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Podcast Episode 26 | 13 min

Why and How to Avoid Moralistic Preaching

Your sermons should drive people to the source of life change—Jesus Christ.
Why and How to Avoid Moralistic Preaching

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Matt Woodley: Welcome to this episode of Monday Morning Preacher, a podcast by preachers and for preachers. Full time preachers, part time preachers, aspiring future preachers. That’s about everybody. My name is Matt Woodley, the editor of PreachingToday.com, and I’m here with our guest host du jour, Kevin Miller.

Kevin Miller: Okay, guest host du jour. Does that mean like my contract ends at the end of today?

MW: We will see after this podcast how long your contract lasts. Kevin, this goes way back to our childhood, right? A TV show called Newhart. Do you remember the show?

KM: Yep, I do.

MW: So Newhart plays this really nice, mild mannered psychologist, who throughout the eight or twelve years of episodes, listens to all kinds of people with emotional problems.

KM: Sounds like being a pastor.

MW: There is some overlap there, you’re right. So one day this very nice psychologist, Newhart, he kind of snaps. And in the clip we’re about to listen to, he is talking to a young woman who has a very deep-seeded fear. She is terrified of getting buried alive in a box.

KM: Did you say buried alive in a box?

MW: Yeah, it was her thing. She was very nervous about this, so she’s talking to Newhart about this fear, telling him how it negatively impacts her life, etc., and we pick up the clip in the middle of their counseling session as he prepares to offer her his professional advice.

“I’m going to say two words to you right now. I want you to listen to them very, very carefully, then I want you to take them out of the office with you and incorporate them into your life.

“Shall I write them down?”

“Well, if it makes you comfortable. It’s just two words. We find most people can remember them.”


“You ready?”


“Okay, here they are. Stop it!”

“I’m sorry?”

“Stop it!”

“Stop it?”

“Yes, S-T-O-P, new word, I-T.”

KM: So you’re holding this up as a model of good preaching?

MW: That is why you are our guest host for only one day. Actually, that is a model of how not to preach. We are going to explore one of the grave dangers of how to preach God’s Word. The moralistic sermon.

KM: Okay, so how do you define a moralistic sermon?

MW: That’s a really good question because as we’re going to say, there is a moralistic call in the Bible throughout the Bible, so it’s not bad to tell people what to do and what not to do, the Bible has a lot of that. But moralistic preaching, the way I define it is we tell people what to do but we throw them back entirely on their own resources. So the sermon focuses on getting your behaviors right without pointing them to the source of life change: The power of Jesus Christ.

KM: Good definition. It strikes me that it’s surprisingly easy to slip into that.

MW: Yeah, why do you think that is?

KM: I think it’s maybe the default human nature and we’re also steeped in it in our culture, which has so much self-help and therapeutic preaching, it’s all up to me. But also if I don’t have time to really soak in a text, I miss what God is doing in that text.

MW: I think of a sermon I gave once where I basically gave a list of qualifications for Christian leadership, and I think it was a really solid list, but I had a guy come up to me afterward, a young guy. He said, “You know, I really appreciated that list but I’ve got to be honest with you. I felt just buried by that list that you gave. I felt crushed, like I’m not measuring up and every one as you went through the next one I just got worse and worse, like feeling more helpless. You never really pointed me to the Cross, you didn’t point me to the power of the Holy Spirit.” I was pretty defensive, but looking back on it, he had a point. That is moralistic preaching. It’s all about our behaviors.

KM: I don’t want that and you don’t want that. How do we avoid that kind of preaching?

MW: Well, I think it’s pretty simple really. At some point in the sermon, no matter what your text is, no matter what your theme is, you have to bring people back to the fundamental truth that the gospel is good news, that God is for you in Jesus Christ. You’ve got to bring them back to the source of our good news.

KM: So is that like that old phrase, I think it’s from Spurgeon, that I take my text and I make a beeline to the cross?

MW: Yeah, I’ve seen that before and I used to like that. I don’t really like that anymore. Not going against Spurgeon.

KM: Okay, you are defying Spurgeon?

MW: Just once. It’s a good point, but if that means we can ignore the text right in front of us, that’s wrong. We’ve got to preach the text. We have to put it in its historical context. We have to preach the text accurately, we have to exposit the text in front of us, whether that’s from James, Matthew, or Leviticus, but as we explore it we have to do more than bringing people back to their own moral efforts. So let’s look at an example from Bryan Chapell.

KM: Okay, he’d be a great one for this.

MW: He is great. This is a big theme of his, so he is preaching a sermon called “The Great Escape.” As you read the sermon about 75 percent of it is hard hitting. It’s in your face. He’s talking about the power of temptation. Right before the clip we’re about to hear, he says, “With honesty and rigor, look at your heart and say, ‘Is this a temptation for me?’ And if it is, flee it. Change the channel, stay away from that person you’re tempted by. Do what is necessary so that God can work his grace in you.” So he confronts sin, but then notice what he does next in this clip.

