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The Bible contains plenty of instruction. There are the instructional sections of epistles. Jesus gave more than a few. There are the instructions implicit in the wisdom literature. Then there are obvious implications with built-in instructions when we look at narratives.

So our job is to explain and apply, and the apply part is relatively easy when we are dealing with instruction, right? Yes and no. Certainly it is helpful when the text pushes us toward something that will be helpful and relevant to communicate to listeners. And for the most part, people appreciate being told what is expected of them. But there is an issue to watch out for ...

How do we avoid moralizing? That is, how do we avoid simply turning the Bible into instructions for good clean living? You may think there is nothing wrong with that, but I beg to differ. The problem of sin is far more profound than mere ignorance or lack of instruction. The sin problem facing humanity is far more profound than we tend to recognize, and consequently a lot of sermons don’t even scratch the surface of the issue. In fact, some actually exacerbate the issue!

How can a sermon make the sin problem worse? Surely good preaching helps people live less sinful lives? Good preaching does, but not by moralizing. Simply pressuring people to clean up their act and perform more like good clean Christians is not gospel work. It is what Tim Keller refers to as turning younger brothers into older brothers. Cleaner, supposedly better and certainly more religious, but no more Christian than a fence post. Behavior modification is not the intention of the Bible. Independent pride promotion is the antithesis of Biblical intent.

So am I going against Scripture to argue against moralizing, especially when there is so much instruction there? I don’t think so. The Scripture assumes things to which we have grown blind. Knowing God brings life change, there are instructions relevant for those who are in communion with Him, but the process is never one of behavior modification first, internal realities second. And growth as a Christian is not a different set of rules; it continues to be by faith from first to last. So what does this mean?

In a nutshell, it means that we can’t simply be the older brother patrol out to instruct people toward a pseudo-godliness. When you preach an instructive section, be sure to put it in its full gospel context. Specifically, seek to answer the “why?” question. Why does that command make sense in light of the Bible’s teaching about God and sin and life? How you answer the why question will reveal your theology. That you ask the why question will reveal your awareness that instruction alone is never enough.



Peter Mead is involved in the leadership team of a church plant in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often at BiblicalPreaching.net and recently authored Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014). Follow him on Twitter

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Irene Allen

commented on Aug 1, 2013

Knowing God brings life changes!! Yes yes yes-- That we may 'know' God and the power of the resurrection's intent, is the key to leading a Christian life that honors God in every way. When any believer continually sit at the feet of Jesus, little and by little, the grace of God uniquely designs the believer's course, inside out, to become more and more like Jesus, until He comes..

commented on Aug 1, 2013

Thank you, sin need to be crushed and done away with clean living is what we signed up for...God bless you

Keith B

commented on Aug 1, 2013

Good article. I agree--in so many Christian churches today they simply give good life tips or legalistic instructions how to live---but they don't get to the reason WHY we are to behave the way we do.

commented on Aug 1, 2013

Apart from Jesus we can do nothing... walk in the Holy Spirit, live by the Holy Spirit...

Roger Lewis

commented on Aug 1, 2013

I think the larger problem is not addressing sin (or moralizing as you call it), but rather ignoring sin. There is so little difference in "Christians" and the rest of the world today that it is frightening. We are called to holiness. Holiness is not legalism. Holiness comes from God and changes the way we live our lives. Legalism is trying to be holy by changing the way we live our lives.

Anthony Seel

commented on Aug 1, 2013

This sounds more like a critique of approach rather than what most preachers leave out. Isn't this saying that most preachers moralize?

Dennis Cocks

commented on Aug 1, 2013

I'm not sure I understand what the author is saying. If he is saying that in order for a person to be born again he doesn't have to follow a set of moral rules, then I agree. Eph. 2:8-9, Titus 3:5. But once we are saved, Jesus says in John 14:15 "If ye love me, keep my commandments." 1 John 5:3 says, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous." If we truly love the Lord we will want to follow His morals, not out of duty or legalism, but because of our love for Him, and it isn't dreadful to do. While I have no problem answering the question "why" in preaching, do we really have to explain "why" adultery, stealing, and murder for example are wrong? While I know full well that God doesn't love us any more or less based on whether we follow His morals or not, people need to know that there are dire consequences if we don't. Again, maybe I'm missing something, (and if you think I am, please point it out) but this is what I get out of this article.

Derrick Tuper

commented on Aug 1, 2013

Going on the last part of the article, what is being left out is the 'why' factor when quoting the instructions and commands of scripture. I do think people's hearts will be changed when their attitude toward obedience changes. Yes, I can be obedient out of fear of consequence or out of a sense of duty or obligation but when my obedience stems from my love for God and love for the command of God then I will be in a better place spiritually. When I understand WHY I should do this or shouldn't do that I will be more apt to live by that holy standard. Not all commands are qualified with the 'why' in scripture but some are. This can be seen in phrases like 'so that' or 'therefore'.

