The Nutrition Facts of Modern Preaching: Moralistic Carbs


In Part 1 of this series, we considered the reality that modern preaching, in general, has all but impoverished the average believer.
In Part 2 of this series, we took a look at the trans-fat of modern preaching: eisegesis.

Today, we'll consider the kind of carbohydrates in modern preaching.

Despite the bad rap that carbohydrates have been given in recent years, they are actually an important nutrient for the body. For example, did you know that the human brain actually requires a constant supply of glucose (a carbohydrate) in order to function properly?[1] Beyond that, carbs give our body the fuel it needs to perform physical activity; they empower our muscles to contract. Ask any athlete, and he or she will tell you that carbs are critical for physical endurance and stamina (which is why runners often "carb-load" the night before a big race).

And yet, it's not merely the presence of carbohydrates that is important, but also the kind of carbohydrates. Simple sugars (such as those found in candy and soft drinks) taste sweet and provide for an immediate boost in energy, but are digested and gone quickly. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates (such as those found in pasta, brown rice, and oatmeal) are digested slowly in the body and provide for a steady and long-term source of energy.[2] You can probably guess which kind marathon runners need before a race.

With that brief science lesson in place, consider the spiritual equivalent in much of modern preaching. How are Christians empowered to live out their lives for Christ? What motivates us to glorify God? Where do we find the energy to carry out good works as we run our race of faith (cf. Heb. 12:1)? One thing is for sure: "spiritual sugar" won't do it.

Complex Carbohydrates

What is the most common kind of spiritual sugar? Listen to a typical sermon today and what you'll often be fed is moralism. "Be like David." "Pray more." "Speak empowering words to yourself." Do, do, do. Checklist Christianity. Self-willed success is at the heart of moralism. And like simple sugars, these kinds of sermons "taste good" and "seem practical" at first, but actually offer nothing for the believer's long-term spiritual race. Instead, these kinds of messages ultimately lead to despair. After all, what if you aren't brave like David? What if you haven't prayed as much as you know you should? What if you simply can't find it within yourself to love others as you ought? Moralism—the so-called "practical" sermons of today—give the appearance true energy, but lead to quick burnout. Learning "six ways to love your wife" sounds like an appealing sermon, until you realize (after only a few months) that you've all but abandoned the instructions you were given. Sitting under preaching that tells you "five ways to ramp up your evangelism" leaves you charged up and ready to go—until you get home and realize that you're facing the same fear-of-man problem that you had before the message.

Lock this spiritual truth into your mind and never forget it: simply being told what to do is not what empowers Christians to actually do it.

Instead, the New Testament apostles show us what empowers Christians for godly conduct: Gospel indicatives.

Here's how it works: look at the book of Ephesians and you'll notice that before Paul wrote three chapters about avoiding greediness, loving our spouses, and being strong in the Lord, he first spent three chapters explaining the electing love of God for His people, the forgiveness given by Christ through His blood, and the strength that the Holy Spirit provides for believers to understand the Word. Thus, it could be said that the first three chapters of Ephesians explain the indicatives (what God has done to save His people) and the last three chapters explain the imperatives (how God's people are to respond in gratitude). In other words, Paul first explains doctrine before explaining duty; he first gives us something to believe before giving us ways to behave. That's where the true power for Christian living is found. Skip the former and jump straight to the latter and you've just served up a nice-sized plate of moralism—striving to please God apart from the Person and work of Jesus.

Looking closer, notice that in Ephesians 4:1 Paul used the word "therefore." That is a key transition word used to explain the cause-and-effect relationship between indicatives and imperatives. Christ has already loved you, therefore you are now to love others. Christ has already extended grace to you, therefore you are now to extend grace to others. Christ has already served you, therefore you are now to serve others. This is critical for the Christian life. Why? Because it is Christ's redemptive work on the cross that provides us with the forgiveness we need for our sins and the motivation we need for our obedience.

After all, it's much easier to forgive others when you know how much God has forgiven you. It's much easier to love others when you know how much God has loved you. It's much easier to minister to others when you know how much God has ministered to you. So as you grow in your knowledge of what Jesus did to free you from guilt, condemnation, and eternal wrath, you become filled with the kind of joy and thankfulness that will not only free you from a troubled conscience, but enable you to love your spouse, flee from immorality, serve in church, disciple your children, support others financially, and evangelize the lost (among everything else you are commanded to do).

