With the foundation laid, the focus is now shifted to sifting through all the different types of preaching to determine which meet the biblical standards. This might be described as panning for a precious jewel. We will begin with a pan full of sediment and shake until all the dirt sifts away and we are left with the prize of our consideration. By God’s grace, we will let all preaching that does not meet his divine standard fall away and find within our possession the one true gem.
As we begin to search, I want to distinguish between two very different realms of preaching which exist. The most basic division of preaching is biblical and unbliblical. Preaching which is biblically lacking must be pushed aside and that which is biblical must be accepted as the model to set forth for preachers. However, it would not be beneficial to label and dismiss preaching types without warrant. Neither would it aid us to accept other types of preaching without justification. In order to fully sift through the good and bad, we must place each kind up to the biblical definition, purposes, and powers already laid out for comparison. As we move forward through these various types, it will be made clear that only one will stand up to the standards laid out in God’s word.
The first category that must be dealt with is biblically lacking proclamations of God’s word. Unfortunately, current trends tend to travel down this path. It does not necessarily mean that the bible is outrightly denied; however, it does mean that at least on some level the bible is neglected. Understanding the falsities of certain types of preaching will help us find greater assurance in standing on the firm foundation of God’s word.
1. Prosperity Preaching
Particularly in America, there is a cultural mindset of prosperity. The pursuit of the American dream is engrained in nearly every facet of our society. Alarmingly, this mindset has reared its head within evangelicalism. There is a message going forth that Christianity makes you healthy and wealthy. Naturally the human heart is quite comfortable with this message. Regardless to the comfort level of the human heart, there is a question we must ask: Can this type of preaching stand based on the biblical definition, purposes, and powers already presented? The great tragedy of this message is that it masquerades as biblical. Scripture references are cited, the son of God is quoted, yet the theme of Scripture as it was initially intended is forsaken. My intention is not to become overly critical of individuals; however, I do want us to be aware of the fallacies which currently exist under the guise of Christian preaching. There probably aren’t many households that haven’t heard the name Joel Osteen. He is pastor of one of the nation’s largest churches and impacts millions through books, television, and internet. In his book, Your Best Life Now, Osteen gives us a glimpse into the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel:
But Victoria had more faith than I did, and she would not give up. We stood out in front of that house for thirty minutes and debated. She told me all the reasons why it could happen. I told her all the reasons why I doubted. She said, “No, Joel I feel it deep inside. It is going to happen.” She was so filled with joy I didn’t want to burst her bubble, so I let the matter drop. But Victoria didn’t! Over the next several months, she kept speaking words of faith and victory and she finally talked me into it. She convinced me that we could live in an elegant home like the one we saw. I got rid of my limited thinking and I started agreeing with her. I started believing that somehow, some way, God could bring it to pass. We kept believing it, seeing it, and speaking it. (Osteen 7)
There is no denial of God, Jesus, or the Bible, but there is contortion to fit the mold of material gain. Does this bring glory to God, equip the saints for ministry, or draw us into the full stature of Christ? Surely we have not come so far as to believe, and to preach to others, that Jesus’ sacrifice was to secure elegant housing. This seems a stark contrast to the biblical exhortation to follow Jesus who had not a place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). Has faith within the house of God been reduced to nothing more than trusting God for a two-story house?
Faith is focused upon and God is mentioned, but to what avail within the kingdom? The premise of the book is to list seven keys to unlock your best life now. This notion is the antithesis to the biblical proposition in 1 Corinthians 15:19. Paul writes, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” Osteen calls us to live our best life now and the apostle teaches that if this current life is all we have to look forward to, then we are pitiable. God works for our eternal good; therefore, prosperity preaching is preposterous.
2. Moral Reform Preaching
The health, wealth, and prosperity gospel is easily identified and generally dismissed in conservative circles of Christianity; however, there is a tendency within the world of preaching to show disregard for the glory of God in an incredibly indirect way. It is preaching that focuses on morality. In this type of preaching, the Bible is set forth as authoritative and is even usually used in context, according to certain hermeneutical principles. There is definitely room and cause for practical application in sermons; however, we must not reduce the bible to a set of regulations. The Bible is not a glorified rulebook—it is the revelation of our God. In his book, Brothers We are Not Professionals, John Piper illustrates how overemphasizing morality undermines God’s glory:
Wherever happy confidence in the sovereign power of God for our own lives and the lives of others grows weak, legalism creeps in. We inevitably try to compensate for loss of dynamic faith by increased moral resolve and the addition of manmade regulations. But wherever joyful confidence in the power of God is waning the flesh is waxing. Which means the morality we hoped would save ourselves and the regulations we hoped would purify our church fall victim to the massive power of the flesh and become its instruments of self reliance and self sufficiency. (Piper 155)
Adhering to principles apart from God given grace exalts man as able to conquer sin. I hope to sound a solemn warning to any who think that God’s word simply educates us in “checklist Christianity.” The cross was not a means for us to live a good life; it is the path that leads us into a redeemed life. Preachers are not called to reform people’s behavior, but to minister and trust the Holy Spirit to supernaturally cause transformation. Jesus directs us to a higher standard. Of course we know the law forbids us to murder and yet Jesus says that hatred towards a brother is murder in the heart. The word informs us that adultery is unacceptable and the son of God informs us that to look upon a woman with lustful intent is to commit adultery in the soul. Even if we could follow the law physically, who apart from God could wholly obey with their motives? Ministering in such a way that we point people towards goodness and not holiness completely misses the mark of biblical preaching. It circumvents God’s glory by measuring success against a preconceived notion of righteousness instead of the measure of true majesty.
