For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering . . .
— Romans 8:3

We tread lightly here, but I fear we vastly underestimate the spiritual damage inflicted on our churches by “How To” sermons without an explicit gospel connection. The Bible is full of practical exhortations and commands, of course, but they are always connected to the foundational and empowering truth of the finished work of Christ. When we preach a message like “Six Steps to _______” or any other “be a better whatever”-type message — where the essential proclamation is not what Christ has done but what we ought/need to do — we become preachers of the law rather than Christ. (And it is not rare that this kind of message with barely any or no mention of Christ(!) at all gets preached.)

But is it just merely unfortunate? Something that could be improved but not really that big of a deal?

I think the Scriptures show us that this kind of preaching isn’t just off-center, but actually does great harm, actually serves to accomplish the very opposite of its intention. How?

1. Preaching even a “positive” practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. We are accustomed to thinking of legalistic preaching as that which is full of “thou shalt not”s, the kind of fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone judgmentalism we’ve nearly all rejected. But “do” is just the flipside to the same coin “don’t” is on. That coin is the law. And a list of “do”‘s divorced from the DONE of the gospel is just as legalistic, even if it’s preached by a guy in jeans with wax in his hair following up the rockin’ set by your worship band.

2. The message of the law unaccompanied by and untethered from the central message of the gospel condemns us. Because besides telling us stuff to do, the law also thereby reveals our utter inability to measure up.

3. Therefore, a steady dose of gospel-deficient practical preaching doesn’t make Christians more empowered, more effective, but more discouraged, less empowered. Because the law has no power in itself to fulfill its expectations. The only thing the Bible calls power for the Christian is the grace of Christ in the gospel.

But it gets more serious than that.

4. The Bible goes further to suggest, actually, that without the gospel of Christ’s finished work, the preaching of the law of works serves to exacerbate disobedience. See Romans 5:20 and Romans 7, for this consideration. The law arouses passions eventually against itself or against its referent. In other words, without the saving power of the gospel, we go one of two ways in having the law preached to us: we end up being pushed to disobey (whether from anger at its judgment or discouragement from inability to keep it) or we end up thinking ourselves righteous apart from the righteousness the law really points to, that of Christ.

5. The law brings death (Romans 7:10). So the preaching of practical, relevant, applicational “do” messages aimed at producing victorious Christians is fundamentally a preaching of condemnation. It is the proclamation of grace, counter-intuitive though it seems and oddly enough, that trains us to obey God (Titus 2:11-12).

6. The preaching of Christless, gospel-deficient practical sermons increases self-righteousness. Because it is not focused on Christ’s work but our works. Christ-implicit, gospel-deficient practical sermons do not make empowered, victorious Christians, but self-righteous self-sovereigns. And the self-righteous go to hell.

Again, we tread lightly. But the stakes are high. And I think they are higher than we tend to think.

Brothers, let us preach the practical implications and exhortations of Scripture, yes. But let us not forget that the message of Christianity is Christ. It is the message of the sufficiency and power of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Let’s not preach works, lest we increase the sinfulness of our churches and unwittingly facilitate the condemnation of the lost.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is of first importance.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
— 1 Corinthians 2:2

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76 thoughts on “How Your Preaching Might Increase Sin in Your Church”

  1. Jason says:

    Jared,

    You are absolutely right in that we probably do more damage when we neglect grounding gospel imperatives in the gospel indicatives. Sadly, often in our efforts to show the Scriptures as “applicable to life” we neglect the most fundamental truth that is applicable to all of life which is, as you mention, the gospel as of first importance. Perhaps we need to stop preaching “How To…” sermons and start relabel them “Why and How To…” sermons or, at least, we need to have that mentality when we approach the text. You have noted (correctly), however, that Christ, both his person and work, is to be the supreme subject of all preaching.

  2. trey says:

    Does the book of James fit into this category?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Trey, no.

  3. trey says:

    I realize James is not a sermon but if someone simply read the book of James from the pulpit, without comment, it would be dangerously close to the “bad” preaching you are describing here…

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Trey, no it wouldn’t, because:
      1) James chapter 1 establishes the gospel indicative — “the promise of the crown” (v.12) and “the word planted in you” (v.21) — grounding the imperatives, and
      2) the sermons I’m describing here are Christ-deficient — and sometimes completely Christless in that they don’t even mention Jesus — whereas James’ letter contains explicit establishment of Christ’s Lordship.

  4. Emily says:

    Oh my goodness! As a lay person, I want to thank you for talking about this! I went to a church back in college that did expository preaching from God’s word, which is good, right? But every Sunday, I heard, “Do this, this, and this to be a good Christian.” I don’t ever remember the preacher reminding us of what Jesus has done on the cross.

    Those days were VERY dark days for me, probably the darkest. When I spoke the pastor about it, I didn’t quite know what it was that was wrong with his teachings and wasn’t very effective. Thank you for giving words to my feelings of darkness.

