How-to preaching differs from moralism not so much in the what as in the how. Unlike moralism, it expends less time describing what one ought to do, and more time how to go about doing it. In one sense, it is even worse than moralism, because it reduces life and religion to technique, and suggests (implicitly, never explicitly) that a sinner can change his ways if he just has the right method.
How-to preaching, like moralism, pushes the person and work of the redeeming Christ out of the realm of the hearer’s consideration. The hearer’s utter inability to rescue himself from sin, and Christ’s utter ability to do precisely that, would not be at home in such a homiletical environment. The how-to sermon implies that human behavior is not a matter of an intractable will, not a matter of total depravity, not a matter of rebellion against the reign of God the Creator, but merely a matter of technique. It is worse than Pelagianism because it doesn’t even accept the burden of attempting to prove that the will is morally unencumbered by original sin; it assumes this heresy from the outset.
I won’t get into how the human soul operates in this post (i.e. whether Augustine’s issue with Pelagianism was merely a concern of his view of the will), but I do want to engage with Gordon’s critique of how-to preaching. After all, with the clamor for “relevant” and “applied” preaching in our day, surely there is here a tension between what should be preached and what people ask to be preached? I don’t think so, although itching ears are a biblically described scourge on our churches nonetheless.
I agree with Gordon absolutely that we might as well preach on how the leopard can change his spots, since teaching a sinner to live right is just as effective. Christianity is absolutely not a set of techniques for holy living. It is about the privilege of participation in the loving life of the Trinity through relationship via Christ by faith. As we preach the Bible we preach of this God who has made life available if we will trust His Word, His way, His character, etc. So as we preach the Bible, we preach of God’s self-revelation to those that need Him.
Thus we can, we must, preach applied messages (rightly defined), and relevant messages, since the Bible very much speaks to us today. But when we take the wondrous self-giving of God and turn it into a manufacturer’s manual (i.e. a book telling you how to avoid any contact with the manufacturer by handling life properly), then we are not preaching the Bible, but a type of heresy that has no place in the church.