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Russell D. Moore on the High Stakes of Dull & Evasive Sermons
The devil is a preacher. From the third chapter of the Bible onward, he is opening up God’s Word to people, seeking to interpret it, to apply it, to offer an invitation. So the old Serpent of Eden comes to the primeval woman not with a Black Mass and occult symbols, but with the Word she’d received from her God—with the snake’s peculiar spin on it. Throughout the rest of the canon he does the same, implicitly or explicitly.
Throughout the Old Testament, he preaches peace—just like the angels of Bethlehem do—except he does so when there is no peace. He points God’s people to the particulars of worship commanded by God—sacrifices and offerings and feast-days—just without the preeminent mandates of love, justice, and mercy. Satan even preaches to God—about the proper motives needed for godly discipleship on the part of God’s servants.
In the New Testament, the satanic deception leads the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees to pore endlessly over biblical texts, just missing the point of Christ Jesus therein. They come to conclusions that have partially biblical foundations—the devil’s messages are always expository; they just intentionally avoid Jesus.
So, the scoffers feel quite comfortable asking how a man from Nazareth could be the Messiah when the coming King is of Bethlehem. They find themselves wondering how the Son of Man can be crucified when the Bible says he lives forever. When Jesus says those who follow him should eat his flesh and drink his blood, there’s little doubt that the Adversary was there to point the crowds to Leviticus’s forbidding of the consumption of human blood. When the satanically inspired crowds crucified Jesus, they did so pointing to biblical texts that called for the execution of blasphemers and insurrectionists (Deut. 21).
When the early Church rockets out of the upper room in Jerusalem, Satan is there, with false teachers, to preach all kinds of things that seem to be straight from God’s Word—from libertinism to legalism to hyper-spirituality to carnality. He never stops preaching.
False Teaching Is Boring
But the devil is boring. That seems like exactly the opposite of what would be true of Satan. We think of the Tempter—and his temptations—as darkly exciting, tantalizing, seemingly irresistible.
But that’s not at all the case. False teaching in the Scripture—and in the ages of the church ever since—is boring. Read the expositions of Job’s counselors—and compare them to the proclamation of God at the end of the book of Job. Read what Balaam was paid to preach compared to what he announced through the power of the Spirit.
Satanic preaching is boring because the goal isn’t to engage people with preaching. It’s to leave the “desires of the flesh” alone, so that the hearers may continue in their captivity to the prince of the power of this air.
For some, dull sermons are themselves a sign of godliness.
After all, doesn’t the Apostle warn us against “lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1)? But the kind of rhetoric Paul is railing against here isn’t exciting—it’s typical in an era in which Greek rhetoric is everywhere. Paul doesn’t contrast engaging speech with dull speech, but the demonstration of human craft with the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:5). Indeed, Paul says his message is a “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 2:7), the unveiling of an ancient mystery that unlocks the meaning of everything.
Jesus was often poorly received—but he never bored. When he preached, demons shrieked, crowds gasped, and services sometimes ended with attempted executions rather than altar calls. The prophets before him and the apostles after him were just like that, too. They provoked shouts of happiness or warrants for arrest, but they never prompted yawns.
If lost people don’t like your message because they’re hostile to the gospel, you’re in good company. But if you’re boring the people of God with the Word of God, something has gone seriously awry. It may be that you preach just like the devil, and that you don’t even know it.
Hearing from Christ Isn’t Boring
Sometimes preachers bore because they don’t understand the nature of Scripture. The Bible, after all, captures not only the intellect, but also the affections, the conscience, the imagination. That’s why the canon includes stories and parables, poetry and proverbs, letters and visions. Dull preaching often translates the imagination-gripping variety of Scripture into the boring tedium of an academic discourse or the boring banality of a “how-to” manual.
So, if you find yourself translating a Psalm into the structure of a Pauline epistle before you preach it, you’re not letting the Scripture do its work in gripping the hearts of your people. And you don’t understand the meaning of the text—a meaning that’s about more than simply collected ideas.
Not even the most straightforward, rigorously doctrinal passages of Scripture are singularly intellectual. The apostles are visual preachers. Paul speaks of gouging out eyes (Gal. 4:15) and of giving his body over to be burned (1 Cor. 13:3), and he compares himself to a nursing mother (1 Thess. 2:7). James writes of a tongue aflame (James 3:6) and of fattened hearts in a day of slaughter (James 5:5).
