So, Preacher, What’s Your Thing?

January 20, 2014

I recently listened to an audio recording of Sinclair Ferguson addressing the topic of “Preaching Christ in All the Scriptures.”

In the following excerpt he explains why he chose to address this particular topic. What he says raises a really important question: What is the one thing you want to be known for as a preacher? Or perhaps even more hard hitting, What (in reality) are you known for?

The issue of preaching Christ has (for me at least) has become a matter of increasing concern. And I say that for a number of reasons.

If Alistair [Begg] were already here, I’d probably ask him to tell us the story, but I remember him telling me on one occasion that very shortly after he came to United States he was playing golf with somebody, just one other minister, they were there, locked together for eight hours in a golf buggy, and at one point this man turned to him and said to him, “So, Alistair, what’s your thing?”

“What’s your thing?” And the implication was–I mean, Alistair thought, they never told me before I came to the United States if I was going to be a minister of the gospel here–that I needed a “thing.”  You know, something that was distinctive.

But to me it is a very striking thing the extent to which that is true. That if you’re going to be a model minister in these days people expect that you will have your thing. You will have your special emphasis.

And if you think about the people who are held before us, the people who are interviewed in the preaching magazines that you either get free or perhaps subscribe to. The models that are held up to us of ministry, there is usually something distinctive about their ministry.

It would be an interesting exercise . . . if we just went round the tables, and those of you who are married, I asked your wife, “What is the distinctive thing about your husband’s preaching ministry?” Or your associates–“What is the distinctive thing about your ministry?”

Now the thing that concerns me (and this is just an arrow shot at a venture from a relatively little exposure to the entirety of North American evangelicalism) but my concern is—that one might hear all too infrequently on these occasions—“His thing is to preach only Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

And actually if you think of the dominant models of ministry in our time—just flash a few names through your mind of people who perhaps you greatly admire and respect, and I say this very conscious of the fact—that God gives particular individuals particular burdens. Granted that God gives particular individuals particular burdens–Peter’s burden and Paul’s burden were different. Isaiah’s burden…or Ezekiel’s burden were different. Granted that, and the patterns of their ministries were different. I don’t think Isaiah could have been lying on his side anymore than he would have flown in the air. He just wasn’t a lie-on-your-side kind of individual. Different burdens.

But to me the great question is, no matter what the particularity of my burden may be, often that is related to the context of my regeneration and conversion and the location of my ministry, it ought to be possible to say of every gospel minister, and especially those gospel ministers we most admire, the thing that is manifestly, absolutely at the core and center of this ministry, that makes it apostolic, is that you can never sitting under that ministry, you can never escape from the centrality of Jesus Christ.

And I say that’s a concern to me, because I am not convinced that that would universally be said. And I think it’s worth us asking ourselves whether we suspect that it would be said of our ministry. “The thing about him in his ministry (now I recognize he has a special burden, and he’s got unusual gifts in this area,” but over the piece [?] you sit under that ministry, and the thing that you will be persuaded to say is, “This ministry is Christ-centered, Christ-dominated, and Christ-full.” And if anything else (and this might well be the secret) this minister is Christ-intoxicated. (personal transcription; formatting and emphasis added)

So, preacher, what’s your thing?

 

 

Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

12 responses to So, Preacher, What’s Your Thing?

  1. Thanks for the post, Kerry. I just read this by Spurgeon and thought it fitting.

    I would propose that the subject of the ministry of this house, as long as this platform shall stand, and as long as this house shall be frequented by worshipers, shall be the person of Jesus Christ. I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, “It is Jesus Christ.” My venerated predecessor, Dr. Gill, has left a [theological heritage] admirable and excellent in its way. But the [legacy] to which I would pin and bind myself forever, God helping me,…is Jesus Christ, who is the arm and substance of the gospel, who is in Himself all theology, the incarnation of every precious truth.

    C.H. Spurgeon, first words in the pulpit of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London.

    • Awesome quote, Joel. Hadn’t seen it before. Thanks for taking the time to share. In my advanced homiletics class we are discussing this very issue of preaching Christ from all the Scriptures. I’ll be sure to share this quote with the guys. Hope you and your family are doing well.

