20 July 2010

Evil pragmatism vs. the Christian's right focus

by Dan Phillips

There's a world of difference between practicality, and pragmatism.

One of my least-favorite classes in seminary gave me an excellent mental image which I may have shared before. The prof asked us preachers to envision a really extraordinary individual in our audience. He said we should make him unmissable — huge, orange-skinned, green suit, hat with a flower in it.

He sits in the front row, squarely in front of us. He only knows three words in English. He repeats them over and over again.

The words?
"Tell me how."

I happen to think that, taken in the right measure, this was an excellent piece of counsel. It could be over-pressed, with the result that pastors would never preach on passages or Biblical themes they judge "not practical," such as the doctrine of God, election, atonement, and on and on. That would be a great betrayal, and a great failure as a pastor.

At the same time, it serves as a bracing caution against those of us who live too much in the ivory tower, too enamored with abstract theology or philosophy. It tells against ivory-tower thinking divorced from the dailiness of life. It wouldn't hurt one bit if we looked over the first draft of our sermon manuscript and envisioned someone asking, "So... what am I supposed to do with that?"

Certainly Jesus and the apostles could never be accused of such baffling, misty abstraction. If Paul gave three chapters of rich doctrine in Ephesians, he follows it up with four three chapters of wrapping the truth in shoe-leather. The Gospels and Epistles deal with money, marriage, parenting, childing, morality, relationships, church polity, and a host of other specific issues.

If I dare whisper the thought, I think this was a shortcoming of Spurgeon's — at least in all the sermons I know of. He preached glorious, timeless sermons on the person and work of Christ, the covenants, and the authority of Scripture. But I don't think I've yet come across a "Tell Me How" sermon opening Scripture on marriage, work, or the like. Those topics must feature in preaching the whole counsel of God.

Practicality, then, is (A) Biblical, and (B) light-years removed from....

"If it works, it's good" is not a Biblical notion. We can see the inherent, fatal flaw if we bring to light the generally-unstated definition of "works": "achieves our desired results." We identify goals and imbue them with a self-justifying quality. That is, if we achieve the desired result, whatever we did to get there is eo ipso good.

Self-justifying goals Christians have set include:
  • Increased "giving" (invariably financial) among churchgoers
  • Increased attendance
  • Increased professions of faith
  • Increased actual (i.e. conversion) baptisms
  • Happier people
  • People who report feeling closer to God
  • Greater book sales
  • Compliant children
  • Better reputation among the lost
I envision two sorts reading that list:
  1. Those who don't see a thing wrong with these as self-justifying goals.
  2. Those who have actually read their Bibles.
Speaking of which....
The Bible
I may exaggerate, but not by much. The Bible is absolutely crystal-clear on at least three things, if you'll forgive one last enumeration:
  1. The Christian's goal must be to please God (Deuteronomy 6:5f.; Matthew 6:1-6, 33; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Peter 1:13-17, etc.).
  2. Doing what pleases God may be the direct cause of temporal disaster.
  3. Doing what pleases God will be the direct cause of eternal delight.
Be perfectly clear: doing what pleases God, in the right way and from the right heart, may result in —
Of course, that's just a sampling. But it is enough to condemn pragmatism once and for all.

So here's the bottom-line: Christian living is a lot like flying a jet in a deep fog at night. The instruments are your only friend.

Except in our case, the "instruments" are the Word, alone.

Dan Phillips's signature


olan strickland said...

Now that was practical! Preaching should always be practical with proper interpretation and proper application regardless of the "results".

FX Turk said...

I hate it when God, who has suffered for me, thinks it's OK that I suffer a little so I can be more like him.

Bill R. said...

>> But I don't think I've yet come across a "Tell Me How" sermon opening Scripture on marriage, work, or the like. Those topics must feature in preaching the whole counsel of God.