    I really wish every single preacher on the planet would read this. I am convinced that if I had not seen evidence of my salvation and the Holy Spirit living in me before attending that church, I would no longer be in relationship with God. Preaching without Jesus is dangerous and I have to wounds to prove it.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Emily, me too. Thanks for sharing your story.

    2. Jay says:

      Emily,maybe you were told you were getting “expository sermons” but if they neglected Christ, I’m not sure that was an accurate designation.

    3. John says:

      Amen, amen and amen! Emily, your story also very strongly echoes my own. “Do” preaching is very self-centered and for someone with strong neurotic tendencies like myself, it’s a recipe for crippling fear and doubt. I can’t imagine what it will eventually do to our “Narcissistic Generation” which is already naturally self-involved and curved inwards.

  5. Chris Blackstone says:

    Yesterday, I heard our pastor from the pulpit say that he failed because his father didn’t accept Jesus when he shared the gospel with him. If pastors say they’re a failure when they evangelize and it doesn’t “work”, imagine how congregants feel.

  6. Cory Klein says:

    I think a lot of this has to do with a pastor’s view on sanctification. When we don’t rightly understand the role that the Holy Spirit has in sanctifying His Church, then we tend to preach dos and don’ts. But if we understand that God sanctifies us by using the gospel message, then it behooves us to preach the gospel always and often.

  7. Robyn says:

    wow, thank you for putting into words exactly what I have been dealing with in my church. I grew up in a “don’t” church and for the last 10 years or so have attended a “do” church with much frustration. I have tried to get others to see that one is as legalistic as the other to no avail. I wish there was a “done” church in my area but the closest one is over an hours drive away. Thank God for the internet and podcasts! You are spot on in this blog.

    The saddest thing for me is to see how much of the “do” mentality has entered the church and is especially being pushed on our children and young people. It is no wonder they run as fast as they can once their parents can no longer force them to go to church. Who can live with the ‘guilt’ of never measuring up when the only solution given is to just try harder.

  8. Too true. Thanks for the post. Lots of churches should scan the sermons that are being pushed their way.

  9. Dominick says:

    Jared,

    Great article. #3 is me. Lately out pastor has been talking quite a bit about being missional and he is currently working through acts to get some big ideas on what the early church did. While he does include the Gospel, it sometimes seems as an afterthought. But the more I hear how we are “supposed to be” the less I feel I could live up to that standard. I just want know about Christ and serve.. I almost always walk out each week discouraged. (I won’t discount my own “stuff” but it doesn’t help) I don’t want to be a “victorious” Christian, I want to be a faithful one.. If that makes sense..

  10. a. says:

    what a beautiful combo of effort, by the power of the Spirit, the Lord shows us and each without excuse-faithful teachers and faithful students

    Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. James 3:3

    Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica,for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Acts 17:11

  11. a. says:

    and forgot the beautiful truth the Lord has given us, as each studies His word, asks, listens, receives

    but when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth John 16:13a

  12. Patrick says:

    Great topic! I agree with these points. I’m now very sensitive when I visit churches to this type of preaching. If I can get through a service and think “did they ever talk about Jesus or what He’s done?” I believe their mission has somewhat failed in proclaiming the gospel.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the type of language Christians use and Jared speaks of this a little bit at the beginning of the post. We tend to use the word “need” in an dangerous way in regard to what we should be doing. It’s a small word, but it carries big implications of how we view God. “Things are good, I just need to be in the word more.” “I need to pray more.” “I need to be more giving.” We end up using need as an imperative of something we have to do. “I need to love God more.” I hear this a lot and sometimes I catch myself saying it, then I realize that what’d been given to me I didn’t earn, that the work is done, and that I don’t need to do anything, God has given me His Son, what else could I need? The rest of the things (i.e. life and tasks) are a reflection of a heart that is changed. Jared, do you have any thoughts about this? I want to be able to articulate it better. :)

  13. Linda says:

    At some point in my life I ‘learned’ that being a good Christian, being accepted by God, experiencing salvation, etc., depended upon what I did. So I’ve spent most of my life trying to be good, trying to do what is right, trying to find those “three (at least) steps to wholeness.” In the past year, God has brought a lot of books, articles, and teachings into my life that has shown me how wrong I’ve been. But it’s hard to give up all those years of works-based faith and just let go. I pray daily to be able to just trust God instead of in myself and my efforts. I struggle, but I see progress. Thank you for yet another “wrecking ball” to destroy my previously held beliefs.

  14. Stephen says:

    It’s true that we need to preach Jesus and make Him preeminent in preaching. As long as we do connect and expose the “foundational and empowering truth of the finished work of Christ” from the text, however, I don’t see anything wrong with a “How to” sermon or “Six Steps to ________” type of sermon. As a matter of fact, I don’t see how we can avoid preaching some sermons of this nature considering the Bible is full of verses and texts that give us lists and steps toward a specific end (Ex: Micah 6:8 KJV). I might also add that we are saved “unto good works,” so it’s not necessarily wrong to try to motivate people to do right through preaching. The issue is not that we don’t “preach works,” but that we don’t preach works as a means of salvation or a position in Christ.

