While on family vacation, we attended a local, Evangelical church for two consecutive Sundays. Both Sunday services clearly illustrated one of the great problems with the Evangelical church in America, the prevalence of Exemplary and Moralistic preaching and the near non-existence of true Gospel preaching.
(Note: For those who may not be familiar with the concepts of Exemplary and Moralistic preaching, here are two definitions:
Exemplary preaching– Preaching that uses Biblical characters and situations as moral examples to be imitated. This kind of preaching dominated all of my summer youth camps while growing up and the vast majority of the Sunday School material I was taught [e.g., Life Lessons From David and How to Slay the Giants in Your Life].
Moralistic preaching– Preaching that centers on informing believers of the necessity, value and particulars of right conduct as revealed in Scripture and then exhorting them to apply themselves to such conduct.)
Each Sunday we were given fill-in-the-blank outlines of the sermons. Here are the two outlines:
Sermon 1: (An example of Exemplary preaching)
God’s Model For Manhood
Paul used two men as examples of the kind of man who will make a difference in the world:
(Timothy) “I have no one else like him.” vs. 20
(Epaphroditus) “…hold men like him in highest honor.” v. 29 (Both verses taken from the Phillips Paraphrase)
1. Compassion: Men who put relationships before results. vv. 20-21
2. Consistency: Men who put character before conformity. v. 22; Prov. 10:9
3. Cooperation: Men who put cooperation before competition. v. 25a; Judges 20:11
4. Commitment: Men who put the cause of Christ before comfort. vv. 25b-27; James 2:17
5. Courage: Men who put service before security. vv. 29-30; Rom. 12:1-2; Mark 8:35 (Note: We were told that Mark 8:35 teaches men to have a “spirit of adventure.”)
Sermon 2: (An example of Moralistic Preaching)
How To Make The Most Of Your Career: How To Be At Peace Under Pressure
1. Do it all in the name of Jesus. v. 17
2. Just as if we’re doing it for God. v. 23
3. Do it all for the glory of God. 1 Cor. 10:31; John 17:4
Job description for every Christian:
1. Pray, Col. 4:2
2. Be an example, Col. 4:5
3. Share your testimony, Col. 4:6
So much could be said. The lack of proper exegesis and exposition (Phil. 2 has nothing to do with “Models for Manhood,” and Colossians 3 and 4 are not business building seminars or job descriptions for Christians). Ghastly hermeneutics. 100% moral, value-driven exhortation. Not one hint of Good News. Both sermons being more an expression of humanism than Biblical Christianity. What I found particularly interesting was the pastor’s statement for the driving motive for what he called “practical preaching.” He asked, “How do we make the Bible practical? WWJD is what we must ask.”
As I sat each week my heart was grieved for the congregation. I kept thinking of Paul’s stinging indictment of the Galatians, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?…Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh,” (3:1, 3)?
Such a sad state of affairs is indicative of a declining church. It is evidence of a dark and confused understanding of the difference between the law and the gospel at best and perhaps a complete and total ignorance of both the law and the gospel at worst (in most cases it is regrettably the latter).
While reflecting on this experience, I was reminded of the pertinent words penned by Thomas Boston during The Marrow Controversy. He wrote,
“A rational religion is like to be the plague of the day…Legalism is one of the dangerous engines the gates of hell are directing this day against the church built upon a Rock: this is an attempt against the grace of Christ, bringing in a scheme of religion that that has no relation to Jesus Christ and his Spirit, and putting virtue or a virtuous life in the room of Christ’s righteousness, for acceptance with God, and the exerting of our natural powers in the room of the influences of his Spirit, by which means the corruption of nature, and the necessity of regeneration, are buried in deep silence, and living by faith, attending the Spirit’s influence, and communion with God, are branded as enthusiasm:
Thus a refined heathenism is palmed on us for Christianity…In a sinking state of the church, the law and gospel are confounded, and the law justles out the gospel, the dark shades of morality take place of gospel light; which plague is this day begun in the church, and well far advanced. Men think they see fitness of legal preaching for sanctification; but how the gospel should be such a mean, they cannot understand…(John Brown of Whitburn, Gospel Truth, p. 106)
Thomas Boston’s words are pertinent, profound and prophetic. The endless desire and pursuit for the “practical and relevant” within Evangelicalism has resulted in what Thomas Boston describes as “a refined heathenism palmed on us for Christianity.” In many Evangelical pulpits and churches, “law” has jostled out the Gospel and dark shades of morality have cast large shadows upon Good News.
The pastor’s question, “How do we make the Bible practical? WWJD is what we must ask,” reveals how so many Evangelicals think they see the fitness of legal preaching for sanctification; but, O, how the gospel should be such a mean!
During both services, I kept wanting to stand up and shout out to everyone present, “There is a better way to live!” This better way is laid out for us by Paul in Galatians 2:20,
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
Justification is a doctrine to live by each and every moment. The great need of the Evangelical church today is as Thomas Boston exhorted,
“Be of a gospel-spirit, having high thoughts of the free grace of God, and deep impressions of the nothingness of man, and all he can do, Gal. vi. 14. Learn and hold fast gospel-principles in your heads, and keep up a gospel-frame in your hearts, and have a gospel-practice in your walk. Learn the art of living by faith, believing the promise, and on the credit of the promise, going out in duty; let love constrain you to obedience, and be strict and tender in the whole of your walk,” (Note: This is what it means to be gospel-driven!-J.F.; Gospel Truth, p. 106).
Our family vacation renewed in me a greater earnestness and conviction of the great need for Gospel centered/driven ministry and living, beginning with myself! The purpose of the Gospel is:
-to exclude all self-confidence and boasting
-to debase the pride of man
-to usher in self-denial
-to exalt the glory of Christ and His divine perfections
-to extol His righteousness
-to establish His law
-and to bring men to a true and active faith of the free grace and mercy of God, which results in the only solid root and spring of true peace, heart-holiness, and practical godliness.
These are the things we must insist on, as Ralph Erskine wrote,
“…the more people have their minds spiritually and evangelically enlightened, so as to have just and distinct apprehensions of these subjects, the more will the life of holiness and comfort take place in them, and the life of glorious liberty and freedom, both from the power of corruption and the prevalency of mental confusion, discouragement, and despondency; as our Lord Jesus says, John viii. 32, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Many Christians are kept in great bondage, partly by legal doctrine, and party by their own legal disposition, both much owing to dark and confused apprehensions of these weighty points, and particularly of the difference between…the law and the gospel,” (Gospel Truth, p. 78).