Quite simply, Gospel indicatives are the "complex carbohydrates" that are needed to fuel a God-glorifying life. Thus, a preacher's job is to explain the redemptive nature of a given passage of Scripture (the indicatives) before issuing commands for obedience (the imperatives).

Knowing this, it's obvious that the indicative/imperative paradigm is all but lost in most pulpits.

Sub-Christian Preaching

Expositor Bryan Chapell recounts a helpful illustration of the indicative/imperative paradigm in his book Christ-Centered Preaching:

Unless we identify the redemptive purposes of a text, it is possible to say all the right words and yet send all the wrong signals. I witness this miscommunication almost daily as the top-rated radio station in our city broadcasts a "meditation" during the early morning. In each meditation, the preacher addresses a topic with a Bible verse or two. The subjects run the gamut from procrastination to care for children to honesty on the job. The station turns up the reverberation during the inspirational minute so that it sounds as though the words come directly from Mount Sinai. Not to pay attention seems like a sin. As the speaker reminds us to practice punctuality, good parenting, and business propriety, I imagine thousands of listening Christians are nodding their heads and saying in unison, "That's right...that's how we should live."
I have played tapes of these meditations to seminary classes and asked if anyone can discern error. Rarely does anyone spot a problem. The speaker quotes from the Bible accurately, he advocates moral causes, and he encourages loving behaviors. Thus, students are usually astonished when I point out that the radio preacher is not a Christian. He actually represents a large cult located in our region.[3]

How is it that a cult leader can sound like a Christian preacher?! It's because so many people have been accustomed to the "Be Good" sermons that use Scripturebut use it wrongly. Much of modern preaching, in substance, is no different than what you'd hear from a works-based false religion.

Bryan Chapell goes on to explain why:

When the focus of a sermon becomes a moralistic "Don't smoke or chew or go with those who do" (or even a more sophisticated "Renew your heart by doing what God commands") listeners will most likely assume that they can secure or renew their relationship with God through proper behaviors. Even when the behaviors advocated are reasonable, biblical, and correct, a sermon that does not move from expounding standards of obedience to explaining the source, motives, and results of obedience places persons' hopes in their own actions. In such a situation, each succeeding Sunday sermon carries the implicit message, "Since you weren't good enough for God last week, hunker down and try harder this week."
Preaching of this sort sounds biblical because the Bible can be quoted at length to support the exhortations. As it runs its course, however, such preaching destroys all Christian distinctives. Preachers caught in a purely moralistic mode of instruction end up speaking in tautologies: "Be good because it's good to be good, and it's bad to be bad. Christians are good. So be good!"[4]

As Chapell explains, a message focused on Christian conduct, without first explaining Christian redemption found in Christ, is not Christian preaching. It's moralism. What makes Christianity different from every cult and false religion on the planet is that the triune God provides the redemption, reconciliation, restoration, regeneration, and resurrection that no amount of human effort could ever come close to obtaining. You don't need Jesus if you plan on trying to live a good life—but you desperately need Jesus if you're honest enough to admit that you haven't. That's why truly Christian preaching must begin with indicatives.

In other words:

Telling a congregation to give generously to others is not a Christian message—unless it is explained that God has graciously and generously given to them, even to the point of giving His own Son (cf. John 3:16).

Telling a church body to be united to one another is not a Christian message—unless it is explained that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (cf. Gal. 3:28), united into one new man through the cross (cf. Eph. 2:15-16), saved from every nation, tribe, and tongue (cf. Rev. 5:9).

And believe it or not, even telling a local assembly to be like Jesus is not a Christian message!—unless it is explained that they have failed to be like Jesus, which is precisely why they desperately need the righteousness of His perfect life, the forgiveness given through His death, and the newness of life found in His resurrection.

Bryan Chapell summarizes the problem well: "Exhortations for moral behavior apart from the work of the Savior degenerate into mere Pharisaism, even if preachers advocate the actions with selected biblical evidence and good intent. Spirituality based on personal conduct cannot escape its human-centered orbit though it aspires to lift one to the divine."[5]

In other words, try to live your Christian life without the complex carbohydrates of the redemptive work of Christ, and you'll quickly drop out of the race as nothing but a fatigued Pharisee.

Modern Moralism

Sadly, examples of moralistic preaching abound are not at all hard to find.