  2. Personally, I am not convinced of the “Christ-centered” slogan. Usually those who use it mean something else. The Lord himself preached the Kingdom. Most of the references in the epistles refer to preaching the gospel. The main preaching imperative says, “Preach the Word”. And there are a few references to preaching Christ as well.

    Obviously Christ is the King, it is His gospel, and His word. But the focus of the Bible seems to be different than what you typically hear. The Christ-centered idea seems to me to have a somewhat mystical approach and certainly distorts interpretation in many passages.

    I would prefer, therefore, to simply be known for preaching the word and leave it at that.

    • Don:

      While I understand the argument that “preaching the word” is more accurate than “preaching Christ,” I think it misses the point. If my wife sends me an email that talks about various details of her day and things she’s doing, I could communicate to a friend about the details within that email. You could say that I am “communicating the email.” But if the central reason for that email’s existence and the central theme of that message was that she loved me and had done something special for me in spite of the way I treated her yesterday, then I’m not really communicating “the email” if I’m not emphasizing that theme when I talk about the particulars of the email. I’ve missed the forest for the trees.

      So I would say that the goal of preaching the word and preaching Christ are not contradictory because the whole of Scripture points to the fact that (a) man is fallen, (b) God is working to restore man to himself for his glory, and (c) God’s plan to restore and redeem man centers on the Gospel the cross-work and resurrection of the Son of God — Jesus Christ.

      Can someone attempt to communicate Christ and fail to communicate the Word? Yes. Can someone attempt to communicate the Word and fail to communicate Christ? Yes. Neither of these faults should prevent us from communicating Christ through the Word.

      • Phil, I think I understand what you are saying, but a couple of rejoinders.

        First, your illustration doesn’t work for me, when I say preach the word, I am not saying simply “a wooden report of the details”, I am saying “communicate the intent of the whole passage” which would include the heart of “she loves me in spite of me” (to use your example).

        Second, the objection I have to “Christ-centered” or such terms is that they often convey an almost mystical approach to Christ where change/sanctification is supposed to occur simply by “seeing him” in every passage.

        I would contend that while Christ is central to the message of the Bible, the focus of what God is doing in history, etc, those who make a beeline for Christ in every passage are actually failing to preach the whole counsel of God and missing the point of many passages. This can’t but hurt the church, ultimately. We need to preach what’s there (which does include preaching Christ).

        Maranatha!
        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

        • Don:

          >>>”I am saying “communicate the intent of the whole passage” which would include the heart of “she loves me in spite of me” (to use your example)….I would contend that while Christ is central to the message of the Bible….”

          If to communicate the passage is to communicate more than the wooden details of the passage, but the intent of the passage, and if the intent of the passage falls within the broader intent of Scripture, namely communication of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then to communicate the passage is to communicate Christ. Somewhere and somehow that text points back to the Gospel. We’re both saying this.

          >>>”the objection I have to “Christ-centered” or such terms is that they often convey an almost mystical approach to Christ where change/sanctification is supposed to occur simply by “seeing him” in every passage.”

          I’m not aware of such an approach by the best Christocentric expositors. Bryan Chapell would be a prime example to consider. He would hold that sanctification is a progressive process that is synergistic and not mystical or Keswick in nature. The idea of “seeing Christ” in every passage is a rather simplistic statement what is going on.

          For example, in Judges we find God using a flawed man’s (Samson) own debased desires (attraction to a woman) to affect the deliverance of his fallen people. A possible non-Christocentric interpretation would be to focus on being/not being like Samson, good/bad leadership, how to make a comeback, etc. A possible Christocentric interpretation of the passage is to first identify the universal issue at stake: we are all fallen and far from God. Second, we can look at the redemptive aspect of the passage. In Samson’s story, God goes to the greatest extent to rescue his people. The passage answers the question: “How far will God go to rescue his people?” The ultimate answer to this question points to Jesus: obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. The message is a message of hope to those discouraged when God seems far and they wonder if God can even rescue them from their sin.

