Am I Preaching Moralism When I Preach Character Sketches from the OT?
In nearly 30 years of preaching through the Old Testament regularly, I’ve enjoyed helping God’s people see that he teaches some of his greatest truths through biography.
I’ll never forget a particular sermon during my Bible college days. The young preacher (and fellow student) had just finished opening up a narrative portion of the Old Testament when he paused and said, in his distinct Australian accent, “So what?” (I must admit, I was originally struck just by how he pronounced those words.)
This narrative is saying something to us. It applies to us. Though he didn’t quote Paul in 1 Corinthians 10, he was being true to the spirit of Paul’s understanding of the importance of applying Old Testament narrative.
First Corinthians 10:11 sums up the reason Paul has been applying the wilderness narrative to new covenant believers in Corinth. He has warned them about their many sins committed against the backdrop of redemptive privilege and gift. Don’t let the lessons of Israel’s past be lost on you, Paul says. In proving this, he gives an axiom regarding the believer’s (and the preacher’s) use of Old Testament narrative: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
This use of the Old Testament is certainly in keeping with Paul’s view of inspiration and the use of Scripture: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
The God-breathed Scriptures are profitable for doctrine (teaching), reproof (exposing our errors—mental and moral), correction (restoring to an upright position), and instruction in righteousness. This last phrase is particularly interesting. The word Paul uses, usually translated as “instruction” or “training,” literally means “child training”—referring to the patient, repetitive, and illustrative manner in which children learn. How do you instruct believers to live righteously? In part, tell them stories over and over again and apply them to their lives.
There was a day when such an assertion was neither unusual nor controversial. To be sure, there have been abuses with what I’m encouraging. It’s possible to misuse and misapply Old Testament narrative apart from the main redemptive, Christ-centered theme of the whole Bible.
Remember Lot’s Wife
Paul makes his Spirit-inspired application of the Old Testament to “the man of God.” The Scriptures have made Timothy wise unto salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, this gospel-centered note is sounded increasingly in our day, but it has led some to shy away from other uses of the Old Testament in preaching. Though Christ is, to be sure, the grand theme of the Old Testament, he doesn’t present himself as the exclusive application of every text. After all, Jesus warned people to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). And Jesus paralleled the behavior of his disciples (accused of breaking the Sabbath) to David and his men eating the showbread (see Matt. 12:1ff, 1 Sam. 21:3–6).
How does the preacher, teacher, or student of the Word remain faithful to the apostolic teaching and the examples of Jesus and Paul, without falling into mere moralism?
It’s important to distinguish between “moralism” and “morality.” One is anti-gospel, the other is a byproduct of the gospel. Moralism focuses on outward behavior and is generally encouraged for personal profit and reputation. Moral transformation and conformity to the will of God is rooted in the fear of God, the pleasure of God, and is demonstrably tied to the Word of God. Preaching Christ’s person and work without moral imperatives denies the goals Jesus died to obtain for his people—“that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4b).
Thankfully, demonstrating this reality from the New Testament is pretty simple: Peter, John, James, and Paul make the applications for us. They teach the doctrine, then tell us in one way or another what it means for our lives.
More is required of the preacher working through large swaths of historical narrative, however. Sometimes God’s Word describes things, and no application or moral comment is made. For instance, we read of the horrific offer and compromise that Lot makes to the wicked men of Sodom who want to rape the angelic visitors. Lot offers his daughters to satisfy the mob’s lust. Should the preacher make comment on the sexual ethics of this man, his low view of women, and his shocking lack of love as a father?
Should he draw lessons from David’s fall into sin and the failure to make no provision for the flesh?
Should the lessons of Samson’s moral compromise be pressed home to the consciences of church members? Should we ask why was Samson going through a vineyard, when those who took Nazarite vows were to avoid the grape from “seed to skin”? Why did he gather honey from the body of the lion he had killed when one of his vows was to not touch the dead?
Can believers learn from the story of Solomon—how he fell from having a zeal for the conversion of the nations to embracing foreign gods? Is there no hope to be found in the narratives of godly Ruth, faithful Abigail, or, yes, even David’s faith in the presence of the giant?
The answer to all these questions, of course, is “yes.” We should show how these things apply to Christian morality.
Biblical Truth Through Biography
In nearly 30 years of preaching through the Old Testament regularly, I’ve enjoyed helping God’s people see that he teaches some of his greatest truths through biography. Warnings and promises take on a vivid flavor when attached to real-life figures who faced profound struggles, doubts, fears, failures, and sins.
How do we go about bringing this vital element into our teaching and preaching? In conclusion, here are a few recommendations:
- Commit to teaching Old Testament narrative. If you aren’t doing this already, you’re withholding rich food for people’s souls. Preachers should strive to give the flock ‘the whole counsel of God’. The bulk of God’s written revelation falls between Genesis and Malachi. You may want to start with something like 1 and 2 Samuel. The faith of Hannah, the spinelessness of Eli, the seediness of Hophni and Phineas, the arc of men like Saul and especially David form a rich tapestry of spiritual insight, encouragement, and warning.
- After laboring to correctly exegete the passage, ensure that you tease out the Christ-centered gospel applications of the text. This will keep you from falling into mere moralism or purely exemplary preaching. Almost every text will reveal something of the person and work of Christ and how deeply sinners need a savior.
- Begin your work early in the week. Read the English text repeatedly. Read it out loud or use an audio Bible so you gain a good grasp of the narrative. Allow your heart to marinate in the truths of the text. Strive to enter into the psyche of the historical figures you’re dealing with. Use what one preacher called your “sanctified imagination” to ask what was going on in David’s soul when Nathan pointed out his sin? Did relief wash over his soul? Was there anger at being caught? How did he find hope? How was he able to show his face? In studying a man like Solomon, ask how does a man of God get from the place where he builds the temple to where he is constructing places of worship for idols? What steps led him astray? What “little foxes” spoiled the grapes of his soul? This is more than “exegeting the white spaces” of Scripture, it is striving to understand that these were real men and women who lived in the same world we inhabit. As you read and study, ask yourself, What’s been encouraging or convicting to my own heart?
- Get to know your own people well. You’re not preaching to the air, but to the men, women, boys, and girls who make up your congregation. Is there worldliness and compromise in them that if left unchecked and unmortified will lead them to spiritual ruin? Point them to Samson and his many failures to stand distinct in accordance with his calling. Are there women married to foolish men in your church? Expose them to the grace and godliness of Abigail. Are there ladies struggling with bareness? Allow them to find a friend in Hannah. Where are they hurting, struggling, or failing? Show them David or Joseph or Daniel. God’s Word is designed to help them in their pilgrimage. As you get to know them better, you’ll be more able to specifically apply the Word to their hearts.
- Remember the unbelievers present in your assembly. For them, as for Timothy, these old stories will be the means of divine wisdom that points them to the Savior. Show them over and over again that while God’s prophets, priests, kings and people failed, God sent them one who never failed and who is fit to be their Savior, Lord, and King.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.