If we feel obligated to preach only Christ’s priestly office, then we must find a way to turn every text to this issue even when it may not naturally go there. Thus, we “find” Christ in the text in an unnatural way rather than a natural way. This ends up creating sermons that sound almost the same every time, regardless of what the passage actually says
A number of years ago, my kids were into Veggie Tales. And, truthfully, so was I. It was actually quite enjoyable to watch these charming videos, cataloging the journeys of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, et al. Indeed, I could probably recite the opening song word for word.
On this note, it was interesting to learn this week that in an interview with World Magazine the creator of Veggie Tales, Phil Vischer, has expressed regret over the “moralism” of Veggie Tales:
I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.
Now, there is much to be commended in Vischer’s realization. Certainly Christianity is more than simply behaving in a certain way. Christianity, at its core, is about God’s redemptive work in Christ to save sinners by grace. Moreover, when it comes to proclaiming the Christian message, we always need to present the imperative (here’s what you should do) within the context of the indicative (here’s what Christ has done). The latter is always the foundation for the former.
However, that said, I wonder if Veggie Tales can be so quickly swept aside as non-Christian. Vischer declares, “You can say, ‘Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so’…But that isn’t Christianity.” Well, it depends what he means. In many ways, such a statement is definitively Christian. It calls God’s covenant people (kids in this instance) to obey the authoritative word of their covenant Lord (regarding forgiving others). Sure, it is a call to a certain moral behavior. But it is a moral behavior that is in a biblical, covenantal context because it is based on God’s word. If I said in a sermon, “be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” would that be considered non-Christian? I hope not. Surely Christians need to be more forgiving. And surely the fact that God says so is a compelling motivation (though not the only motivation).
At this point I suppose one might object and say that we are free to give moral imperatives as long as they are always given alongside the gospel message. But, again, it depends on what one means by “alongside.” I would certainly agree that any moral imperative must always be rooted in the gospel message of grace and forgiveness in Christ. But, does this mean that it must always be stated immediately in the very next sentence? Does it always mean that it must be stated expressly every time you give a moral imperative? I would argue that the gospel is the foundation for moral imperatives, the context for moral imperatives, and the backdrop for moral imperatives. But, we must be careful about insisting that there is a magical formula for how that must be expressed in any given proclamation of Christian teaching. Indeed, I think a number of biblical examples bear this out:
1. The book of James. When one reads the book of James it is clear that it is a letter of morals. We are called to not show partiality (2:1), to help the poor among us (2:15-16), to watch our tongues (3:1-12), to stop our coveting (4:1-2), to be patient and longsuffering (5:7-8), to pray faithfully (5:16), and much more. Moreover, this letter does not explicitly mention the atonement, the cross, justification, salvation by grace alone, or any core aspects of the “gospel” message. Is James therefore moralism? Not at all. You have to take James in context of the entire New Testament and the fact that the core aspects of the gospel message are explained elsewhere. No doubt James wrote already assuming that his audience understood the basic truths of the gospel.
2. The Sermon on the Mount. Although it is obvious to anyone who reads it, it is often overlooked that Jesus’ most famous sermon is composed of almost all moral imperatives. Jesus covers an impressive list of moral topics: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, fasting, worry, and more. Indeed, Jesus even warns his listeners that God’s judgment will fall on those who righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees (5:20), and for those who fail to keep his word (7:21-26). And, once again, there is no express mention of atonement, the cross, justification, etc. Does this make his sermon moralism? No, once again, the sermon has to be taken in the larger context of Jesus’ teachings, and the teachings of the NT as a whole.
3. The book of Proverbs. Once again, here is an entire book that is fulfilled with moral wisdom on how one should live their life. It tells us how to act, think, feel, on a variety of critical issues. And, there is no express discussion of atonement, justification, salvation by grace, etc. Does this make Proverbs moralism? Not at all. These exhortations, once again, need to be understood within the larger context of the Bible’s teachings.
These are just three quick examples designed to make a very simple point: sometimes it is Ok to take large blocks of teaching and focus on Christian morals. One should not have to stop every five minutes to give a “gospel presentation” out of fear of being accused of moralism. The key issue is whether there is a larger context around those moral teachings that adequately provide a gospel foundation for obedience. If Veggie Tales were used as a supplemental teaching tool to parents who were adequately explaining the gospel to their children, I could see it as very useful (and very Christian!). Veggie Tales were never intended (I hope!) to be a complete Christian curriculum for kids, even though some parents may unfortunately use them in that fashion.
Of course, this whole discussion is about more than just children’s videos. It also has tremendous relevance for modern day preaching. The big push today in Reformed circles, and rightly so, is that we should always be concerned to “preach Christ” from every text. And I agree 100%. But, the key question is “What does it means to ‘preach Christ’?” For some, this has turned into a requirement that every sermon must be about justification by faith alone. In order to avoid the trap of moralism, we are told that we must find a way to turn every passage of Scripture into a discussion of how we cannot keep the law and how Christ has kept it for us.
Now certainly justification by grace alone is a foundational and wonderful topic. And it should be preached regularly with vigor. But, to suggest that every sermon needs to be narrowly about this topic is to misunderstand the biblical vision for preaching. Our call to “preach Christ” includes all of his offices not just the priestly one. Why should we limit our preaching to just this one office? Can we not “preach Christ” by preaching about his kingly role? Or his prophetic role? Can we not preach a sermon that primarily focuses on what our King requires of us and how we need to obey him?
Ironically, by limiting our sermons to just the topic of justification we are actually working against the very thing we are trying to preserve, namely keeping Christ at the center of our preaching. If we are really to keep Christ there, we must be willing to preach all his offices. We must preach the whole Christ.
But, there are other problems with this approach. If preaching Christ just mean preaching justification then whenever we come across a text that is focused on morals (James, Sermon on the Mount, Proverbs, etc.), then our tendency will always be to focus on the “second use” of the Law. In other words, our tendency will be to just point out that our congregations cannot really keep this law and must flee to Christ to be justified and forgiven.
While that is true, that is not the only role of the law in the Christian life. The law is also given to Christians as a positive guide to how we should live in obedience to Christ (known as the “third use” of the law). We want to make sure that our preaching balances second and third use, and does not just automatically default to one. If we default to third use, our temptation will be legalism. If we default to the second use, our temptation will be antinomianism.
Also, and perhaps most problematically, this particular understanding of what it means to “preach Christ” can hamper fair exegesis. If we feel obligated to preach only Christ’s priestly office, then we must find a way to turn every text to this issue even when it may not naturally go there. Thus, we “find” Christ in the text in an unnatural way rather than a natural way. This ends up creating sermons that sound almost the same every time, regardless of what the passage actually says. This proves to be somewhat ironic in Reformed circles that have historically placed such an emphasis on careful exegesis and expository preaching. In some ways we have failed to trust the text (and its sufficiency) and have replaced it with our own ideas of what it has to say.
All of this, of course, is not designed to downplay or deny the real threat of moralism in many churches today. To be sure, many pulpits lack the gospel message entirely and simply preach a “do this” version of Christianity. But, the solution is not to impose a “one size fits all” version of preaching where any extended moral exhortation is immediately labeled moralism. Indeed, the Bible is filled with extended moral exhortations. Perhaps we should take a cue from the Scripture on this issue. The indicative is the ground for the imperative, not its obstacle.
Dr. Michael Kruger is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and currently serves as a Professor of New Testament at RTS, Charlotte, NC. This article first appeared in his blog, Canon Fodder, and is used with permission.