If our preaching does not center on Christ–from Genesis to Revelation–no matter how good or helpful, it is not a proclamation of God’s Word.
“You search the Scriptures in vain, thinking that you have eternal life in them, not realizing that it is they which testify concerning me.” With these words, our Lord confronted what has always been the temptation in our reading of Holy Scripture: to read it without Christ as the supreme focus of revelation.
Many people who come to embrace the specific tenets of the Protestant Reformation (grace alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, to God alone be glory, faith alone, etc.) are liberated by the good news of God’s free grace in Christ. Pastors who used to preach a human-centered message suddenly become impassionate defenders of God’s glory and particular doctrines which often characterized the messages and shaped the teaching ministry of the congregation are exchanged for more biblical truths. This is all very exciting, of course, and we should be grateful to God for awakening us (this writer included) to the doctrines of grace. Nevertheless, there are deeper issues involved.
Not infrequently, we run into a church that is very excited about having just discovered the Reformation faith, but the preaching remains what it always was: witty, perhaps anecdotal (plenty of stories and illustrations that often serve the purpose of entertainment rather than illumination of a point), and moralistic (Bible characters surveyed for their usefulness in teaching moral lessons for our daily life). This is because we have not yet integrated our systematic theology with our hermeneutics (i.e., way of interpreting Scripture). We say, “Christ alone!” in our doctrine of salvation, but in actual practice our devotional life is saturated with sappy and trivial “principles” and the preaching is often directed toward motivating us through practical tips.
What we intend to do in this issue is present an urgent call to recover the lost art of Reformational preaching. This isn’t just a matter of concern for preachers themselves, for the ministry of the Word is something that is committed to every believer, since we are all witnesses to God’s unfolding revelation in Christ. It is not only important for those who speak for God in the pulpit in public assemblies, but for the layperson who reads his or her Bible and wonders, “How can I make sense of it all?” Below, I want to point out why we think there has been a decline of evangelical preaching in this important area.
I have already referred to this threat and it will be the target of a good deal of criticism throughout this issue. Whenever the story of David and Goliath is used to motivate you to think about the “Goliaths” in your life and the “Seven Stones of Victory” used to defeat them, you have been the victim of moralistic preaching. The same is true whenever the primary intention of the sermon is to give you a Bible hero to emulate or a villain to teach a lesson, like “crime doesn’t pay,” or, “sin doesn’t really make you happy.” Reading or hearing the Bible in this way turns the Scriptures into a sort of Aesop’s Fables or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, where the story exists for the purpose of teaching a lesson to the wise and the story ends with, “and they lived happily ever after.” In his Screwtape Letters, Lewis has Screwtape writing Wormwood in the attempt to persuade Wormwood to undermine the faith by turning Jesus into a great hero and moralist.
He has to be a ‘great man’ in the modern sense of the word–one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought–a crank vending a panacea. We thus distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher, and then conceal the very substantial agreement between His teaching and those of other great moral teachers.
This is the greatest problem, from my own experience, with the preaching we hear today. There is such a demand to be practical–that is, to have clever principles for daily living. But the danger, of course, is that what one hears on Sunday morning is not the Word of God. To be sure, the Scriptures were read (maybe) and there was a sermon (perhaps), but the message had more in common with a talk at the Lion’s Club, a pop-psychology seminar, prophecy conference or political convention than with proclamation of heavenly truth “from above.”
Because we are already seated with Christ in the heavens (Eph.2:4) and are already participating in the new creation that dawned with Christ’s resurrection, we are to be heavenly-minded. This, of course, does not mean that we are irrelevant mystics who have no use for this world; rather, it means that we are oriented in our outlook toward God rather than humanity (including ourselves), the eternal rather than this present age, holiness rather than happiness, glorifying God rather than demanding that God meet our “felt needs.” Only with this kind of orientation can we be of use to this world as “salt” and “light,” bearing a distinctive testimony to the transcendent in a world that is so bound to the present moment.
Finally, moralism commits a basic hermeneutical error, from the Reformation point of view. Both Lutherans and the Reformed have insisted, in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “The Gospel is, indeed, opposed to the law. For the law works wrath and announces a curse, whereas the Gospel preaches grace and blessing.” Calvin and his successor, Beza, followed the common Lutheran understanding that while both the law and the Gospel were clearly taught in Scripture (in both Old and New Testaments), that the confusion of the two categories lay at the heart of all wayward preaching and teaching in the church. It is not that the Old Testament believers were under the law and we are under grace or the Gospel, but rather that believers in both Testaments are obligated to the moral law, to perfectly obey its precepts and conform to its purity not only in outward deed, but in the frame and fashion of heart and soul. And yet, in both Testaments, believers are offered the Gospel of Christ’s righteousness placed over the naked, law-breaking sinner so that God can accept the wicked–yes, even the wicked for the sake of Christ.
