Monday, August 27, 2012

Gospel-Centeredness and Moralism

We got into a little bit of a discussion about gospel-centered preaching here in the comment section in the previous few weeks, but thoughts about gospel-centeredness have crossed my mind a lot recently.  And then my family and I were on vacation last week where we usually go and attended the church we usually attend when we're there on a Wednesday night.  There isn't a church like ours in that area (even close), so the church we attend is based on conservative doctrine and expository preaching.  With that being said, their pastor was gone and the replacement man preached an obviously gospel-centered sermon.  He even quoted from some of the most well-known of the more conservative evangelical gospel-centered types.

The man teaching was doing a series, it seemed, off and on, through 2 Corinthians, and he did preach a text there.  I was able to follow along with his sermon, but that was because I knew what he was doing.  I also knew that my family wouldn't be able to stay with what he was saying, even though they hear expository sermons almost exclusively at our church.  I interpreted the sermon in the car afterwards.  It was hard to do.  Because he took that gospel-centered approach, he didn't preach the passage, even though he, well, preached the passage.

The word "gospel" didn't appear in the text, but he said it again and again, at least two or three dozen times, probably more.  My wife wrote a note to me, "What does he mean by 'gospel'?"  That was difficult to say, but I wrote something like, "the impact of the saving grace of God in one's life."  That didn't get it cleared up for her.  It wasn't that he didn't have anything to say that was good.  He obviously really studied.  But he wasn't preaching what the passage was saying because he was so attempting to connect it to the gospel.  Sure, every passage relates to the gospel.  They all relate to Jesus in some way.  I was thinking, "Please stop; just preach the passage, man."

That sermon got me then thinking about gospel-centeredness and then moralism.  Nobody wants to be a moralist.  It's a bad thing to be a moralist.  Mark that down.  Note to self:   "Self, don't be a moralist."  There we go.  In order to avoid being a moralist, gospel-centeredness, and then we get the wacky-ness I witnessed unexepectedly after the discussion in the comment section last week.  It reminded me, in a sense, of revivalist type preaching I once heard that didn't start with a very good hermeneutic.  In both cases some kind of bad ju-ju cranks out of the play-doh mold.

The more I thought about gospel-centered versus moralism, the more it came to me that it was straining at a gnat---as if moralism is a real problem in our society---too many morals, ya know.  Scorched earth.  Dropping napalm on the safety-patrol.  They just want to get you across the street.  Please.

I've been preaching through 1 Corinthians on Sunday mornings, am now in chapter 16, about through. I asked myself if the Apostle Paul was gospel-centered, and I believe that many gospel-centered folk would judge him not.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians 16, Paul motivated the Corinthians to give a bigger offering for the needy Jerusalem church, told them that if they didn't give a big enough one, he wouldn't accompany it.  When Paul dealt with the problems at Corinth, he got moralistic.  He said, to get you to do the right thing, I had to use rough speech on you.  That sounds moralistic.  To get them to change, he used sarcasm.  In 2 Corinthians, Paul didn't always use the gospel as motivation for living right.  It was one motivation, but he used much more than that.  The grace of God enables believers to do everything, but that's not put at the center of every single moral.  Multiple examples just in 1 Corinthians in dealing with Corinthian bad morals.

Preaching against sin doesn't mean that you are telling people, "If you stop doing that, that's a way really to impress God."  Or if you have strong morals, it's because you aren't gospel-centered.  That's the way that it reads today, as an excuse for lesser morals, or let's just say, immorality.  Immorality isn't just fornication or adultery.  Some of the morality Paul was telling the Corinthians to practice, for instance, he used creation order and the authority in the Godhead (1 Corinthians 11) as a basis for doing something that today would be called moralism, that is, dress standards.  If you've got a dress standard today, and you preach on it, you'll very often, almost always, be called a moralist.

So gospel-centered is used as cover for not preaching morals.  And so we've got all kinds of immorality.  This cheapens the grace of God.  The gospel is a grace that does actually change.  It brings morality.  If you don't preach on morality, you won't get morality in a church.  And churches aren't preaching on it, because they want to be gospel-centered.  It's a shame.  It isn't moral.  And it isn't the gospel.


Damien said...

Hi brother Kent! Loooong time.