I see your point about Paul in his epistles being doctrinal then practical, but there is the idea that if you teach expositionally through books of the Bible, your people will learn doctrine, they will learn the will of God, and they will be transformed by the renewing of their minds (provided they are believers). Won't they find application based on their firmer grasp of doctrine? I guess it's like the "give a man a fish and you've fed him for a day - teach him to fish and you've fed him for life" analogy.

DJP said...

Bill, I think I anticipated and answered that question in the post.

To reiterate: no, God does not leave us the liberty to think that tacking on "May the Holy Spirit apply His Word" to the end of every sermon will make for a faithful pulpit ministry. The prophets, the apostles and Christ got into the nitty-gritty of working it out. We dare not think ourselves wiser nor "above" such preaching.

donsands said...

Nice post. Thanks.

-•People who report feeling closer to God-

Anything goes with this one. The idol of the heart here is "Feelings".

Man, do I have friends who live their whole lives out by trying to feel closer to God, and so they try just about anything that comes down the pike.

And if you challenge them, then you are labeled a "meanie", or a "hinderer", when really I'm trying to help.

The Bible. The Word. How awesome is it that the Almighty Lord of the universe would give us His Word! The word awesome is way over used in our culture, but to say the Word of God is awesome is spot on.

Thanks for the good word this morning. I need some spiritual encourgement to help me through the day.

Lynda O said...

Great post, Dan, very encouraging -- and great scriptural examples to relate our situations to.

"Doing what pleases God will be the direct cause of eternal delight." That says it so well.

Mike said...

So goals are bad. Check.

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

(Typos drive me nuts.)

I jest I jest, I quip I quip. Good post! It's hard to find the balance between sound topical preaching and purely hermeneutical exegesis.

An American missionary that I rented from in Poland once semi-jokingly told me that you should only preach a topical sermon once every two years.

Do you think it's better to aim for the balance between exegetical preaching and topical application in every sermon rather than to lean to far to either direction?

I'm still finding my voice as a preacher so it's good to have some sound advice. Thanks my brother.

DJP said...

You're killing me, Mike.

Yeah, Walt Kaiser wrote that one should preach a topical sermon once every {X} - and then immediately repent.

I don't have any problem with topical sermons if they are textually-rich expositions of Biblical teaching on that topic. IOW, among my goals is that I want people walking away from my sermons clearer on (A) what a passage of Scripture says, or (B) what Scripture teaches about the given topic.

I think there's a degree of art to it, Mike. All my own Christian life, there's been an immediate "connect" between doctrine and practice in my own thinking. But that reflects that I am very simpleminded, and very needy. I go to passages for help, light, life; that's what I see in them; that's what I'm given to bring from them.

But there is also science to it. I ask myself versions of that question: what should people take away from this passage? Does the sermon serve the text, or the reverse?

Hope that's of some help.

Tom said...

DJP wrote: "Having people run away from your preaching (i.e. a small congregation) because you preach the truth straight"

Wouldn't it be glorious if this were the real reason people "ran away" from your preaching.

DJP said...

Yep, there's the danger. Many of the effects I listed out can be caused by sin, foolishness, ineptness. Hence the necessity of flying diligently by the instruments, striving after being the sort of wise man Proverbs paints out: principled, yet teachable.

Randy Talley said...

Very well said, Dan.

And now for my off-topic drift:

"If Paul gave three chapters of rich doctrine in Ephesians, he follows it up with four chapters of wrapping the truth in shoe-leather."

Ephesians has 7 chapters? Why am I always the last to know these things?

Mike said...

Seems pretty sound advice. It's hard to strike a good balance sometimes thanks to the "sermon series" mentality that seems to be so popular. No problem with sermon series' but they are becoming the norm. I've got friends (seminarians, love their hearts) whose sermons sound like they were prepared by throwing darts at columns on dart boards. Pick a topic, pick a verse, pick three points (alliteration is a bonus!), sprinkle liberally with jokes, and they have jobs as pastors (both senior and youth). Meanwhile, my little uneducated self is trying to figure out how to do meaningful exposition in the much less glamorous world of "backup preacher".

