Legalistic Exhortations

This morning let me say something about an interesting section of this book in chapter 9, “Can I Preach a Christian Sermon without Mentioning Jesus?”

Goldsworthy notes that preaching the whole counsel of God will necessarily include exhortation.  Most people like that sort of thing — they narrowly view it as the only thing that counts for application.   Unless the sermon tells me what to do and how to live, it’s not relevant and not applicatory.  Goldsworthy says, “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.”  (p.118)  If the preaching can just give us a ten-step program to holy living, we love it.  People don’t want to hear so much about what God has done for us apart from us — that’s old news.  Tell us something we can do.

Goldsworthy goes on, “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 with 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.”  (p.118)  Goldsworthy doesn’t say this, but it is my observation that it is even more tempting when you see lifestyle issues in the congregation that are problematic.  You figure that the solution has to be to preach more law — and even if that is subsumed under the heading of “thankfulness” it can have a habit of becoming legalistic (what John Piper calls “the debtor’s ethic”).  The problems are not solved and in fact, get worse.  The solution is counter-intuitive.

Let me give the last word to Goldsworthy — this whole paragraph is worth reading carefully:

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.  (119)

This is a worthwhile book that I can recommend to pastors and aspiring pastors.

(Reposted from 07.31.07)

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

2 responses to “Legalistic Exhortations

  • George Helder

    These are words of wisdom.
    Having served as an elder, and having received many visits by various elders, I know that not be legalistic in the way warned of by Goldsworthy is a very difficult problem to overcome. Afterall, one of the tasks of elders is oversight; to see if the members are living according to their confession. Without a proper understanding this might seem counter-intuitive.To focus on grace, what God has done for us, so that we respond in thankfulness, always has to be the aim, rather than conformity.

  • Henry Moesker

    “…since every covenant contains 2 parts, a promise and an obligation, we are, through baptism, called and obliged by the Lord to a new obedience. We are to cleave to this one God,Father,Son,and Holy Spirit,to trust Him,and to love Him with our whole heart,soul, and mind,and with all our strength.We must not love the world but put off our old nature and lead a God fearing life.And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sins,we must not despair of Gods mercy nor continue in sin,for baptism is a seal and trustworthy testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God.” For myself, this explains the whole difficulty for preachers and the listeners in a nutshell. Course I could be wrong…

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