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