The biblical revelation is far from boring. It’s the most exciting, engaging story imaginable, which is why it is aped all over the place in epic, drama, poetry, and song.
Preachers who would rage against boredom can start by learning to listen to the literary power of the text. This means, for one thing, learning to form a moral imagination that can be fired up by the Scriptures. For the sake of your congregation, limit your television and stop surfing the Internet for hours on end. Read some good fiction and some poetry, and listen to stories being told—and thereby shape an imagination that recognizes literary structure, beauty, and coherence.
Confronting the Devil Isn’t Boring
Some preachers bore because they misunderstand the nature of human rebellion. Sermons typically bore because they rest on abstractions at best, or on clichés and platitudes at worst. Abstract ideas can easily be distanced from human sin—and shopworn, recycled slogans are too familiar to threaten. Satan loves such preaching, because it leaves his authority over human rebellion unthreatened.
This is what is too often misunderstood about the “itching ears” preaching of the Apostle Paul’s warning to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:3). What excites the apostate hearers is teaching “to suit their own passions.” What they’re passionate about is their sin, and the myths that support it. They want soothing, lulling, boring teaching—the kind that will leave them alone.
Often sin is left alone less by preachers who approve of sin from the pulpit than by preachers whose sermons are so vague and abstract that the hearers are able to evade the force of the proclamation. Like Saul convincing himself that he had kept God’s command to destroy “all” the property of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15), all of us are prone to dodging the truth-seeking nature of biblical proclamation. Vague abstractions do not expose the conscience. It is not enough then to say, “Husbands, love your wives”; instead, we must point out what that looks like, with concrete application, and what it doesn’t.
This also means we must recognize that our preaching is always subversive. Every preached word is a salvo in the spiritual warfare against the Evil One. We must then, like the Apostle Paul, learn how not to be “ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:11).
The prophet Nathan understands that vague abstractions won’t expose King David’s conscience. David, after all, knows that adultery is wrong; he just thinks he’s justified in it, or that it’s not adultery if the king does it, or any other of a thousand possible excuses. Nathan bypasses David’s self-protecting screen by getting him to agree to the wrongness of a man who steals a lamb—and then turns the convicting spotlight right on the monarch as perpetrator.
Jesus does the same thing. He exposes how his hearers are evading the text—by jarring them with the idea of being a brother to a Samaritan, or asking how demons can cast out demons, or showing resurrection-denying Sadducees how their ridicule of resurrection doesn’t square with their own reading of Moses.
The apostles continue this kind of preaching. Peter anticipates his listeners’ love for the covenant with David—and points out that they could dig up David’s rotted corpse if they wanted, showing that the promises belonged to his greater Son. Paul shows the Athenians how they don’t really believe what they say they believe about unknown gods and idol worship.
Piercing the Strongholds
The best way to outwit the Evil One is to anticipate how his powers will seek to counteract your preaching. It’s helpful for me, as I’m preparing to preach, to think of all the ways my own heart seeks to evade the truth of the text. Once, as I was studying to preach on a Beatitude, I realized that I was treating the text exactly the way a liberal would treat a passage forbidding women in the pastorate: “Well, it can’t mean that, what it appears to say, so . . .”
The more you know your people, their struggles and triumphs, and the more you know human nature, the better you’ll know how to preach sermons that can pierce through strongholds and gain attention. That doesn’t guarantee that people will like what you say, but it helps to ensure that they’ll hear it being said.
Also, remember you are speaking for Christ. There’s a passion and a gravity that ought to come with standing in the place of the One who has been granted all authority.
A sermonic information dump—with PowerPoint outline point by sub-point by sub-sub-point—can “safely” distance your people from Christ. A sermon that simply collates and regurgitates what you’ve read in commentaries can make the Word of God a matter of cognition, not submission. A strung-together list of life tips can make it easy for your people to disregard this Word, just as they disregard the weight-loss-plan commercials on television or the flossing ad campaigns they see from the dentist’s chair.
The devil doesn’t mind boring sermons, so long as you allow him to preach, too. He doesn’t mind the Word being heard, as long as it’s the appetites that really enliven his people. And he doesn’t mind the gospel going forward, as long as God’s people hear his accusations of them (and they’re all expository and biblically based!).
But if you grip people with the drama of the gospel of Christ, if you jolt them into seeing the ancient newness of the Word of God, then you’ll have a demonic insurrection on your hands.
You preach verse-by-verse through the text? You do well. The demons, they preach also—and they’re boring. •
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.