The heresy of exhortation

Photo from Spacemakers

Marking a lot of assignments where students examine different Bible passages, in an institution that seeks to prepare people in Applied Theology, and so expects exegesis to find its natural outworking in application, submits me to a great deal of exhortation.

The vast majority of students reach the application stage of the process, and promptly start telling me how I should try harder. If the passage is Psalm 113 then I should praise God more often, if it is Luke 9:1-6 then I should evangelise more…

Isn’t it strange. Neither passage seems to me to be primarily an exhortation to try harder.

The gospel passage tells how, having himself gone from place to place telling and showing people that the reign of God was breaking into this tired old world, Jesus sent his disciples to do the same with power and authority – there’s nothing about trying harder, and little that sounds like “evangelism”.

It’s true the psalm starts and ends with imperatives: Praise Yah! but the content between is focused on God and on the claim that we have so many reasons to praise God, not least that raising the needy from the ash heap is what God does all the time…

The exhortation to try harder is the preacher’s curse. Not gospel, not even good theology, yet the almost invariable default response to a Bible passage. If “Jesus” is the expected answer to questions asked by Sunday School teachers,1 then “try harder” is the gospel preachers find in every Bible passage.


  1. Teacher: “What is fury, and hops along with a fluffy white tail.” Students: Silence, till one brave lad says, “Well, I know the answer is Jesus, but I’m sorry I can’t work out how!” []

2 comments on “The heresy of exhortation

  1. jonathan robinson

    is the bunny angry because the cat stole his hat?

    That is the problem with the whole “application” thing, the aim of preaching should not be the change of behaviour but the transformation of the mind.

  2. Bob MacDonald

    Preaching? Its aim? I know what I listen for and sometimes the preacher gets it and sometimes not. I listen for evidence of a close reading – because I simply don’t have time to read the entire canon closely. A close reading will be helpful or clearly wrong. I prefer clearly wrong over vague.

    On Sunday the Psalm was 20, but Ps 120 got into the bulletin. So the choir-mistress said on Thursday practice: “Bob, what Psalm is this!”. Unfortunately for her I recognized it but I didn’t check the lectionary. So we sang Ps 120 after the 1 Samuel lesson on David’s anointing – not quite as good a choice as the prayer for the king. Somewhat chagrined by this misconceived pairing of lessons, I then hear a sermon on the epistle, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 omitting 11-13 – (lectionary designers have to get home for lunch I guess) supported by the Parable of the good Samaritan where the gospel reading had been Mark 4:26-34. And the sermon seemed both disjointed and triumphalist (a very rare occurrence for this rather good preacher).

    Altogether a forgettable service! And I still remember some sermons from 40 years ago.

    A close reading usually results for me in a response of inner thanksgiving. (Whether it changes my behaviour I doubt, but God who is rich in mercy does eventually get my attention, with or without preaching.) A good close reading is memorable. A ‘sermon’ I remember from so long ago was a children’s talk on the 7 actions Jesus took while engaging the deaf mute and how each one of them is visible, suitable to the senses available from the deaf mute. For those of us with mute lips and plugged ears – it was good!