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The drug of behavioral preaching.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
Preaching is a dangerous and difficult task. Some occupations might involve more harrowing situations and circumstances but I will continue to contend that there’s not a more perilous or vulnerable position to be in than behind the pulpit, speaking the words of God to the souls of men — it’s a life or death matter! But the vast majority of preachers make their task infinitely more difficult by attempting to morals to people instead of the Messiah for people. Sure, preaching morals has established quite large platforms upon which many pastors have excelled. But in so doing, they’ve also drugged many into believing that “proper human behavior is the key” to thriving, spiritual relationship with God. I’ll let the late Robert Farrar Capon explain:
The church, by and large, has drugged itself into think that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross — and then be brave enough to stick around while it goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms. But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they won’t be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus. Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ passion: unless the faith of preachers is in that alone — and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness — they will be of very little use in the pulpit.1
You see, preaching morals to people will draw a crowd, perhaps large crowds. Most people, if not all, want to “get better” — and if being more moral is going to do that, if these 6 steps can make my marriage better, if these 4 things can get my kids to behave, if these 7 things are what’s missing from a booming devotional walk with the Lord, then dang it, I’m going to do those things! Preaching those sorts of messages — sermons that appeal to mankind’s innate desire for control of things — makes it easy for congregants to sit and listen and keep coming week after week. On top of that, it keeps preacher on the fast track to acceptance and accolades. As long as preachers oblige those in the audience with “itching ears” by speaking on subject they want to hear, there will no lack in abundance of “teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Tm 4:3)
The drug of proper human behavior is strong and in high demand, with no shortage of suitors to keep it in circulation. But that’s not the message that changes people. Preaching “change” to people doesn’t effect change — only Christ can do that! Only the word of the cross and the message of grace inspires the obedience we all crave. The gospel of Christ is the lone subject that transforms lives. But the key is for preachers to be brave and free enough to preach the radical message of the gospel — the message that says there’s nothing for you to do, there’s nothing you can do, except admit that you’re dead “in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), and wait for the Spirit’s resurrecting grace to breathe life into your soul.
The gospel offends people because of one thing: it rips the control we think we have from right under our feet. Telling people that there’s nothing they can “do” to guarantee their future is outrageous and downright disrespectful. But it’s the truth of the gospel. There’s no formula to follow or recipe to get right or mystery to solve or institution to align with that can assure you of the acceptance you crave while also inspiring behavior you long to see in yourself. Only the scandalous and, indeed, outrageous message of grace can do that. The point is, then, what are you hooked on? Which drug are you doping on? Are you a morals-junkie or a grace-addict?
Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 14.