Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Preaching and Belief

Over the weekend I read this blog post by C. Michael Patton over at Parchment and Pen. It was one of those "aha" moments. I had been think along these lines for quite some time but I had not articulated quite as nicely as he did. He writes:

It was in my expository preaching course that I learned it. It was driven into my teaching psyche and intended to become a part of my basic presupposed knowledge of ministry. Without it, all your preparation would be in vain. Lacking this, your message will fail to do what God actually intended it to do...

What is it?

“Belief is no good without practice.” Wake up and smell the manna!

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it. Let’s put it another way.

“Belief is not the end, it is a means to an end. The end is doing not believing.”

In preaching, it goes like this:

“If you don’t have a way in which people can apply the lesson to their lives today, you have not really done anything.”

I must say, that I have received criticisms like this in the past about my preaching. While I always try to look for the good in such remarks and I try to assume criticisms come from a heartfelt concern, my theology of preaching seeks to go deeper than just 'here's what you do'. Why? Because Christianity is more than just a list of things to do. Application must flow from right belief. There is a sense that even the Pharisees lived right by the letter of the law and yet their hearts were far from God in belief. Paul describes his pre-Christian experience as blameless under the Law yet his heart was dead in belief. The problem I see in some preaching today and in our theologies of preaching is that having begun the Christian walk by faith we are content to exhort people to grow by obeying in the flesh (Gal 3:1ff). In short, I've already believed now I need to go on and work hard.

Patton goes on to summarize the thought this way:
The idea here is that belief, in and of itself, is not the end game that God has for us. God primarily wants us to be active in our practice. Good works, being nicer to people, acting out our love, giving to the poor, self-sacrifice, not cheating on tax-returns, avoiding certain web-sites, bringing home flowers to your wife, forgiving your father, protecting the unborn, knowing when to set down the beer, taking your daughter out on a date, remembering to say “I love you” (don’t just suppose they know), and trading your Hummer for a Honda. These are all things I can do today. This is what we need. Right?
Where is God's heart in these matters? Patton is quite blunt about the issue:

God cares more about belief than he does practice. Belief, truth, doctrine, theology, and, yes, being correct, is more important than all the good works one can ever practice.

The “why” is more important than the “what.”

The “how come” is more important than the “when.”

The “because” is more foundational than the “so that.”

In fact, I believe the “what?” “when?” and “so that?” have no meaning outside the “why?” I also believe the “what” can exist alone in many cases and serve to bring great glory to God.

What I am saying is that God is glorified in our right belief. God receives great pleasure in correct doctrine. It is God’s first desire that we believe correctly. Belief, truth, doctrine, and theology are not merely a means to an end, but are the end themselves. Yes, this “end” will, more often than not, have natural consequences that will produce certain effects (i.e. good works), but the substance is in the truth understood and believed.

This of course, reminds me of Machen's trenchant reminder in Christianity and Liberalism. Christianity is first and foremost a doctrine. It is first and foremost to be believed before it is a pattern of life. Patton concludes:

Preaching right belief and understanding, unfortunately, has become the red taped taboo of our generation. Avoidance of such is justified in the name of baseless pragmatism. It is the Evangelical and Emerging misdirection that could alleviate the church of the only legitimate reason we have for boasting. I believe that it is the crisis of the church today.

Friends, if people believe correctly—and I mean truly believe—they will act correctly when the situation calls for it. Not only this, but their good works will be done for the right reasons, based on a motivation of truth. Knowing and understanding God will change lives by bringing people in a right orientation with the way things actually are.

I do believe that evangelicalism is in the sorry state that it is because practice has become more important than belief. The lingo is orthopraxy not orthodoxy. First, it is obvoious God, Jesus and the Bible care very much about how we live. However, they care equally more about what we believe. Certainly the evidence of a true faith is a transformed life (James 2, Galatians 5, etc.). Yet true othrodoxy will always produce a robust orthopraxy. It is the legacy of some fundamentalist views that faith is watered down in to a strict set of beliefs you merely like off 'yes' I assent to this. True Biblical faith grounds itself in the person--but to describe this person you need certain doctrines. We confess that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10); we must believe that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3 et al).

Here's the rub, some forms of preaching never lead us into deeper belief and deeper trust. Having begun by faith we now show people how to move on to the deeper more surrendered spiritual life which sadly often has little to do with deeper belief, faith and trust but better practice. It is no wonder Christians become discouraged and point to growing hypocrisy within our post-evangelical world. In some places young people are leaving the church faster than a muscle car on a sprint track.

We need to be careful that legalism does not abound in our preaching. That of course doesn't mean that we do not preach and teach obedience. Avoiding legalism is not about flaunting license. Yet the purpose of preaching should be to feed and nourish faith building people up. Simple telling people how to work harder does not accomplish this end.

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