          My interpretation above (1) interprets the passage in line with the details of the passage, (2) interprets the passage in line with the context and intent of the book, which communicates God’s grace in the face of failure, (3) interprets the passage in line with the context of the Scriptures, which point us to Christ as the redemptive end of God’s unwavering intent to bless, and (4) does not advocate mystical sanctification by merely “finding Jesus in the text.”

          >>>”those who make a beeline for Christ in every passage are actually failing to preach the whole counsel of God and missing the point of many passages”

          Who would be a well-known example of a preacher who attempts to preach Christ, but ends up distorting the passage to say something else?

          >>>”We need to preach what’s there (which does include preaching Christ).”

          I may be misstating your position (please correct me if I am), but it seems that you’re saying: The Bible is God’s revelation in which God’s redemption of fallen man through Christ is a part.

          I’m saying: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s activity, in which the revelation of his redemptive work is a part.

          The second position is grounded theologically in the intent of revelation. God reveals himself to man, not because of our goodness, but in spite of our rebellion. That theme pervades the Scriptures.

          This perspective difference determines whether we see individual passages as (a) teaching various sorts of things and maybe an allusion here or there to the Gospel, or (b) cohesively pointing to the Gospel of Christ in various ways.

          • Hi Phil

            Very interesting conversation…

            I’m not sure I would accept Chapell as you describe. I’ve read his book Christ-centered Preaching (is that the right title?) and think he has some valid points. However, he is reformed and as such I am not certain that he is the best example of seeing sanctification as synergistic.

            I can see your interpretation of Samson, that could be an acceptable approach, but I think I would see this more in line with God displaying the inadequacy of trusting in men (a major theme of Judges and the period of the kings to follow). Of course, that ultimately gets us to Christ, but it isn’t the direct teaching of the passage. In addition, I think Judges shows us what it looks like for God’s people to live indiscriminately in the world, not hedging themselves about or making choices to separate from the world – which again points to our need of Christ, but that is not the primary teaching of the book. (I am preaching through judges just now, but just starting. I’m in chapter 3.)

            Who would be a well-known example of a preacher who attempts to preach Christ, but ends up distorting the passage to say something else?

            Well, I’d say Piper for one, but that might make people mad, so…

            The last bit of your post takes us into a pretty big field, the overall thrust of the Scriptures. While it is true that the gospel was in God’s mind before the creation of the world, I don’t think that God created the world in order to set a stage for redemption to occur. I also think God knew what would happen ahead of time. The implications of these concepts gets pretty complicated as we try to grasp it.

            But in the end, I’d have to say that you are right that the difference we are trying to express has something to do with a different view of the primary purpose of God’s revelation. I don’t know that I would state my view exactly as you have suggested, but it is closer to that than the view you express. Certainly redemption is God’s activity (i.e., God does it), but it that isn’t all that God does and, I think, was not God’s purpose in Creation. If our difference lies on the question of God’s purpose in Creation, then we are likely to remain looking at this from a divergent viewpoint.

            I hope that makes sense!

            Maranatha!
            Don Johnson
            Jer 33.3

          • >>>”he is reformed and as such I am not certain that he is the best example of seeing sanctification as synergistic.”

            How exactly do you come to the conclusion that all reformed believers hold a non-synergistic model of sanctification? What model of sanctification do you believe that all reformed believers hold, and where do you find this taught?

            >>>”I would see this more in line with God displaying the inadequacy of trusting in men”

            That is another possible application of the text. But, once again, this fallen condition still points me back to the need to trust Christ.

            >>>”but it isn’t the direct teaching of the passage.”

            But isn’t this part of our role as interpreters and preachers, namely to apply the passage? To state simply the problem that the text presents without crossing the hermeneutical gap to what the application is for today, we’ve only done half our job.

            >>>Piper is an example of someone whose Christocentric model leads to poor interpretation.

            This assertion doesn’t bother me, per se. But if you would like to make this argument, how exactly would you argue that I should come to the same conclusion? You would need to show that (a) Piper has a Christocentric hermeneutic, (b) Piper has a systemic problem of interpreting texts out of line with the context that stems from his hermeneutic, and (c) Piper’s Christocentric hermeneutic produces worse results in the interpretation of texts than non-Christocentric interpreters. I mention these points because: (a) some may not see Piper’s model as truly Christocentric, but I would likely concede this point. (b) We all have the sermons or lessons in our past that really failed to handle the text well. That isn’t ideal, but if it is something that stems from our ongoing hermeneutics, then we have a big problem. (c) I would contend that Christocentric interpreters may not always arrive at the perfect interpretation of the text, but their interpretation is consistently better than alternatives that I’ve heard/read.