So I have periodically lurked here and there since we've last interacted (whenever that was), but I figured I'd briefly comment here because, not only does this topic intrigue me, you're not the first blogger I read today that addressed it. You may be interested in this article by Tim Bayly:

and then the follow up by DG Hart:

Anywho, I think you (and Bayly) raise good points, but I also think some of the comments in those articles have merit. I think this is yet another example of theological reactionism. I tell ya, if I ever have the opportunity to write a thesis, it will be on the history of reactionary theology.

I think the Christ-centered, or gospel-centered homiletic trend has good cause. I have sat though hundreds of sermons that would be accurately classified as "moralistic" and there is a clear difference when you hear the same texts expounded with Christ as the center. But, as you pointed out, there's a tendency to be so anti-moralistic that we can be anti-moral, which is, of course, anti-biblical.

You said:

"The more I thought about gospel-centered versus moralism, the more it came to me that it was straining at a gnat---as if moralism is a real problem in our society---too many morals, ya know. Scorched earth. Dropping napalm on the safety-patrol. They just want to get you across the street. Please."

As I read, I thought, well yeah, moralism is a problem. That's moralism, of course, not morals. Isn't the source of all that's wrong in the world self-righteousness? I think to one extent it is, and I also think (or at least that's what I and others I know mean) that's what moralism is preaching to self-righteous people that they have it within themselves to follow the rules of the Bible and hence live victoriously. But they don't. And only Christ has done that. And for all our disobedience Christ has died.

But then, of course, understanding the good news, we know we are to live in light of the fact we've been purchased by the one who obeys all the morals while we can't, and hence, we have the charges to live holy lives. So, if Christ-centered or gospel-centered preaching doesn't lead to a practical application for living, it will miss the point of many texts. However, I am eternally thankful for the emphasis on gospel-centeredness that I do believe has, to some extent, redeemed many biblical texts from the bondage of moralism and caused us preachers to consider their place in God's redemptive history.

Joshua said...

Great post. Few comments on things that stood out.

1. Your wife's question (what do they mean by the Gospel?) is a great one, and your reply nailed it. It's a very fuzzy view of the Gospel that loosely translates to "Jesus, the primary thrust of the Scriptures and all the effects of salvation blended together." Gospel centred - yet remarkably imprecise when it comes to the Gospel.

2. "Please stop; just preach the passage, man."

Exactly. If Christ is indeed all, and is indeed God, then He wrote the Bible. Preach what He said, not what you want to say about Him. You're not doing Him or the Gospel any favors by twisting the Word.

3. The marshalling of the great Gospel armies against the scourge of moralism would have been very impressive back in 1850's England when there was an unconverted careerist in every Church of England pulpit preaching from the Ten Commandments. To start a "moralist" witch hunt in a society that hates morality smacks of theological cover for old fashioned worldliness. Many of the big name Calvinist expositors use it to avoid the unpopular application of Scripture that would shrink their churches.

4. As you pointed out, Paul wasn't one of the Gospel-centred guys. Anyone preaching like Paul today is blacklisted as a moralist. Immediately after listening to Bryan Chappell on this type of preaching, I read the book of Titus and marvelled at how easily Paul would switch between moral instruction, obedience and Christ. In chapter 3 he finishes discussing our justification by Christ's grace, and then boom:

Titus 3:8 This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men.

Absolute poison to the Gospel-centred approach.

5. The chief irony of all this, is after all the talk about fighting legalism and moralism, this is what they give us:

A man made rule (thou shalt make every passage about the Gospel) found nowhere in the Bible that is supposed to do God a favor but leads instead to disobedience.

Kent Brandenburg said...


When I got back from vacation (I wrote this last Friday), I read this:

Which said the same thing in essence to what I was saying, but coming from another non-separatist, conservative evangelical.

Besides being an easier way to stay away from offensive preaching against immorality, I believe that it is a tendency mainly of covenant theology, or at least borrowing from covenant theology, which spiritualizes big chunks of scripture. They read the covenant of grace into everything. And of course, covenant theology was worked out during the reformation as a biblical explanation of Augustine's amillennialism. Roman Catholicism had state authority, so it didn't have to give no stinkin' explanation for its allegorical hermeneutic, so the reformers worked out their presupposition later ironically.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks Joshua. As usual, you were bullseye. I too think it is a church growth technique. I might write a post for tomorrow that dovetails "lure them in" with gospel-centeredness.