Strangling the Gospel

David Gordon lists four types of failed sermon types that are prevalent today.  The list is worth considering in full, but especially the first sermon type he describes.  The first on his list, and the first on mine, is moralism.  Here are some highlights that I have pulled from this section of the book:

Protestant liberalism was a way of understanding Christianity as essentially consisting of a particular moral framework, and of understanding Christ as essentially a great moral teacher.  [It] often denied outright that Christianity was a redemptive religion. . . . Rather, it perceived Christianity as consisting of the discovery of a right and proper way to live an ethical life.

…Ironically, the very orthodox and evangelical Christians who protested against Protestant liberalism in the early twentieth century are quite likely to promote its basic emphases from the pulpit today.

…Moralism occurs whenever the fundamental message of a sermon is “be good; do good” (or some specific thereof).  Whenever the fundamental purpose of the sermon is to improve the behavior of others, so that Christ in his redemptive office is either denied or largely overlooked, the sermon is moralistic.

…Go and listen to the typical sermon in the typical evangelical or Reformed church, and ask what Luther would think if he were present.  Luther would think he was still in Rome.  (Taken from pp79-81)

This is a huge issue.  Moralism and legalism is a plague in some churches.  Somehow the fresh and dynamic, personal and engaged reality of relationship with Christ tends to grow dim over time (and over generations).  So in some churches today there are those who would essentially affirm the preaching of a Roman Catholic or Mormon or Conservative Moralist or child behavioural traditionalist  guest speaker.

Legalism is not honouring to God.  Legalism strangles the gospel.  It chokes love.  It throttles grace.  It undermines the gospel.  Let us be very careful to really preach the glorious grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Moralism is always an attractive shortcut to producing churches full of people who look very christian.  Let’s dare to take the path less travelled – to preach the transforming grace of God, His captivating love that doesn’t mass produce Pharisees, but will stir a response.  The love of the Trinity in the gospel will always polarize, it will distinguish, it will certainly bother some of the core people in any church.  But let’s not forget who bothered Christ the most – it was the moralistic legalists who mastered the form, yet missed the heart.

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5 thoughts on “Strangling the Gospel

  1. Here’s an example: the fruit of the Spirit. Too often we take these 9 “moral virtues”; patience, love, joy, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, gentleness, peace, selfcontrol, and put them as goals. We tell people, if you stick to these fruits, if you do all you can to be patient, loving, etc, then God will be pleased.

    Recently I preached in a few churches about this and actually told people to NOT strive for these things, but rather strive to know God, to glorify Him, to let His word sink in our hearts, and to be dependent on Him, abide in Him. Letting go of control, humbling ourselves and letting Him mold us. Taking “risks” by not taking Gods role. Let Gods Spirit lead you and this WILL BE the fruit that comes out of this.

    It makes me think of this image some preacher gave me once. Imagine an apple tree. Tell the apple tree to bear fruit. Imagine the tree trying to bear fruit, squeezing every bit of himself, to finally squeeze out an apple. If any apple would ever come out like that it wouldn’t look pretty. Byt if the tree abides, lets its roots go into the ground, … then it will bear fruit.

    It’s all about being dependent on God. This is so exciting. One more thing I gotta tell you… An older man recently told me that to him growing as a Christian doesn’t mean you get better and better at holiness. Growing old as a Christian means you realise more and more how needy you are for God to be real and active in your life. The older we get, the more we realise we need to depend on Him.

  2. “Ironically, the very orthodox and evangelical Christians who protested against Protestant liberalism in the early twentieth century are quite likely to promote its basic emphases from the pulpit today.”

    It scares me how true this is. I recently moved to a new city in New England and while “Church shopping” my wife and I visited one of the larger churches which was billed as a conservative, orthodox community. When we got there all we heard preached were conservative social values. Christ was not present at all.

    We still pray for that church.

  3. I would have to agree that much of the preaching that is prevalent is moralistic. Moralistic preaching often sounds good and caters to our fallen natures to work at doing right in order to feel good about ourselves or gain acceptance with God. But moralism is no different than every other “ism”, whether it is Catholicism, Mormonism or Buddhism. Religion is the enemy of the Gospel!!! Religion is what I must do in order to gain acceptance but the Gospel is what God has done for us in Christ. If Paul were to hear moralistic preaching, he would probably respond much as he did in Galatians. Any one who is preaching a gospel contrary to the one which he preached is to be accursed. God is using this website and other means to raise up men who are committed to the Gospel of Christ. I rejoice that this is happening.

  4. I’m in complete agreement regarding the plague of moralistic preaching.
    There are a multitude of reasons for it, no doubt. However, I submit the following three:

    1. Fear of hard work.

    It’s much easier to stop at the moral level when dealing with Noah, David, Samson and other persons found in scripture. It doesn’t take much exegesis to come up with an accurate list of Do and Don’t when surveying the aforementioned characters. It takes prayer, study and preparation to preach Christ from the historical narrative of these lives.

    2. Fear of being labeled antinomian.

    I think it was D.M. Loyd-Jones that said (to the effect) “that if we’re not being charged with preaching lawlessness we probably not preaching the gospel of the grace of the Lord Jesus properly”. Inevitably, grace preaching will be labeled antinomian. The flesh loves the law.

    3. Fear of losing unregenerate members and their money.

    The unregenerate will not sit under the preaching of grace very long. They will either be converted or leave. Complete depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, effective grace (and in some cases, perseverance) does not tickle the ears and lays one low at the feet of Jesus.

    God have mercy upon us and raise up men who won’t trim the message but will put their finger on the text and declare “Thus sayeth the Lord”.

  5. Thank you Peter for such an excellent post. When I started preaching 25 years ago I wrote 1st Corinthians 2:2 on a card and taped it to the pulpit to remind me what I was doing. The card finally wore out but the words still live on…”For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

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