A second human-centered approach is moralistic preaching. This type of emphasizes life application and take-home action steps. Many popular preachers argue that sermons need to be practical and offer clear application points.
While application is essential, preaching that over-emphasizes application can lead to numerous problems. Application points, by themselves, can lead to application fatigue, in which the listener is overwhelmed with more tasks to put on a list that is already full. Our listeners need a vision of God and his gospel that changes every part of their lives, not just more tasks to be completed. To-do lists don't change souls.
In Scripture, obedience is always a response to the gospel. Application that is not rooted in gospel leads to pride if the listener succeeds, and defeatism if the listener does not. The law does not give us power to obey its commands; we need good news (the gospel), not just good advice. The Bible does contain commands, but these are always applications of the gospel.
Moralism can creep into how-to sermons (e.g. "Four Steps to Better Parenting"), but it can also creep into expositions of a text. For example, preaching the imperatives of Ephesians 4-6 will be moralistic unless we link the imperatives to the gospel described in Ephesians 1-3. God's gift and his commands (theology and ethics) are always linked.
Moralism can also creep into biographical preaching if we offer characters as examples to emulate. We are sometimes called to emulate their faith (Hebrews 11), but are rarely told to use them as moral examples. Tim Keller describes what happens when we use them this way. "An example – even a great example – can only crush you," he says. "It's crushing because it's an inaccessible standard." Because of our fallen natures, we cannot simply do what Jesus, or any other great character, did. Even when we encounter great characters, they are examples of faith and of God's grace.
In any case, most of the characters in the Bible have mixed records at best, and point to God as the real hero of the text. Keller says:
You're assuming that the message of the Bible is "God blesses and saves those who live morally exemplary lives." That's not the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God persistently and continuously gives his grace to people who don't ask for it, don't deserve it, and don't even fully appreciate it after they get it.
Our preaching must root obedience in what God has accomplished in Christ. It is the motive and source of all obedience. Preaching application without gospel is moralistic and fails to transform lives.
tomorrow: a final human-centered approach to preaching