Bryan Chapell: Because the great strength of all this, you see, is not just the sovereign grace of the promise nor even the plan. But ultimately the strength comes in knowing the Savior’s love for you. It’s so interesting, this verse that speaks so powerfully of sin, its presence, its temptation, its power. It speaks so powerfully of the Savior’s love. And apart from the knowledge of that grace we cannot fight sin. Robert Holdain in his commentary on Romans says, “Until a sin is mortified in conscience, it cannot be mortified in the flesh.” Until you know you are pardoned by the grace of God, you have no strength to fight the sin. But when you know God has forgiven me, he releases me from the guilt of my sin, the power to fight it comes. Calvin said it more simply: “Love is the beginning of religion. He who would obey God must love him first.” It’s in the love for God, as it were feasting upon the table of the Lord, taking his grace fully in that we become so satiated with the knowledge of his love and goodness that the things around us don’t tempt us as much.

MW: So Kevin, what is Bryan Chapell doing there? How is he avoiding what we’ve been defining as moralistic preaching?

KM: What I love about what Bryan does here, Matt, is that he emphasizes the pull of temptation throughout the whole sermon, but here at the close he really plays up the pull of God’s love for us. It reminds us that the strength of God is there, the love of God is there. I like that old phrase, “Never preach more demand than supply,” and Bryan takes us right into this inexhaustible supply of God.

MW: That is a great line. Say that one more time for us.

KM: “Never preach more demand than supply.”

MW: So Bryan Chapell, he has four questions that every sermon needs to address, especially in your application. The four questions are the what question, the where question, the why question and the how question.

KM: Unpack that.

MW: Yeah, so the “What” question is: What does God require from this text? And every sermon has a “What” question. For instance, your most recent sermon. Let’s use you as an example.

KM: I was preaching on how I can be filled with the Holy Spirit. I was drawing upon Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 5:18, where he says if we were literally translating the Greek, it would be “be ye being filled” with the Holy Spirit. Which I took to mean that always allow, always open yourself, always ask for God to fill you with his Spirit.

MW: Yeah, very clear “What” question. That’s what you’re supposed to do. My last sermon I preached on bringing God’s shalom into the world’s broken places, and that’s the “What” that we are called to do.

So the “Where” question according to Chapell is where does God require me to do this in my life. This is where we get very specific as preachers, so we start thinking of specific people in our congregation, like the 37-year-old pediatrician who has a husband who is a professor and they’ve got two kids. Or we think about the 80-year-old man who just lost his wife and they were married 50 years. So where does it get applied for them? So back to you, your last sermon.

KM: I have a lot of single women in my church and I didn’t want them to think that being filled with the Holy Spirit was for pastors, missionaries and not for themselves right where they live. So I told a story about a single woman who began to pray for people to be filled with the Holy Spirit, talked with them about it, met and prayed with them about it, and the dramatic changes that those people saw in their lives.

MW: You’re doing well. You may go beyond du jour.

KM: Oh wow, I might get another day?

MW: Just keep going. You’re two for two. So we got the “What” question, the “Where” question, and then there is the “Why” question: Why do I obey God? So the opposite of moralistic preaching is gospel-centered preaching where we tell people you do it because God saves you, God loves you.

KM: Okay, so we’ve got the what, the where and the why, and what was that fourth question again?

MW: The “How” question: How do I obey God?

KM: So are you saying by that that it’s okay to get practical and to challenge?

MW: Yes, absolutely.

KM: Okay, so what’s the difference between getting practical and challenging people in a moralistic way and getting practical and challenging people in a way that’s not?

MW: Good question. The moralistic preaching, as I’m defining it here, leaves people on their own. You don’t have an advocate in Jesus Christ. You do not have a Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, walking beside you, working within you. You don’t have Christ beside you when you fail in this. Does that make sense?

KM: It does. Makes me want to hear a sermon, man. You’re going into preaching now.

MW: So can you think of an example of a sermon recently for you where you addressed the “How” question?

KM: Going back to the sermon I’ve talked about here, of being filled with the Holy Spirit, I talked to people and said, “Why don’t you pray and ask God by his Spirit to reveal any area of your life where there is an unwillingness to obey him, to yield to his Holy Spirit, to allow yourself even there, then with his help to confess that and remove it from your life.” I think there was the supply of God. I wasn’t asking them to scrutinize themselves, but I was asking them to let the Holy Spirit convict where he might.

MW: That’s really good. I like the way you were addressing the “What,” but then you’re talking and preaching like the Holy Spirit is really there, he’s really available for you. You can reach out and talk to him right now and he will supply what you need.

So preachers, moralistic preaching does not mean that you can’t challenge people. You can challenge people. Even Jesus, the most perfect embodiment of grace, said, “If you love me you will obey me.” That’s not moralistic. Moralistic preaching is leaving people alone in their sin, leaving people alone in their challenge, without surrounding them with the grace of God the Father, the power of the risen Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. So preachers, offer people the grace and power of God. Tell them not only what to do but why and how.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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