Maybe next time I'll try to season it with a little more practicality....or just start traveling with an exhorter who takes the last 10 minutes to tell everybody how to do what I just said. (Seems like I read somewhere that was once a common thing. Maybe I'm thinking of something else.)

Or I could just chuck it and become an organ grinder with a monkey who passes out tracts...hey, don't knock...it could get results!....wait, that doesn't seem right somehow...

Matt said...

Good post, I will always remember something Dr. MacArthur said one time in a sermon: He said, (something to the effect of), his job is not to preach "practical application principles" each Sunday. He emphatically stated that his job as a shepherd, before God Almighty, is to stand steadfast in the teaching of the truth. The Word of God does not return void! Therefore when a shepherd diligently labors over preaching the truth of the Word, the truth has far reaching implications on our lives that will themselves turn into practical application. As a believer, we cannot hear the truth of the Word and live the same as before we heard it. That would be our application.
I constantly want to turn to John the baptist when he looked to Jesus and pointed saying, "Behold the Lamb of God!". That was John's "job" -- to point to the Glory of God manifested in His Son Jesus Christ. What was the implication of that spoken truth? John's disciples left him and followed Jesus.

Thanks for the post
His Grace

DJP said...

LOL, oh my gosh; Zathras not good with numbers.

Thanks, I'll fix.

DJP said...

My last was to Randy.)

Hayden said...


I agree with what you have said and would also like to add that the persecution that you may face is that you may have larger number, more baptisms, etc and then have to struggle with pride. (Ecc. 7:14)

Men that are preaching, let's make sure that we are not boring people with the Word of the Living God by making it lifeless. I know that Edwards read his sermons in a monotone, but is that really what the standard is?? I see lots of passion and illustration in the Gospels.

This is a little soap box for me because sometimes in the exgetical preaching circles I run in men labor hard on the exegesis of the passage and spend little time on the homiletics. (I have not arrived in my preaching by any means!!) Want to bore people? I cannot think of a better way. People already have a short attention span, you can shorten it by boring them to death :)

Be a biblical, faithful, evangelistic and practical preacher of the Word and leave the results to God.

DJP said...

Amen. The Word should light us up first.

I like the country preacher's formula for sermon-prep:

First, I studies myself full
Then, I thinks myself clear
Then, I prays myself hot
Then, I lets loose.

Jugulum said...


You mispronounced "Zathras". It should be "Zathras".

Good post.

I have a jumble of thoughts in reaction to one element of it, which I can't seem to organize into coherence. It's related to the struggles of a brother of mine at my church, whom I'm at a loss to counsel well.

--You mentioned "Happier people" as a self-justifying goal. I get that, if "Happiness" is something like "feeling good about how well their lives are going, free from temporal disaster."
--I know you didn't intend to imply that all delight/joy/etc is postponed till the resurrection. There's temporal delight in God.
--For a follower of Christ, there should be joy/contentment even in the midst of the temporal disasters that might follow.
--It breaks my heart to see a brother who deeply feels the blessings he lacks. Both material (still single in his 50s, health problems, financial insecurity) and spiritual (he sees others who are absorbed in God, & satisfied in Him, feeling His presence--but he feels stuck & unable to get there). I wish I knew how to "tell him how" to "delight himself in the Lord".

DJP said...


Ah: Not "Zathras" -- "Zathras." Is different.

As to the rest, I totally agree.

Matt Aznoe said...

Well said. As I think about this issue, the following verse comes to mind:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
(Heb 11:1 ESV)

Unlike our goal oriented world, God did not tell us how our journey in this world is going to end. We have a heavenly goal and an eternal end in mind, but in the day-to-day operation of our lives, we simply do not know the plan. All that God has given us is the instruction manual of how to take each step.

