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preaching holiness without bashing heads – andrew lim

How to Promote Biblical Virtues Without Sliding Into Moralism

A few weeks back I assigned myself what would appear to be a simple enough task of preparing a sermon on holiness.

I found out it wasn’t simple after all.

I found myself struggling over how I may promote a biblical virtue without degenerating into a kind of a finger-pointing, head-bashing legalism.

This would not have been a problem if God’s call to holiness was merely a good suggestion on His part. But that’s not the case. Quite clearly, God’s call for holy living in Scripture is couched in the imperative mood. He’s not merely suggesting that we be holy. He is commanding us to be holy. You can’t read Hebrews 12 and not notice that the language there smacks of exhortation: “lift your drooping hands”, “strengthen your weak knees”, “make straight paths for your feet”, “strive for holiness, “see to it”.  Romans 8 is a clear case in point: “Put to death the deeds of the body”. The verbs “put to death” and “mortify” are in the imperative mood, indicating that this is a divine command.

But here is where the problem starts.

In preaching a biblical virtue like holiness, preachers can easily give the idea that we must all strive for it through sheer grit. People who are already burdened with moralistic tendencies invariably tie those virtues to an angry, transcendentally holy and demanding God, and unwittingly, we will jump through one hoop after another to try to please God.

But an approach like this often ends badly on two counts: if we fail, we feel crushed and plummet into despair. If we succeed, we thumb our noses at others who have failed.

Morality damns in the same way that immorality damns.

So the question still begs to be answered.

How may the preacher commend a biblical virtue such as holiness without sliding into graceless, legalistic moralism?

If we are compelled by biblical teaching both to preach Christ crucified (Acts10:42) and advance virtue (Phil 4:8) then it necessarily follows that the two are not mutually exclusive, and we must be able to do both.

The answer is found in preaching the gospel even as you are promoting biblical virtues. The gospel goes beyond the categories of morality or immorality. It cuts an entirely different angle altogether.

Firstly, the preacher needs to be aware that moralism was never the main thrust of the Old Testament prophets. Neither was it the call of the Messiah and certainly not the rallying cry of the apostles. None of them identified the dividing line in humanity as the line that separates the moral from the immoral, or the virtuous from the defiled.

Instead, the clear teaching is that all humans are immoral. Only in reconciling to God through His Son Jesus Christ will anyone be saved. Morality commends no one to God.

This awareness will help the preacher draw a sharp contrast between the moralistic approach to keeping God’s commandments and the gospel approach to keeping God’s commandments. The moralistic approach tells the people that unless they toe the line, God will not accept them. The gospel approach encourages the listeners to obey God’s commandments out of a deep sense of gratefulness knowing they have already been accepted.

Secondly, the preacher needs to emphasise the point that we obey God’s command to be holy not because obedience secures us God’s favour, but because there is an evidence of holiness that is required of God’s people not so that they might be made justified but to validate and confirm that they are indeed justified. How wonderfully light the commandment becomes just knowing that holiness is the fruit of our union with Christ.

Thirdly, the preacher may want to remind the people that we’re not left mercilessly without help in our striving for holiness. Apart from the gift of the gospel, our loving Father has also given us the help of the Holy Spirit, coupled with such means of grace as the Holy Communion and the fellowship of Church to aid us in our pursuit for holiness

At this point, the preacher needs to get the people to look to Jesus.

If the bad news is that we all stand filthy before God because of our sins, then the good news is that Jesus, the Holy One, who is pure and sinless, took on our sin and depravity and absorbed the wrath of God that rightly should’ve fallen on us, so that we might be accepted as pure and holy. The Holy One was made vile so that we might be made holy. 

To the degree your flock understands the cross, their obedience to His commands will come from a place of love for Him and not from a compulsion to be morally upright for fear of His disapproval.

(To read a sermon Andrew preached on this issue – click here)


  1. John Coombes says:

    Thank you for this article. It addresses in some way the battle i have fought for my 71 years. I read an article like this and then i read Rom 10:10,11 and feel some sense of relief. But then a lifelong struggle with an addictive sin entraps me and i read 1 Joh 2:3&4 or Rev 22:14&15 (amongst so many others) and hope slides away again. I cannot in all honesty say that i have ever felt the confidence of salvation. I have attended Biblically faithful churches for some 38 years; i used to be a public Scripture reader; i used to act as a sidesman; i used to lead a home Bible study group. And there’s the thing i dropped every ministry because i believe it is hypocritical to do all these things when a dark cloud of sin besets me. Even though my head knowledge of the Scriptures is pretty good, nonetheless it is the guilt and shame that cut me off. And the heart remains a rock, Christ seems distant and i believe that i am doomed.
    So, it is probably this self-centred introspection that cripples me. But it is the thing of my waking and sleeping (which is usually short-lived to 3 or 4 hours a day).
    I shall ponder on your letter and hope for a light to go on.
    Be blessed in your ministry

    1. Aaron Bauman says:

      I feel your anguish, my friend. Look to Christ and not to self. We are never adequate or sufficient. Do you believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes? Romans 1:16. There is no other power that saves. If Christ is not sufficient to save, none can save. Look to Christ and live. Numbers 21:8-9, John 3:14-15.