    I do believe that you are correct, however in your premise. It’s easy to neglect the fact that we are made “the righteousness of God in him.” I think the failure is not in the style of presentation as much as it is in the mindset. If an individual has been convinced of his position in Christ, it won’t be hard to motivate him to “do” the right things.

  15. Jeff says:

    I agree that a steady dose of “How To” sermons can do a lot of damage. But those “How To” messages (whether in sermons or in articles) are so tempting for preachers, aren’t they? We love giving out advice because, after all, it’s just so darn helpful. For a laugh, I did a “how to” search on the Gospel Coalition site. Here are only a few of the results–all of them are recent, and most were written by preachers: “How to Mentor Young Disciples When They Differ Theologically,” “How to Discourage Artists in the Church”, “How to Survive a Cultural Crisis,” “How to Interpret Biblical Genitives,” “How to Help Your Child Read with Discernment,” “How to start each day,” “How to Conduct an Interview at a Conference,” “How to Fight Jealousy in Ministry,” “How to Love Dramatic Girls,” “How to Look at a Painting,” “How to Win Your City,” “How to Pray for Your City,” “How to Hear a Word from God,” “How to critique another without injuring oneself,” and “How to not preach a ‘how to’ sermon or write a ‘how to’ article.” (Okay, that last one I made up.)

  16. Jared C. Wilson says:

    I feel the need to redirect to things actually written in the post, like:

    …“How To” sermons without an explicit gospel connection. The Bible is full of practical exhortations and commands, of course, but they are always connected to the foundational and empowering truth of the finished work of Christ.

    and

    Brothers, let us preach the practical implications and exhortations of Scripture, yes.

    I do have a fair-minded expectation that even critical comments will acknowledge these points were not absent and weren’t obscured by my main point(s).

    1. Stephen says:

      Very fair response. I think my comment may have been written a bit too negatively when my thoughts were actually fairly supportive of your article. My apologies.

      May I add that I do feel as if those points were a bit obscured by the main points? That is after reading it only once, however. My reading comprehension may have been a bit off at 6:30 a.m…. :)

      Thank you for the article.

      1. Jared C. Wilson says:

        Stephen, point taken.

        I think perhaps the point of “preach practical” is a bit obscured because it is not the main point, obviously, but also because I have sought to “yes-but” the law with the gospel rather than “yes-but” the gospel with the law.

  17. I am working through the practical implication of being gospel-centered as it affects preaching. There is no doubt that Scripture has “dos” for believers: be devoted to good works (Titus); be holy (1 Peter); the put-offs and put-ons; and “observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28), to name a few. I appreciate the warnings that I hear from various sources not to preach works, but I do not see suggestions or examples of how to preach the exhortations and imperatives of Scripture gospel-ly. Help?

    1. Michael says:

      This is a good point. I believe articles such as these need to be written. Moralism misses the point of Christianity. But, rarely have I seen an article that stresses how to preach moral imperatives while resting in Christ – gospel centered moral preaching. Timothy Keller has taken great strides in making the connection between the rest and the work. I would also like to see Jared’s response to this.

      My understanding is that gospel centered “works” are works that are done out of an obedience to Christ that is the result of an adoration that comes from an understanding of his work on the cross. It is a moral effort that operates out of an understanding that it is not that effort that makes one righteous before God (only the Gospel can do that).

      I would be interested if Jared would have anything to add in describing a correct gospel centered moral effort aside from that effort being grounded in an adoration that stems from an understanding of the gospel.

      1. Jared C. Wilson says:

        This is only a quick answer, but I have written extensively on what gospel-driven obedience “looks like” in my book *Seven Daily Sins* and in chapters 4-7 of *Gospel Wakefulness.* You could also put “sanctification” or “obedience” into the search box of this blog and find some other elaborations.

        I know that’s a cop-out in terms of not writing afresh an elaboration describing gospel-centered moral effort, but a) it is hard to delineate in practical terms what is a posture of the heart, and b) I don’t have the time at the moment to write more extensively on it. (Although I am planning to preach 3 sermons on holiness/sanctification, at students’ request, at Lancaster Bible College next month and perhaps afterwards I could blog my notes/manuscript.)

        I will say briefly, speaking to the frequent difficulty in discerning outwardly what is going on inwardly, that I think gospel-centered obedience might actually *look* like legalistic obedience externally in many cases, but that I think over time legalistic obedience goes against the grain of the fruit of the Spirit, seems less like worship and more like spinning wheels, fraying of nerves, etc. I don’t know if we can say definitively, in a several-points list, what gospel-centered obedience looks like in terms of actions done (I mean, it looks like doing what is commanded to be done!), but I think legalistic obedience over time cultivates the same anxieties, irritations, and fears we use to diagnose idolatry. In short, gospel-centered obedience is done with a smile, in love, with patience and humility and meekness, while legalistic obedience is done with a furrowed brow, out of expectation of results or rewards, with strings attached, with fear of not measuring up or disappointment when certain measurable results are not achieved, etc.

