Dangers of Moralism

Thomas Schreiner identifies two problems that will wreck havoc on future generations in this article. First, he says that while we believe the Scripture is inspired, we betray a feeling that is not sufficient by skirting over controversial issues. Second, and most relevant here, he argues that solely horizontal preaching will lead to weakness in discernment and liberal theology.

Horizontal preaching is simply preaching on marriage, conquering fear and the like. These aren’t bad in themselves and must be preached. “But,” Schreiner says, “what is troubling is that these sort of sermons become the staple week in and week out, and the theological worldview that permeates God’s word and is the foundation for all of life is passed over in silence. Our pastors turn into moralists rather like Dear Abby who give advice on how to live a happy life week after week” (20).

Since pastors have the responsibility to preach the whole Bible (Acts 20:27), these horizontal sermons are somewhat limiting. Admittedly, they may be preached by orthodox preachers with good theology. The problem is, however, without preaching the whole story of the Bible, theology is assumed. Thus, Schreiner writes, “[The pastor] may be fully orthodox and faithful in his own theology, while neglecting to preach to his people the storyline and theology of the Bible. He has assumed theology in all his preaching. So in the next generation or in two or three generations the congregation may inadvertently and unknowingly call a more liberal pastor” (21).

The reason they may call a more liberal pastor is that they have not become theologically discerning, because they have no theological foundation derived by understanding the storyline of Scripture. In other words, the liberal pastor “too preaches that people should be good, king and loving. He too emphasizes that we should have good marriages and dynamic relationships. The people in the pew may not even discern the difference” (21).

Schreiner suggests preaching both horizontal and vertical sermons to balance this trend. For Schreiner, vertical preaching includes preaching the story line of the Bible. In short, he means that without using the discipline of Biblical theology in preaching, we run the risk of losing discernment and being influenced by a theology that believes in moral goodness but denies the sufficiency of Scripture.

Is he right?

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5 thoughts on “Dangers of Moralism

  1. He is absolutely correct. Not only is it dangerous to assume theology. It is dangerous to assume the Gospel. I think it was at a Calvary Grace conference where I remember a speaker saying something to the effect of, “When one generation assumes the Gospel, the next generation will lose the Gospel.” 19th century liberalism stands as historical evidence fo that. It is my belief that every sermon should at some point get to the storyline of Scripture, which will always include Christ and the Gospel. Was it Spurgoen who said that every sermon should “make a bee line to Christ?” A sermon that is only horizontal and does not include Christ is, by definition, not a CHRISTian sermon.

    • Hey Dan, thanks for the comments. What do you think about the balance between horizontal and vertical preaching, as Schreiner is represented to endorse above. If we want to be gospel centered preachers, can horizontal messages, that are rich and doctrinally sound fit in, or do you think every “practical” sermon ought to be a mix of horizontal and vertical? I am not suggesting a “tag on” gospel message at the end, but a message that is built on the redemptive story. Can we speak about, for example, Fellowship, horizontally, or does it only make sense vertically?

      • Hey Chad,
        I’m so glad that Wyatt linked to this article. It’s a fantastic reminder to preach with the whole Bible in view (“antecedent theology”) and to preach Christ-centered sermons (“canonical preaching”).

        I don’t think Schreiner, anywhere in that article, endorses a balance between horizontal and vertical preaching. He says sermons on family issues are fitting and needed, but if I’m reading him correctly, he is saying they must never be disconnected from the storyline of the Bible and from a theological foundation. To do so is to become like Dear Abby.

        So to answer your questions, any horizontal exhortation must have a vertical connection. Or in language others have used, you can’t preach imperatives disconnected from the indicatives.

        Let me throw it back at you in the midst of your sermon prep 🙂 What do you think? Can we speak about, for example, fellwoship, horizontally, or does it only make sense vertically?

    • Agreed. Solely horizontal preaching seems to miss the whole preaching nothing but Christ and him crucified idea. I like this sentence: “The main truth for preachers here is that they must preach in such a way that they integrate their sermons into the larger biblical story of redemptive history” (p. 25 or 26).

      I still wonder if this means preachers should connect their message to the storyline of Scripture in every sermon (as you say above), or if that should come out in the general tenor of their preaching.

      • Dan, I didn’t word my comments clearly enough. The “Balance” issue was trying to represent Schreiners point that all preaching has to follow the storyline. I agree with that. But we also deal with the issues of important biblical truths, such as doctrine and/or practice, which. of course, must be rooted in the gospel. The balance I am thinking of is whether you make, as Carson urged (in another article I wanted to link but could not find right now), that we end up preaching the same sermon over and over again. Perhaps the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (while being contextually understood in the Bible’s own context) does not need to be a redemptive-historical message? On the other hand, it would be a poor Doctrine of the Holy Spirit apart from the Soteriological implications.

        So, my question and the answer to your asking it back, is that all texts must be treated in their own horizontal and vertical context, but some would be weighted differently and aim at different goals or implication. But, all should point someone “to the cross”.

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