            >>>”If our difference lies on the question of God’s purpose in Creation, then we are likely to remain looking at this from a divergent viewpoint.”

            I have intentionally not bothered with God’s purpose in Creation. I’m talking specifically about God’s purpose in canonical special revelation. Is his purpose just to teach us various and sometimes unrelated facts about himself and his dealings in history, or is it about his unwavering intent to restore his fallen creation to himself for his glory? I’m driven to the latter conclusion because of the at least the following theological conclusions: (1) canonical special revelation comes post-fall, and, therefore, is a work of God’s grace to mankind, and (2) the selectivity of the text itself points to a redemptive intentionality behind the material included in the canon.

          • Sorry for the delay in responding, I’ll put quotes in italics.

            >>>”he is reformed and as such I am not certain that he is the best example of seeing sanctification as synergistic.”

            How exactly do you come to the conclusion that all reformed believers hold a non-synergistic model of sanctification?

            You’re right, not all are. Not a good way to express it. My impression of Chapell is that he is not, but perhaps you know better.

            >>>Piper is an example of someone whose Christocentric model leads to poor interpretation.

            This assertion doesn’t bother me, per se. But if you would like to make this argument, how exactly would you argue that I should come to the same conclusion? You would need to show that (a) Piper has a Christocentric hermeneutic,… [etc.]

            Your response here is a little unfair, I’d say. You asked for an example, I offered one. Now you want proof!!! What do you think this is, an academic argument?? It is just a blog, after all.

            Seriously, though, for the purpose of this discussion, I think we are dealing with perceptions. My perception of Piper’s views are the result of some reading of him and of those who criticize him. I have in mind in particular Peter Master’s criticism of Piper’s view of sanctification.

            I have intentionally not bothered with God’s purpose in Creation. I’m talking specifically about God’s purpose in canonical special revelation. Is his purpose just to teach us various and sometimes unrelated facts about himself and his dealings in history, or is it about his unwavering intent to restore his fallen creation to himself for his glory? I’m driven to the latter conclusion because of the at least the following theological conclusions: (1) canonical special revelation comes post-fall, and, therefore, is a work of God’s grace to mankind, and (2) the selectivity of the text itself points to a redemptive intentionality behind the material included in the canon.

            On (1), that’s not entirely true. Genesis 1 and 2 were written post fall but record special revelation pre-fall. Special revelation has to do with the direct disclosure of God to man. God did that pre-fall, probably in more detail than we have recorded. But the matter that we have recorded is enough to point to other purposes to God’s special revelation than redemption.

            On (2), there are different ways to read the selectivity of the text and the purpose behind it. Redemption is a major theme. Kingdom is another. There is some interrelation between these themes.

            Personally, I don’t think we can know all God’s purposes behind his revelation. When we assume an interpretive grid, we end up seeing the same message in every passage. I prefer to look at the passage itself, try to understand the context, let the passage speak. I don’t have a compulsion to “run to Christ” in every case (though naturally he often shows up regardless).

            Maranatha!
            Don Johnson
            Jer 33.3

          • >>> “My perception of Piper’s views are the result of some reading of him….”

            Piper defines sanctification as follows: “…the process of becoming sanctified is the process of more consistently and more fervently (note “from the heart,” Romans 6:17) obeying Jesus Christ” (http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/how-the-spirit-sanctifies). I would have a hard time saying that Piper’s view of sanctification is deficient based on the reading I’ve done. That’s why I’m asking for some sort of substantiation here.

            >>> “I have in mind in particular Peter Master’s criticism of Piper’s view of sanctification.”

            I’ve read the criticism in question (note: criticism, not a critique) and have found it extremely shallow. Several points related to this discussion: (1) Master never states that the issues he perceives with Piper stem from Christocentric hermeneutics. (2) Master never addresses Piper’s view of sanctification (Keswick, legalistic, synergistic, etc.). (3) Master’s criticisms have more to do with Piper’s view of contextualization, culture, and stylistic preferences than about how Piper deals with Scripture or what the Bible says about sanctification.

