Let me say this upfront: I believe it is important to preach the moral imperatives of Scripture. Faithful biblical preaching requires pastors to preach the biblical commands. These commands are scattered throughout the New Testament (for an example, check out Paul's list of imperatives in Ephesians 4:25-32). This brings up a major issue for most preachers, though: how do we preach the imperatives of Scripture without falling into moralistic preaching?
The Dangers of Moralism
Read most of the books on Redemptive Historical/Christocentric preaching, and you will find warnings against moralistic preaching. Moralistic preaching is preaching that focuses on the biblical commands without connecting them to the gospel. It is preaching that is heavy on the imperatives and lacking in gospel content. Moralistic preaching leads to one of two things: a false sense of self-righteousness, or despair.
For some, moralistic preaching leads to self-righteousness. They hear all the biblical commands, they work extremely hard to keep all those commands, and they feel good when they keep these commands. Their confidence is based on what they have done instead of what Christ has done. By focusing on the imperatives, the preacher unwittingly fosters a false sense of self-righteousness.
For others, moralistic preaching leads to despair. They hear the biblical commands, they work hard to keep the commands, and they fail to keep the biblical commands. This leads to disappointment and despair. By preaching the imperatives apart from the gospel, the preacher beats down his congregation with biblical commands, which they always fail to keep.
Bottom line: moralistic preaching produces undesired results. Those listening to moralistic sermons will either feel good about themselves because of what they have done, or they will feel bad about themselves because they have failed to obey the biblical commands. Both of these outcomes cause the listeners to look to themselves instead of Christ.
Christocentric Preaching and Antinomianism
The emphasis on Christ-centered preaching has rightly caused many preachers to give more attention to the great indicative of the gospel. Instead of focusing on what people should do, they focus on what Christ has done. Every sermon is oriented towards the gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ. This removes the focus from man’s actions and places the spotlight on God’s gracious work of salvation provided by Jesus Christ. This shift was absolutely necessary, but there has been one unintended consequence. In an attempt to focus on the gospel and the grace of God, some preachers have started to avoid preaching the imperatives.
Whereas moralistic preaching neglects the indicative of the gospel, some Christocentric preaching avoids the imperatives of Scripture. The truths of the gospel are expounded, but people are never challenged to respond. The failure to preach the imperatives leads to a subtle form of antinomianism. The gospel and God's grace are emphasized, but the responsibilities of the Christian are neglected. The gospel is proclaimed, but people are not called to respond to repent and believe. A weird sort of antinomianism abounds, where grace is emphasized to the neglect of the imperatives.
The Answer: Preaching the Indicative and the Imperatives
The solution to avoiding moralism and antinomianism is to preach the great indicative (the gospel) and the biblical imperatives. It isn't either/or; it is both/and. Preach the indicative of the gospel, and preach the imperatives of Scripture. It is only by preaching the indicatives and the imperatives that preachers can avoid moralism and antinomianism. Proclaiming the gospel helps preachers avoid the charge of moralism, and preaching the biblical commands helps preachers avoid the charge of antinomianism. Here are a few suggestions for preachers committed to preaching the indicative and the imperatives:
1. Remind Your People Obedience Does Not Produce Righteousness
We do not obey to become righteous. Obedience is not the grounds of justification but the outflow of justification; it is not the cause of justification but the result of it. Constantly hammer home the truth that our righteousness is found in Christ, and obedience to the moral imperatives is simply the outworking of our righteousness. In other words, preach the moral imperatives, but remind your people obedience to these imperatives is the result of righteousness, not the cause of it.
2. Remind Your People They Are Capable of Obeying the Biblical Commands
Apart from Gods grace, we are incapable of obeying Gods commands. Thankfully, the gospel enables us to obey the biblical commands. As Bryan Chapell said, "Faith that we are new creatures in Christ Jesus provides us with the confidence that we can do what God requires, and thus we employ the power his Spirit has already instilled within us (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).”[i] Our people must be reminded that they cannot obey the biblical commands apart from the gospel, but they must also be reminded they can obey the biblical commands because the gospel has radically changed them. Through the power of the gospel and the enablement of the Holy Spirit, we can obey Scriptures moral imperatives.
3. Know Your Audience.
Every congregation leans towards moralism or antinomianism. Those who lean towards moralism need the indicative of the gospel. They need to be challenged to focus on the gospel and not on themselves. They need to focus on the cross and not their works. They need the gospel. Those who lean towards antinomianism need the imperatives. They need to be challenged to respond to the gospel and to “work out” their salvation (Philippians 2:13). But, the preacher must connect these imperatives to the gospel, or he will end up preaching moralism to antinomians! A proper understanding of the audience will allow preachers to lean into the indicative or the imperative without ignoring the other.
So, don't avoid the imperatives. Tell people what to do. But, connect every imperative to the great indicative. Lift up Jesus Christ, and challenge people to respond. Proclaim the power of the gospel, and challenge Christians to obey the demands of the gospel. Tell your people what to do, but first, tell them Jesus!
[i]Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 325.