Chapter 80

Preaching That Promotes Self-Centeredness

How to avoid stirring up the wrong motives.

When people turn to Christ in faith, God begins the revolutionary process of transforming them to be other-centered and God-centered.

How is a sermon like aspirin?

The answer: You take aspirin with one purpose in mind, but it has unintended side effects, both good and bad. If you take aspirin for a headache, you get pain relief — and a secondary benefit: doctors say one aspirin a day can prevent the recurrence of heart attacks. On the other hand, you might suffer the side effect of an upset stomach.

Sermons, too, have side effects. One is what we say about motives for obedience.

For example, if the text calls people to use their spiritual gifts, we could offer many reasons to obey: the desire to be a faithful steward, to serve God, to build the church, to grow personally, to fulfill one's purpose, to express love to others, to say thank you to God, to imitate Jesus, to glorify God.

Whichever motivations we choose, we teach an important lesson about proper motivations. When your sermon says, " Use your spiritual gift because you will build the church, " you say indirectly, " Building the church is a good thing that should motivate you. " This is indirect because normally we do not take time to justify that motive.

Why teach why

Choosing proper motives is important because righteousness has three characteristics: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.

If I am a restaurant cook, for example, the what of righteousness is to do what my employer requires: prepare orders according to house recipes. The how of righteousness is to cook in a sanitary way — no putting potatoes dropped on the floor into the pot. Finally, the why of righteousness is to cook to please the Lord. I must not cook motivated by greed and selfish ambition — to curry favor with staff and customers so I can steal them away when I start my own restaurant.

Each week our sermons train believers in the third characteristic of righteousness: why do right, and usually this sermon is unintended. It is the hidden sermon.

Upset stomachs

This indirect sermon can have harmful side effects.

Our greatest challenge in training motives is to change the believer's orbit. Under the full control of their sinful nature, people are self-centered. They have the planetary mass of Jupiter, with God and other people orbiting around them like tiny moons. When people turn to Christ in faith, God begins the revolutionary process of transforming them to be other-centered and God-centered. They begin to see themselves in proper relation to the value of others and the greatness of God. Increasingly they orbit the massive, glorious sun of God's will.

Self-centered deeds do not please God. " All a man's ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD " (Proverbs 16:2). " [The Lord] will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts " (1 Corinthians 4:5).

The harmful side effect of some preaching is we appeal to self-interest in a way that encourages hearers to continue in an utterly self-centered way of life.

Not that we should never appeal to self-interest. Jesus did constantly. For example, he asked, " What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? " (Luke 9:25). While Jesus said deny yourself and take up your cross, he also said, " Give, and it will be given to you, " and " Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. " Jesus and the New Testament writers teach both a denial of self on the one hand and a sanctified self-interest on the other. With sanctified self-interest we seek what is best for ourselves in a different way and for a different reason. We seek our interests God's way for God's glory, rather than our way for our glory.

Theologian Wayne Grudem lists the following as examples of motivations found in the New Testament (Systematic Theology [Zondervan: 1994], p. 757-758):

Finding right motives

So how do we select the right motive to emphasize? The good news is the correct motives for obedience are almost always given in our sermon text. God is way ahead of us! Preaching the motives in the text keeps us from defaulting to an appeal either to self-centeredness, to self-interest alone, or unthinkingly, almost as a clich, to the glory of God. Either way, we may overlook the why in the text. When we fully illumine the text, our hearers are most likely to develop holy motivations.

For example, we might be surprised at the variety of sanctified reasons/motives Paul offers in 2 Corinthians 9 for giving money to kingdom purposes:

The sermon on this text that appeals to self-centeredness focuses on give-to-get and can foster greed. It ignores the clear principle that we are to replant the increased harvest from the seed of giving. The more we receive the more we give. Further, we give not just for our own benefit but also for God and other believers.

At the other end of the spectrum, the sermon uncomfortable with sanctified self-interest tries to explain away the harvest principle. It suggests that to give in order to receive is ignoble. This, too, distorts the text. We may take this approach because of an either-or mentality about motives. In reality, people rarely make choices for just one reason, but rather, for many.

When we appeal to the motives in the text, we develop highly motivated, God-centered disciples who obey Christ for the right reasons and please God to a fuller degree.