The Morass of Moralism

When the focus of a sermon becomes a moralistic [set of instructions for holy living], listeners will most likely assume that they can secure or renew their relationship with God through proper behaviors.  Even when the behaviors advocated are reasonable, biblical, and correct, a sermon that does not move from expounding standards of obedience to explaining the source, motives, and results of obedience places persons’ hopes in their own actions. (B.Chappell, 291)

What are the keys to avoiding the kind of moralistic preaching that Chappell refers to here?  He points to the source, motives and results.  Good things to ponder.  I’ll put it like this:

Remember Who? does the changing – Moralistic preaching will always feel like a burden on the listeners to get their acts together and make the necessary changes.  Surely the message of the Bible is that we are responders with the privilege of participating in that change process, rather than instigators with the burden of fixing ourselves.

Remember How? we participate – So how do we participate?  Is it by repenting of our badness and striving to have goodness?  Or is it repenting of our religiousness and righteousness as well as our overt rebellion, and turning to the One who offers us life and holiness?  Repentance is toward Christ, and then salvation (including sanctification) is by faith in Him.

Remember What? is the source of power – How does God change us as we trust in Christ?  By the work of the Spirit in us.  Moralistic preaching seems to leave God out of the equation (other than being the stated source of excessive requirements).  Surely the reality of Christianity is that we now get to participate in the amazing privilege of New Covenant blessings, including the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

Remember Where? is the focus – Moralistic preaching always turns listeners in on themselves.  They go from being rebellious to being religious . . . but the gospel calls us out of ourselves and away from both.  The focus of biblical Christianity is not my struggles, my weaknesses, my sins, my effort, my discipline, my success, my holiness . . . the focus is on Christ.  My part is response to Him, faith in Him, love for Him.

Let’s finish with a Chappell quote:

Preaching application should readily and vigorously exhort obedience to God’s commands, but such exhortations should be based primarily on responding in love to God’s grace, not on trying to gain or maintain it. (B.C., 292)

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4 thoughts on “The Morass of Moralism

  1. Thank you Peter, for the great questions to ask ourselves in order to determine whether our messages could push our hearers into the morass of moralism.
    I thought you statement summed it up well, “The focus of biblical Christianity is not my struggles, my weaknesses, my sins, my effort, my discipline, my success, my holiness . . . the focus is on Christ. My part is response to Him, faith in Him, love for Him.”
    Keep up the good work!!!!

  2. I thought of Haggai 2:1-9 when I read this post, Peter, as I have done some reading in the prophets lately. I am struck by how pertinent your “keys” are to that passage, focusing not on the Temple rebuilding project – an admirable “action step” – but instead on the presence of “the LORD of hosts” (ESV). The focus is God, the covenant is God’s with His people, the result is directly attributed to God. Thank you for your ministry of equipping us as preachers of God’s Word.

  3. Its hard not to agree, it is all of grace … but, and on a more general level,

    Who takes the decision to respond?
    Who takes the decision to believe?
    Who takes the decision to love?

    There is no merit in taking a decision, but there is value.
    Romans 14 “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

    Decide is not a frequent word in the bible. But it is there by implication. Jesus’ four great commands, invitations?, in Matthew seem to imply a decision:

    Repent 4:17
    Follow 4:19
    Come 11:28
    Go 28:19

    Somehow an undue emphasis on our inability to save ourselves or make ourselves righteous can lead us to ignore the great worth God has placed on each one of us as individuals, “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”; “I have called you friends”; “That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers”.

    “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Does not God respect the autonomy of his creatures?

    Tentative thoughts on a difficult subject.
    “All my righteousnesses are as filthy rags.”

  4. Thanks for the post Peter. We’re going through a character study of OT figures, and its so easy to say, “Joseph was like this, so be like him!”

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