The Danger of Moral Preaching

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Introduction

As a preacher, not only am I concerned about how I preach, but also how preaching is done in many churches. Also, as a pastor, not only am I concerned about what our congregants are eating spiritually (or not), but also what other churches are eating spiritually (or not).

One of the things I lament is how little the Old Testament (OT) is preached in many evangelical churches today. For example, out of the 27 churches in the Gospel Coalition Bay Area Regional Chapter (GCBARC), which our church is also part of, there is only a few churches that are preaching regularly from the OT. And the GCBARC is supposed to be the largest conservative evangelical organization that churches are part of in the Bay Area! We are only a small sample within much of the broader evangelicals, yet only a few churches are preaching the OT. That explains why so many professing Christians today have so little understanding about the OT, how the New Testament (NT) is connected to the Old, and how the gospel does not start with Jesus in the NT but actually in the OT.

Because there is so much disconnection with the OT, many simply perceive the OT as a collection of random stories. Hence, people fail to see the metanarrative of the entire Bible. As a result, many do not make Christological connections. So, people simply overlook in seeing Jesus Christ in the OT.

Also, not only I lament for little preaching that churches are hearing from the OT, but also, when they do hear from the OT, so often the preaching that is done from the OT is nothing short of mere moral sermons. They lack doctrinal substance. They lack the gospel indicatives. They lack Christological connections. For instance, when people hear the story of David and Goliath, so often Goliath is referred to some “giant problems” in life that can be slayed with little stones of faith. But is that the main point of the story? Like the story of David and Goliath, there are many stories in the OT that have been misinterpreted and misapplied. Genesis 22 is another example.

In typical sermons from Genesis 22, examples of moral preaching are common. The message is, for instance, just as Abraham obeyed, so should we, as if that is the primary point of the narrative. Another point may be that we should all be willing to make a great sacrifice just as Abraham did, as if that is the focal point of the story. Another point may be that we should also all trust our father just as Isaac did. While all those (moral) points are not necessarily wrong or immoral, they are not the primary point of the passage. Hence, let me explain why moral preaching is dangerous.

The Danger of Moral Preaching

First of all, moral preaching often has basic hermeneutical error. That is because they (sermon or preaching) often start from the text and go straight to the applications (i.e., the moral applications). Moral preaching fails to deal with the grammar, history, and theology of the narrative and the text.

Secondly, moral preaching is dangerous because it provides little or nothing about the gospel. It fails to show what ways the narrative points out the gospel indicatives. You can point out the moral lessons from any stories in the Bible, but that does not mean you have preached the gospel or pointed out the gospel indicatives. In fact, a preacher may preach from a Gospel book (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John), yet fails to preach the gospel.

Thirdly, moral preaching is dangerous because it is man-centered than God-centered. That is because moral preaching focuses on what man needs to do than what God has done. Generally, the moral sermons are imperatives with little or no indicatives of who God is and what he has done. Moral preaching truly promotes behavioral change without the gospel. Moral preaching is a great tool that promotes legalism.

Fourthly, moral preaching offers little or no connection to Christ. It fails to show what ways the narrative shows the glimpse or typology of Jesus Christ. In theology this refers to the progressive revelation of God. That is, in Scripture, especially, in the OT (doubly so in Genesis and other books in the Pentateuch), God reveals his redemptive truths (i.e., the plan of redemption through Christ) not all at once, but slowly in little glimpses until Christ finally comes to fulfill in the NT.

The moral preaching really does injustice to what Jesus commands what we should do with the OT. In fact, it was Jesus who commanded to search the Scriptures (i.e. the OT) because the OT testifies or bears witness about him (John 5:39). Did you hear that? Jesus commanded us to search the OT and see him there because the OT testifies about him!

Also, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, explained the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). That pretty much summarizes the entire OT (the writings of Moses and all the prophets). This clearly implies that Jesus made Christological connections of himself to the OT. I wish I could have been to such Bible study when Jesus was making such connections!

Moreover, in Luke 24:44 Jesus said, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Again, that pretty much summarizes the entire OT. And Jesus clearly states that the entire OT are written about him. So, that is our duty when we read and study the OT. We ought to make connections to Christ. We ought to see the gospel indicatives and theological significance. All these things, moral preaching fails to do.

 

The Preachers’ Problematic Practice

 https://i0.wp.com/www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/files/2013/05/preaching.jpg The Preachers’ Problematic Practice As a Christian, I enjoy listening to sermons. That’s because it is God-ordained means to grow and mature me. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the ministry of the word is the ordinary means of grace whereby my faith is increased and strengthened (WCF, 14:1). As a preacher, I also enjoy listening to sermons – from others that is. I like to learn how others handle certain texts and topics. And there are many fine preachers today (and past) that I can learn from. As a student of preaching, however, I don’t always enjoy listening to sermons. That’s because as a student, I’m required to listen to some bad sermons – sometimes even by fine preachers. As one of my homiletic professors used to say, “That’s a great sermon, but wrong text!” His point was the sermon wasn’t based on the text though it was a good sermon. It was not exegesis, but eisegesis. Many of us who preach regularly, we’re all guilty of such practice. However, this is not the only pitfall to avoid as preachers. The following are some common problematic practice that preachers (new or seasoned) make:

  1. Preaching is not a Bible study.

There’s a distinction between preaching and teaching (cf. Luke 20:1; Acts 5:42; 15:35; 28:31; 1 Timothy 5:17). If you don’t know the difference, then that’s for you to know. 🙂

  1. Preaching is not a running commentary.

Some pastors think of themselves as “expository preachers” when their sermons sound more like a running Bible commentary that of J. Vernon McGee or Chuck Smith. Running Bible commentary is not expository preaching.

