Is Preaching Morals Opposed to the Preaching of the Gospel?

Greg Strand – May 6, 2014 2 Comments

Moralism is a concern in the Christian life. It undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is often a default mode of living the Christian life. Parents are prone to this in their parenting and pastors and prone to this in exhorting people to godliness.

Does this make preaching and teaching morals wrong? Stated positively, is there a place for teaching morals? If that is done, is it absolutely contrary to the gospel?

Michael Kruger picks up this question in response to the confession made by Phil Vischer about Veggie Tales and Moralism.

Kruger emphasizes the importance of the indicative being foundational to the imperative. Apart from this, one will end up with moralism. Christianity consists of both beliefs and behavior, and the former is at the heart of the latter. He notes

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.

He raises a concern stated by some about preaching or teaching about morals and the necessity of always including the gospel or the indicative. One always wants to include both together whenever and always when one addresses behavior or morals. However, he asks a question that is important to consider:

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.

As a validation of these thoughts, he references the epistle of James, the Sermon on the Mount and the book of Proverbs. From this he concludes,

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.

In other words, in the context of faithful teaching, preaching and modeling a life rooted in the indicative of what God has done in and through Christ on your behalf, one can address morals without immediately having to address justification by faith every time one speaks about morals. For a parent, this would mean that if they are faithful with the former, there is a place for them to say to their child, “be kind,” without being accused of teaching moralism. They may be doing so, but not necessarily so.

Kruger states that if one always refers to justification by faith whenever a biblical text on morals comes up, then we engage in the second use of the law which means that it makes people aware that they cannot keep this moral law so they must turn to Christ to be saved, to be justified and forgiven. But there is a third use of the law that is for the Christian after having been justified. In this use it reveals how we ought to live in obedience to Christ, not on our own, but through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Kruger writes of the importance of both uses of the law and the problems with an imbalance in either direction.

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.

As he concludes, he does not deny the real concern and problem with moralism in the church or home. But as one addresses a concern, which is real, one must be aware that it does not lead to an overcorrection, which results in another sort of problem.

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.

What do you emphasize? Are you in balance or out of balance?

Remember, “the indicative is the ground for the imperative, not its obstacle.” Preach, teach and live the whole counsel of God!

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to Is Preaching Morals Opposed to the Preaching of the Gospel?

  1. All I have to say is that if I have to give that much thought to every statement I make to my children in the hopes that they live the life that God has called them to live, they might not get taught the Gospel or morals.

    Just saying . . . :o)

    • I agree with you, Randal! I see two temptations for most parents here: (1) either they will not give careful thought and attention to the larger foundation and framework of parenting, teaching the gospel and attempting to form moral character, or (2) they will become so concerned about it such that they become fearful and paralyzed over the missteps they may take. Both instances will inevitably result in bad fruit.

      Here is my counsel: give careful thought and attention to the gospel and how that relates to the lives of your children, and then in the midst of life you speak out of the abundance of what is already there. At the end of the day, it is vital for us to believe and live the gospel ourselves as we teach and model the gospel to our children. Though we water, which is our responsibility, God causes the growth, which is our hope and trust (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6-7).

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