November 29, 2020

Principles For Breakfast

One of the most popular methods used in Christian preaching and teaching today is taking a topic or text and presenting it as a list of principles.

I would like to briefly examine some of the “good” and “not so good” aspects of the practice of turning texts or topics into principles as the primary methodology for preaching.

What’s “good” about the preaching of principles?

1. The use of principles as the primary feature of sermons is an effort to increase the basic understanding of what God is saying in the Bible to his people. This is an excellent motive, and is certainly commendable.

2. Principle oriented sermons often give much of their attention to the application of the text in practical ways. Many sermons are without application, and good preaching should have “praxis” as well as explanation.

3. Breaking texts down into principles is a useful transferable communication technique. It is often possible to remember a list of principles, or at least it is easy to pass the principles on to others. Those who sit under a communicator who uses this method are likely to share what they have learned with others.

What’s “not good” about the preaching of principles?

1. Preaching principles often comes at the expense of the actual shape and language of the text. Literary genres like parables or epistles can be difficult to place in their proper literary or cultural context, and reducing the text to principles can avoid this, but the actual language and form of scripture are often compromised

2. Preaching principles can send the message that the Christian message is about “making things work.” Obviously, many texts have other purposes, and it is a further mistake to assume that “making life work” is the purpose of Christian preaching. Some hearers may keep “working the principles,” assuming they are some form of a contract with God.

3. Preaching principles puts the preacher in a very authoritative position of translating the Bible into his own words. Of course, all preachers use their own words, but the wording of principles can reinterpret or define scripture in a way that is very different from the actual meaning. Explaining a passage should help the hearers to understand the words of scripture rather than replace the words of scripture, and possibly replace the meaning of the passage.

4. The use of principles can create a response of works rather than faith. Of course, sometimes a passage is promoting works, but the message of “principles” is almost always “what you do is the point of the message.” In the Gospel, what God has done must always be kept as primary. Those devoted to preaching principles often seem to have a bias toward “works” responses, sometimes at the expense of the Gospel.

5. The nature of Biblical wisdom is a hierarchy where God is sovereign: the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Principles find their proper place in the total Biblical worldview in relation to other Biblical truths. (The Lord’s Prayer is a good example.) Many sermons present principles without adequate Biblical context, tending to produce a distortion or a complete perversion of the proper place of the principle.


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for number 4. I read often but never comment. You always seem to be able to put what I am feeling into words that make sense and make me realize that maybe it’s not a problem of me “just not getting it”.

  2. You tell ’em, Spence!

  3. Thank you.
    This is why I tire of hearing Job’s “broken principles” to account for his life not working one day.
    Or the writer of Ecclesiastes, or Stephen…..the list goes on.

  4. Dan Smith says


    Students of scripture have long realized the importance of placing each writing within its historical context: who wrote, to whom, in what circumstance, etc. Too infrequently such study has allowed for localizing the text. What has been overlooked is the ONE context of the entire New Testament: every writer expected Jesus to return, with the corresponding resurrection and judgment, during the lifetime of the readers/hearers.

    This failure has led, since the second century, to readers imposing themselves into the text by assuming to be the antecedent of the second person pronouns.

    When one realizes that not one word/verse/chapter/book of the NT is written to him, he is forced to extract principles from the direct commands and examples since they were written to those Christians living during the “last days.”

    This requires a lot of work — determining what is time/circumstance restricted and what is universal. We have often universalized commands/restrictions that were meant for the culture of the day. There are many examples: dress/speech of women in the assembly, washing feet, daily (?) celebration of the Lord’s Supper, contributing to a congregational treasury, to name just a few.

    God bless you as your sabbatical continues.

    Dan Smith
    Sparks, NV

  5. Jeremiah Lawson says

    One of the more striking examples of pitfall 3 was when I heard a preacher explain that “blessed are the peacemakers” is sometimes only true when you destroy all your enemies so that then you can have peace. It’s true about Jesus, to be sure, but it presents a form of application for Christians in this age that could be problematic. It’s not that it isn’t exactly true, it’s that it’s an interpretation of “peace maker” that ordinary sinners should probably avoid applying to themselves. Actually, this sort of “peace-makers as people who make peace by destroying their enemies” could also be an example of pitfall 1.

    pitfall 4 became a big problem at a church I’ve attended, where the book of Ruth got transformed into a how-to manual for getting married rather than about Christ. It’s not wrong for a pastor to say that men should love Jesus, get jobs, get married, and make babies provided that things get done in that order, but prescribed as a list of what a godly person looks like it can fall into pitfall 2 and 4 respectively.

    I think there might be a 1a and a 1b to the advantages of using principles in sermons. WOrking from a principle can be a way to help establish a uniting thread that helps believers understand how texts across biblical books are thematically connected that they may not have noticed before. This is especially helpful in elucidating apocalyptic literature, wisdom literature, and so on.