Vincent Aja

commented on Aug 1, 2013

And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). Good sermon is not moralizing, but we are criticizing same-sex marriage. When a pastor gets involve in sexual immorality everybody will go against him. And because we do not want to call sin a sin, some people have shifted the Gospel message to an Economic Empowerment, and whenever they mentioned sin like a man living together with the woman that he did not marry. They will turn it into a laughing matter, and when somebody who is living with the woman that he did not married to dies a pastor will go to his burial and tells the people that he has gone to meet the Lord. Today, dating, sex before marriage has become a culture because we do not want moralize the Gospel, because we are under grace. But when somebody reads from the book of Genesis 6:5, the person will find out that we do not need anybody to teach us what is evil. What we can teach people are what were good because man is already evil by nature. Let`s begin to call sin a sin in the Church, that is the fact... rather than being abstract. Today, within the body of Christ the debate is going on just to clarify whether fornication is a sin or adultery is a sin. I must say this, too many people have been misled today because we as the Church have failed to understand the writings of the Apostle Paul (2Peter 3:15-17). Take away MORALITY- RIGHTEOUSNEES and HOLINESS away from Christianity, then you will have RELIGION. Any Christian who is ready to obey the Bible will understand what the book of Romans 12:1-2, says, It was the same Apostle Paul who wrote Ephesians 2:8-9, that was the Author. That particular book of Romans should be seen as the most important portion of the whole Epistles. The KEY WORDS there are: Be not CONFORMED to this world: But be ye TRANSFORMED by RENEWING your MINDS, that ye may PROVE what is that GOOD, and ACCEPTABLE, and PERFECT, WILL of God (V.2). Somebody should understand that this portion of the Bible wants us to be holy just like priests of the Old Covenant were used to be, because we believers are the priests of this dispensation. Personally, I do agree that as anybody wants his or her Church to be, so it should be, but we must try our best not to discourage people from pursuing holiness simple because we are not under the law again. I cannot understand why we would expect people to live holy and righteous life, and at the same time we will be telling them that MORALITY is not IMPORTANT because we are under the grace. Is this not confusing?

David Moerbe

commented on Aug 1, 2013

The one thing missing from most sermons is the Gospel. Paul said I know nothing else than to preach Christ crucified. If we don't preach the liberating message of the Gospel than we haven't preached a Christian sermon. The Gospel keeps us from moralism and legalism. It also gives us the motivation and inspiration to follow Christ and live in His word.

commented on Aug 2, 2013

Are you for this type of same-sex marriage. In the beginning god created male and female, for the sole purpose of multiplying. Same gender relationships do not multiply. I do not know what type of bibles people are reading.

Stan Lobin

commented on Aug 2, 2013

Most Christians who attend the Sunday morning worship service will not attend Sunday School or a Bible Study. How can we accept that they are going to read their Bibles let alone understand the value of God's word to transform their lives. The prophets of the OT were not sent to dilute the word of God and hope that some how the people of Israel would turn from their disobedience. Are the warnings from God's word to be taken so lightly today as if the hearts of men have improved and not prone to do evil and that Satan has become more lax in his deceptive tactics? Did not Jesus' Sermon on the Mount not moralize and teach obedience to the will of God?

Peter Dohnt

commented on Aug 3, 2013

Thankyou Peter for an article game to tread the line which is so often mis-understood. "Moralising" has no place in the pulpit, it is the exact same appeal as that of the pharisees, look at what I do and judge me by my compliance. A person who has acknowledged Christ and received the promised Holy Spirit (pentecostal or not is irrelevant) WILL change - not by compliance but by compulsion engendered by relationship with the Spirit and the Word (written and living). Preach the Word and rely on the Spirit doing his work in the hearts of men and women - too easy. Preach compliance and your whole ministry becomes one of policing laws. I would rather one person's support who understood their relationship with Christ and was prepared to share from that perspective than a thousand who did exactly as they were asked from religious or social compliance. Kudos to you Peter for recognising the difference between following Christ and following form and even more so for the courage to share it.

David Cain

commented on Aug 3, 2013

I have no doubt that a diet of 'moralising' sermons will not feed a Christian all he or she needs. It is by faith that we are justified and it is in our faith and trust in Christ that we will discover how our behaviour should be. Our sermons should be rich with explanations of God's power and goodness, of Christ's unique example of sacrifice and victory for us and the Holy Spirit's capacity to help us in life. When, as parents, the best we can offer to our children is do this BECAUSE I SAY SO, they will not grow in character. We do better when we explain why a thing should not be done. So it is in our preaching. Of course we should be ready to declare a sin a sin but we should not be so ready to usurp Christ's role as the sole judge of our eternal fate.

David Cain

commented on Aug 3, 2013

I have no doubt that a diet of 'moralising' sermons will not feed a Christian all he or she needs. It is by faith that we are justified and it is in our faith and trust in Christ that we will discover how our behaviour should be. Our sermons should be rich with explanations of God's power and goodness, of Christ's unique example of sacrifice and victory for us and the Holy Spirit's capacity to help us in life. When, as parents, the best we can offer to our children is do this BECAUSE I SAY SO, they will not grow in character. We do better when we explain why a thing should not be done. So it is in our preaching. Of course we should be ready to declare a sin a sin but we should not be so ready to usurp Christ's role as the sole judge of our eternal fate.

Bryan Thompson

commented on Aug 3, 2013

@ Comment #11. How does gay marriage apply to any of this? For the record I believe marriage is between one man and one woman, but I think sometimes we give the impression that the church exists for the sole purpose of thwarting gay marriage, which is sad. Perhaps if we lift up Jesus they will be drawn to him.

Tcharves Firespeaks

commented on Aug 3, 2013

Please understand I mean no disrespect to the author, I'm just not sure what I was supposed to get from this article. Funny that he mentioned elder brother religiosity, when in fact that article has a elder brother feel to it

Steven Landers

commented on Aug 4, 2013

I get tired of hearing that we live under grace, and that statement is used as an excuse to do whatever we want to do. That wasn't what Paul meant with that statement. He even SAID that wasn't what he meant. Today people have abused grace so much that they are pushing past the edge of grace. Grace is there to cover us when we fall short of the goal of perfection. It is there for when we stumble and fall, not to give us permission to do whatever we want! We still have to learn to obey God's commands, because that is how we draw close to him.

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