just to name a few. I think those who seek to pattern their preaching after the late Edmund Clowney are also subject to this problem.

        Haddon Robinson wrote in 1980 that “No book as been published devoted exclusively or even primarily, to the knotty problems raised by application.” Preachers like Mike Fabarez (“Preaching That Changes Lives”) have certainly attempted to answer this problem but there is still much work to be done in this area. For an experiment, pick up Dennis Johnson’s “Him We Proclaim” (2007) and see how much he says about application within the redemptive-historical approach to Scripture.

        Lastly I would add the problem of application is really one of basic hermeneutics. My general observation is that those who have a more fluid hermeneutic tend to be vague in their understanding of application (this observation comes from books on preaching both old and new).

        thanks for being a part of the conversation here.

  12. I’ve run into similar thoughts and totally agree. Tim Keller has a class on iTunesU called Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World. And has several powerful thoughts on the same line (though he is a covenant theologian).

  13. Great post and interaction.
    Here are a few of my thoughts.

    Preach Christ and never fail to give specific textual application. Without giving this the preacher is neglecting the indicative/imperative pattern found in both the OT and NT. Our duty is clear -rebuke, reprove, exhort . . .with all teaching. (2 Tim. 4:2)

    Vos, Dennison, Vos and others of the redemptive-historical model error in their preaching methodology by presenting the indicative of Christ’s person and work while neglecting the exhortation that arises out of that indicative. John Carrick’s book, “The Imperative of Preaching”, has been helpful for me on this issue.

    Even the Apostle Paul gave both explanation and application with presenting Christ in his preaching (“teaching and admonishing every man”-Col. 1:28).

    It is sad to me that redemptive-historical preachers are minimizing application, and, consequently, falling into a type of preaching, though theologically different, is in its methodology somewhat similar to Barth, Craddock, and Buttrick. Both groups, poles apart theologically, have similarities in their implementation of application.

    Hershael York’s article, “Is Application Necessary” is very helpful. I use it with my students. My one complaint of it is that he does not give an explicit biblical rational for application in expository preaching. The students always spot this. The article, however, is helpful in thinking though some issues. His book, “Bold Assurance,” has some helpful parts as well.

    Christ, as the conscious focus of both saving and sanctifying faith, must be preached in every sermon. When the passage of Scripture does not explicitly or implicitly bring Christ forth, the preacher still must preach Christ. He should not misinterpret any passage of Scripture, but since we live after the cross and empty tomb, Jesus, then is the foundation and focus of faith and obedience. This does not mean every preaching point (proposition) and main point should explicitly be about Christ, but that the preacher should take pains to direct the flock to Jesus and his grace to protect the sermon from self-help and legalism. But I have found that if I exegete the text accurately, then the indicative and application are already there in the text and will naturally be rooted in God-centered and Christ- exalting grace. It is how God made the Bible!

    I am still shocked that out of the 43 books I have on preaching none really exegete 2 Timothy 4:2 or 1 Timothy 4:13 in any substantial way. But these verses are the most explicit verses we preachers have on how the Lord wants us to preach. Check out the indexes of these books on this. Even Fabarez, though I do not think there is an index in his book, does not firmly ground application in a biblical/exegetical rational. Daniel Doriani has a helpful book on application, but it does not deal with the hard troubling issues. Jay Adams’ book, “Truth Applied”, is helpful, but is small and not really exegetically grounded. I have started to try to write a book on this issue, but I am slow and not a gifted writer. Anyways, I am on chapter 4 with my rough draft. Probably the book will not be done till this time next year. It will be primarily for my student here in Pune.

    Well those are my 2 cents worth. Sorry for going so long. Yikes.

  14. Posted by Mike on June 19, 2009 at 10:24 am

    My preaching professor studied under the late Ed Clowney and the statement my professor always used is “Moral imperatives must always be rooted in redemptive indicatives.” As I look back at my preaching (I admit it is limited) I have missed on both sides. There are time where my application was very week and there were times where I hit them hard with application and did not take them to Christ(i.e. James 3:1-12). We do our people a disservice when we do not do both.

  15. Posted by Jerry Wragg on June 19, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Jim Shaddix’s “The Passion-Driven Sermon” offers insightful distinctions in this regard. I’ve always maintained that we need to think in terms of preaching the “implications” of a text before we offer some practical outworkings (application, as typically defined). Shaddix is lucid in this regard.

  16. Posted by Andy Dennison on December 14, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Anyone who thinks Dennison did not preach the imperative has not listend to one of his sermons. I suggest that you do not form opinions by heresay!

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