The Bible is Not an Instruction Manual

by Jared C. Wilson October 19, 2015

One night on the way home from small group, I listened to the guy on the local Christian radio station give a ten-minute presentation of what he had learned in church the previous day. It all boiled down to an appeal to make Jesus, in his words, our “role model.” It was all very nice and inspirational.
There is indeed no better role model than Jesus. You won’t find me arguing against that. And wanting Jesus for his benefits (in his gospel) but not for his cross (in our obedience) is a serious problem in Christianity. But the problem with this fellow’s recollection of his pastor’s sermon was that it showed no indication of actual gospel content.

It could have been delivered by the Dalai Lama. The Buddhist actor Richard Gere thinks Jesus is an awesome role model. So do many atheists. The majority of the thinking world acknowledges that Jesus is a good role model, and in fact, most of them wish Christians would act more like Jesus (or at least, more like their perception of Jesus).

This ought to hint at the inherent deficiency in the “Jesus as role model” message: “Be like Jesus,” by itself, is not good news. At one point in his gushing review, the radio dude appealed to Christians’ interest in self-help books and advice columns, but chastised them, saying, “We read all of those things, but we never think to go to the Bible for God’s advice!” As if the alternative to advice from the world is more advice, just from the Bible this time.

The gospel is not good advice; it is good news.

In the attractional church, the messages are predominantly of the “life application” variety, meant to make the Christian walk seem more practical or relatable or appealing. In other words, the attractional church is big on advice. Acknowledging, of course, that much applicational preaching contains proclamation and that good proclamational preaching ought to contain application, we nevertheless ought to trend more toward the proclamation. The best preaching contains both proclamation (what God has done) and application (what we should do), but the difference in Christ-centered expository preaching is that the trust for power in application is placed in the content of the proclamation. In Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stetzer and David Putnam write,

We think that a common mistake many seeker-driven churches made early on was trying to communicate relevant messages that had little or no biblical content. It seemed that the sermons were basically explanations of common-sense wisdom, or perhaps biblical principles, but the Bible did not set the shape or agenda of the message.

We must always remember that “consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17) and “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible is not simply a tool for scriptural footnoting or common-sense wisdom.

The typical applicational message tends to overemphasize our good works while a good proclamational message will emphasize God’s finished work. Let’s all agree: It’s only bad pastors who don’t want to see life change in their people. None of us doesn’t want to help people grow. But when it comes down to how people grow, to what actually catalyzes people toward change in their life toward obedience and service, we reach for answers. We provide a new set each week in handy outline form, inserted right there in the bulletin. But what if all this emphasis on steps and tips isn’t actually the best way to help people grow? Here are some challenging thoughts:

The preacher must courageously and ferociously believe that transformation occurs through the interplay of God’s Word and Spirit. He is simply a vessel, a broken jar of clay, spilling out before the people the water of life. The Holy Spirit always uses the revealed Word of God to open the eyes of both the unbeliever and believer to the wonders of the gospel. The preacher should not feel as if he is carrying the burden of life change; he merely carries the burden of faithful exposition and the robust proclamation of the text at hand, trusting that God’s Word will never return void (Isa. 55:10–11). This is the wonder and weight of preaching. (Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (B&H, 123)

The essential difference between applicational preaching and proclamational preaching ultimately depends on how much the preacher wishes to make of Jesus. Do you want people to walk away thinking Jesus is a big deal? Then you have to make Jesus look like a big deal. You cannot assume that simply telling people that Jesus is a big deal will work. People don’t believe what you tell them is important; they believe what you show them is important. So if in our preaching we spend most of our time emphasizing good works and then a little time saying, “But really, Jesus’s work is most important,” we’ve already shown them with our sermon imbalance what we really believe.

Proclamational preaching makes much of the gospel, believing that proclaiming the finished and sufficient work of Christ for salvation is, as Paul says, “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). The applicational preacher either presupposes the gospel or relegates it to the conclusion of his message, believing that what’s of most importance is exhorting the congregation to live in more Christlike ways.

To be clear (again): We should be exhorting our congregations to live in more Christlike ways. But if the emphasis of our preaching is on being more like Jesus and not on the good news of grace despite our not being able to be like Jesus, we end up actually achieving the opposite of our intent. We inadvertently become legalists, actually, because we are more concerned with works and behavior than with Christ’s work on our hearts. The great irony is that, despite hoping to win the unchurched with the message of the good news, we end up enticing them with a Christian form of self-help or behavior modification, neither of which has ever saved anyone.

The proclamational preacher preaches the texts of Scripture with God as the subject and the gospel at the forefront, and he does so without shame, trusting not his words or his demeanor to win souls, but the work of the Holy Spirit.

This understanding clarifies a huge reality the attractional church must absolutely come to grips with: just because you dress casually, play edgy music, and talk a lot about grace, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a legalist. And in fact, it’s my belief that the self-professed “culturally relevant” churches are the chief proponents of legalism in Christianity today. They don’t think they are, because they equate legalism with stuffy fundamentalism, with rigidity and dourness, with suits and ties and organ-led hymns. They equate legalism with somber preaching of the thou shalt nots.

But “do” isn’t any less law-minded than “don’t.”

Dos and don’ts are just flip sides of the same legal coin. The gospel isn’t “don’t,” but it also isn’t “do”; both are merely religion.

A church that is mobilized with a gospel of “do good” might make for good PR, but the gospel of “do good” cannot really scandalize (in the Galatians 5:11 sense) a lost and broken world, because most people know how to do good without the help of Christianity. They don’t need the church to act like good people, really; they need the church to point to Jesus as the only truly good person.
The attractional churches often believe they are railing against legalism and offering grace because they create culturally relevant, casual, innovative environments; because they make the message of the Bible one of practical stuff to do; and because they are cheerful and creative and take WWJD? seriously, while all the while they still don’t know the power of the gospel of Christ’s finished work, sufficient for salvation and fit for proclamation.

They give us instead the “gospel” of busywork. But the primary message of the Bible, as it heralds to us Jesus Christ, is that the work is already done.

Remember that the Pharisees were the religious leaders who missed the gospel because of their focus on dos and don’ts. Pharisaical legalism was just self-help without the cool clothes. This is why today’s Pharisees aren’t the concerned folks in the pews worried about their discipleship (as they are so often accused), but rather the preachers on many stages across the country whose messages are always full of helpful tips on how to get better at being a Christian but rarely gleaming with the satisfaction of Christ. Robert Capon reminds us that “Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to improve the improvable, not to perfect the perfectible, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.”

-- excerpted from Jared C. Wilson, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo, now available from Crossway