Bryan Chapell on How NOT to Preach a Message

Now, you’ve heard of the killer bees, but these are the “Deadly Be’s,” messages that, if they are preached just as I’m saying them, just by themselves, they actually become deadly spiritually.

1. ‘Be like’ messages

The first form of Deadly Be are what I will call “Be like” messages. We identify some biblical character for the good things that they are doing in Scripture, and we say, “Follow this example. Be like this person.” 

Now, in the history of preaching, there’s a whole genre that’s actually known as biographical preaching, which is oriented toward this. We identify some biblical figure, and we identify the good things in their lives, and we say, “Now, this was given as an example for us, so follow this example. Be like this person. Be like Daniel. Dare to be one. Be like Moses. Be like David. You know, David went up against the lion and the bear, and he defeated them. He went up against Goliath, and he beat up Goliath.”

Examples of ‘Be like’ messages

David

Remember how great David was. I mean, Goliath said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come against me with a sling?” And David said, “You come with sword, javelin, and spear. I come in the name of the Lord.” 

“You should just be like David,” we say to people—well, except for that passage about Bathsheba or the one where he murdered her husband in order to have her as his mistress and then raise bad children. And then, at the end of his life, in pride [he] numbered his troops as though his own hand had built his kingdom rather than the grace of God. 

We really shouldn’t say, “Be like David.” Would David have said that? If David would not, should we?

Abraham

We say, “Oh well, then forget about David. Instead, be like Abraham. Now, there was a man of faith. I mean, he went to the land he did not know, following the call of God. He did all that was necessary to separate from house and homeland and family to observe the call of God and go to the land he did not know. You should be like Abraham.” Well, Abraham did go to the land he did not know. And you may remember that on that journey, he only gave away his wife twice to other men. Well, maybe you shouldn’t be like Abraham either.

The problem with ‘Be like’ messages

Following tarnished heroes

What you should recognize as you study the Scriptures is [that] care actually seems to be taken to tarnish virtually every human figure but one—and, of course, that is the Savior—so that we won’t turn to anyone but God for ultimate aid or example.

Failing to point to divine dependence

After all, what I wish we could almost put in a neon sign in our study as we’re preparing our text, whatever it is, is to say this: God is the hero of every text. If there are human heroes, if there is heroism on display, then it’s because God enabled it. Ultimately, God is the hero. . . . Virtually every person who is described at length points us to our dependence upon God rather than our dependence upon human resolve or will or personal righteousness. 

“Be like” messages, where we simply say, “Follow this example,” are not wrong. They’re insufficient because they’re not pointing us where the Scripture itself is pointing us: away from human dependence and to divine dependence.

2. ‘Be good’ messages

Another form of Deadly Be message are what I call “Be good” messages, where the entire message just identifies some moral behavior or standard and says to God’s people, “You be as good as that.”

The character of ‘Be good’ messages

Now, what people hear is “save yourself” messages: “You just be as good as God requires, and He’ll be happy with you.” So, in conservative Christian circles, that means “Don’t drink or smoke or chew or go with the girls that do. Hunker down and try harder. Be better than you were last week. If you’ve done wrong things, well, confess it, and do better next time.”

The problem with ‘Be good’ messages

Now, the wrong thing with all these messages is, “Be good” messages, again, are insufficient. We don’t just say to people, “Boy Scouts are good and Girls Scouts are good and Christians are good, and it’s good to be good and it’s bad to be bad, so be good.”

Why isn’t that sufficient? 

Because God is holy, and His standard is holiness, and we can’t be that good. Remember what Jesus said [in] Luke 17:10: “When we have done all that we should do, we are still unworthy, unprofitable servants.” It’s not our behavior that makes us acceptable to a holy God. “Be good” messages, while perhaps good in themselves, are insufficient if that’s the whole message.

 

3. ‘Be disciplined’ messages

A final form of Deadly Be—maybe the one that comes most easily to our lips—[is] “Be disciplined.” These messages, whether we intend or not, are telling people to sanctify themselves. We tell them, “Pray more. Read your Bible more. Go to church more. Especially, go to my church more.” 

But how much more will be enough? When will God finally be happy when we have prayed long enough? 

Everybody quotes Martin Luther. He said, “Sometimes I got so busy I had to pray three hours a day.” Well, it’s a wonderful example but maybe a bit hyperbolic for those who say, “How much more prayer is ultimately going to make God satisfied, happy, and willing to grant my request? If what I think makes me right before God is more and more and more prayer, how much is actually going to be enough for a holy God?”

Wrong messages by themselves, not wrong in themselves

These messages are not wrong in themselves; they’re wrong by themselves. Simply saying “Be like” or “Be good” or “Be more disciplined,” while helpful, becomes harmful if that’s all we say.

Well, of course, people can object and say, “Well, doesn’t the apostle Paul say, ‘Be like me’?” Now, ask that. Does the apostle Paul ever say, “Be like me; follow my example”? Well, the answer is, at least five times. But put the messages in their context. Say the whole verse. Paul says, “Follow my example, as I follow Christ.” There’s a redemptive context. There’s a dependence being pointed to.

Of course “Be” messages are in Scripture, but it’s necessary to identify their context. Recognize always, “Be” messages are not wrong in themselves. They are wrong messages by themselves because, by themselves, they imply that the human person is the instrument of their own salvation or sanctification. 

“Be” messages imply that we are able to change our fallen condition by our own efforts, but such messages, stated or implied—and usually, they’re just implied—we don’t mean it because we don’t recognize all that we are saying or actually being interpreted as saying.

A revealing question

Such messages about just “Be good” or “Be better,” stated or implied, make us no different than Unitarians or Muslims or Hindus. It is a telling question that we should ask ourselves at the end of the preparation, even the preaching, of any of our messages: “Would what I just prepared and presented be acceptable in a synagogue or a mosque? Did I just tell people to be good?” 

If it would be acceptable in a synagogue or a mosque, there is something radically wrong with it because it is foreign to the hope of the gospel. And that’s what we have to make sure we’re doing as we’re presenting the messages true to the scope of the grace of God in all the Scriptures.

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This post is adapted from the Mobile Education course Preparing and Delivering Christ-Centered Sermons II: Communicating a Theology of Grace, taught by Dr. Bryan Chapell. 

Chapell’s three-course bundle on Christ-centered preaching is packed with more preaching insight—covering everything from philosophy to preparation to effective presentation. And right now during Pastor Appreciation Month, you can get it for 42% off. 

Comments

  1. Great thought on the point #1, but in the NT we are actually shown the examples of OT saints and implicitly or explicitly told to “be like” them (James 5:10-11, 16-18; 1 Peter 3:5-6; nearly all of Hebrews 11). We must learn from the examples, both good and bad, of the OT (1 Corinthians 10:11). Yes, we must ultimately point to Christ, but we should also learn from OT examples. It can be both/and. Let’s be careful not to set a bar that even Peter, James & the author of Hebrews did not meet.

  2. Michael Pavlick says

    The OT was given as Examples when we speak of the characters. To be like David? He was a murderer. (Uriah). Be like Moses who disobeyed God (Struck the 2nd rock and misrepresented God) and was not allowed to enter the promised land. The OT shows us that even the most Righteous men and women had serious flaws. The difference is that they repented. So when the NT says be like them I think they are saying to be able to repent. Today we have the better way which is by the Blood of Jesus. Really that is what the OT is really telling us is to repent by “believing God” that he sent his son. Because we believe God (HE Sent Jesus) it will be counted to us as Righteousness. Even with all of our flaws.