It really comes down to faith: believing that the instructions God has set forth will get us to place where He wants us to be.

In a sense, the means will be justified in the end. If God is indeed faithful (and He is!), then our means, the Christian walk of obedience and faith in the Word of God and prompting of the Holy Spirit, will lead us to an end of glory and joy.

FX Turk said...

I'm enjoying watching Zathras and DJP derail his own meta.

donsands said...

God selects His pastors-teachers & evangelists with a lot of different personalities. He seems to also gift shepherds with two emphasis'. One to teach the Word, the other is teaching, but more of an exhortation to live a godly life, with specific ways to do so.

Not that all pastors don't exhort the people of God, there just seems to me to be basically two types of preachers, and yet with these two, there's quite a variety of personalities.
If that makes any sense.

Alos I was thinking how Romans has 11 chapters of incredible doctrine, and then, 4 more chapters on practical living.

Unknown said...

That is, if we achieve the desired result, whatever we did to get there is eo ipso good.

Another way of saying this is that the ends justify the means. It is humanistic thinking and is exactly backwards. Instead of doing what's right and trusting God with the results, some feel good end/goal is dreamed up and obviously anything that must be done to get there is automatically stamped with approval because, well, "look at what we're accomplishing!"

Solameanie said...

I hear the National Transportation Safety Board has a new sanction/citation brewing for derailing metas. Wonder what the penalty will be? Having to read a chapter of Brian McLaren without exploding?

Chris H said...

I have read your post twice, and I wanted to ask for clarification. When you mention the pragmatic goals, are you saying these ought never be goals for a church, or are you saying that these must not be the primary goals of a church?

My reason for asking is that my church is praying for an increase in numbers, but that the increase comes from new Christians who have heard the gospel and want to grow. Our primary goal is to be faithful to the Word. Our hope is that being faithful to the Word has as a secondary effect an increase in attendance. If the latter doesn't occur, we'll continue to be faithful to God; we just would love it if we had more people in the pews.

So, all that to say, I await your clarification, if you would?

DJP said...

No, I specified the problem as making them "Self-justifying goals" — that is goals whose achievement are seen as justifying any means. Not all are bad in themselves, but even then they should not be primary goals, and they should only be pursued with the primary goals and revealed guidelines firmly in place.

Chris H said...

Thanks for that, DJP.

Apparently, I can read, but not comprehend....

Chris said...

Excellent post. Of course, as you've made clear here, the worst evil of pragmatism is when it is either used by pastors as the basis of sermons and/or when Christians attribute goodness with pragmatism because something "works." I agree entirely with you on this, even passionately, yet I also see how this particular issue is difficult to swallow and apply if we are honest when we consider it beyond the two areas above.

While it is clear that goodness cannot by synonymous with it, nor should it ever be the basis, formula, rationale, or sham conviction by a pastor for his preaching, we are also very much aware of the benign ways in which pragmatism plays-out in our daily lives. It often helps us make responsible and God-honoring choices, particularly in the areas of financial responsibility and time-management. We even apply pragmatism to the absolutely mundane and ridiculously simple choices we make daily.

The point being that pragmatism is not only a part of our operating system (a system that is inherently sinful, of course), we as sinners can nonetheless make pragmatic decisions that are in one of three categories: amoral, sinful, or righteous when we are aligned with Scripture. So, it's not that pragmatism can ever (or should ever) be synonymously attributed to righteousness in and of itself, as it has been the source of so much evil in the church in general and from pulpits in particular, but that Christians need to see just how close it is to their daily lives and thinking patterns--if not for any other reason than to be aware of how dangerously close it might be in (sinfully) influencing decisions that God's Word would rightfully correct. Again, what makes it so sticky is the fact that our pragmatic decisions are not always bad, and can sometimes be avenues to good, Godly decisions. In other words, are there not doses of Godly pragmatism in the Proverbs and in the book of James? Can we ever say that wisdom has a pragmatic dimension to it? Is there such a thing as Godly pragmatism?

