WHEN ETHICAL AND MORAL IMPERATIVES ARE PROCLAIMED AS SUFFICIENT, EVEN ABSTRACTED FROM JESUS, THE RESULT IS A CROSSLESS CHRISTIANITY IN WHICH THE CENTRAL MESSAGE BECOMES AN EXHORTATION TO LIVE ACCORDING TO GOD’S RULES.
Satan does not mind expository preaching — as long as it misses the main point of God’s Word. In fact, Satan himself engages in a form of expository preaching and encourages that form of biblical exposition to be practiced as a means of his deception. Russell Moore writes:
Throughout the Old Testament, he preaches peace — just like the angels of Bethlehem do — except he does so when there is no peace. He points people to the particulars of worship commanded by God — sacrifices and offerings and feast days — just without the preeminent mandates of love, justice, and mercy. Satan even preaches to God — about the proper motives needed for godly discipleship on the part of God’s servants. In the New Testament, the satanic deception leads the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees to pore endlessly over biblical texts, just missing the point of Jesus Christ therein. They come to conclusions that have partially biblical foundations — the devil’s messages are always expository; they just intentionally avoid Jesus.
Consider some of the dangers of non-Christocentric expository sermons.
True, but misleading assertions
Contemporary evangelical preachers who affirm expository preaching do not intentionally avoid Jesus in preaching, but some accepted approaches to expository preaching methodologically eclipse him in the name of honoring the text. For instance, Walter C. Kaiser rejects the possibility of a text’s possessing a canonical sensus plenior (fuller meaning) and argues that interpreting the meaning of every text in light of the fullness of New Testament revelation is “wrongheaded historically, logically, and biblically.” The implications of this position for preaching are monumental. Thomas R. Schreiner asserts, “If we only preach antecedent theology, we will not accurately divide the word of truth, nor will we bring the Lord’s message to the people of our day.”
The consequences are compounded in light of the fact that, at least in some evangelical circles, “the Kaiser method” has taken on the status of gatekeeper of conservative orthodoxy in biblical interpretation, as Richard Schultz argues in his review of Toward an Exegetical Theology. Many preachers cannot articulate the theoretical basis of Kaiser’s analogy of antecedent Scripture or his commitment to the single intention of the human author. Nevertheless, they enact this pattern each week. One may plausibly attribute this phenomenon to a mimesis of the theory and techniques presented during their academic training. Millard J. Erickson writes:
Evangelical hermeneutics of the past quarter-century has placed a great deal of emphasis on the concept of authorial intent. This has been displayed in a number of ways, but one of the clearest and most direct has been the extensive utilization of the thought and writings of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in evangelical hermeneutics courses. It is also evident in the writings of evangelical teachers of hermeneutics, who insist that a given passage of Scripture has only one meaning, and that this meaning is the meaning intended by the human author. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., has been the most consistent and insistent in advocating this idea, but others have also sought to make this case persuasively.
It is possible to preach only true assertions from the Scripture and yet mislead hearers regarding the truth of the faith because none of the truths of Scripture are meant to be understood in isolation. When ethical and moral imperatives are proclaimed as sufficient, even abstracted from Jesus, the result is a crossless Christianity in which the central message becomes an exhortation to live according to God’s rules. Hearers who possess a seared conscience may develop an attitude of self-righteousness: according to their judgment, they are adequately living by God’s rules. Faithful believers with tender consciences may despair because they know that they constantly fall short of God’s standard.
In other words, preaching bare moral truths (moralisms) often drives people away from fellowship with Christ. Bryan Chapell does not overstatethe case when he argues that a “message that merely advocates morality and compassion remains sub-Christian even if the preacher can prove that the Bible demands such behaviors.” Perhaps we must go even further and say that such sermons, though well-intentioned, are anti-Christian and a tool of satanic deception.
Moore explains the cosmic danger of non-Christocentric preaching in light of the temptation narrative (Matt 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13):
Why is this so important? Why can’t I simply say true things from the Scripture without showing how it fits together in Christ? It is because, apart from Christ, there are no promises of God. In his temptation of Jesus, Satan quotes Scripture and he doesn’t misquote the promises: God wants His children to eat bread, not starve before stones; God will protect His anointed One with the angels of heaven; God will give His Messiah all the kingdoms of the earth. All this is true. What is satanic about all of this, though, is that Satan wanted our Lord to grasp these things apart from the cross and the empty tomb. These promises could not be abstracted from the Gospel.
Missing the entry point
D.A. Carson’s concern that conservative evangelicals may displace the gospel without disowning it is particularly applicable to expository preaching. If a preacher exposits, verse-by-verse, through books of the Bible, pressing moral, ethical, behavioral, and attitudinal change upon the hearers without mediating the meaning and application of the text through Jesus, he teaches a dangerous lesson, even if he slaps a gospel presentation on the end. The message is that, while the gospel is necessary as the entry point, it is not at the center of daily Christian living. Such preaching communicates that, after the believer walks through the gospel door, his or her focus should be keeping God’s rules, learning timeless principles, and noting which biblical characters to emulate and which to spurn. None of these concerns are the center of the biblical message.
Graeme Goldsworthy correctly suggests that the reason this approach to preaching is prevalent and popular is because “we are all legalists at heart.” He adds,
Moreover, We would love to be able to say that we have fulfilled all kinds of conditions, be they tarrying, surrendering fully, or getting rid of every known sin, so that God might truly bless us. . . . The preacher can aid and abet this legalistic tendency that is at the heart of the sin within us all. All we have to do is emphasize our humanity: our obedience, our faithfulness, our surrender to God and so on. The trouble is that these things are all valid biblical truths, but if we get them out of perspective and ignore their relationship to the gospel of grace, they replace grace with law.
Pursuing the meaning of every part of the biblical story in light of Christ is not dehistoricizing the biblical text. Rather, it is a matter taking biblical history seriously: it is purposive; it is going somewhere.
Two clichés to avoid
Preachers must avoid the two most common sermonic clichés, both the predictable Jesus bit (every sermon is vague, generic Jesus talk) and the predictable morality bit (ethical imperatives abstracted from Jesus). The first is Christocentric but not expository; the second is expository but not Christocentric. Both flatten the Bible out and are in danger of displacing the biblical gospel message. Expository preachers must proclaim the Scripture with awareness of a given text’s historical place and genre, but keep in mind that the Bible considered, as a canonical whole possesses a Christocentric “metagenre” — gospel story.