So much modern evangelical biblical theology is a gift to the church. It has stemmed the tide of moralistic preaching in many churches and has provided useful theological resources to combat the most egregious theological dangers of our day, such as the prosperity gospel.
But I’ve also witnessed (and been guilty of) some bad biblical theology. In my first year of seminary, for example, I became so enamored with biblical theology and how the story “fits together” that I lost sight of the moral demands the story places on us all—an error that spilled over into the way I taught Scripture to others. Over time, bad biblical theology will undercut a congregation’s health—warping the message of Scripture and stunting a church’s growth in the knowledge of God.
All of us—not just preachers—should beware of bad biblical theology. But what exactly does bad biblical theology look like in sermons?
1. Sermons that are ‘Christ-centered’ but never make moral demands.
The Bible is opposed to moralism, not morality. Regrettably, I’ve heard many sermons that confuse the two. I’ve even interacted with some preachers and seminary students who would wince a little if they heard a preacher rattle off commands to his congregation in the way Paul does in the epistles (cf. 1 Cor. 16:13–14).
I appreciate the desire on the part of many pastors to avoid “moralism” and to emphasize the gospel as the agent of transformation in the Christian life. Yet it’s also the case that some preachers—particularly younger ones—need to embrace that preaching must also include appropriate exhortations for the congregation to respond to Christ’s climactic fulfillment of the Old Testament. The law “used lawfully” in gospel preaching (1 Tim. 1:8) is both biblical and necessary.
Having experienced moralistic preaching, I know firsthand the spiritual crises it creates. But avoiding imperatives altogether is shortsighted and misguided.
For example, preaching how Jesus fulfills the Davidic covenant and ascends the throne of Israel demands that we call people to bow their knee to Jesus the king. Preaching how Jesus fulfills the office of priest demands that we call people to trust in his sacrifice. Preaching Jesus as the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15a) demands that we also tell people “to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15b). Preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the temple demands that we also teach people that Christ has poured out the Spirit on his church and expects us to preserve the purity of God’s dwelling through faithful discipleship and discipline. Preaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the law demands that we also tell people “don’t worship idols, honor your father and mother, don’t look at porn, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet.”
Additionally, preaching how Jesus fulfills Old Testament types must include how the Messiah incorporates his people into that fulfillment. I’ve left many sermons, which masterfully demonstrated how Jesus fulfilled some Old Testament type, thinking, Wow, isn’t Jesus amazing! I sure wish he had something to do with me! It’s exhilarating to discover how every story in the Old Testament whispers Jesus’s name—how every promise, person, and pattern is ultimately fulfilled in him.
At the same time, we must remember that we are also a part of the story. Jesus is the true and better temple, but he gives his people that same identity (1 Cor. 3:16). Jesus is the true and better Israel, but he incorporates those who put faith in him into the new Israelite community (Gal. 6:16). Jesus rises from the dead, fulfilling types of resurrection in the OT (1 Cor. 15:1–3), but his resurrection is the firstfruits of what’s to come, guaranteeing our coming resurrection and offering a hope that should shape our everyday lives (1 Cor. 15:58). Christ-centered preaching is unavoidably ecclesiological—he is the head, we are the body.
I commend preachers who don’t want to sully their congregation’s estimation of God’s grace revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Having experienced moralistic preaching, I know firsthand the spiritual crises it creates. But avoiding imperatives altogether is shortsighted and misguided. I’m confident the cripple in Mark 2 didn’t lose any sense of the wonder of grace or reliance on Christ when the Lord commanded him to pick up his mat and go home.
2. Sermons that don’t present biblical characters as positive and negative moral examples.
Perhaps you’ve heard youth pastors challenge you to “dare to be a Daniel” or “flee sexual temptation like Joseph.” Perhaps you’ve sat under preaching that encouraged you to “be like” Abraham, David, Jonathan, Josiah, Paul, or even Jesus. In my first year of seminary, I scoffed at such “moralism.” After a few years, I stopped the scoffing. Yes, we must preach Jesus from every text authentically by reading each passage in light of the entire canon of Scripture and the climax of redemptive history in Christ. And yes, the characters of Scripture ultimately point beyond themselves to the grace of God in his Son. But the New Testament authors,—in the context of a robust, Christ-centered biblical theology—do not shy away from presenting Old Testament characters as moral exemplars.
Preaching that only employs biblical characters as moral exemplars is unbiblical. But preaching that fails to draw any moral implications from the lives of biblical characters is equally unbiblical.
Jesus and the apostles routinely call Christians to “be like” or “not be like” Old Testament figures (cf. Heb 12:16). Even Paul tells us that Israel’s sinful actions in the wilderness “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6; cf. 10:11). Likewise, James encourages believers to be like the prophets, Job, and Elijah (James 5:10–28). Paul even commends himself as someone the Corinthians ought to imitate (1 Cor. 11:1). Further, many of Jesus’s parables command listeners to imitate exemplary characters (Matt. 7:24–27). After teaching on the Good Samaritan, Jesus commanded the lawyer, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). In other words, “Go and be like the good Samaritan.”
Of course, preaching that only employs biblical characters as moral exemplars is unbiblical. But preaching that fails to draw any moral implications from the lives of biblical characters is equally unbiblical. We must show how each story finds its climax in God’s final Word in Christ, and we must draw out moral lessons from the lives of biblical characters.
To be sure, preaching should primarily aim at transforming the heart. But transformed hearts still need to be taught to observe all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). Moral exemplars are one of the most powerful ways to inspire obedience among God’s people. Who can’t help but feel a little steel in their spine when reading about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing tall in the throng of kneeling idolaters in Daniel 3? As Bruce Wayne said in Batman Begins, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.”
3. Sermons that sound the same every week.
Some redemptive-historical preaching can fall into the trap of saying the same thing week after week. Rather than allowing the contours of the text to shape the homiletical outline, some preachers allow their biblical-theological commitments to dictate the structure of their sermon, and so the point of each sermon always tends to be the same: “Look how Jesus fulfilled X from the Old Testament.”
As Derek Thomas has noted, a redemptive-historical sermon can be “breathtaking” the first time you encounter it, but if it’s the only tool in your tool belt, your sermons will soon become predictable.
4. Sermons that so focus on the ‘big picture’ that they avoid the details of the text.
A final problem with some redemptive-historical preaching is the way it fails to unpack the actual text being preached. Rather than letting exegesis drive the sermon, I’ve heard preachers simply identify the big biblical-theological theme (temple, priest, king, law, sabbath, and so on) and then walk through Scripture’s metanarrative focusing on that theme. Unfortunately, this approach ignores the most basic preaching question: “What does the text say?” Ultimately, our biblical-theological route to Jesus must emerge from exegesis of the text.
Evangelical preaching has benefited from the lectures, articles, and books reinvigorating the notion that every sermon ultimately must lead its hearers to respond to God’s free grace in the gospel. But no adjective fits better with preaching than “expository.”
No adjective fits better with preaching than ‘expository.’
Why? Because faithful sermons exposit the text, and faithful exposition takes into account the text’s literary, historical, covenantal, and ultimately canonical context.