        Not sure if that helps, but all I got at the moment…

        1. Michael says:

          Jared, thanks for the response. In response to Rob’s question involving “how to preach the exhortations and imperatives of Scripture gospel-ly,” would you agree with an answer such as:

          The moral aspect of Christianity must be rooted in a correct motive. One should not feel as though he has to earn or that he has earned God’s favor by his moral effort.Instead it should be preached that one ought to be moral as an act of obedience to Jesus because of one’s adoration for Jesus (coming from an understanding of the gospel). As you have said…it is a moral effort that flows from a correct “posture of the heart”.

          If a pastor preaches the moral imperatives this way, then, hopefully a person will not say in the midst of moral defeat, “I need to work harder” but that he needs to rest on Jesus’ finished work “harder”.

          I feel that

          1. Jared C. Wilson says:

            Michael, in response to the description in your second paragraph, I say yes, I’d absolutely agree with that. You put it very well.

  18. Patrick Anthony says:

    Interesting. It seems that in the short term this kind of sermon produces outward righteousness. Yet, a gospel sermon, in the short term, can produce outward sinfulness. This is because the truth of one’s actual character often becomes more visible without the outward constraints of the law. It is a bit messy to preach grace but oh so worth it.

  19. Tom says:

    A problem one may have is that when working through a book of the Bible, you usually deal with the indicatives first before you get to the imperatives. However, as a pastor when the week comes that you start on the imperatives you assume that your congregation has stayed with you through the indicatives and understands that the “therefore” in the text is making the bridge to the imperatives based on the indicatives. Thus, you don’t re-preach your earlier sermons based on the indicatives before diving into the imperatives. So, for those in the congregation who feel the pastor is preaching legalism or moralism when he gets to the imperatives, they completely missed or forgot the earlier sermons where the pastor addressed the indicatives.

    I don’t think you have to preface every sermon dealing with an imperative with an “explicit gospel connection” if you’ve faithfully covered the indicatives found earlier in the text in past sermons. It’s called a logical progression.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Tom, respectfully, it’s not a logical progression for those who aren’t tracking with the life of the series, for instance visitors. I think explicit connection to Christ’s finished work is necessary for every sermon lest we end up preaching Christ some Sundays and not others, thereby having a Christian sermon some Sundays and a … well, something you could hear at a Kingdom Hall or synagogue on others. I try to stay aware not just of my church’s need to, as Luther says, have the gospel beat into their heads continually, but also of the visitors I may have one Sunday that won’t hear Christ’s gospel if I don’t preach it the Sunday they’re there.

      1. kyle w says:

        Amen, Amen!

  20. Brad says:

    Does the message of this article apply to everyday life as well? For example, how I speak to my children…my employees…my spouse, other believers in my local church, etc.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Brad, I am inclined to think so, yes. Give them grace.

      1. Brad says:

        Ok…I have a lot to think about!

  21. Jon says:

    What about “the greatest pastor ever” Jonathan Edwards? I don’t mean to be insulting of him at all. I’m a spititual toad in comparison, but I have never heard anything but tremendous accolades about his preaching. Yet I listen to some of his sermons and I leave feeling the gospel is IMPOSSIBLE for me to attain to. Yes I said attain and not obtain because that is how I feel. Am I alone in this?

    1. brad says:

      Jon,

      That is your destiny, whether you believe it is possible or not! God is so great that He is working in and through you, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to glorify you and make you like His Son, Jesus Christ! Don’t get discouraged!

  22. Melody says:

    Yes, preachers need to be so careful about this. It’s so easy to get lost in all the things we’re supposed to do and lose sight of the gospel. I grew up with a constant emphasis on God’s grace and love and still found myself tending to feel my identity in Christ depending on doing the right things.

    And then I moved on to a church that put a really strong emphasis on the glory of God – sometimes to the exclusion of His love at first, though it’s balancing out now – and that just made me feel even more lost. It was really to the point where someone reminded me that nothing I do has any effect on how much God loves me and I nearly snapped back, “That’s not true” before remembering that it was.

  23. anon. says:

    Jared,

    One of the things that concerns me about TGC is that there seems to be a lot of people who read the articles on here and then start to say, “My pastor doesn’t get the gospel.” It’s probably true in a lot of cases that the pastor doesn’t get the gospel, but I also know of solid pastors who are accused of that by people who have gotten really into TGC and then feel competent to judge them. That’s hugely devastating for the church. I’m sure that’s nobody’s motive, but I wonder if there’s a characteristic of the writing that takes place here that encourages that type of response.

    I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush. I know that someone recently wrote an article (was it you?) on how to approach your pastor if you had concerns about his preaching. I thought that article was fantastic.

