Preaching Christ and Commending Virtue
The first time I ever heard the phrase “preaching Christ,” was underneath Dr. Joseph “Skip” Ryan while attending a Gospel Communication class at Redeemer Seminary. As “Skip” led me to drink from the wells of Greidanus, Goldsworthy, and Clowney, I watched the Old Testament open up before my eyes. I found myself on the road to Emmaus “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to [me] in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk. 24:27)
While traveling the Emmaus road, stories that had simply been “morality myths” began to bust at the seams with Gospel glory! God had entrusted me with this multi-faceted gem and it didn’t matter what angle I turned, in every light, Gospel was shining forth.
I rejoice that there has been a renaissance of preaching Christ every time we preach. Like the Greeks who came to worship at the feast, our people come to the humble servants of Christ and beg us, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (Jn. 12:21) How dare we tell them to behave like shadows when they could feast on He who is the substance!
During this season where those who preach are being encouraged and challenged to preach Christ, may I raise a caution? It is both possible and necessary to preach Christ and commend virtue.
Truly, there is no Christian virtue without Christ, and, there is no true Gospel impact upon a life without the blossoming of Christian virtue. The person and work of Christ must be the identity in which we live and work to imitate Christ.
Hebrews 13:7 challenges the Christian:
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Surely this admonition is not a veiled moralism. The author of Hebrews tells the believer to: remember their leaders (those who preached the Word) and to consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
So, the writer of Hebrews might suggest that when we come to the story of David, we tell our people that the story of David and Goliath is not about going out to “defeat our giants,” because Christ is the greater David who has defeated the giant of sin, death, and Satan on our behalf, with his victory imputed to the people who cowered in fear behind the lines. Yet, while we can never defeat the giant in front of us, we have a hero who has defeated the giant on our behalf and we can be like the Israelites who “rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron.” (1 Sa. 17:52)
We must encourage our people that since Christ has won the war we can fight the daily battles in light of His glorious victory. If you don’t commend virtue while preaching Christ, where do you hope your people will turn to see and imitate that which is virtuous?
How do you commend virtue without preaching moralism?
Christian virtue emerges when the Gospel has taken root in a person’s life. Moralism is virtue without satisfaction in Jesus. Licentiousness, or selfish living, is satisfaction in everything but Jesus without the pretense of dutiful obedience.
Preachers can commend virtue without preaching moralism by applying the Gospel to the human heart. Use the Gospel to ask heart questions.
For example, racism is disgusting and evil. How do we preach that Christian’s must not be characterized by racism?
Well, if one was preaching through the book of Jonah he could direct his congregants to the truth that Christ, who is the greater Jonah, came through his own people and they did not receive Him. Not only did Christ come to save some from the nation of Israel, but some from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” (Rev. 7:9) Where Jonah’s racism filled Him with abominable hate for the people of Nineveh, Christ’s love led Him to empty himself and endure righteous wrath for people from “every nation.” The preacher could then ask his audience, “In light of the Gospel, what is the posture of your heart towards your neighbors?”
I think the flow of thought that we observe in Hebrews 11-12 indicates a great pattern for commending virtue from Old Testament stories while preaching Christ. Notice how the author of Hebrews 11 begins by pointing to the role that faith has played throughout salvation history and then he begins to recount these great stories of faith from the Old Testament. Yes, Abraham’s listening to the voice of God to “go” was commendable, but it was rooted in faith. Yes, Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt.” Why? Because “he was looking to the reward.” The courage and perseverance of those who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment” should silence our grumbling tongues, but they did not suffer “stoning and being sawn in two,” to merely serve as an example but to see Christ!
As the author concludes Hebrews 11, Hebrews 12:1-3 emerges as the denouement. We are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses,” but instead of looking solely at their examples and virtue we are “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In the same way that we must tether Old Testament narratives to the person and work of Christ, after letting the floodlight of the Gospel shine on all of scripture, we must then move back and demonstrate that all true virtue emerges from the fruitful work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who have placed their faith in God.