Why Legalistic Preaching Doesn’t Work

by David Prince May 9, 2016

Legalism is the pursuit of good works abstracted from faith in an effort to garner God’s favor and blessing. Moralism is the attempt to obey or impose the ethical commands of the Bible abstracted from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much preaching in Christian churches is simply a collection of legalistic moralisms. Graeme Goldsworthy suggests that the reason this approach to preaching is prevalent and popular is because “we are all legalists at heart” (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 118). Both liberal and conservative preachers often embrace the same moralistic methodology, albeit from opposing directions and opposing moral visions. The goal of much preaching in both liberal and conservative churches is to make good people a bit better, but it never works.

Legalistic, moralistic preaching exacerbates sin rather than killing it. Consider some of the reasons why.

1. Legalistic preaching feeds the flesh

No truth of Scripture is meant to be understood in isolation. It is possible to preach only true assertions from the Scripture and yet mislead hearers. When ethical and moral imperatives are proclaimed as sufficient, even abstracted from Jesus, the result is a crossless Christianity in which the central message becomes an exhortation to live according to God’s rules. Thus, even if the hearer adopts the correct behavior in response to the sermon, the response is grounded in his or her performance and feeds his fleshly confidence in self-righteousness. The gospel provides the only possible context for genuine obedience—faith. Legalistic preaching starves faith but feeds the flesh, which when well-nourished always overpowers the repression of sin. Legalistic preaching gives the appearance of being a fierce opponent of sin while creating a context where sin is nourished, and its spread and growth is inevitable.

2. Legalistic preaching maims but asks for more.

Legalistic preaching from Christian pulpits is cruel because it mentions the gospel, or at least assumes the gospel, but it implies that gospel blessings must be earned. Thus, legalistic preaching leaves hearers constantly maimed by the law, but not in a way that leads to utter hopelessness in fulfilling the laws commands. It always asks for a bit more. No matter how obedient or disobedient, the sermon listener is always reminded they are striving but never quite arriving. Legalistic sermons function like a performance treadmill with a flashing sign in place of an off-button that reads, “Just a few more feet and you can get off,” but it never changes and always asks for a few more feet.

In legalistic sermons, the law does not function as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Gal 3:24), but as a sadistic captor who does not plan on killing his prisoner but keeping him alive for the purpose of torture. The legalistic preacher makes the hearer a prisoner who lives in constant pain and torment but who always believes that freedom might be just around the corner. Legalistic, moralistic sermons function like the mirage of water in a desert; they provide hope but always prove empty.

3. Legalistic preaching renders love self-destructive.

Legalistic, moralistic sermons encourage comparisons with others. One’s identity is cultivated by his or her perception of how obedience measures up in comparison with others. The Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11) is implicitly endorsed as a necessary worldview, rather than repudiated as anti-gospel. Legalistic preaching creates a malformed church community in which, hearing a positive accomplishment by someone else often deflates and depresses others because they feel the need to keep up their spiritual resume. Hearers are trained to seek identity in performance—not Christ, and the result is a graceless community. When someone gains identity by judging themselves superior to others, they will not love, serve, and help people they consider beneath them; to do so would be a form of identity self-sabotage. Climbing the legalistic ladder of Christian pseudo-growth is dependent on your own successes being measured against the failures of others.

Christ-centered expository preaching does not excise a passage from the biblical metaplot to stage it for application. Instead, it takes the hearer to the text in its natural habitat, so to speak; the task is not to fit the text to the world of the reader as much as it is to fit the reader to the world of the text. Faithful preaching pulls hearers into the amazingly diverse but unified biblical storyline so they can find themselves in Jesus and the story of his kingdom. Any biblical truth abstracted from the gospel is corrupted. When we ignore the relationship of any biblical truth to the gospel of Jesus Christ we lose biblical perspective and corrupt God’s good gift.

The meta-genre of Scripture is gospel story and we must read the entire Bible with that genre awareness. Christ-centered, Gospel-focused expository preaching will not mute the call to obey the moral and ethical imperatives of Scripture (1 Cor 10:11). To the contrary, such an approach will strengthen the call to obey because it provides the only possible context for obedience—faith. Sanctification, just as justification, is by faith alone. Genuine spiritual motivation in preaching must be presented in terms of the gospel; people must be set free before they can walk in freedom. We are all constantly tempted to drift back toward legalistic, moralistic attitudes, so we never outgrow our need to hear the gospel.

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