Both Lutherans and the Reformed have also affirmed that the law still has a place after conversion in the life of the believer, as the only commands for works that are now done in faith. Nevertheless, preaching must observe clearly the distinction between these two things. As John Murray writes, “The law can never give the believer any spiritual power to obey its commands.” And yet, so much of the moralistic preaching we get these days presupposes the error that somehow principles, steps for victory, rules, guidelines that the preacher has cleverly devised (i.e., the traditions of men?) promise spiritual success to those who will simply put them into daily practice. Those who are new in the faith regard this kind of preaching as useful and practical; those who have been around it for a while eventually burn out and grow cynical about the Christian life because they cannot “gain victory” even though they have tried everything in the book.
It must be said that not even the commands of God himself can give us life or the power to grow as Christians. The statutes are right and good, but I am not, Paul said in Romans 7. Even the believer cannot gain any strength from the law. The law can only tell him what is right; the Gospel alone can make him right by giving him what he cannot gain by law-keeping. If the law itself is rendered powerless by human sinfulness, how on earth could we possibly believe that humanly devised schemes and principles for victory and spiritual power could achieve success? We look to the law for the standard, realizing that even as Christians we fall far short of reaching it. Just then, the Gospel steps in and tells us that someone has attained that standard, that victory, for us, in our place, and now the law can be preached again without tormenting our conscience. It cannot provoke us to fear or anxiety, since its demands are fulfilled by someone else’s obedience.
Therefore, it is our duty to preach “the whole counsel of God,” which includes everything in the category of law (the divine commandments and threats of punishment; the call to repentance and conversion, sanctification and service to God and our neighbor) and in the category of Gospel (God’s promise of rest, from Genesis to Revelation; its fulfillment in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, ascension, intercession, second coming; the gift of faith, through which the believer is justified and entered into a vital union with Christ; the gift of persevering faith, which enables us to pursue godliness in spite of suffering). But any type of preaching that fails to underscore the role of the law in condemning the sinner and the role of the Gospel in justifying the sinner or confuses these two is a serious violation of the distinction which Paul himself makes in Galatians 3:15-25.
Much of the evangelical preaching with which I am familiar neither inspires a terror of God’s righteousness nor praise for the depths of God’s grace in his gift of righteousness. Rather, it is often a confusion of these two, so that the bad news isn’t quite that bad and the good news isn’t all that good. We actually can do something to get closer to God; we aren’t so far from God that we cannot make use of the examples of the biblical characters and attain righteousness by following the “Seven Steps to the Spirit-Filled Life.” But in the biblical view, the biblical characters are not examples of their victory, but of God’s! The life of David is not a testimony to David’s faithfulness, surely, but to God’s and for us to read any part of that story as though we could attain the Gospel (righteousness) by the law (obedience) is the age-old error of Cain, the Pharisees, the Galatian Judaizers, the Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Arminians, and Higher Life proponents.
There are varieties of moralism. Some moralists are sentimental in their preaching. In other words, the goal is to be helpful and a loving nurturer who aims each Sunday at affirming his congregation with the wise sayings of a Jesus who sounds a lot like a talk-show therapist. Other moralists are harsh in their preaching. Their Gospel is, “Do this and you shall live.” In other words, unless you can measure a growth in holiness by any number of indicators or barometers, you should not conclude that you are entitled to the promises. The Gospel, for these preachers, is law and the law is Gospel. One can attain God’s forgiveness and acceptance only through constant self-assessment. Doubt rather than assurance marks mature Christian reflection, these preachers insist, in sharp distinction to the tenderness of the Savior who excluded only those who thought they had jumped through all the right hoops. The sinners were welcome at Christ’s table, the “righteous” were clearly not.
Therefore, even the Christian needs to be constantly reminded that his sanctification is so slow and imperfect in this life that not one single spiritual blessing can be pried from God’s hand by obedience; it is all there in the Father’s open, outstretched hand. This, of course, is the death-knell to moralism of every stripe. The bad news is very bad indeed; the good news is greater than any earthly moral wisdom. That’s why Paul said, paraphrased, “You Greek Christians in Corinth want moral wisdom? OK, I’ll give you wisdom: Christ is made our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Aha! God in his foolishness is wiser than all the world’s self-help gurus!” (1 Cor. 1:18-31).
Moralism might answer the “felt needs” of those who demand practical and inspirational pep talks on Sunday morning, but it cannot really be considered preaching.
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Dr. Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. He is associate pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California, and lives in Escondido, with his wife, Lisa, and four children.