  6. There is a place for principle preaching. The problem is that our culture has flipped. Rather than culture being an extension of religion, now religion is an extension of culture. Religion no longer tells us why and how we work or live; now the priorities of our lifestyles and careers dictate the relevance of religion. A principle which draws one into a deeper relationship with God is not worth as much as a principle which will get me that next promotion. Principles which connect me to my neighbors area useless, because my life and my work are no longer meant to serve them but to elevate myself above them. Self-promotion above my neighbor demands autonomy; therefore, my success must be the result of my own efforts. As a result, grace has no place in principles, which results in legalism. Principle preaching takes the church in a completely different direction than it did generations before.

    Jesus-shaped spirituality could potentially redeem principle preaching, but it will be at the cost of opposing the American “state” church and its preaching of health, wealth, and narcissism. Churches which preach “American Dream” principles reap the prizes of the culture; those that don’t are ostracized or written off as irrelevent. This is why the protestant principle is more applicable now than ever before.

  7. Do you ever read/listen to anything by bishop Will Willimon? He talks alot about what he calls “power-point” preaching (nothing to do with the use of a screen, but the reduction of a text to principles) and has some thoughtful things to say. Here’s a podcast link:

  8. I often recommend his podcast, and never miss it.

  9. Very good word, Michael. It seems like pitfalls 2 and 4 are at the heart of much of the health and wealth prosperity type teachings. It feeds into human nature in a way, because don’t we all just want to be able to “do” something to “fix” whatever problem we have anyway.
    Jeff M

  10. I think an idea somewhat related to reading the Bible as a set of “principles” is reading it as a set of “doctrines” also. I think too often we tend to read the Bible as a systematic theology textbook. While I don’t think the Enlightenment can be blamed in totality for this, I think it probably kicked it into overdrive. We want to be able to categorize what the scripture says into separate compartments.

    I may be out in left field here, but I have come to see some things in scripture more as pictures than as doctrines. For example, take the subject of justification. I don’t think that it is a doctrine, which generally says that a man is declared not guilty before God. I think it is a picture of restoration between God and man. In the case of justification the picture is that of a courtroom with the accused being acquitted. The accused is now at peace with the law. I think it is a good picture (or illustration or metaphor) for what happens between a righteous Creator and His sinful creatures.

    One of my Old Testament professors once told us that we are all children of the Enlightenment whether we realize it or not. I think he is probably correct.

  11. Principles have been the exclusive method of preaching used in our former church. After a bit of time, that yoke is very hard and heavy….
    My experience has been that the Word of God is living. It supernaturally speaks to us (as individuals) many truths as we walk out life’s journey, which cant be put into a “4 points box”.
    The Spirit may be moving a person in an area completely off track from the powerpoints of a given sermon. Both can be life changing/giving, but in the end, the hearer is confused.
    If one checks off the 4 points on the list, yet the issue, situation, still remains: I didnt do it right, God doesnt care, all this is liver mush….(bad choices)
    Maybe I should buy the pastors sermon on cd/dvd to catch whatever I missed, then maybe it will work(jn)
    Make us all WIIFM’s… (what’s in it for me)
    grace and peace

  12. Thanks for another post that gets right to the heart of the matter. Preaching the Bible as the “Owners manual to the Human Race” or the “Life Handbook” is easier and draws bigger crowds than preaching Christ. Distilling this complicated book into easy to do steps and “technology” designed to improve our quality of life appeals to directly to our self-centeredness. After years of following the steps and applying the principles I found that none of it works. Not one of those ideas had any power at all to change my sinful condition or improve my relationship with Christ, in fact they often aggravated a bad situation. What a crock. What other relationships in our lives do we build and keep by actually seeking out rules and principles. If I found out one of my friends was “managing” his relationship with me in this way I would be insulted.

  13. A couple of thoughts here

    1. Principleizing (sp?) if done correctly will not do damage to intent of author or the text. Instead it asks: A) What is the message or principle that the original author is trying to communicate to his audience. B) How can apply that same principle to my audience today. Part A covers off a lot of the concerns expressed above. Part B make sure that it is communicated correctly.

    2. I had to chuckle when I read that Jeremiah Lawson wrote “Ruth got transformed into a how-to manual for getting married rather than about Christ.” Now last I looked, Ruth doesn’t have a lot to say about Christ. I think that we have a danger of warping the meaning of the text if we try to make it speak about something (i.e. Christ) that the author never intended.

    3. There is a lot we can learn from Ruth about commitment, doubt, anger, and generosity. Yes it can point to Christ if we consider the fact that Ruth is someone outside the walls of Judaism, who finds redemption. Whether or not that is what the original author intended us to learn from the book is highly questionable.

    Mike Bell

  14. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Mike Bell, I agree with the overall stuff and that’s why I think the how-to approach is problematic. I don’t think it’s illegitimate to say that Christ can be seen in Ruth because, well, I’m a Christian. If I were Jewish I’d say there’s no way Jesus is revealed in Ruth, but since Matthew mentions Ruth it’s not completely outside a Christian’s interpretation of the Bible to say that even if Jesus is nowhere mentioned there are aspects of him that we can see in Ruth. Clearly the NT authors had no problem making huge leaps in seeing signs of Jesus in places we wouldn’t guess.

