Preaching for True Holiness
Preaching for True Holiness
Why we can't divorce theology from application
Preaching that produces true holiness is in some ways counterintuitive—even for those committed to sound, biblical preaching. Those who preach in series exposition can be especially vulnerable to preaching an unbalanced message that actually hinders holiness. Preaching that leads to fully biblical obedience has two features.
Preach theological texts with a view toward the practical
The first step of obedience is not, "Do this," but rather, "Believe this and receive this."
Some texts have both theology and application. For example, 1 Peter 1:1-2 contains a strong connection between theology and application, between who we are as Christians and how we're supposed to live as Christians. Peter writes, "To thosewho are chosento obey." Preaching this text means preaching both theology and practice, and keeping them together isn't hard.
The problem comes when the link between the theological and practical isn't spelled out. When the text says nothing about how we are to live, it's easy to neglect holiness. To correct this, at some point in the sermon the information about what God has done for us or who we are as Christians must lead to how that gives us the ability to battle temptation and sin and grow in Christlike conduct.
Theological truths are key to practical Christian living because grace and faith are keys to holiness. Bryan Chapell writes: "Grace overwhelms us with God's love, and as a result our heart resonates with the desires of God. His purposes become our own" (Holiness by Grace [Crossway, 2001] p. 13). He also writes: "Sanctification is the work of God's grace in us that allows us to receive the benefits and power of Jesus, which in turn enables us to overcome the evil that can so burden our hearts" (p. 41).
The theological sections of the epistles display God's loving grace. Preaching to bring about holiness means asking our parishioners to respond to God's gracious love and care with wholehearted obedience.
Of course, that presupposes that we believe what has been written. John Piper writes, "The way to fight sin in our lives is to battle our bent toward unbelief. Or to put it more positively: the way to pursue righteousness and love is to fight for faith in future grace" (Future Grace [Multnomah, 1995] p. 219). Chapell agrees that faith is paramount to holiness: "To find release from the bondage and burden of sinwe must believe that we can rely entirely on our union with Christ to make us right with God" (Holiness by Grace, p. 41, emphasis added).
Because grace and faith are instrumental to holiness, whenever we preach from theological sections of God's Word, we must ask ourselves and our parishioners to believe what God has done and receive the grace that sets us free to be holy. The text itself may not ask us to turn from sin, but turning from sin is the proper response to the revelation of God's gracious love.
Preach the practical while looking back to the theological
At first glance it appears easy to preach from the New Testament imperatives in such a way that holiness results. If holiness is Christlikeness, and if the biblical commands show us what a Christlike life is like, then it makes sense that urging hearers to obey the commands will lead to holiness.
Yes and No. Yes, because by encouraging obedience to Christ, we're on the right track to holiness. No, because by encouraging obedience to the command alone, we may end up creating self-righteousness that leads us off the track to true holiness.
Take, for instance, God's command in 1 Peter 4:9: "Be hospitable to one another without complaint." After explaining what it means to be hospitable to each other and to do so without complaining, then comes the task of telling parishioners, "Do that." And for those of us who want God's Word to hit home, we're going to take a shot at helping them see in concrete ways how to be hospitable without complaining. It's at this point we are in danger of moving away from true holiness even though it appears that through application we're moving closer to holiness.
If we neglect the theological side of the equation—who God is and who we are because of what God did for us through Christ—then what are we left with for application-type statements? They might sound like this: create a list of people you would like to have in your home, then set aside time in your weekly calendar to invite the folks on your list into your home.
Is this helpful? Yes. Spirit-sensitive Christians may find practical help in these suggestions. But notice that the suggestions work for anyone, Christian or non-Christian. Biblical holiness, then, is not necessarily the result. Piper writes: "Practical, daily righteousness is attained when the law of righteousness is pursued by faith, not by works" (p. 220).
Normally, naturally, we attack specific temptations and sin at the point of action. If the specific temptation is Internet pornography, then we address this problem with action steps: don't random surf the web; do not stay up late at night by yourself on the computer. We normally do not fight specific temptation and sin at the point of belief.
But the first step of obedience is not, "Do this," but rather, "Believe this and receive this." To say, "Receive this," is to invite our folks to receive the power that overcame and overcomes sin.
For God to create holiness in us, we must move from the biblical command back to the gospel, especially at the moment of application. Prior to the presentation of practical steps for victory, help hearers to see what God has done for them through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Help them first to respond to his grace and believe it. Then they'll be assured of his power to conquer temptation. Otherwise all we do is help people attempt to live like Christians on their own effort—the opposite of true holiness.
The move from the practical to the theological assures that the modification of a person's character is the result of a heart transformed by grace. Jesus' death, burial, resurrection, and ascension become the motivation and ability for obedience.