    Nevertheless, I noticed that some of the comments on this thread are along the lines of “my pastor doesn’t get the gospel.” And again, I realize that may be fully true in some cases. And I know how hard it is to be in that type of church. I want to assume that everyone on this thread who made that comment is absolutely right. But we just have to be so careful. For instance, the above post frames a number of its points using a type of law-gospel hermeneutic. Many pastors will know that that hermeneutic is fairly controversial, and a lot of them won’t agree with it. Hopefully that doesn’t mean that they’re not gospel-centered, but the way they explain things is going to sound quite different from someone who does take that approach. The average person in the congregation may not understand that however, and if they read a steady diet of law-gospel-hermeneutic type of articles, they might easily come to the conclusion that their pastor doesn’t get the gospel.

    I guess my hope simply would be that writers for TGC are as aware of this as possible.

    Appreciating all your hard and excellent work,

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Anonymous, point(s) taken. Thanks for that. Would you agree that one might “get” the gospel but still not be giving it? In other words, the complaint that a pastor doesn’t “get the gospel” may not be accurate or fair, but the perspective that he is not regularly preaching it be accurate? Or would you say that an implied gospel or a message that is all/mainly “do” and no/little “done” still qualifies as a “gospel sermon”?

      Wanting to understand…

      1. anon. says:

        Jared,

        I agree with you completely. A preacher might get the gospel himself but not give it to the congregation. And I would definitely not say that an implied gospel or a message that is mainly “do” qualifies as a gospel sermon.

        At the same time, however, I don’t know that the “do” versus “done” (indicative/imperative) paradigm is the best way to make sense of Scripture, and especially the gospel. My concern would be that people are taught to think about the gospel exclusively using that framework, and then make (what I would consider) unsound judgments about the gospel-centeredness of a preacher when they hear something doesn’t fit into that.

        But I don’t want to high-jack this thread by talking about something tangential to your post.

        Thanks for the interaction, and God bless.

  24. Larry Newman says:

    In itself, a “mention” of the present enablements already given is certainly not enough to convince a fearful Christian, because the fearful Christian will just say “whatever it is, if I supposedly already have it, either it’s not much, or I’m not saved”. And exhortations to do things “with a smile,” or “in love, with patience and humility and meekness,” exhortations not “with a furrowed brow, out of expectation of results or rewards, with strings attached,” even if they are phrased not as exhortations but “you will do it this way, not that way” are changes from “how-to do”‘s to “how to have done”‘s, and are not sufficient.

    What needs to be added is something external to ourselves as individual Christians. The Lord Jesus said “without me you can do nothing.” This agency of Christ, with us in the doing of good, is as many times better than instructions alone, as you accompanying me is better than writing things down for me on what to do.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Larry, I agree. I did not mention the smile against the furrow as something to *do.* Like, just do it with a smile, and now you know you’re gospel-centered. I was only *describing,* in other words, not dictating, what obedience from assurance might look like as opposed to obedience *for* assurance. Does that make sense?

  25. Larry Newman says:

    Glad you agree bro. I’m going to get your and Matt’s “To Live is Christ” tomorrow. Loved the phrase “smile, and now you know you’re gospel-centered” … good spoof! Can I defer a longer answer until then? Is it a huge book? If it is, or I dink around finishing it, I’ll hopefully make more of a response to your obedience from- versus for- assurance. You said it “might look like” xyz. Good thing. I liked the “might” part, because it’s a good reminder that clothes do not prove the sheep is a sheep, but the good fruit proves the tree to be good, Mt 5. Lord bless. More soon.

  26. grant says:

    Hey. I do agree with this whole article, but I feel this is dangerous as well, without further explanation. Glorification is part of the gospel. I don’t actually see the Bible saying to keep going back to only the justification aspect of salvation, though a lot of these types of instructions seem to be vague enough that someone could take it that way. I mean no offense, but please hear my plea, from someone who has seen bondage in many people who go in circles because all they know is the work of the cross, and never press forward to God’s future promises. I’m not a theologian, but isn’t this part of the Gospel too? I don’t know greek or Hebrew or anything, but this is what I see in the Word. I see instruction to “remember” the Cross, don’t forget what Jesus did there, securing our freedom. But I see a call to increase in faith (by the power of the Spirit) and strive towards future glory. I see the sanctification leading to glorification and future glory consistently as the active motivation to obey. With warnings of consequences if we don’t obey. This day and age everything must be explained. Myself and a lot of others I know seem to have been debilitated by the style of preaching coming from a lot in the new reformed crowd, that sometimes almost sounds as if we are instructed to change by passive remembrance of what Jesus did. It’s almost become a staple to the point where preachers almost seem to suggest that the way we change is by giving up trying to change and just thinking about the cross. But that’s not true. We “remember” past tense the cross… and now we MUST be active and press on towards great works of God in the future. He is not done! We will get new bodies. Are any works of God greater than the other? I ask this seriously. I do not know the answer. Creation? The cross? New Heavens and New earth? Is it ever wrong to emphasize them all equally? If anyone has some scripture on this, please let me know. Paul seemed to be motivated by the future works of God in an active sense, while not forgetting the salvation that the cross secured. I feel funny even bringing this up, because in reformed circles to even ask if the Bible puts as much of an emphasis on anything other than the cross seems to get you a “red flag.” Am I wrong to be motivated by future glory? Is our role not more active in sanctification than justification now that we have a new heart that is empowered by the Spirit to do good? When before we could only do evil? Any incite would be helpful. I hope I don’t sound disrespectful. I just want to want what God wants. That’s all. So many of us are more affected by culture than we think (even “reformed” culture) and I desperately want to follow Christ even if I sound like a fool among my own people. So many people are as unchanged by this new reformed preaching as they are other preaching, and I’m afraid we have emphasized one aspect of the gospel at the expense of other aspects that are just as important. Stuck on milk, when there’s meat. No the cross is not milk. I can think about it for days. But there’s more. God’s works are endless. He’s that big. That great. I do agree with this article Jared and appreciate a lot of your work, but without any clarification, I believe that people get the wrong ideas and actually become passive in their sanctification. They do not know that the door to the prison cell is open. Their chains are off… they can walk out in the Spirit. But many seem to think that God will float them out of the prison cell or that they can be passive. I know I did. How do we address this?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Grant, thanks for your comment and questions. I agree with most of what you’ve said, although I confess I don’t think the problem is all that widespread — at least, I don’t see as such in the “neo-Reformed” public world, but I’m sure it may proliferate “on the ground,” to speak.

