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reuben munn: tempted to moralise

One of the challenges in preaching I’ve been wrestling with over the last year or so is how to prevent my sermons drifting toward moralism.

Last year I preached through the book of Joshua and the year before that, Mark. In both cases I was struck by how tempting it was to allow the text to become just a cute moral lesson about imitating Jesus or an ethical example from Israel’s successes and failures. It seemed that no matter what the passage was, the application wanted to veer toward personal ethics. I suspect I’m not alone in this because I hear it in plenty of sermons I listen to. We seem to have a default setting that reduces texts down to examples for us to follow or exhortations for us to ‘do this’ or ‘not do that.’ So the account of Jesus feeding the 5000 easily becomes a sermon on ‘giving what we have to God.’ Israel’s conquest of Jericho becomes a model of personal faith. Jesus’ miracle of walking on water is reduced to an exhortation for our audience to ‘get out of the boat.’

It seems to me that this approach, while it may have some pastoral value, hollows out biblical texts considerably and results in a very ‘thin’ reading of Scripture. In fact it basically reflects an allegorical hermeneutic, whereby the events and people in Scripture are simply substituted for events and people in our own lives. Hence we talk about ‘facing our own Jericho’ or we ask our audience, ‘what is the boat that you need to get out of?’ I’ve done this myself plenty of times, but every time I feel like I’m not really doing justice to the richness of the biblical story.

A couple of things have helped me begin to move beyond moralism in my own preaching. One is constantly reminding myself and my congregation that these texts are not primarily about us. This is not our story, it is God’s story. Joshua is not the main character of the book that bears his name, neither is Israel. God is. And Mark’s gospel is not about us, it’s about Jesus. That doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to say to us, but it means we shouldn’t approach Scripture ego-centrically, expecting to find a nice, tidy platitude to live by in every passage. I’ve found that by re-establishing the triune God as the protagonist of each biblical book, my preaching is more focused on the nature and work of God as revealed in the narrative of Scripture. The implications for contemporary life seem to flow more naturally out of this emphasis and end up being the richer for it.

Secondly, I’m trying to place each text within the ongoing narrative of Scripture and let it speak to us as those further along in the same story. For example, Israel’s conquest of Jericho is a demonstration of both God’s mercy (rescuing Rahab) and his justice (destroying the city). These twin themes of divine justice and mercy weave their way through the OT and coalesce profoundly at the cross, where “wrath and mercy meet” as that old chorus says. Jesus is therefore the fulfilment of what happened at Jericho and we are recipients of both God’s justice and mercy through Christ. This kind of narrative approach doesn’t end with a moral nugget to take home, but with a renewed sense of wonder and awe at the love and justice of God.

I certainly haven’t got all this figured out yet. But being aware of the temptation to moralise in preaching and thinking of creative ways to push against this is opening up some new horizons in preaching for me.

Reuben Munn is Senior Pastor of Shore Community Church on Auckland’s North Shore. He also preaches on the TV programme Connection Point, a ministry of SCC, which screens on Shine TV. He enjoys reading and is a keen piano player.


  1. Brilliant Thoughts – oh so true and also very challenging. It reminds me of the comments made be a previous post on this site about our tendency towards the sermon having a comic (nice ending) as opposed to the tragic (bare faced truth) ending. Of course here i am finishing off my sermon for Sunday on Ezekiel 4 and yes my thrust was to be about the cost Ezekiel had to pay to deliver God’s message and its application to us today as we bring God’s truth into situations. Maybe a slight change in angle to talk about God’s love as it works itself out through discipline and his ever-continuing mercy to his people is called for.
    Thanks for your insights.

  2. AndyD says:

    Well said. Thankyou for not only saying what you don’t want to do, but also how you do something else. Like you, I find it difficult not to slip in moralism in my preaching, but to figure out how to do something else is a different matter. Cheers

  3. George Wieland says:

    Perhaps you’re being a bit hard on yourself Reuben. If God’s intention in inspiring scripture is that it should be “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17), then it could well be within that intention that we find it challenging and guiding us in ethical, behavioural, even moral directions. I think you’re right that the primary question is, “What is this text ABOUT?” But a companion question might be, “What could this text be FOR?” Perhaps it could be FOR (in relation to the practical outcomes in our lives) more than it is strictly ABOUT?

  4. Jonathan Weir says:

    Thanks heaps for your thoughts here Reuben. I totally agree, the main point of the preacher’s text is always God! We sell our congregations short when we reduce the Bible to a manual designed to provide handy tips for living a successful life.

    Having said that, for me preaching is doxological, prophetic and pastoral. As a preacher I am conscious of priest, prophet and shepherd functions as I stand at the pulpit. My most solemn task is to exposit the Word in such a way that the majesty of God is impressed on people’s hearts. My assumption then, is that the encounter of worship through the text (and sermon) will invite a response, not merely of praise, but also of faith and obedience. At this point I am always having to ask the question, ‘what is God’s prophetic or pastoral word to our congregation today’?

    I think I would have to violently agree with you when you say, “my preaching is more focused on the nature and work of God as revealed in the narrative of Scripture. The implications for contemporary life seem to flow more naturally out of this emphasis and end up being the richer for it.”

    Thanks again

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