America’s Pastor is all over the place.
Seeking to understand what he’s getting at in his Oct. 1 sermon-by-video at the Desiring God conference, I’ve continued listening. And it’s nearly impossible to tell what his point is. As many others who’ve heard the message have said, Warren is all over the place, issuing platitudes rapid-fire. First he’s talking about you-do-this, then do that, here’s a verse to support whatever, now here’s another one that sort of applies from another translation, then over here …
Quoth the immortal (as a character) Captain Jean-Luc Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation: “He just kept — talking-in-one-long-incredibly-unbroken-sentence-moving-from-topic-to-topic-so-that-no-one-had-a-chance-to-interrupt-it-was-really-quite-hypnotic.”
Perhaps I’ve previously left unclear why this bothers me so much. Let me summarize what may be two underlying issues with what Warren said. First, Warren’s kind of topical preaching rushes over or ignores foundational truths of Scripture verses, and equally problematic, assumes the Gospel. Second, and closely related, that results in more than imbalance, but legalism and lies.
1. Warren doesn’t follow basic Biblical hermeneutics.
Though I enjoy and learn so much of God’s Word through verse-by-verse exegetical preaching, sometimes I do like a topical sermon. More often I enjoy reading doctrine-intensive books that focus on a particular issue, such as Christ’s atonement, or Christian vocation, or predestination.
For example, recently I ordered and received a new book by Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible. Systematic theology on any Scriptural subject, by definition, tends to be topical. You collect all the Biblical texts you can find about a particular topic, such as how God uses civil governments to keep some order in a fallen world, and try to understand them all together.
Yet such understanding must be according to the Bible. And reading the Bible, exegetically or topically, requires certain “rules” of engagement. For example, you don’t take poetry and try to read it “literally.” That would actually be reading it nonliterally, like a liberal, for the Author (and authors) meant the text to be poetic, expressing truths in artistic forms that sometimes include metaphors. Another example: you don’t take a narrative meant to describe a historical event, and turn it into a “metaphor” for moral living, or a simple moral instruction for all Christians.
In his topic-surveying, Warren did not adhere to these rules of Scriptural engagement. That was probably the root problem of his talk: not that it wasn’t exegesis of a single Bible passage, but because despite appearances, his summary of verses and thoughts was not mindful of context. This includes the context of immediate verses, and Scripture’s main story-of-stories …
2. Warren did not even give passing reference to the Gospel.
Contrasting Warren with other pastors, whether they’re preaching topically or exegetically, will help to show and not just tell the difference more clearly. While other pastors, including those at the Desiring God conference, would constantly show how thinking about God constantly ties back to the Gospel — that Jesus, the perfect God-man, died for rebel sinners for His glory — Warren just assumed that.
Thus everything Warren said about discernment, ministry, bearing fruit, etc., became by default not a means of drawing closer to God for help, but a simple mantra to do-do-do more, try harder, here’s how I do it and you should too.
Perhaps without intending to be that way, Warren had lapsed into preaching legalism.
Without having inside information (thank God) about what the Devil is up to, it would seem one of his greatest successes is Christians assigning a certain image to Legalism, and then doing all they can to avoid that. In this view, the sin of Legalism is in behaviors or appearances: refusing to go to movies, “courting” instead of “dating,” wearing suits or dresses in church while also insisting every other Christian do this, preaching only Hell and damnation and not enough about God’s love, shunning non-Christians, homeschooling, and Pharisees (or Puritans) with beards, furrowed brows and hoods over their heads.
Avoid all those things, or looking like that, comes the assumption, and you won’t be a Legalist.
If I were the Devil, I’d be cackling and snorting sulfur at that. For without me even having to try, I’ve just seen a Christian, in the very name of “avoiding legalism,” act just like a legalist!
Author Michael Horton refers to Legalism is the “default setting” of any person. Even a Christian can fall back into this attitude. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Paul rhetorically asks the Galatians (Galatians 3:3). Treating the Gospel as assumed, or back in the past somewhere, after which point we can take over now and work, work, work to think better about God, ignore lies or even avoid legalism — all will lead right back to legalism.
And because the attitude of legalism is so inherent in our hearts, Christians in Christ must fight it constantly. I don’t think we’ll ever be free of it in this life. It’s like pride: constantly there, and annoyingly ready to claim one’s own awesomeness even at the thought of achieving humility!
But Warren did not focus his sermon on the Gospel. Overcorrecting, perhaps, for Christians who wrongly sit back and fatalistically wait for God to change them, Warren committed the opposite error. He pushed for work, work, work, succeed, bear fruit — all of the “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” parts but without Paul’s immediate reminder (in Philippians 2: 12-13) that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
If Warren could somehow be assured that his audience had so completely mastered the Holy-Spirit-works-in-you-because-of-Christ’s-salvation part, and they only needed to hear the you-must-do-this stuff, he could be excused for simply emphasizing one truth over another.
But as with talking about subjects like Law and Gospel, or God’s wrath and love, showing only one “side” doesn’t become just an imbalance. It becomes a lie.
Either he’s spinning half truths or he isn’t, I suppose. And half truths are lies.
Reluctantly, I would say Warren was preaching half-truths, which can too quickly become lies.
Next week I hope to go through more of what he said, particularly about the topics of what God expects of Christian leaders, and how we ought to practice media discernment. Does God really expect more than simple “faithfulness” from Christians? And for those who watch TV shows that show violence— are they really sinning and giving the Devil free reign over the brain?
Yes, I’m sorry to say that those are among the notions Warren repeats. And they leave me curious, not about why Warren is so popular, but why this impression exists that he’s one of those “nice” loving guys, a more-enlightened Christian leader who isn’t into legalism.