      In some instances, reference to “the cross” doesn’t mean a passive remembrance but a call to behold the finished work of Christ. In the apostolic age, “the cross” came to serve as shorthand for the entirety of Christ’s finished work. I think of how Paul said he resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. Surely he did not mean he resolved to forget Christ resurrected! And indeed, in 1 Cor. 15, as he sums up the gospel in the simple message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he still goes on to show us the bigger ramifications of that one announcement.

      Today, I think we see a fairly robust understanding of the gospel message among the neo-Reformed, although of course it will be “Reformed.” But we see lots of sanctification talk, holiness, preaching about the creation/fall/redemption/consummation gospel metanarrative, the Trinity in relation to salvation, etc. If the charge is that the neo-Reformed have a “justification only” gospel, I’m not quite sure it sticks. Many of us talk quite a bit about the different notes in the one gospel song (I wrote an entire book about that, actually). But if we hone in on justification as the central point, perhaps that is what you are noticing? Obviously I can’t speak to your church situation or your experiences there and elsewhere.

      As for “striving,” I would say that the distinction between our passivity in the gospel and our activity in obedience is an important one, so if the criticism is of the distinction, I don’t think it is biblically justifiable. If the criticism is that some don’t commend obedience at all, that is absolutely justifiable. Again, I don’t see many saying that, but I’m sure some do, and I think they ought to remember that the gospel is not opposed to effort.

      Certainly my blog post here is not opposed to effort, which is why I tried to make that clear. But the gospel is not our striving. Reception of it is, in a very real sense, a striving to stop striving (Heb. 4:11).

      Thanks again for your comment, brother.

  27. Dan says:

    Great article Jared. I preface what I will write here with this – it is the predominate “legal, ethical, moral” preaching that is so dangerous. When the vast majority of your preaching is built around “do” then you are covering up the glorious Gospel of the glorious God! This is serious business – real serious. I know, “I’ve been there and done that.” My family spent almost 12 years under this type of preaching. This is actually man centered preaching and not Christ or Gospel centered preaching. It is preaching the Christian rather than Christ, it is burying the beautiful matchless Gospel under a mountain of moral and behavioral improvement preaching that ironically doesn’t result in moral improvement. I know what I’m talking about here. After 12 years of this I can honestly say that I was not one wit a better person morally after the twelve years! And yet that moral un-improvement was purchased at the loss of the GOOD NEWS to bad sinners like me from God – the Gospel! What madness! Yea, what a bargain! Instead of feasting upon the “unsearchable riches of Christ” and the love of God, you are fed mostly the bread and water of duty, duty, duty and even more duty. Under this preaching you will come under bondage again, loaded up with guilt and shame and always looking within subjectively instead of looking objectively to Christ and his finished work. The question at hand is why do some preachers preach like this? The only thing I can think of is that they just must not be impressed with the Lord Jesus Christ. I know this is something very hard to say but what else could it be? They are more impressed with their “do” list than Christ “done” list. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who I might add, has a lot to say about this in sermons he preached in the 1950’s so there’s nothing new under the sun) says if your preacher can’t get you to say “oh for a thousand tongues…. then you are not hearing Gospel”. If most all you ever hear out of a preacher is “do” then you are being robbed – robbed of the Gospel, robbed of good news, robbed of the love of God. What else am I to think? Why would someone whose practice is to preach through entire books of the Bible, verse by verse, omit this same practice when it comes to any one of the four Gospels and the Epistle to the Romans – in 14 years? This sort of stuff can do you real damage. By grace, we have come under preaching now that is focused on the Gospel and the love of God – and OH! What a difference it has made. Please don’t try to tag me with the antinomian label or rejecting 2Tim. 3:16. Take a look at Is. 52:3 and see if you can see Christ and his Gospel in it. “For thus says the LORD: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” Wow! That’s Gospel! I’m impressed – are you?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Dan, thanks for your comment. My short answer (that I think sums up all other true factors) to your question “Why don’t preachers preach like this?” is that I think it is because fundamentally they distrust that the gospel alone is the power the Word says it is. We want to shore it up with the law because we think it needs the help, or else people won’t be motivated. We think the law empowers the obedience it commands, that the gospel is powerless to do so by itself.