            >>> “On (1), that’s not entirely true. Genesis 1 and 2 were written post fall but record special revelation pre-fall.”

            Once again, I’m not dealing with why God made the world/man (creation) or why God has revealed himself to man (general and special revelation), even though this is getting closer. I’m asking the question: “Why did God reveal what he has revealed to us in Scripture (canonical special revelation)?” This canonical special revelation was first given to Moses in order to explain the person and work of the God who had redeemed the people from Egyptian bondage in order to push forward his redemptive plan for humanity (Exodus 6.6-8). God’s work of grace in the nation of Israel included the gracious provision of Scripture to point them to the giver of grace. The fact that this revelation provides a back-story to the redemptive work from Egypt or that it records the fact of other forms of special or general revelation (some in part and some in whole) leading up to the covenant with Israel does not negate the fact that the Scriptures (canonical special revelation) were given to a fallen people that God was bringing to himself. The Scriptures exist because of grace and are designed to point to the need to trust that selfsame grace (Romans 15.4 – Main Verb Clause: “everything that was written in the past was written,” Purpose: “that we should have hope.”). In other words, we could simply ask the question: did we do something to deserve God to speak to us in Scripture, or is his Word to us an act of grace? Or: What did the Israelites do that deserved God to inspire the Scripture through Moses? Answer: It was all of grace and about grace.

            >>> “On (2), there are different ways to read the selectivity of the text and the purpose behind it. Redemption is a major theme. Kingdom is another. There is some interrelation between these themes.”

            Whether one sees kingdom or promise or presence or some other predominant theme in Scripture, there is clearly more than just “interrelation between” those themes and that of the Gospel. The theme of Kingdom is that of the rightful rule of God being rebelled against, but Jesus overcoming the injustice and returning to rule that subverted kingdom as his own. The theme of Promise points progressively towards the coming one who will fulfill the promised restoration of the human race. The theme of Presence shows us God’s unwavering commitment to be with his image bearers even to the point of becoming one with them in order to bring them back to himself so we can enjoy his presence forever and bring praise and glory to our Savior. None of these proposed themes work to the exclusion of Christocentrism. In fact, Christocentrism is the foundation upon which these themes are built. You can’t have a Kingdom without a King (Revelation 19.16), or a Promise without a Promised one (2 Corinthians 1.20), or a Presence without Emmanuel (Matthew 1.23). I say this to say: I agree that there is more than one operating theme in Scripture and more than one way God’s work is articulated (this is part of the beauty of Scripture), but that all of Scripture is given because (i.e., the intentionality behind the theme) mankind is broken and God is working to fix that brokenness by his grace. This is why Jesus and the Apostles had no problem pointing to a unified Christocentrism in Scripture (Matthew 5.17; Luke 24.27, 44; John 5.39; Hebrews 10.7).

            >>> “Personally, I don’t think we can know all God’s purposes behind his revelation.”

            The Scriptures tell us that they are redemptive in focus and purpose (2 Timothy 3:15). Sure, I don’t know God’s mind, but I do know what he has said. To obfuscate based on not knowing God’s mind is to conflate the providence of God with the revelation of God. When the whole of Scripture tells me a story that leads up to Jesus and when the entire Bible begins with the story of why I need Jesus and ends with the story of what Jesus will do to set things right again, I just don’t understand how we can say that the Bible merely *includes the Gospel* instead of the Gospel *including the Bible,* as it were. To bring this home: what would you see as the extraneous bits of Scripture that don’t point to the Gospel of Christ: (a) the fallen nature of man, (b) the grace of God, and/or (c) the need to trust in God’s grace? What is the stuff that doesn’t fit the paradigm that Scripture gives to Scripture?

            >>> “When we assume an interpretive grid…”

            If there’s one thing I’d like to communicate here, it is this: I’m not assuming this “grid.” This is using Scripture to interpret Scripture (analogy of Scripture). Jesus said that the whole OT points to him. So I’m using the Scripture’s admitted Christocentric “grid” to interpret itself. This isn’t something I arbitrarily have foisted upon the text.

