Tullian Tchividjian|9:44 am CT

Moralism Vs. Jesus-Centered Preaching

A number of years ago, Kim and I were having dinner with Tim and Kathy Keller and Kathy said, “Most preaching these days is M.O.T.S. preaching.” Kim said, “What’s M.O.T.S. preaching?” Tim answered, “Moral of the Story preaching.” To read and preach the Bible as if it were fundamentally about us and what we should do is to miss the point of the Bible entirely.

Tim explains the difference between a moralistic reading of the Bible and a Jesus-Centered reading of the Bible:

We have said that you must preach the gospel every week-to edify and grow Christians and to convert non-Christians. But if that is the case, you cannot simply ‘instruct in Biblical principles.’ You have to ‘get to Jesus’ every week.

For example, look at the story of David and Goliath. What is the meaning of that narrative for us? Without reference to Christ, the story may be (usually is!) preached as: “The bigger they come, the harder they’ll fall, if you just go into your battles with faith in the Lord. You may not be real big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can overcome giants.” But as soon as we ask: “how is David foreshadowing the work of his greater Son”? We begin to see the same features of the story in a different light. The story is telling us that the Israelite’s can not go up against Goliath. They can’t do it. They need a substitute. When David goes in on their behalf, he is not a full-grown man, but a vulnerable and weak figure, a mere boy. He goes virtually as a sacrificial lamb. But God uses his apparent weakness as the means to destroy the giant, and David becomes Israel’s champion-redeemer, so that his victory will be imputed to them. They get all the fruit of having fought the battle themselves.

This is a fundamentally different meaning than the one that arises from the non-Christocentric reading.

There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the “giant” of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the “giant” of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matt.27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him.

In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on.

Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).


  1. Thank you so much for this article! I sat crying through church yesterday because of this very problem. Being encouraged to “do my part” to “have faith” and God will take care of me. In my mind I saw a faithful saint dying in horrible pain from cancer. I saw a sweet baby with an incurable disease who has a most faithful mother. Then I see myself unfaithful, throwing a fit over financial ruin and God taking care of me, providing when I NEVER once “did my part!”
    So sad and broken by the lack of gospel from elders I have loved and respected for over 20 years. What do we do now? I feel I’m in gospel negative every Sunday around noon but this week it was heartbreaking.

  2. Tillery,

    You are in a tough spot. There are churches and preachers who hand over the gospel, free of charge (no strings)…but they are few and far between. One of our members drives an hour and a half each Sunday, and my wife and I used to drive 45 min. one way to hear the pure gospel.

    I pray that you will be able to locate such a church. And you do have some fine websites with preachers that know and hand over the gospel (like this one) on a regular basis.

  3. We’re all moralists at heart and tend to drift with the current in that direction. And it doesn’t help that most of us who were raised in the church were taught the OT through Sunday School curriculums that were thoroughly moralistic rather than Christ centered! Moralism is easy to preach and actually quite popular among the “faithful”. It makes sense and looks good (see Gen 3). The Gospel is what will get you in trouble in church!! Go figure.

  4. The Bible teaches that fallen man is “dead in trespasses and sins” and “not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” But when a man is born again, there is a new creation. The individual becomes a partaker of the divine nature. Of what does this divine nature consist? There is an incident in the life of Jesus Christ which may well be the least known or preached about of all His wondrous acts. Even the artists have overlooked it in their countless delineations of His great deeds. In the galleries of the world may be found thousands of canvasses depicting the scenes surrounding the annunciation to the Virgin, the bringing forth of the newborn Babe in Bethlehem, His glorious miracles, and the death and Resurrection of our Lord. But who ever saw a canvas showing the Lord Jesus with His outstretched hand under the chin of one of His disciples in the act of breathing on him? We know of no such painting. Yet, on the first resurrection day, just such an incident took place. The disciples, frightened because of their fear of the Jews, were huddled away in an upper room, hiding from possible danger. The Shepherd had been slain and the sheep, were in terror. Suddenly Jesus Christ appeared in the midst of them. He spoke peace to them, and then, the gospel says, Jesus “breathed on them,” and said to them, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit. . .”. The spiritual mind will remember, of course, that on one other occasion in the Bible we find God leaning over man to breathe upon him. In the story of the creation we read: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). In the light of the Genesis passage, how significant the act of Christ,becomes!.” The image of God had come upon Adam by the divine inbreathing of thebreath of God. That image had been lost in the fall. The risen Lord Jesus Christ, who has just come out of death into the victory of life after accomplishing the redemption of a fallen man, begins His work among His disciples by breathing upon them once more.