      1. Jared C. Wilson says:

        And of course, when I say “the gospel by itself,” I mean the Spirit working in and through the word of the gospel.

      2. Dan says:

        I think you just answered my question. Yes, you are correct. They distrust that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Thanks again for the article.

        1. Frank says:

          Or, maybe they never learned the Christ-centered hermeneutic that you advocate. Or, maybe they have questions about the Christ-centered hermeneutic that you’re advocating that they don’t think have been adequately answered yet. Please, please be careful in making sweeping statements like “they distrust that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.” That may be true of the pastor in your experience; I’m not defending him or legalistic preaching in general. But there maybe other reasons why a preacher preaches the way he does besides that he distrusts that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.

          1. Jared C. Wilson says:

            Frank, how isn’t it still the same thing? By understanding this hermeneutic but rejecting it, isn’t that essentially a way of saying “that’s not the power that trains people to obey, this is”?

            Or: Help me understand. Why would someone believe the gospel is where the power is and then *not* make it the center of his preaching?

  28. frank says:

    Jared @ 10:25am,

    I said, maybe they never learned it, or maybe they have questions about it. Not, they understand it but reject it.

    There are many preachers out there who are seeking to be faithful and who are preaching the best they know how, but who were never taught how to do it in a gospel-centered way. My uncle is one of them. He’s been preaching in rural Arkansas for over 50 years. I’m sure some of his sermons would fall into the type of danger you’re warning about. But I think it’s extremely unfair to say that the reason he preaches the way he does is because he distrusts that the gospel is the power unto salvation.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Frank, okay, I see what you’re saying. Sorry I misunderstood.

      I would still press back a bit, and I’ll do it this way: I was trained and experienced to teach/preach in moralistic ways for the first half of my ministry life. I was never taught a gospel-centered hermeneutic. Didn’t know it existed. But I would still say about myself, that ignorance notwithstanding, what I was doing was a fundamental distrust in the gospel and an entire trust in the law to produce its own implications.

      1. Frank says:

        Jared,

        I don’t want to quibble. But I know that there are preachers out there who aren’t even thinking in terms of the framework that you have here. When my uncle preaches a “law” passage, he’s just saying what he thinks the Bible is saying, and he believes that God’s Word is powerful and that God’s Spirit will use it. At other times he gets to preach a “gospel” passage, and I can tell you that he absolutely loves those Sundays. I suppose you can say that he has a fundamental distrust in the gospel to produce obedience, but that just seems like unfairly judging motives. What if he’s just trying to faithfully say what the passage in front of him says, and has never learned or developed the skills to do it a different way?

        You said above, “ignorance notwithstanding,” in regard to your own case. I agree that ignorance doesn’t absolve a preacher from all charges, but perhaps it does in regards to the specific one that’s being leveled here.

        On another note, I’m not sure that Rom. 1:16 is a very good verse to support what we’ve been talking about. If I’m understanding correctly, we’ve been saying something like: the indicatives of the Christ event is what produces heart change in an individual leading to obedience. It’d be a huge subject to get into, but I doubt that what Paul means by “gospel” leading to salvation in Rom 1:16 is that the indicatives are what produces obedience in a person’s life, and not imperatives. (not that I’m questioning that basic premise, just that Romans 1:16 is talking about that).

        Paul’s “gospel” (1:2) so far in Romans seems to be very much about the lordship of Jesus over the whole world (descendant of David (v.3) (i.e. true heir of David who would sit on David’s throne as ruler of the world), declared to be Son of God by his resurrection: Jesus Christ (the true messiah or king) our Lord(v.4)).

        This is what Paul is not ashamed of, because this is the power of God for salvation.

        Blessings,

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          Frank, thanks again for the clarification and pushback.

          I agree “the gospel is power” is not limited to Romans 1:16, which is why I included more verses in the post. Titus 2:11-12 is a good one, as is Philippians 2:12-13, among others. I also agree that the gospel is bigger than one verse in Romans and deeper than the surface of Christ’s cross and tomb. I wrote an entire book about this reality, in fact.

          As for the previous points, I don’t want to quibble either, but it appears that neither of us is feeling quite understood. So:
          1. I don’t know your uncle. Never heard him preach. I’ve got nothing to say about him or his preaching.
          2. It *seems* like what you’re saying is “Some people have never heard of this and are doing the best they can,” and so therefore, “We shouldn’t suggest they’re doing it wrong.” In other words, it sounds like you’re saying the case being made might tell somebody they aren’t preaching “the right way” (or that it might hurt their feelings?), which I confess is indeed the entire point of my making the argument: not that somebody would get their feelings hurt, but that some might have an articulation of why gospel-deficient preaching feels so “off” and that some might be convinced to preach differently.