  1. Failing to give the direction at the onset.

You need to give a clear direction at the onset what the sermon is about and where it’s going. Effective preachers give signposts at the beginning of their sermons (and often throughout the sermon as a reminder). The listeners are clear what the sermon is about and where it’s heading at the onset. They’re not confused nor do they try to guess to the end. Sermon shouldn’t be a guessing game for people. It should be very clear. That’s why one of the most difficult jobs in preaching is clarity. It’s hard work. But it pays off.

  1. Burying yourself to your notes.

Don’t bury yourself in your notes when preaching. It’s perfectly OK to use notes since many of us can’t remember everything we studied in our preparation. But do make eye contact with your audience. And do so often. You may argue that Jonathan Edwards read his notes when preaching. But let’s be honest. You’re no Jonathan Edwards. And I’m not either.

  1. Failing to pause.

One of the most effective tools in preaching is to pause. When done it rightly and appropriately, it powerfully aids your sermon. One of the preachers that is masterful at this is R.C. Sproul. Learn to pause.

  1. Citing names of scholars and pastors in your sermon when majority don’t know who’s who.

I’m all for source citation. There’s enough plagiarism in academics, especially, in the institutions of higher education. I even witnessed seminarians who were being trained as pastors or already as pastors get caught in academic thievery! I also know of plenty of preachers who steal quotes, ideas, or phrases from others, and preach as if they’re the originators. Hence, I’m all for giving proper citation for your source. But in preaching, it’s unnecessary to cite names of scholars, pastors, and even naming theological journals. Honestly, most people in your congregation probably have never heard of Geerhardus Vos, Herman Bavinck, Victor P. Hamilton, and so on. I’m not sure if they even care. However, without citing the last name(s) of your source, to say something like “according to one scholar…” and having footnote(s) in your sermon notes is sufficient. Naming the names may be impressive if you are presenting a paper at ETS or other scholarly meeting, but not when preaching.

  1. Using Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic words in your sermon.

I often wonder why? Is it to impress the audience? Let’s be honest again. You know and I know, we’re no experts in the biblical language. According to Douglas Moo, “The desire to show off our knowledge of the original languages and make a simple and useful point can lead us to say quite foolish things about words and their meanings” (We Still Don’t Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years After James Barr [N.p.: Zondervan, 2014], 13). When I plan to listen to a preacher or I know ahead that a preacher will preach something out of the New Testament, sometimes I’m in the audience with my copy of Bruce Metzger’s The Greek New Testament (4th edition) along with my English translation as a Berean. And so often, I’ve witnessed preachers fail to pronounce the word properly or say something is in Greek when it isn’t. As one of my teachers used to say, if you’re going to say something in the original language, at least say it right. When you’re tempted to use a Greek or Hebrew word, ask yourself whether it’s really necessary. This is not to say that you can’t ever use it. Sometimes using the original language in preaching can be helpful. For instance, pointing out the difference between agapao and phileo in John 21:15-17. Understanding the difference is not only important in your exegesis, but also in your exposition. Your people will appreciate such exegetical observation. So, if you think it’s necessary, then mention the original word. If not, keep it out.

  1. Failing to answer “so what?”

Ask “so what” question throughout your sermon, especially, your sermon points. And then see how they are related or relevant to the overall message of the sermon. Sometimes the “sermon points” hinder than help. It’s always a good practice to ask yourself “so what” and then see if your sermon points provide the answer and clarity to the main point of the sermon.

  1. Sermons are not compilations of quotes by various people.

In his book Lectures To My Students, Charles Spurgeon equates illustrations to windows in the house. Just as the primary purpose of windows is to let the light in, so do good sermon illustrations.[1] However, having too many illustrations is likened to having too many windows open in the house, whereby greater chance for bugs and birds to come in and become nuisance. So is with sermons with too many quotations and/or illustrations in the sermon. They become nuisance.

  1. Saying too many “um,” “uh,” “like,” and other filler words.

I concur with D.A. Carson that filler words, such as, “um” and “uh” are one of the most unintelligible sounds, not only in American language but in any language. Preachers are given the highest task for delivering the message from the highest one. As ambassadors for the highest kingdom and as representatives for the king of kings, our presentations should not be tainted with unintelligible noise or with other hindering manners.

