Note from CM: Michael cared deeply about worship and preaching. Many of his posts over the years were about how the evangelical world he knew and observed had traded good preaching in for methods that compromised proclaiming the gospel of grace in favor of “relevant” messages about “Christian living” and “sin management.” Today’s post is an example of Michael’s thoughtful analysis.
• • •
One of the most popular methods used in Christian preaching and teaching today is taking a topic or text and presenting it as a list of principles.
I would like to briefly examine some of the “good” and “not so good” aspects of the practice of turning texts or topics into principles as the primary methodology for preaching.
What’s “good” about the preaching of principles?
1. The use of principles as the primary feature of sermons is an effort to increase the basic understanding of what God is saying in the Bible to his people. This is an excellent motive, and is certainly commendable.
2. Principle oriented sermons often give much of their attention to the application of the text in practical ways. Many sermons are without application, and good preaching should have “praxis” as well as explanation.
3. Breaking texts down into principles is a useful transferable communication technique. It is often possible to remember a list of principles, or at least it is easy to pass the principles on to others. Those who sit under a communicator who uses this method are likely to share what they have learned with others.
What’s “not good” about the preaching of principles?
1. Preaching principles often comes at the expense of the actual shape and language of the text. Literary genres like parables or epistles can be difficult to place in their proper literary or cultural context, and reducing the text to principles can avoid this, but the actual language and form of scripture are often compromised
2. Preaching principles can send the message that the Christian message is about “making things work.” Obviously, many texts have other purposes, and it is a further mistake to assume that “making life work” is the purpose of Christian preaching. Some hearers may keep “working the principles,” assuming they are some form of a contract with God.
3. Preaching principles puts the preacher in a very authoritative position of translating the Bible into his own words. Of course, all preachers use their own words, but the wording of principles can reinterpret or define scripture in a way that is very different from the actual meaning. Explaining a passage should help the hearers to understand the words of scripture rather than replace the words of scripture, and possibly replace the meaning of the passage.
4. The use of principles can create a response of works rather than faith. Of course, sometimes a passage is promoting works, but the message of “principles” is almost always “what you do is the point of the message.” In the Gospel, what God has done must always be kept as primary. Those devoted to preaching principles often seem to have a bias toward “works” responses, sometimes at the expense of the Gospel.
5. The nature of Biblical wisdom is a hierarchy where God is sovereign: the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Principles find their proper place in the total Biblical worldview in relation to other Biblical truths. (The Lord’s Prayer is a good example.) Many sermons present principles without adequate Biblical context, tending to produce a distortion or a complete perversion of the proper place of the principle.