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The Tragedy of Compromise

by Ernest Pickering

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If the Trumpet Gives an Uncertain Sound

New Evangelical thought has had a tremendous impact upon the science of preaching. Down through the centuries God has been pleased to bless the preaching of His Word to the salvation and edification of millions. Preaching, however, has fallen on hard times. This is the age of "sharing" and "interacting." Many do not desire an authoritative pronouncement but rather an "observation" to which other such "observations" can be compared. It is a day of humanism in preaching.

Let's Be Positive

To New Evangelicals the cardinal sin is negative preaching. Repeatedly we are told by those who would tell us how to build large churches that we are to be "affirmative" rather than "prophetic" in our preaching. Basically one is affirmative when his listeners have a positive feeling about themselves rather than a negative one. So-called prophetic preaching is that kind of preaching which makes the hearer feel uncomfortable. Leith Anderson declares that "preaching has changed from the days when the parishioners at the door said, 'Thanks pastor. You really stepped on our toes today, and I loved it.'"23 The most important question, however, is this: What kind of preaching is approved by God? What guidelines for preaching are set forth in God's Word?

Observers of the current religious scene have noted that moderns do not desire the same type of preaching that their forefathers did. One observer believes we should abandon the superchurches as models for the average church and notes that such churches major "in 'positive preaching' (confrontational preaching has not found a spot on most church growth lists I’ve seen)."24 In the biography of Robert Schuller, a current model for the church growth movement, the author states that Schuller learned from Norman Vincent Peale, the liberal Manhattan pastor, that we should treat people positively. We should avoid making them feel guilty but rather make them feel good about themselves.25 If a preacher can make enough people feel good about themselves, he can draw quite a crowd. People like to be made to feel good, to feel they have the inner potential to "make it work," to succeed in life. No wonder that contemporary "ear ticklers" can attract such huge audiences.

Matzat makes a strong plea for a return to biblical preaching, to an emphasis upon sin and grace.

And yet, the very approach I am suggesting, which has been characteristic of evangelical preaching and teaching for centuries, and lies at the very heart of the Biblical revelation, is anathema in many evangelical circles today. Roy Anderson, who teaches a course on the integration of self-esteem and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, complains about the psychological battering of the cross . . . . There is no doubt that the cross does inflict upon us a "psychological battering." Theologically, we have considered that to be part of the process leading to repentance.26

What a telling remark is the following: "People today hunger not for personal salvation…but for the feeling, the momentary illusion of personal well-being, health, and psychic security."27 It is no doubt true, but should we aim in our preaching to satisfy these desires of the flesh? Experienced pastors have often heard the complaint, "But, pastor, you are not meeting my needs." One has correctly observed that the "focus is on oneself rather than on Christ."28 Another has noted, "By preaching to 'felt needs' we are often preaching to selfish and idolatrous cravings."29 If preachers give in to these current notions, they will be giving people what they want to hear rather than what God wants them to hear. There is a big difference.

Psychology and the Pulpit

As previously noted, evangelical Christians have become enamored with psychology. This fascination has definitely had its effect upon preaching. People are more interested in having their feelings explored and diagnosed than they are in hearing objective truth from the Scriptures. "We are living in an age where the focus of ministry is upon counseling and group manipulation rather than upon preaching. Expertise in psychology and in church management are deemed more important than immersion in the Word of God."30

Is the preacher to be mainly a pulpit psychologist, applying "spiritual Band-Aids" to the emotional hurts of his hearers, or is he to be a proclaimer of the rich and varied truths of the Word of God? Much preaching today, particularly in those churches thought to be models of success, is centered on psychological themes—meeting a person's emotional needs, helping individuals achieve self-esteem, and solving their personal and interpersonal problems. The Bible becomes a textbook in psychology. "Personality theory, psychopathology, health, and therapeutic change have replaced Biblical anthropology, sin, grace, holiness, and sanctification. Psychology's culture, social, and pragmatic authority proved too strong. Biblical truth seemed insufficiently applicable."31

How sad for one to think that biblical truth is inapplicable today! The Word of God was written to meet the needs of men, but, more important, to reveal the thoughts of God and to direct man away from himself and toward the Lord. The emphasis today is upon "my needs" rather than upon God's person. Preachers have, in response, been turning away from the exposition of biblical truth and have scurried about to locate verses and passages that would "meet needs." Those who do not "meet needs" may be in danger of losing their jobs!

Let's Share Ideas

Some people's concept of Bible study is to gather a group together, have them open their Bibles, and then go around the circle having each share "what this passage means to me." Under most circumstances this practice results merely in an accumulation of ignorance. The first question one must ask is: "What does the passage mean?" not "What does it mean to me?" In order to answer that question, one must have spiritual discernment and some knowledge of the principles of biblical interpretation. However, most unfortunately, many persons are not nearly as interested in what God said as they are in finding answers to their problems. Much preaching today is infected with this subjective and selfish approach to the examination of God's revelation. Leith Anderson notes that old-style preaching used to "tell people what to do." But times have changed. "Modern Americans don’t want their politicians, doctors, or pastors telling them what to do . . . . Today's speaker is more of a 'communicator' than a 'preacher.' The older-style preaching was marked by such words as 'ought' and 'should' and 'must.'"32 Such language is to be avoided by those who would build large and successful churches.

The great British expositor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, some years ago lamented certain influences which were undermining the character and authenticity of modern preaching. One of these was the change from "preaching to sharing . . . . Worship was 'liberated.'"33 When the approach of "sharing" is adopted, one's attention immediately is diverted from God's revelation to man's perception.

Current expectations for preachers have caused many a man of God to rethink his approach. Should I give in to the demands of the people, forsake the expository approach, and deliver "sermonettes" to "Christianettes"? These are hard questions facing pastors today.

The world wants religion to answer "practical" questions about relationships, child-rearing, self-image, lifestyle, "how to do" this or that. God must not interrupt! He must never get in the way.

Religion must never tell a person what he or she must believe or do. It must simply help the world solve its practical problems.34

For centuries Christians have found the answers to life's deepest problems in the teaching of Scripture. But these answers have been discovered as applications of the great doctrinal truths about God and His works. The great preachers of the past have not gone to the Scriptures with the primary aim of meeting human need but of finding and declaring the mind and purpose of God. In so doing, they have met human needs.

The Tradedy of Compromise. ByErnest Pickering. ©1994. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address:

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