Preaching a Debtor’s Ethic

I can honestly say, to my chagrin, that up to about a few years ago I had given virtually no thought to a very serious malady prevalent in the preaching world today. A friend not too long ago was bemoaning certain aspects of the church and said something like, “The church has just become so moralistic.”
“Moralistic?” Aren’t we supposed to be moral? – I thought to myself. But, the “istic” betrayed the word’s good intention.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked my friend.
“Oh, it’s when you’re too caught up in outward behavior.”
Oh, yes, that is not good.
A few years ago, I took a class with Will Willimon, bishop of the United Method Church and Professor at Duke University, and he took this issue head on and called it out for what it was. willimon
The following is some of my notes regarding this topic of preaching a debtor’s ethic:
  • Most preaching falls under the category of advice. So much of preaching has been collapsed into ethics (something that we do). Preachers quickly depart from the biblical text that a sermon opens with and puts the focus directly onto the people… onto what we should or should not do. But, we don’t always have to give the congregation something to do. Sometimes it’s better to keep the sermon free from a human focus. Sure, you need speak to human needs, but you speak to human needs as much as the Bible speaks to it. “Should,” “ought,” and “must” are very Pelagian terms and most of the time if you go back to the biblical text those terms are not even there. Think about it… many of the biblical narratives (which is most of the Bible) are utterly devoid of moralistic intent! So, let’s get away from the 3-points-to-a-better-life sermon. Willimon said, “they laid hands on my head to preach the gospel, not to show people how to have a better marriage or to preach self-help.” Don’t make things into a “debtor’s ethic.” In other words – God did this for you, so you need to this for Him.
  • A good indication of moralistic sermons is that they hit at behavior. A better approach is to aim for the heart. Instead of behavior, shoot to affect people’s values. Somebody asked Karl Barth, “What is the definition of sin?” He said, “A PhD in Christian ethics.” Of course he was being facetious, but the point remains: character is of a higher order than behavior, rules, or ethics. Sometimes rules excuse a person from exercising judgment. In bringing people to Christ, we want to protect them from Christ, so we give them ethics. But, ethics can be deceiving because they give a person the sense that they are living right and yet it’s the very thing that’s insulating them from the person of Christ. Ethics should not be these codes, or free-standing truths.  We aren’t to be loyal to a principle, we are to be loyal to a Person. Luther said that preaching is to drive people into the arms of a merciful God; not to give them things to do that enlivens a sense of self-sufficiency. “3-steps to a better__________, 5 steps to a deeper ___________” quickly falls right into this category. These things are not the gospel. It’s just (in Willimon’s words) self-help, therapeutic Deism.
Wowzer. So glad I got this perspective before going off to produce sermons chock full of moralism. God help us to stick to the gospel (the good news of JESUS)!


  1. A debtor's ethic….profound, scary, a bit worrisome. I have the awesome opportunity to raise my 3 beautiful kids, this is how most of the gospel gets preached to them, or their age. I remember a story of a college kid who couldn't wrap his brain around salvation – and it boiled down to, “save me?….from what?” (eventually there was revelation) That's partly why I'm not so sure about these pre-teen salvation experiences. Not to poo-poo them altogether – there is nothing absolute. But when I was a pre-teen – what was God saving me from? Life was pretty good, my sin was comfortable. I need salvation at every age, but did I know I 'needed' salvation. So that kept me from pursuing God's love. *this is pure commentary and speculation – I could be completely full of poo*
    So what is it that would create a desire in my children to pursue salvation – the ongoing type. It's tough to say. We can prepare them, show them the way, but they must walk through the door. My point is, I think they hear a moralistic theology more than a need for “RADICAL SALVATION” – or whatever I used to call it. I'm not sure how else to communicate it to them. And maybe that's enough.

    Lots of tender love, lots of it.

    P.S. I'm loving your blog D, it's good to hear your heart once again. I'd go to your church.

  2. I know what you mean, JB. I've been thinking about going back through my kids' Bible story books and make sure that they aren't just promoting moralism. Many of the books hold up the characters of the Bible to be these 'Bible Heros.' Adam, Jacob, Samson, Gideon… but, you'd be hard pressed to show from the Bible how these guys merited hero status. I think the writer of scripture had God in mind as the hero of all these accounts. And yet we miss it when we convey these stories to our kids. It's not as much: 'learn from Abraham' as it is 'look at the faithfulness of the LORD God!'

    And I appreciate what you're talking about regarding pre-teen salvation experiences. Growing up in a solid Christian home myself I knew I was born a sinner. But, I really didn't KNOW until I was probably about 19-20. However, I would say all those salvation events that led up to my true revelation really prepared the soil, no doubt. And I think they kept me in God's grace – preserved me in a sense.

    I love that you have your antena up regarding the spiritual needs of your kids. They are very blessed to have you and Tiffany as parents. And I'm not surprised at all that you're giving them lots of good tender love. Good stuff, bro.

    And thanks, man. I think we've always had a pretty cool connection… you and me. Your words made my day.

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