Preaching New Testament instructions without moralism

At church, we are fast approaching the end of our series in Hebrews. Yesterday, was the penultimate sermon covering the first part of chapter 13. In essence, the passage gave the instruction to ‘let brotherly love continue’ and then outlined four ways we are specifically to do that. Whatever else you might want to say about Hebrews 13:1-6, it ain’t a very tricky passage.

At least, it’s not tricky to understand. It is, however, a little bit tricky to preach. Not because the meaning is hard to convey (it isn’t), but because it is difficult to know exactly how best to preach a list of instructions without descending into moralism or a 30-minute guilt trip. It’s so easy to end up preaching a do-this-and-live style sermon – which really is not what these instructions are there for – or, if we avoid that, to basically make people feel guilty over these various things. I’m not 100% sure either is the most helpful. I’m not 100% I always manage to avoid these things. I suspect I probably don’t preach moralism, but I might well fall into guilt trips.

So, how do you preach lists of instructions without making your message moralistic or spending the whole sermon guilt tripping people about their efforts in these different areas? Here are some things that might help.

Be clear about context

Most New Testament instructions are not given in a vacuum. Usually, they come in the context of other theological points being made or other things going on in the wider context of the book. The particular instructions in Hebrews, for example, come off the back of the writer encouraging his readers to pursue holiness and serve the unshakeable kingdom of God as the only thing of any lasting and ultimate value. So, the instructions are not given as “four steps to Heaven”, but rather as outworkings of what it means to serve the kingdom that will last. If nothing but the kingdom matters, then do these things because they will have lasting value and worth on the last day. Knowing that context makes a bit of difference to how we understand the instructions. The same is true for any of the instructions in scripture.

Be clear about the gospel

If we know the gospel, we know that we are not saved by our works. If we know the gospel, we know we are not saved by faith but then kept by our works thereafter. If we know the gospel, we know that our holiness and justification are not a product of our works, but the work of Christ. I know it’s not it’s not rocket science, but when we are clear about those things we know that the approach to these New Testament instructions can’t be that we are made holy by doing them or that we are adding to our salvation through them. They must be achieving or accomplishing something else.

Again, in the context of Hebrews, that “something else” is clearly that these things are a logical overflow of our belief that God’s kingdom is unshakeable, we have been made holy and set apart for it, and therefore it makes sense to do these things. It is very much an if-you-believe-A-then-you-will-logically-want-to-do-B idea. So, if God’s kingdom is eternal, Jesus is coming again and serving and striving for earthly material things will ultimately not last then it logically follows that you will want to serve the kingdom by how you treat others and use your things. The purpose of the instructions is not to suggest you are adding to your salvation or making you holier, but that these things are the fruit of having already been made holy. These things are clearer when we understand both the context and the gospel.

Be clear about definitions

Sometimes the instructions appear straightforward enough and like they don’t need much explanation at face value. For example, ‘show hospitality’. Is there really much to say about that? Doesn’t showing hospitality look the same for everyone? Well, it depends on your definition. If you think hospitality is fundamentally opening your home and giving people meals (which is a great way to be hospitable) you have to ask how a believer who doesn’t have a home, or a dining table, or potentially any food, could achieve that? If they can’t, then perhaps the issue lies with our definition. Christ’s universal commands that apply to all believers everywhere must be achievable by all believers everywhere in some respect.

Similarly, we may have a view of hospitality that is very much tied to Western British modes of operation. That might be alright if you live in a white British monocultural area and preach to a white British monocultural church. But the holes appear pretty quickly when we are preaching to people from across the world, from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. If we just assume our definition, there is no guarantee it will helpfully land with those from other cultures. More troublingly, we may inadvertently end up calling people less to what the Bible says and more to emulate white British culture. Assuming definitions can sometimes flatten the expression of cultural differences and insisting on our definition can impose unbiblical things on those listening that we have simply assumed because that is how our culture operates.

With careful definitions also comes the need to carefully distinguish between cultures. So, ‘be hospitable’ might seem obvious to us, but how to you helpfully show hospitality to someone from a culture who doesn’t recognise your definition of what it means to be hospitable? What if you are trying to show someone hospitality and they don’t consider it very hospitable at all? Whilst we don’t want to treat people like idiots in defining words, we do have to be clear on our definitions so we can helpfully apply these instructions to everyone in the room in ways that are appropriate to them all. To faithfully teach what is demanded, we have to be clear what it actually being asked of anybody.

Motive matters more than outcomes

Though the instructions themselves must actually mean something in practice – we shouldn’t ignore that by any means – it is true that motive matters more than the particular outcome. Whilst all are called to be hospitable, for example, what matters is having a hospitable spirit more than the particular way in which one shows hospitality. All are called to give to the work of ministry, but what matters is that someone has a spirit of generosity rather than how much they give exactly. The point is, if we are kingdom-minded and we have been made holy, our hearts will have been changed by the Spirit and we will be moved to do these things. But the specific means by which we do them is less significant than the heart-desire to do them because they are proper outworkings of our love for Christ.

Check & encouragement

We can also use these instructions as a check on our own hearts and as encouragement to keep pressing on in Christ. They are a check on our hearts as we ask ourselves whether we seem to be growing in these desires or growing colder in them. Do we actually want to be doing these things or not? If not, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why not? Is it that our love for Christ has grown cold? If we are keen to do these things, we can praise God that his Spirit is at work within us and encourage ourselves to press on in him. Rather than descend into moralism or guilt-trips, we can use these things as a check on our own hearts for Christ and as encouragement to press on in him.