  5. Moralism is when Billy Graham preaches Romney.

  6. Tullian Tchividjian


    First of all, my granddad hasn’t “preached Romney.” Second of all, you’ve clearly used this post to take a cheap shot at my beloved grandfather. That’s just rude.


  7. I think it is rude also to use this blog to take a cheap shot at Billy Graham. Happy birthday to your granddad pastor tullian!! Your grandad is my Uncle’s hero and he can do a fantastic impression of him!

    Your preaching has changed me in so many ways. I am realizing how in bondage to my Christian “to do list” I am. By God’s grace He is changing me and freeing me. Jesus + 0 = everything!!

  8. Pastor, your bringing up Tim Keller caused me to post this thought. My wife and I have listened to your sermon series “Sermon On The Mount” many times. Your treatment of Math. 7:21-23 …as did the entire series…set us free. In Tim Keller’s pod cast “Authentic Christianity” he states that the true Christian in Math. 7:21-23 was the one who totally surrended their will to Christ. In your above series our eyes were opened to the Gospel of Jesus + nothing = everything. There is nothing in me that is worthy of righteousness. I am banking totally on Christ righteousness for me for Eternal Life. Not Jesus + total surrender of my will. If we could do that then couldn’t we live a sinless life? I feel that Keller muddies the waters with this statement and that is where Satan attacks the saints. God Bless

  9. Tullian,

    I completely agree with you here. I am still learning to look for the pictures of Christ and the redemptive plan throughout scripture. My kids have this children’s Bible called the Jesus Storybook Bible, the theme is “every story whispers His name”. Learning to read the bible in a Christocentric way keeps the bible from being just another book of fables like Aesop or the Book of Virtues. When every story is a foreshadowing of the gospel message, the Bible truly becomes the greatest story ever told, and it is not a story about us.

    It was great meeting you in Colorado Springs last month. I am still hoping to make it down for the Liberate conference next year.

    Pastor FedEx

  10. because Jesus never had a ‘moral of the story’.

  11. What did Paul think of some old testament stories?

    1 Cor 10:6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.

    Was he a moralist?

  12. Jeremiah, the point is not that there is no such thing as a Biblical morality, or that there is no moral instruction in the Bible. But it is not the primary (central)teaching of the Bible. You don’t need a Savior for a morality play, you only need a vice, a virtue and someone to choose between the two. But if we are truly slaves to sin than all the morality plays in the world will not save us. For that we need a Savior.

    When we teach/preach Christ as the center of the story we literally “hear ourselves saved” continually and in the process we are quided into a new way to live (secondary teaching) without fear of failure or judgment. We must put first things first and always keep them first if the secondary things are ever going to make sense.

  13. Ed, the point of the article was pitting two things against each other.
    Moralism -vs- Jesus Centered Preaching.
    The traditional sunday school teaching of David and Goliath, the lesson to have faith in God and if He is for you who can stand against you. Rom 8 anybody, is lamented as not being Christ centered is a complete straw man.
    Christ centered preaching should have morals, and Christians talking about morals should be focused on the Spirit within at work.

    Just because morality and Jesus centered preaching can be at apposite ends does not mean that they are really against each other.

    Ed, if we are truly slaves to sin then we are not Christians and I would agree that moralism at best will show us our utter failure and falling short. However, if we are Christians then we are slaves to righteousness and gospel morality is what the Holy Spirit within us can and desires to produce and we ought to work with the Spirit and not against the Spirit.

    I contend that Christ contrasted the works of Satan with the works of God. Which do indeed arise in His children who are new creations with a new heart and Spirit.