      1. Andrew says:

        Thank you for your comments Aaron. I appreciate it.

    2. Andrew says:

      Thank you for sharing your heart John. I feel for your struggle.

      As Aaron has commented below, we are never adequate or sufficient unto such things. I have also myself discovered for myself that the gospel is the only answer.

      The language of Romans 6:11-18 is the language of slavery. Everyone of us is serving something/someone, living for something and whatever we live for is our master. There is really no third way – either we serve God or an idol – there isn’t a third way.

      We have all turned something good into an ultimate good. That’s the cause of all our griefs because we’re never going to be happy with anything less than God.

      But the secret is this, John,

      We don’t have to strive to be good. God at the cross says “I love you because I love you. I am saving you not because you’re good but because I have set my heart to love you”.

      Knowing this you’ll be finally free because here at last is someone who will love you just as you are, just because you’re you – and not for anything he sees in you. Its none of what you are or what you do – you’re finally free. This empowers you to love God and shun sin.

      Remember Augustine was plagued by sin for may long years. He used to be a person who had to have those indulgences. They were his spiritual master. He was only free after he came to have a new identity in Christ,

      John, you do have a new identity in Christ. The reason you don’t live out of the power of the cross is because although you have a new identity you don’t know it or you don’t remember it. That is what Romans 6 is all about It says “You’ve died to all this in Christ” What does it say in verse 11? “ In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus”

      To the degree you count yourself dead to sin, to that degree you are able to remember your identity with Christ.

      The gospel is radically different from religion. Religion operates on the principle: “I obey, therefore I am accepted”. The gospel operates on the principle: “I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey.”

      John, if you want to talk more, please give me your email and we can talk in that other platform. Only if you want to of course.

      Nice chatting with you.

      1. John Coombes says:

        Hello Andrew
        Many, many thanks for responding. I have never been able (perhaps do not want to) to share my deepest feelings. It’s just that i tend to be incredibly detailed in my thinking and possibly lose the big picture as a result. You have my email address from my initial response, but i am going to provide am alternate. If you feel moved to write to me privately i should appreciate that.
        I was blessed to visit your beautiful country in 2004. Living as i do in South Africa, there was a yearning to be able to immigrate to the country of the “long white cloud”. Peaceful with polite people.

  2. JoAnn Christensen says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been attending a church with my husband because I believe it is right for me to go with him although I have tremendous difficulty with the style of service and especially with the sermons: ‘bashing heads’ is a good description of what the pastor does & in addition he raises his voice. I did try to speak with him about it – I basically think the congregation is very Biblically literate which for me has meant less self-condemnation over time so I thought that would be true of them also and that his harsh message and delivery was not required. He was not receptive to discussing this & I think he believes he’s supposed to do this rather than go too easy; in other words preach a tough message. so now I tune him out as much as possible. Of course I was worried that this meant I’m someone who can’t take correction – and I guess I’m not sure if exhortation is what he’s doing and that I should listen to it. But I am reassured by knowing I have been strongly convicted of various faults when reading the Word and at other times, including when listening to sermons. However I am not discouraged by the conviction from the Holy Spirit as I am by a heavy handed sermon which may not even address the area I need to change. Thank you again for discussing this.

    1. Andrew says:

      Thanks JoAnn for your comments. Its good that you checked yourself to see if it was the case that you couldn’t take correction. Its a humbling but a healthy thing to do. Its a difficult situation you’re in. Tuning him out is not a helpful thing for a number of reasons not least of all the fact that this is your church and you might miss out on what the Holy Spirit might be saying through him; and further, all things considered, he is still your pastor. But I do understand why you react the way you do. Perhaps talk to him again letting him know how you’ve been reacting inside but listen intently to try to understand why he “bashes heads” the way he does. Ask him where he stands about moralising; talk to him about gospel-living. Whatever you do, try to keep the communications line open. I pray things will turn out better for you in the days to come. Thank you again for responding.

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