Legalism is certainly a threat if preachers rely only on practicality from the pulpit; however, relevancy is also a threat to the sacred task if it is overemphasized. Preaching patterns are emerging which hone in on the specific details of life. Sermons are increasingly becoming only tips for improving ourselves. Steps to a better marriage or principles for financial security are extremely pertinent, but they lack eternal power. If a pastor’s message is packed full of helpful hints and void of the glorious gospel, then redemption will be sacrificed at the price of relevance. What could be more practical than the good news of Christ crucified, risen, and interceding at the right hand of the father? Purely practical preaching can create two extremes. It will either produce legalism and dead works or relevancy and managed lives. Neither can hold up under a biblical theology of preaching.
3. Motivational Preaching
Certainly everyone needs motivating from time to time. From the person who feels down in the dumps to the soul that is broken in two, we all have times of discouragement. The necessity for encouragement is not the problem with motivational preaching. We must distinguish between biblical motivation and the mindset of secular motivation. Biblical motivation draws people into the gospel and lets them peer into the greatness of God to be lifted. Secular motivation instructs people to look within and find strength to bring about positive change. Churches are adrift in literature and teaching that motivates through human determination and perseverance. In his book, Developing the Leader Within You, John Maxwell employs a fatal flaw of secular motivation:
As you begin changing your thinking, start immediately to change your behavior. Begin to act the part of the person you would like to become. Take action on the behavior you admire by making it your behavior. Too many people want to feel then take action. This never works. (Maxwell 110)
This stance is biblically unwarranted. It shifts all power to cause change into human hands. According to this reasoning, we can modify our thinking as well as our behavior and should take action without internal motivation. This message is not new. It is an age old concept that turns the meaning of Philippians 4:13 on its head. It whispers to the human heart that it can do all things, editing out the words that bring everlasting motivation: that we can do all things through Christ. Can you imagine Saul trying to convince himself to become a missionary, preacher, and apostle through sheer willpower? Could a killer of Christians try to act the part of the person he would like to become and then force that behavior upon himself? The assumption that we can make ourselves feel a certain way apart from divine intervention is flawed. God requires from us what only he can produce within us. Only when we understand this can we be truly motivated by seeking God, having our motives rearranged and then letting our actions flow from transformed hearts. Motivational preaching in the secular sense of the term belittles God’s role in the human heart, dismantles the gospel, and abuses God’s word. Let us motivate through humbling ourselves to the point of pleading for God to work in us and others the miracle of hope.
4. Political Preaching
Our attention now shifts to the secularization of the pulpit in the spectrum of politics. Religion tends to be a hot topic in the media whenever elections roll around and political agendas find their way into many sermons as well. Too often pastors believe that making national changes starts with grassroots preaching of political ideology. Perhaps these pastors have not considered how passionately proclaiming the Gospel might bring about worldwide revolution. Mychal Massie states this thought eloquently, “What does it profit a preacher to gather unto himself White House visits, while watching his congregants go astray for lack of biblical teaching?” Jesus’ own words pointed to himself as the catalyst of radical change. When Pilate asked the son of God if he realized that his life was in his hands, Jesus replied by pointing out that heavenly authority trumps earthly authority. He averted the focus back to his Father. The greatest political power the preacher has is to preach and teach by calling attention to the Great Potter and allowing him to mold and shape his instruments of clay. Cutting remarks at the expense of political candidates will not uplift or educate the body of Christ. Neither will bolstering the image of a candidate. The pulpit is not the medium for making political advances, it is one of God’s ordained methods for advancing the kingdom and in this manner the world of politics will feel the effects. The Gospel is a mighty tidal wave of wonder and when it is heralded it will ripple to the furthest reaches of the globe. Political preaching supposes that preachers can make national reforms and forgets that God is already at work reforming the world.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of unbiblical preaching types, these categories represent pertinent and dangerous trajectories within Christendom. However, negating is not sufficient. We must consider the biblical type of preaching and its practical fulfillment. This is the topic of the next post.
Calvinist Picard is a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies graduate and currently about halfway through a Ph.D. in Leadership program. He has worked in education and ministry in various roles for just a little over a decade. Follow him on Twitter at @CalvinistPicard and on Facebook at CalvinistPicard.