Larry Geiger said...

My pastor never preaches specifically about money. We never have a "stewardship sunday", etc. Members receive envelopes but there are no pledges.

He has a goal is to get every member into a bible study. Preferably a two year, walk through the entire bible, study course. His attitude seems to be if he teaches the Word and his congregation is studying the Word, then most everything will work out. They will "get it". So far, after 30 years of ministry, it's worked.

donsands said...

"My pastor never preaches specifically about money."

What does he do when he comes to Scripture portions about money?

Anonymous said...

Excellent Dan! I needed that today! What an encouragement to stay by what is right!

templeH said...

I think that our goals as Christians can be summed up by one verse of scripture - John 3:30 - He must become greater, I must become less.

The person who sits in the pew and asks "tell me how" is missing the point. That question is already answered - do what brings glory to God. The answers as to 'how' are in the Word.

Great post

Lynda O said...

I think I can see what you mean about Spurgeon not doing any specifically "practical" topic sermons. But from my reading of his early sermons (I've read through volumes 1 and 2, now working through volume 3, 1857), I see many examples of him preaching the doctrine, and then giving practical exhortations, much like is done in the epistles. Many times he exhorts his audience to read their Bibles, and to pray for those who don't understand certain teachings as you do, instead of trying to win them by mere words. In sermon #122 (Christ about His Father's Business), he addresses those who might say they could not be useful for God:

"Says one, “How can I do God’s business? I have no talent, I have no money. All I earn in the week I have to spend and I have scarce money enough to pay my rent. I have no talent. I could not teach in a Sunday-School.” Brother, have you a child? Well, there is one door of usefulness for you. Sister, you are very poor. No one knows you. You have a husband and however drunk he may be, there is a door of usefulness for you. Bear up under all his insults, be patient under all his taunts and jeers and you can serve God and do God’s business so. "But, Sir I am sick, it is only today I am able to get out at all. I am always on my bed.” You can do your Master’s business, by lying on a bed of suffering for Him, if you do it patiently. The soldier who is ordered to lie in the trenches, is just as obedient as the man who is ordered to storm the breach.

Similarly in #123, "Particular election," he lists many practical things to do in order to make one's calling and election sure -- such as to get out of an idle state, to be diligent and study well the Scriptures and get knowledge, and later, to add temperance to knowledge, with statements such as "Be not drunken with pride. Be not lifted up with self-confidence. Be temperate. Be not harsh towards your friends, nor bitter to your enemies. .. Ask Him to give you that patience which endures affliction, which, when it is tried, shall come forth as gold. Array yourself with patience, that you may not murmur in your sicknesses."

Anyway, I certainly find much great spiritual (and practical) wisdom from Spurgeon's words -- a similar benefit as from reading Proverbs and similar Bible passages.

DJP said...

Thanks, Lynda, good points and good quotations.

But in hundreds of hundreds of glorious and wonderful sermons on grace, the Gospel, election, doctrine, Christ, there are any sermons on Ephesians 5:22-24? On Ephesians 5:25-31? And so forth? I'd have to check, but I've not seen a sign of them yet.

Hayden said...


Would you say that the person that asks 'how' is sinning? I think 'how' is a natural question. You see it all through the Gospels (i.e John 4, 5, 9, etc.) and also the epistles. It is not wrong to ask 'how does this apply to my life?' after hearing a sermon. (James 2 seems to make a clear case for it)

After I preach I love it when people are asking themselves 'how can I put this into practice?' or 'how does this work out in everyday life ?' The 'how to questions' spring from a heart of obedience.

Preach the Word! YES! But also show them how to apply it. Its called DISCIPLESHIP.

Terry Rayburn said...

1. Dan, you're forgiven.
...for "one last enumeration"...remember?

2. Good post.

3. I just finished "reading" (on CD) the biography of that great theologian, Barbara Walters.

She asked "What is the goal of life?" to some famous RC Bishop or Cardinal (I forget), and to the Dalai Lama.