  14. John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures for you think that in them is eternal life, but it is they that testify about me.”

    Reading Jesus into the text is not a mystical, magical thing that is contrary to what the original author had in mind. It is simply understanding that the Hebrew Bible is a book about the coming seed (Gen 3:15).

    The Book of Samuel is clearly a book about the Christ (e.g. 1 Sam 2:10; 2 Sam 22:51). The poetry that begins the book (Hannah’s song) and ends the book (David’s song) is highly Messianic. Saul and David are both Christs, i.e. Anointed Ones, Messiahs.

    Remember, the author of Samuel did not come up the cool story of David and Goliath. This is something that really happened. His ability and skill as an author is in his strategic placing of this story in the context of his book. So paying attention to the meaning of the big picture of Samuel is crucial to understanding what an author means in these stories.

    Our 21st century mindsets tend to be conditioned by Veggie Tales and Sunday School lessons, which often pull these stories out of the books they are in for the sake of extracting a moral principle. This can destroy the context of these stories; they are within the context of a book that is driven by the promise of the coming Christ (Messiah, Anointed One).

  15. Well said Jesse.
    I just think if one reads the new testaments account of the old testament, the parables of Christ, the epistles, or the words of Christ to the 7 churches, you will find many morals clearly stated.
    Yet Sunday school teachers or veggie tales are easy cannon fodder but no one has the stones to rebuke Christ or the apostles for saying the same exact thing.

    It is not as simple as this article makes it out to be. What of the Christ centered preaching that is technicaly sound but given with all the enthusiasm of reading the dictionary?

    We must be more careful in our critique.

  16. I really liked this article and it has put pastor Tchivijian on my podcast list. What a concise and beautiful exegesis of David and Goliath.

    That being said, I’m not really sure that the two interpretations of this passage are at odds w/ one another. Having taught To Kill a Mockingbird to a number of different age groups, I can tell you there are a number of different themes I would talk about w 18 year olds I would not cover with 12 year olds. Shakespeare is the same way. I just taught this story to three year olds and the main idea was that God helps us when we are scared. It really is a “you” central message for kids…its milk. But they remember it and we should develop that message as they get older (we aren’t that coordinated though).

    And it helps them understand as they get older.

    And, can I say this in small font …often the reform ministers come across as arrogant (We are in a reformed Anglican Church.)

    Don’t be too hard on seeker sensitive churches (don’t lump them all together either). It is very difficult to teach adults anything about the Bible in a half hour when they do not come with the biblical literacy that is somewhat assumed in the American South (I grew up in Texas and now live in Australia). I mean if we wanted to preach about David and Goliath here and were sold out to reaching the lost AND fulfilling the terms of reform preaching in each sermon, we’d really have to start from “who is David” and we don’t have the childcare facilities (or a patient enough preK coordinator–that would be me :) ) for two two hour long sermons.

    Oh, and Just read Unbroken, another testament to your grandfather’s legacy.

  17. [...] Moralism Vs. Jesus-Centered Preaching [...]

  18. I absolutely loved this article, and I am currently preaching through a series called Saviour Like the Shepherd, seeing Jesus in the life of David.

    The problem that I am now facing is the question: how much of Jesus does one find in OT types? The element of the story of David’s not wearing Saul’s armour is relevant to Jesus’ not fitting in with people’s ideas of a Messiah – sure, that’s good. But David’s musical abilities, featured so prominently through the Old Testament, do not really reveal Jesus, except maybe through clever eisegesis.

    To me, the problem is not being unable to Jesus in the Old Testament. To me, the problem is people finding Him where He is actually not.

    Any thoughts?

  19. […] K. From Tullian Tchividjian, accessed 19 October […]

  20. This church is gaining a lot of ground here where I am from and it is about exactly what you are talking about. I know you are busy but if you could look into it and do some type of review about it or something that would be great. I have tried explaining the difference between Christianity and moralism to my friends but I don’t think they see me as qualified to make such an analysis. I LOATHE what this ‘church’ is doing.

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