Andrew Fuller Using John Owen to Refute Moralistic Preaching



Moralism is the attempt to obey or impose the ethical commands of the Bible abstracted from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much preaching in Christian churches is simply a collection of legalistic moralisms. No truth of Scripture is meant to be understood in isolation from the gospel. When ethical and moral imperatives are proclaimed as sufficient, even abstracted from Jesus, the result is a crossless Christianity. Thus, even if the hearer adopts the correct behavior in response to the sermon, the response is grounded in his or her performance and feeds his fleshly confidence in self-righteousness. The gospel provides the only possible context for genuine obedience—faith.

In the section printed below, Andrew Fuller makes a case against moralistic preaching by referring to something he read from John Owen:

[Andrew G. Fuller, “The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation,” in The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications J. Belcher, Ed., Vol. 2, (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 390-391.]

And as Christ and his apostles never appear to have exhorted the unconverted to any thing which did not include or imply repentance and faith, so in all their explications of the Divine law, and preaching against particular sins, their object was to bring the sinner to this issue. Though they directed them to no means, in order to get a penitent and believing heart, but to repentance and faith themselves; yet they used means with them for that purpose. Thus our Lord expounded the law in his sermon on the mount, and concluded by enforcing such a “hearing of his sayings and doing them” as should be equal to “digging deep, and building one’s house upon a rock.” And thus the apostle Peter, having charged his countrymen with the murder of the Lord of glory, presently brings it to this issue: “Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.”

Some years ago I met with a passage in Dr. Owen on this subject, which, at that time, sunk deep into my heart; and the more observation I have since made, the more just his remarks appear. “It is the duty of ministers,” says he, “to plead with men about their sins; but always remember that it be done with that which is the proper end of law and gospel; that is, that they make use of the sin they speak against to the discovery of the state and condition wherein the sinner is, otherwise, haply, they may work men to formality and hypocrisy, but little of the true end of preaching the gospel will be brought about.

It will not avail to beat a man off from his drunkenness into a sober formality. A skillful master of the assemblies lays his axe at the root, drives still at the heart. To inveigh against particular sins of ignorant, unregenerate persons, such as the land is full of, is a good work; but yet, though it may be done with great efficacy, vigor, and success, if this be all the effect of it, that they are set upon the most sedulous endeavors of mortifying their sins preached down, all that is done is but like the beating of an enemy in an open field, and driving him into an impregnable castle not to be prevailed against. Get you, at any time, a sinner at the advantage on the account of any one sin whatever; have you any thing to take hold of him by, bring it to his state and condition, drive it up to the head, and there deal with him. To break men off from particular sins, and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves of advantages of dealing with them.”

When a sinner is first seized with conviction, it is natural to suppose that he will abstain from many of his outward vices, though it be only for the quiet of his own mind: but it is not for us to administer comfort to him on this ground; as though, because he had “broken off” a few of “his sins,” he must needs have broken them off “by righteousness,” and either be in the road to life, or at least in a fair way of getting into it. It is one of the devices of Satan to alarm the sinner, and fill him with anxiety for the healing of outward eruptions of sin; while the inward part is overlooked, though it be nothing but sin. But we must not be aiding and abetting in these deceptions, nor administer any other relief than that which is held out in the gospel to sinners as sinners.


By |October 1st, 2015|Categories: Blog|Tags: , , |

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today