            >>> “…we end up seeing the same message in every passage.”

            That’s not the point of Christocentrism. Perhaps there’s someone you’ve seen who literally preaches the same exact message from every text every single week, but that’s just insane! The message of each passage is unique. Each of the 10 commandments has its own unique message (i.e., adultery and honoring parents are two distinct messages or critiques offered in the passage). But each of those applications point us to the fact that (a) we have broken this commandment, (b) Jesus fulfilled this commandment, and (c) we must trust Jesus to (1) stand in our place because we have broken this commandment and (2) to give us the grace to fulfill the what God has commanded. Thus Christocentrism doesn’t override the meaning of the passage (making all the passages say the same thing), but rather undergirds the passage and shows me how it should apply in light of the cross.

            For example: a non-Christocentric application of the command to honor fathers and mothers would moralize and teach people to work harder and be better and stop failing. In the end, we’ve provided our people with the Law of the passage, but we haven’t actually interpreted the Law in the light of Grace! A Christocentric application of the command would (a) examine the message and reality of the gravity of the command, showing us that we all fall short of the command, (b) demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled the command, even honoring his mother in his final words on the cross, and (c) encourage us to (1) trust in the righteousness of Jesus who honored his parents even when we fail miserably to do so, and to (2) trust in the grace of Jesus to make us more into his image – one who honors their parents. In this case, Christocentrism does not subvert or homogenize the meaning of the text, but it ensures that our application of the text is in line with the Gospel. In fact, I’ll even go out on a limb here and say that unless your people walk away either (a) discouraged and depressed by their failures, or (b) trusting in their own efforts to obtain the smile of God every week, then you may actually preaching Christ from every passage whether you mean to or not!

            >>>”I prefer to look at the passage itself, try to understand the context, let the passage speak.”

            And I would argue that “the context” of the passage has not been examined if we haven’t considered the text in the bigger context of Scripture…which all points back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

          • well, I am sorry that I will have to bow out at this point. I don’t think that we will be able to get much further in this discussion. Perhaps I am at fault in not being able to articulate my view as clearly as I could wish.

            I would like to make one further comment on some of the passages you cite as evidence of Christocentrism:

            This is why Jesus and the Apostles had no problem pointing to a unified Christocentrism in Scripture (Matthew 5.17; Luke 24.27, 44; John 5.39; Hebrews 10.7).

            The Scriptures tell us that they are redemptive in focus and purpose (2 Timothy 3:15).

            I don’t think any of those passages prove what you seem to think they prove.

            The language in every case can be interpreted legitimately as allowing for other purposes and themes in the Scriptures. 2 Tim 3.15 says the Scriptures are able to give the wisdom that leads to salvation. It says nothing about focus and purpose.

            I just think you are trying to prove too much, and that it is a better and more all encompassing approach to say that the preaching mandate is to preach the Word (which of course includes Christ and the gospel). Preach the Word leaves nothing out, whereas “Christocentric” may leave something out.

            But we are now at the point of simply repeating our own propositions, so I think we have come to an end.

            Maranatha!
            Don Johnson
            Jer 33.3

          • Regarding those passages: (1) they at least indicate that the OT wholistically (Law, Writings, Prophets) points to Christ in some way shape or form. (2) They indicate salvific intentionality. Romans 15.4 certainly does teach this, and 2 Timothy 3.15 uses the word for empowerment for “able.” The term means more than “I am able to go to the store,” implying that I can go to the store and I can also go home or to church or to school. The term indicates empowerment for a particular task and could be understood better as, “I am enabled to go to the store.” Enabling for a task indicates intentionality and purpose which is missing in your treatment of the text.

            I have enjoyed the discussion and wish you well. Ultimately I have to disagree that preaching the Word is different from preaching Christ. Christ is the living Word to which the written Word testifies (Hebrews 1.1-2). The written Word has power in that it points to the living Word. And we have power as preachers when we follow the unified canonical approach to Scripture that allows the text to fulfill this Christocentric role.

            Thanks again for the discussion. God bless!