    I would also argue that thematically the mercy of God is an easier principle to extract than, say, marriage instructions. Overall it seems that one of the biggest dangers of principle preaching is that it imposes a meaning on narrative books that may not be there. Pentecostals and charismatics justify being slain in the spirit by doing this, the prayer of jabez got published, and so on. I could set aside entirely how Calvinists read their own theological principles into every biblical text. point 3 is how I think we can see Ruth pointing to Christ but that’s not what the bulk of the sermons I heard on Ruth were about, they were more about how the man needs to have a good job and be of good character or how the woman needs to get in the man’s way to get noticed.

  15. Thanks for another post that gets right to the heart of the matter. Preaching the Bible as the “Owners manual to the Human Race” or the “Life Handbook” is easier and draws bigger crowds than preaching Christ.

    IMonk has written on “Magic Book-ism”, where the Bible becomes nothing more than a grimoire of one-verse verbal-component spells.

    Distilling this complicated book into easy to do steps and “technology” designed to improve our quality of life appeals to directly to our self-centeredness.

    Coincidentally (or maybe not), “The Tech” in Scientology refers to the Word of L Ron Hubbard.

  16. Jeremiah,

    Thanks for the nice response.

    I agree with most of what you have written. A couple of thoughts though. You wrote Clearly the NT authors had no problem making huge leaps in seeing signs of Jesus in places we wouldn’t guess. Indeed, but the the NT writers did have the added advantage of being inspired. If we do the same, we risk doing great damage to the intent of the text. My Old Testament Prof used to drill into us over and over. “What does the text say? That is what you should preach.” If a NT writer has interpreted a text Messianically, then that should give us permission to do so as well.

    Taking the text down to a set of principles is OK if those principles are the purpose of the text. If the principles you end up with do not reflect the text then you haven’t done your homework properly. Conversely trying to find Christ in a text where the primary meaning is not about Christ also can tend to shift the text from what it originally intended to say.

    As for being slain in the spirit, I found the following link quite helpful.

    Mike Bell

  17. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I had a feeling I probably should have clarified that apostolic inspiration goes a long way. 🙂

    As a former AG guy I think they have a more biblically informed and balanced view than guys like Macarthur might ever give them credit for.

    If this gets any further along, Mike, we might just have to trade emails and correspond off Michael’s forum.

  18. Jeremiah,

    I think we have come to somewhat of a “meeting of the minds” on the issue. I was somewhat baiting “Michael Spencer” when I wrote “I think that we have a danger of warping the meaning of the text if we try to make it speak about something (i.e. Christ) that the author never intended.” I know that he has blogged before about sermons needing to point to Christ.

    I think I will summarize Michael Spencer’s points and our interchange of ideas in my own posting at Eclectic Christian. If we want to continue to sideline the discussion we can do it there.

  19. Jeremiah,

    Upon further thought, I will not comment further at Eclectic Christian. I have been thinking about Michael’s post all day, wishing that I had been more supportive of it initially. He certainly gives us something to think about.

  20. I may need to retract my earlier statement. I just saw a teaching video on prayer which fit every one of the “not-good” categories listed in the original post. In this video, the author declared that his principles work, because he never struggled with prayer since beginning to apply them in his life. Amazing. The circular reasoning was breath-taking. But whether or not he intended to, he elevated himself and his personal experiences to infallible, because there is no way to prove that he doesn’t struggle with prayer, or that what he is doing really is prayer. He placed himself and his “principles” out of reach of criticism.

    Jesus taught in parables, not principles. Anyone who thinks he or she can deconstruct the teachings of Jesus into elementary principles has a very low view of the sacredness of scripture – on the lines of the literary critics of yester year. But it fits the spirit of the age, which believes that some profound knowledge can be drawn from smashing subatomic particles into yet smaller particles, while the secret of the origin of all things and what (Who?) holds the universe together remains beyond our scientific grasp.

    I would submit that this points to a bigger problem concerning the use of the sermon as a communication tool. A sermon which explains all the mysteries of life leaves very little reason for the cogregation to be personally challenged. I suggest that pastors, rather than chewing the bible for their congregates in the form of principles, should faithfully present the depth of mystery in the scriptures and leave some room for them to contemplate it in their devotions or discuss it dialectically in small groups. Just a thought.

  21. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Eclectic, that’s cool. I have seen that the pitfalls of principles preaching happen even with really solid preachers and the effects are still damaging. I think that if pastors realized they were guilty of pitfall 4 they would preach less on principles and more on the narrative aspect. I’m finding over the years that the biggest way pastors do a disservice to the text is attempting to transform narrative books of the Bible into a basis for prescriptive teaching.

    Prayer of Jabez stuff is the most obvious misapplication, but a narrative book can also get shoe-horned into the equally dangerous and less obviously aberrant teaching approach of “and this [insert pastor’s personal interpretation of a narrative book] is just what is happening at our church.” The biblical narrative becomes a pretext for the pastor selling his or her own agenda to the congregation, whether it’s selling the church on a direction the pastors have decided on in terms of organization or, more common, some kind of building fund the congregation will literally be paying for.