How not to be a heretic – preaching the negatives

One well known preacher allegedly once said that if we are to preach the Gospel properly, so that it’s full force is heard, then we are likely to be accused of being anti-nominans.  An anti-nomian (against law) is someone who believes and teaches that the law only applied before Christ, we are now under grace and so it doesn’t matter how we live because we are forgiven.  This risk was certainly one that the apostle Paul courted so that in Romans 6, he had to respond firmly to the suggestion that his logic prompted the question:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? “[1]

He responds of course with a robust “Surely not!” 

Of course, this can work the other way too.  If you’ve preached on the seriousness of sin you may well have been accused of being too judgemental whilst calls for holy living may be confused with legalism.

So, how do we avoid the danger of going off balance or even into error and heresy in our preaching and teaching?  A few years back I remember Neil Powell talking about “preaching the negatives.” It was in a slightly different context. He was talking about pastoral concern. For example, if you are preaching on sacrificial giving, then you know there will be people in the congregation who are already giving so much but who may feel an extra weight of guilt dropped onto their shoulders. So it is important in your sermon to say:

“I know some of you are giving sacrificially already, you have nothing spare, it has been costly. I am not asking you to give more.  This is not a sermon to put pressure on you to empty your pockets and fill the collection plate.”

But preaching/teaching the negatives has an important part to play in keeping us within orthodoxy too and protecting us from heading off at tangents. I’ve talked before about how discussion about the Trinity is framed by three things we must not deny (three negatives if you like). We must not deny the oneness of God, the distinction of the persons or the equality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So, if you are emphasising the oneness of God, it is important to be clear that you are not diminishing or ignoring the distinction of persons.

Similar boundary lines exist on a whole host of issues, for example, you’ll see that when I write about men and women in ministry I carefully set out the boundaries there too. Whilst tacking Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2 on teaching authority I cannot ignore the descriptions and instructions relating to when women do speak in the church.  I make it clear that I’m not crossing that boundary.

In fact, Paul provides us with the master class on this. He takes time in Romans 4-5 to emphasise the amazing grace of God but also in Romans 6 takes time to preach the negatives by setting up a rhetorical question and responding with “surely not.”


[1] Romans 6:1