For example, Andy Stanley (of North Point Community Church just outside Atlanta, Georgia) gave a message at the end of 2017 entitled, "You Might Also Like," speaking of the covetousness that people often face during the Christmas season right after supposedly being thankful during the Thanksgiving season. Sounds fairly reasonable, right? Based on the indicative/imperative paradigm of the apostles, we might think that Andy would teach people to overcome covetousness by first explaining to them the riches we have in Christ, both now and in the eternal kingdom. After all, not only have Christians been forgiven of the sin of discontentment, and spared from well-deserved eternity in the lake of fire for it, but everyday items like cars and cellphones look pretty feeble compared to streets of gold and pearly gates promised to those in Christ. The Gospel should have been the motivator given by Andy.

But that's not what he did.

Instead, playing off of the tagline "awareness produces discontentment," Stanley explained that people ought to redirect their discontentment away from things that cannot produce happiness, and channel it toward a drive to rise above the status quo.

Here's Andy Stanley in his own words:

The people that change the world, and the people that make the world a better place, are not controlled by the discontentment that controls most people. The people that allow this discontentment to drive them to do great things—to make sacrifices, to move, to invest their lives and their talents in things that really aren't ever going to benefit them in the long run—these are people who are somehow free, often times, from the discontentment that plagues most of us. And therein is the secret of taming the beast. You tame discontentment not by deciding "I'm not going to be discontent." It's not by deciding, "I'm from now on simply going to be content with what I have." No, you have to replace it with something. And when you do, you will discover life.[6]

Naturally, Andy's message was laced with Bible verses and Christian-sounding phrases, but ultimately, the point was clear: beat discontentment by rerouting it. In fact, he plainly stated, "Discontentment is bridled by rerouting our awareness." The two major ways he offered for rerouting discontentment were: channeling that need into something more worthy, and giving away all of your things so that you can "truly live." Andy went on to quote 1 Timothy 6:6, speaking very well about the dangers of loving money and having wrong priorities. But the redemptive work of Christ was less than a footnote to the message.

Sugar-loving Pharisees would be pleased.

The Bread of Life

Ultimately, the Christian life is not lived on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. And that includes Gospel indicatives. Tragically, much of so-called Christian preaching emphasizes the imperatives to the exclusion of their antecedent indicatives. To be honest, that's not surprising, considering the fact that verse-by-verse exposition has been abandoned in virtually every modern church. If pastors were simply to follow the books of the Bible (especially the New Testament) in the order they were written, they would be safeguarded from a lot of moralistic preaching. Instead, for example, what is more common is to see a message preached from Romans 12:1-2 (the beginning of the imperatives in the letter) about giving your life to God as a living sacrifice, and never once hearing messages from Romans 1-11 (the indicatives in the letter) about Christ giving His life to God as a sacrifice on our behalf! Or, a pastor may lecture his congregation about remaining unified to one another, basing his comments on the imperatives of Philippians 2:1-4, without simply finishing the chapter to explain the indicatives of the incarnational humility of Christ that provided for our salvation! In an utterly failed attempt to be "practical" and "relevant," preachers are often drawn to the commands in Scripture, leaving their people utterly stripped of any redemptive truth that could energize them for the task. Moralistic carbs, served weekly.

So, if you feel like you're spinning your wheels as a burned-out runner in the race set before you, it's possible that you need to reevaluate your diet—perhaps you're being fed simple sugars every week, rather than the Bread of Life. Maybe you're being told what more you need to do, instead of first being told about the One who did it all on your behalf: the Lord Jesus Christ who gives rest to the weary (cf. Matt. 11:28).

To that end, I'll give Charles Spurgeon the final word on this matter:

The motto of all true servants of God must be, "We preach Christ; and him crucified." A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.[7]


[1] Philipp Mergenthaler, Ute Lindauer, Gerald A. Dienel, and Andreas Meisel, "Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function," National Center for Biotechnology Information, accessed February 2, 2018,

[2] "Simple vs Complex Carbs,", accessed February 10, 2018,

[3] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 273.

[4] Ibid., 291.

[5] Ibid., 274.

[6] Andy Stanely, "You Might Also Like" (presentation, Sunday Service, North Point Community Church, Alpharetta, GA, November 25, 2017),

[7] Tony Reinke, "Preach Christ or Go Home—And Other Spurgeon Quotes On Christless Preaching," The Gospel Coalition, August 4, 2010, accessed February 10, 2018,