Why Do We Like To Be Constantly Told What To Do?
Exhortations without the Gospel Are Legalistic
Preaching in the right manner involves a certain amount of exhortation as a part of the application of the Bible to the lives of the hearers. If for no other reason exhortation is important because the Bible contains so much of it. Preachers must, of course, work out their own styles of exhortation that they deem to be appropriate to the occasion and the particular congregation.
A former colleague of mine used to express the conviction that often congregations seem to have an almost masochistic approach to preaching. If the preacher really told them what a hopeless bunch they were and what they need to do about it, or if he really laid down the law about how they needed to improve their spiritual lives and performance, they would come away feeling really good. Battered and bruised, but good! Now this may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I suspect there has been many a holiness convention when this is exactly what happened.
Why do we like to be given this kind of treatment?
Why do we like to be given this kind of treatment? We may not enjoy being taken to task, but somehow we feel that, when we have been so treated, we have benefited all round. Things are looking up. There’s a chance if we all pull together that we can get this church back on track. I now know exactly what I need to do in order to be living the victorious Christian life. And so on.
I suggest that we love this kind of treatment because we are legalists at heart.
I suggest that we love this kind of treatment because we are legalists at heart. We would love to be able to say that we have fulfilled all kinds of conditions, be they tarrying, surrendering fully, or getting rid of every known sin, so that God might truly bless us. It is a constant temptation to want to take our spiritual pulse and to apply the sanctificational barometer. This is not necessarily the same as the worthwhile discipline of self-examination. Self-examination is a way of uncovering and coming to terms with the very problem under review. True self-examination is a means of going back to the source of our salvation because it reminds us of the constant need of grace.
The preacher can aid and abet this legalistic tendency that is at the heart of the sin within us all. All we have to do is emphasize our humanity: our obedience, our faithfulness, our surrender to God, and so on. The trouble is that these things are all valid biblical truths, but if we get them out of perspective and ignore their relationship to the gospel of grace, they replace grace with law.
If we constantly tell people what they should do in order to get their lives in order, we place a terrible legalistic burden on them.
If we constantly tell people what they should do in order to get their lives in order, we place a terrible legalistic burden on them. Of course we should obey God; of course we should love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. The Bible tells us so. But if we ever give the impression that it is possible to do this on our own, not only do we make the gospel irrelevant, but we suggest that the law is in fact a lot weaker in its demands than it really is.
Legalism demeans the law by reducing its standards to the level of our competence.
Legalism demeans the law by reducing its standards to the level of our competence. There is a hopelessly misleading adage that one hears from time to time, and from people who ought to know better, that God does not require of us anything that we cannot give. This implies either that God requires less than perfection, or that perfection is less than perfect because we can achieve it. In fact the law of God was not framed according to the sinful human ability to keep it, but as an expression of the perfect character of God.
In practical terms, if we as preachers lay down the marks of the spiritual Christian, or the mature church, or the godly parent, or the obedient child, or the caring pastor, or the responsible elder, or the wise church leader, and if we do this in a way that implies that conformity is simply a matter of understanding and being obedient, then we are being legalists and we risk undoing the very thing we want to build up. We may achieve the outward semblance of conformity to the biblical pattern, but we do it at the expense of the gospel of grace that alone can produce the reality of these desirable goals.
To say what we should be or do and not link it with a clear exposition of what God has done about our failure to be or do perfectly as he wills is to reject the grace of God and to lead people to lust after self-help and self-improvement in a way that, to call a spade a spade, is godless.
Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 118–119.