The Bible contains plenty of instruction. There are the instructional sections of epistles. Jesus gave more than a few. There are the instructions implicit in the wisdom literature. Then there are obvious implications with built-in instructions when we look at narratives.
So our job is to explain and apply, and the apply part is relatively easy when we are dealing with instruction, right? Yes and no. Certainly it is helpful when the text pushes us toward something that will be helpful and relevant to communicate to listeners. And for the most part, people appreciate being told what is expected of them. But there is an issue to watch out for …
How do we avoid moralizing? That is, how do we avoid simply turning the Bible into instructions for good clean living? You may think there is nothing wrong with that, but I beg to differ. The problem of sin is far more profound than mere ignorance or lack of instruction. The sin problem facing humanity is far more profound than we tend to recognize, and consequently a lot of sermons don’t even scratch the surface of the issue. In fact, some actually exacerbate the issue!
How can a sermon make the sin problem worse? Surely good preaching helps people live less sinful lives? Good preaching does, but not by moralizing. Simply pressuring people to clean up their act and perform more like good clean Christians is not gospel work. It is what Tim Keller refers to as turning younger brothers into older brothers. Cleaner, supposedly better and certainly more religious, but no more Christian than a fence post. Behavior modification is not the intention of the Bible. Independent pride promotion is the antithesis of Biblical intent.
So am I going against Scripture to argue against moralizing, especially when there is so much instruction there? I don’t think so. The Scripture assumes things to which we have grown blind. Knowing God brings life change, there are instructions relevant for those who are in communion with Him, but the process is never one of behavior modification first, internal realities second. And growth as a Christian is not a different set of rules, it continues to be by faith from first to last. So what does this mean?
In a nutshell, it means that we can’t simply be the older brother patrol out to instruct people toward a pseudo-godliness. When you preach an instructive section, be sure to put it in its full gospel context. Specifically, seek to answer the “why?” question. Why does that command make sense in light of the Bible’s teaching about God and sin and life? How you answer the why question will reveal your theology. That you ask the why question will reveal your awareness that instruction alone is never enough.