The RC guy answered, "To get to heaven."

Hello Dalai answered, "To be happy."

Barbara (choosing between such eminent wise men) chose "To be happy" as the best answer, and has made it her life goal, too.

There you go.

Lynda O said...


Yes, I can see your point about that. Even when he did preach on such texts, as Ephesians 5:25-27, he only briefly noted the duty of husbands to love their wives, then even said "I do not intend, however, to enter into the duty of husbands. That is not the reason for which I selected
the text...". I've just always seen Spurgeon's practical side as that which is included within his regular doctrinal-text sermons.

philness said...

Yeah, you know its all fun and games until someone looses an eye. Expository preaching sounds all perfect and rolls off the theological tongue real nice and self assuring. But preaching to us sheep void of where and how you (pastors) get your feeding from starves us.

Sheep don't read gods word. A pastor who is relying on eating the sheeps food on behalf of him/her and regurgitating it back at him/her once a week and expecting him/her to have the said desired results from the nutrients you already gorged and absorbed is a laugher.

The same Holy Spirit feeding you pastors through reading and praying gods word is the same Holy Spirit grieving to be feed upon by His sheep.

Lead us to these green pastures and show us how to eat six days a week on our own before the worms start eating the other eye.

Rachael Starke said...

My study of Colossians and Ephesians completely and (hopefully) for all time opened my eyes to the reality that How is always connected to Who.

Because Jesus......, therefore I......

So many, many preachers fall into the trap of skipping straight to the lists and the exhortations and the "practical" portions of a text, and glossing over the One who is the power behind them and under them, and the One that they are all for.

Dear brothers, don't pull a Princess Bride and give in to the temptation to "skip to the end! Say man and wife!!" Help us see from the text how who Jesus is, and what He's done, is the power in our How, for His glory.

Sorry if that's a little too much like preaching - this post just struck such a sensitive nerve. Our dear pastor who does this so well has been on vacation all month.. We have missed him. A lot :|

DJP said...

Zathras... Princess Bride....

This meta has everything!

Rachael Starke said...

:) Thought you'd like that.

DJP said...

It's a certainty.

There are even PB allusions in my Kregel ms.

If, you know, They don't edit them out, to save me from myself.

~Mark said...

One of my biggest frustrations with some of the best teachers is the common circumstance of saying to do something but rarely saying how to do it!

For example, for the first several years of my salvation I'd hear radio preachers (the good ones even) say "Wait on God" and I found myself on occasion yelling back at the radio "How? HOW??"

Thanks for the mental image DJP, I'll try to remember it. :)

~Mark said...

(TO be clear, I understand your pint about pragmatism too, it's just that to constantly hear the same exhortation with no tips on how to actually carry it out was and is frustrating!)

Rob Bailey said...

I know much ink has been spilled on the subject, but to take the conversation to WWJD; why did he speak in parables? Matthew 13 says it is so they won't understand. They will not get it, and it is not just because they are depraved, but because the message is encrypted. Even in Isaiah, God commissions Isaiah to preach to a people that God knows will not receive his Word. I'm not saying to try to confuse people. This is a question that has always bothered me to a certain degree. "Invite them to church!" But, church is for those that believe.

DJP said...

Agree with your last two sentences, Rob.

But, to the rest: "we" aren't "they." The church is not judicially-hardened Israel.

Hayden said...

He also told them parables so that they would seek out the answers which is why he told the disciples the interpretation of some of the more famous ones. Parables have many functions. Harden some, and prick some. All from the same message. Sounds like a normal Sunday to me :)

Merrilee Stevenson said...