          1. Frank says:

            Jared,

            I’m sorry. I know how hard it is to communicate in this way. I have no problem with saying that my uncle or anyone else is doing it wrong. All I was trying to do was take up the specific charge that was leveled above, which seemed like a very serious one to me, and perhaps not the only explanation for why someone would be doing it wrong.

          2. Frank says:

            Feel free to have the last word. If not, thanks for your time.

  29. Dan says:

    The Gospel IS the power of God for salvation. Nothing else is – absolutely nothing else is. Without the Gospel being preached all is lost. The Gospel is not a doctrine. The Gospel is not a teaching. The Gospel transcends even creation itself. The angels probably nudged each other with a dazzling wonderment as they saw the Gospel first preached in Gen. 3:15., they were probably amazed to see the babe in the manger – the incarnate second person of the blessed Holy Trinity – the Son of God himself, always omnipresent from before an un-begun eternity, now confined to a bed of hay, unable to move, the sinless one now dependent upon sinful creatures for the daily necessities of infant life and yet here lay the King of all Kings and Lord of all Lords! From the manger to the cross, yes that cross – in that manger he could not move and neither could he move when fastened to the tree with nails crafted by sinful creatures. We’ve all heard the story, many times over. This is his Gospel, not ours. This matchless, stupendous, glorious Gospel – good news that vile sinners, yes, the vilest of sinners can find forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, and ONLY him – all absolutely free! Captives of the strong man armed – released forever! Slaves of sin made everlastingly righteous, the vile and unrighteous (me) made perfectly righteous in his sight even though I am not righteous, justified forever and completely even though still a sinner! Born utterly blind – yet now seeing the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ! The Gospel – unsearchable, incomparable, immeasurable – nothing can touch it – nothing can overthrow it – it is undefeatable. The height, the depth, the breadth of it no legions of men can find out. Go ahead, get all the greatest philosophers the world has ever seen and clone them all millions of times over – their collective wisdom when compared with the wisdom of God in Christ Gospel would be like comparing a single drop of water to all the oceans of ten thousands of worlds – and I’m not kidding! I could go on and on and on. All our sins, yesterdays, todays and all the tomorrows – just one would easily damn you forever – gone! Without a Gospel we are all eternally ruined with no hope of recovery. You mean to tell me a preacher can’t work this Gospel into every one of his sermons? Somehow? The Gospel – the absolutely best news, the greatest news that has ever been and will ever be, good news to bad sinners from God himself. Thank God for His glorious Gospel! I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it (ALONE, ALL BY ITSELF, WITH NOT ONE DROP OF HELP FROM US) IS the power of God for salvation!

  30. a. says:

    as has been stated here, I am thinking also unbelief, fear, pride must be major reasons when the whole word of our Sovereign God isn’t preached just in the way He has instructed.

    Isa 55:10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;11 So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

  31. Rob Bittick says:

    This is an excellent article. I have attended many churches pastored by clergy who said people do not want to hear theology, but practical sermons. One such reverend said to me, “People want ‘How to’ sermons.” I found such sermons to be dry, leaving me spiritually empty. At another church my family attended, we heard “How to handle a hectic life” type sermons every week. Again, these left me feeling spiritually empty.

    I hope more pastors realize that the deep things of God are not dry or esoteric, but are life giving words.

    1. Riley says:

      It makes sense that unawakened sinners would want practical instruction for living. They do not believe, nor do they wish to be told, that they are sinners in need of a Savior. These kinds of comments are how a pastor knows he’s preaching to a herd of goats. In his situation, he ought to start preaching the law in its 1st and second use: To let them know they are sinners under God’s eternal wrath and curse, and to drive them outside of themselves to seek a Savior, in despair of ever living up to God’s standard.

  32. James McCune says:

    Actually, any Christ-deficient teaching on the law is ineffective. If the letter of the law passes away with the Old Covenant which is replaced by the New Covenant, then the spirit of the law as expounded and amplified by Christ (You have heard that it was said . . . but I say unto you . .)is what the Christian needs. The letter of the law emphasized actions while the spirit of the law emphasizes intent. Stop lusting after women (intent) and you will automatically stop getting in trouble with them (action).

    So you are correct: Christ-deficient law preaching is focused on the wrong things!

  33. Riley says:

    This is very true, and needed, but I’ve moved past it. Once upon a time, many years ago, I attended a church where the preaching was always “how to.” But now, as a preacher, I cannot even stomach them, let alone even think about trying to craft such a sermon.

    It is important to show believers how the doctrines of Scripture work themselves out in their daily lives, and that include imperatives. However, even in the “application” of a sermon, I have found that the imperatives are not the only, or even the primary application. First of all, the gospel changes us, our thoughts, and emotions, and finally our behavior. I’ve stopped calling the 3rd part of my sermons the “application” in favor of the older Puritan word “use”, which helps bring out the way that we should respond intellectually and emotionally to the Word prior to a behavioral response. The gospel awakens, comforts, assures, warns, instructs, even before it commands.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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