  1. Preaching is not a means to promote yourself or tell your stories.

Woe unto preachers who use their pulpits as a platform to promote themselves. Woe unto preachers who are more interested in telling their stories than the redemptive story. Woe unto preachers who think preaching ought to be funny and entertaining, and fail to be the prophetic voice. As a student of preaching for 20 years, I’m still learning. To preach well doesn’t happen overnight. But we all need to commit to become skillful of our craft. [1]Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students (Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1954), 349.

Serving At A Small Church

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Personally, I don’t like referring to any church “small” or “big.” That’s simply offensive and rude. How would you like when someone calls you small or big? You don’t read Paul ever addressed any of the churches “I, Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, send greeting to you, a small church.” You won’t find that in Peter’s Letters. In John’s Letters. Certainly not in the Letters to Seven Churches by Jesus.

What’s small or big is relative. What’s small in this country can be big in another country. I heard from missionaries who served in France and Italy that you would be lucky to find an evangelical Bible-preaching church that is more than 30 people in attendance. Here in North America many church-goers simply have no idea. We are guilty of measuring everything by American standard, such as, big is better.

There are many pastors I know that are serving at churches that are not bustling with people on Sundays. Some are OK with it. Some are struggling. But pastors will always struggle with this issue. It’s normal. It’s abnormal if they’re not.

Several years ago I wrote “Ministering in Small Churches and/or in Small Towns” while serving at a church that I planted in South Dakota. This will give you some helpful perspective and reality, especially, serving in the Upper Midwest.

I also wrote “How To Have An Expository Preaching At A Small Church?” as a response to many questions I was asked by church-planters and discouraged pastors.

If you want to hear another perspective from another pastor, check out “6 Ways Small Churches Can Love Their Communities.

Be of good cheer.

What Is and Not a Sermon

Here’s a helpful clarification:

A sermon only exists when it is preached. By definition, a sermon is an oral presentation. That means it is spoken. Though we refer to outlines and transcripts or manuscripts as “sermon,” technically they are not sermons. An outline is the plan for a sermon. A manuscript is the script for a sermon. A transcript is the report of a sermon. But only an oral presentation in the moment is a sermon.

Also,

A sermon is an oral presentation of theological truths to a particular audience at a particular time. The sermon does not come into existence until it is preached. It is only finished when the final word is said.

Wayne McDill, 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 201-202.

Six Reasons To Do Expository Preaching

Six reasons to do expository preaching:

  1. It is the method least likely to stray from Scripture.
  2. It teaches people how to read their Bibles.
  3. It gives confidence to the preacher and authorizes the sermon.
  4. It meets the need for relevance without letting the clamor for relevance dictate the message.
  5. It forces the preacher to handle the tough questions.
  6. It enables the preacher to expound systematically the whole counsel of God.

(D.A. Carson, “Teaching the Whole Bible” from The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching).

Microwave or Crock-Pot?

A word of encouragement to my fellow preachers as you labor in your study:

Powerful,  Word-saturated, and Spirit-filled preaching comes from the Crock-Pot, not the microwave. Preachers who try to microwave God’s truth on the “quick and easy” setting in the name of “saving time” will find that the meal from God’s Word will not taste the same. Spirit-led preaching calls for the slow-simmering effect of the Crock-Pot, where the longer the meal saturates in the simmering heat of the Crock-Pot, the juicier and more tender it becomes. How are you preparing and serving God’s Word each week: microwave or Crock-Pot?

From Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching (Nashville: B&H Academic), 100.

A Preacher’s Prayer

A Preacher’s Prayer:

O God, break me just now; I feel pride in my heart. God forgive me, for I find myself more consumed with thoughts of how well I will do rather than trusting completely in what you alone can do. I repent of all prideful thoughts and impure motives that place the focus today on my own glory rather than your glory. Kill within me that part of me that pressures me to perform and do well when I preach because I have a desire to be liked, a reputation to uphold, or a title before my name to fulfill. Help me preach like a man who has been crucified with Christ so that the sheep see that it is not I but Christ who lives within me preaching today. Remind me constantly today that I am a sinner saved by grace – no more, no less.

O God, teach me afresh what it means to die to self – even in a pulpit! Remind me again today that preaching your Word is a gift and a grace. I did nothing to earn it, and I’ve done nothing to deserve it. Indeed, I am not worthy to proclaim the riches of your glory. As you humbled Isaiah in his day, humble me before I preach, before your throne of glory. As I prepare to step behind the pulpit today and break the bread of life, remind me that I am called to this family of faith to serve bread to your hungry people. Give me a love for my flock, and make me a blessing to them today. As your herald, help me to proclaim with boldness the truth. Remind me even now that I am not in this to make a name for myself; I am in this to make much of Jesus.

O God, save souls today as I lift up Jesus before the eyes of the lost. Burden me even now with their eternal state. Empty me now of all the vain things that charm me most; I sacrifice them to his blood. Fill me with the Holy Spirit, and empower me to preach your Word with conviction and power. And when the message is over and the people begin to leave, I pray none would leave saying, “What a great preacher we heard today.” Instead, I pray that all will leave in awe of you, saying, “What a mighty God we serve!”

(From: Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007], 113-114).