Frustrated because I had a couple of witty and profound things to say and lost 'em. More than once. But I did manage to copy and paste before losing a little one:

And the "tell me how" is important; as equally important as the "show me how." Parents and pastors alike know that things are caught, not just taught. I know for a fact that I can do a fine job explaining to my kids that their room is a mess that they need to clean up, and then send them off to do the job, and they will likely do a mediocre job of it on their own, but a much better job with me helping them, and showing them, especially if I'm good at it myself. What's worse is when my room is a bigger mess than theirs, and...well now we're getting a bit personal, aren't we?

Merrilee Stevenson said...

Now I have to post a second comment so I can get follow up comments sent to my e-mail. And the word verification is "leses"

As in: leses more.

(I'm going to clean my room now!)

Anonymous said...

But still...you do not tell how. Finding the how will change your life and your faith for the better.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

"The instruments are your only friend."

Amen to that!

Barbara said...

I'm with Rachael on this one. It seems to me that for the most part, whenever Paul is giving practical instructions to whatever church he's writing to, he winds up pointing his readers back to who Jesus is, what He has done and is doing, and reminding us that this is the image that we are being transformed into and can therefore give our all for - so that the more we truly know the One True God and His only Son, Jesus Christ (the very definition of eternal life, according to Jesus in Jn 17)and submit ourselves as living sacrifices, wholly consumed for His glory (Romans 12:1-2), the more we can discern what is His will and what is good and acceptable and perfect.

But it takes time to know Him more, especially for a young convert who is having to have four decades of error scourged off of her, so that these new truths and instructions naturally come with the question, "How?" and "What does that mean, exactly?" and probably (hopefully) there will always be something else that I come across in Scripture that instructs me to do something that I don't really know how to do right away - so I ask my Father to teach me.

And He always teaches me - in His word and through the skillful exposition and pastorly advice of the one whose undershepherding He has seen fit to place me under. But it took me time to learn that, too. Now I can trust my Father because He has proved faithful to His promise to lead us into truth and to guide and keep us, because by His grace I know Him more.

As I read this thread, one glorious verse comes to mind here -2 Corinthians 4:7. Praise God for it.

Paula Bolyard said...

As I've gone about my day today, I've been pondering what this post had to do with the Christian Right (Ralph Reed, James Dobson, et al). Sigh...Eats shoots and leaves....

Good word DJP! Our pastor has been preaching through 1 Corinthians and Daniel and while 1 Corinthians is oozing with practical advice built right into the text, Daniel is a bit more subtle. Still, a good expositor (which my pastor surely is) will find practical application along the journey without having to be a slave to the topical themes.

Our pastor did take a one week hiatus from 1 Corinthians the week of Mother's day, finding himself right smack in the middle of the incest passage that week. That was perhaps not the right message for the occasion : )(I did wonder if he was secretly sporting a Hawaiian shirt under his suit due to the topical nature of that day's message!)

Ray said...

"I don't have any problem with topical sermons if they are textually-rich expositions of Biblical teaching on that topic."

By "textually-rich" do you mean "the more bible translations used, the merrier?" ;)


DJP said...

Where did that come from?

Ray said...

Sorry. Your 5:56 AM post in response to Mike... and I was being sarcastic :) I thought it was funny.

one busy mom said...

Doing what pleases God may be the direct cause of temporal disaster.

A key nugget that probably doesn't get enough airtime from the pulpit. Great examples given of obedience not ending up in a temporal blessing, which serve as a nice refute to the "I obeyed God so how could He possibly allow (fill in the blank) in my life" mentality.

Robert said...


Thanks for the excellent post. I think that any good expositor will not only bring the meaning and context of the Scripture to the congregation, but will also lead and exhort them as to how to apply the text.

I remember a sermon from Amos where the sermon went from God's hatred of the hypocrisy of the Jewish people to how we today should all exemplify Christian love towards our family (nuclear and church) and always living with the fear of God.

I think that is the difference between a teacher and a preacher/pastor. A teacher can tell you what a text means, but an effective pastor/preacher will care for you by showing you how to apply the meaning of the text in your own life.

templeH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
templeH said...

Hayden, No I wouldn't say that the person who asks "how" is sinning, it's good to take practical advice from sermons.

On the other hand, if we take the example from Dan's post about the individual who *only* asks "tell me how", then I think we may be moving onto a different beast altogether.

Like I said, the answers to many 'how' questions can be answered by asking yourself what brings the most glory to God - and then doing that.

However, some people like to create lists - 10 ways to have a better marriage, 5 things to do to love your neighbor better, etc. I think that if you get a person who wants 'how to' lists, then you can run the danger of a works-type theology. What can I *do*? And I think that if the focus is on that - what I can do - instead of on what brings glory to God, then we are missing the point. *He* must become greater, *I* must become less.

DJP said...

To state the obvious: the point of the orange man is not to teach Christians how to listen to sermons, but to teach pastors what to consider in preparing and delivering them.

Chris said...


"To state the obvious: the point of the orange man is not to teach Christians how to listen to sermons, but to teach pastors what to consider in preparing and delivering them."

Ahh...had I simply read your post a bit closer, or perhaps without my preconceptions, I would have seen the obvious and saved myself (and others) at least a few precious minutes of the day--which would have been a good, pragmatic decision of my part (c:

Jim Pemberton said...

I've pondered this, particularly how to balance practicality with what seems a relative lack of practicality in much of the Christian's life. Take the use of money, for example. We know that it is God who blesses, but we need to be good stewards nonetheless. We tend to get focused on how it is that we obtain the resources from God to accomplish our purposes in his name. So we think the balance to accomplishing this goal is between our activities and our reliance on God. The problem is that such a goal is wrongheaded. Our goal must be to be faithful regardless of our apparent practical success otherwise. God will bless or deny according to his purposes. So if we make faithful decisions regarding the stewardship of God's blessing then we have met our goal whether he has provided or not for the plans we made. And in the end we glorify him.

I think of Jim Elliot and the rest of the men who were killed in Ecuador. Their deaths were not impractical, but it may seem so to us. How hard had they trained and how many resources expended so they could go down there and be killed in short order? Yet their deaths paved the way for the gospel to be taken to the Indians who killed them. What expense is practical for the gospel?

We had a team in Dearborn when the other group was arrested. Our team was no less faithful if not a bit more stealthy (many Muslims who are honestly interested in the gospel shy away from cameras). Their team perhaps had a good purpose with their strategy. Ours did as well. The two teams saw different results. One was arrested and the other saw a few come to Christ. But both contributed positively to the proclamation of the gospel in different ways on different fronts.

Is it practical for the Jews to be blind to the Messiah who has come? Yet Paul indicates that God has a practical purpose for their infidelity in Romans 11.

So God is faithful to accomplish all that he has promised. Many things may not seem practical to us, but in the end the practicality of God's actions will be revealed.

Chris said...

I’m rather green in ministry and I am in the midst of a church plant. Like Bill, I used to believe "if you teach expositionally through books of the Bible, your people will learn doctrine, they will learn the will of God, and they will be transformed by the renewing of their minds (provided they are believers). Won't they find application based on their firmer grasp of doctrine?" Sadly, I wish scripture had been my first teacher in this area i.e. because if I had looked closely I would've have seen, as DJP has stated, that "The prophets, the apostles and Christ got into the nitty-gritty of working it out." Experience has taught me that for whatever reason MOST people don’t make the connection. They don’t see the practical implications of doctrine. It has to be specifically spelled out for them. After about four years I’ve only recently begin changing my preaching by devoting more time to specific application.

DJP said...

Right on, Chris. It's an "evidently not" moment, where Scripture corrects our fuzzy math.

That is, we say "If folks grasp the truth and the glorious centrality of God correctly, shouldn't the application simply in intuitive to them?" Then we look at the prophets, apostles, and Christ, and say "Evidently not."