Archives For Christ-Centered Preaching

Have you ever been deeply disappointed with your own preaching, felt like a failure, and considered leaving the ministry?

Bryan Chapell did, and in a recent Faithlife Today interview, Chapell relates how his sense of failure as a preacher led him to write his book Christ-Centered Preaching.

I was first introduced to Christ-Centered Preaching in a seminary class called Expository Sermon Preparation. To be honest my initial impression was that the book was too formulaic. I didn’t care for the recommended (or required, as some of us thought) indicative-imperative structure of the homiletical idea (“Because this is true, you must respond in this way.”), and I was not convinced that the Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) was a legitimate or necessary concept.

Fast forward almost 20 years, and I now have a different perspective on the book. I have come through experience (both in preaching and in teaching preaching) to buy in to many of the concepts presented in Chapell’s book. Each year I have my advanced homiletics class read chapters 10 and 11 on the theology of Christ-centered messages. We have some great in-class discussions, and I love seeing the lights come on for my students as they realize that preaching Christ doesn’t mean forcing Jesus into every text.

Here’s how Chapell put it, and in my opinion, this has to be one of the most important sentences in the entire book:

Christ-centered preaching rightly understood does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ. (emphasis mine)

Others have since written on this subject and provided valuable and additional light on what it means to preach Christ, but let me encourage you to read those two chapters if you haven’t (or haven’t in a while). And why don’t you take five minutes to listen to Chapell share the story behind one of the most-used books on preaching. You will be reminded that the heroes of the Bible are often a mess, but that God in his grace still uses them. And he can use you and me too.

Ignoring the Christ-centered canonical context of Scripture is no less reductionist and problematic than ignoring the immediate context of the human author. A wooden application of the grammatical historical hermeneutic that fails to account for the fact that the Scriptures are the supernatural word of a sovereign God errs in the same way allegory does: both approaches exclude indispensible context. One excludes the context of the human author; the other excludes that of the divine author. Christocentric preaching does not mean neglecting exegesis in order to slip Christ in the sermon; it is rather the exposing of authorial intent, both human and divine.

~ David Prince

Christocentric Preaching and a/Authorial Intent

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?

 

 

It’s entirely too easy for preachers to be governed by a fear of man. “What will people think?” “Will they like my message?” “Will I get in trouble with so-and-so for making this particular point from the text?” And on and on the struggle goes.

In the context of concern for how the Corinthian Christians would respond to Paul’s earlier letter, he relates that people will always respond in one of two way to the preaching of Christ.

  1. To “those who are being saved” the “aroma of Christ” is “a fragrance from life to life.”
  2. To “those who are perishing” “the aroma of Christ” is “a fragrance from death to death.”

It will always be this way. Preach Christ and it will be a stumblingblock and foolishness to some and the power of God to others. That’s why we can’t be governed ultimately by the response of people to our preaching. Should we be concerned about how people respond to the gospel message? Sure. But listener response is not the ultimate gauge of success in preaching. The approval of God is.

Paul writes in v. 15, “we are an aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”

Being a faithful minister of the gospel can be a grueling and burdensome task. Just read 2 Corinthians. A negative response to your preaching could break you if human response is your primary barometer of effectiveness in ministry.

But there is another audience member to factor into your assessment—God. Paul writes in vv. 14-15 that as we “spread the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ] everywhere” we are “we are an aroma of Christ to God.

In other words,

Irrespective of the human response to the gospel, its proclamation delights God’s heart, because it centers on the Son whom he loves. (Murray Harris,The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 250, emphasis mine)

That’s what I really want as a minister of the gospel—the delight and pleasure of God. It’s like Martyn Lloyd Jones once said: “To me there is nothing more terrible for a preacher than to be in the pulpit alone, without the conscious smile of God.” And, according to Paul, “the smile of God” is present whenever His Son is faithfully proclaimed.

Charles Simeon reminds us that “God is pleased to speak of himself as delighting in the ministry of his Gospel”:

That which his servants labour to diffuse, is, the knowledge of Christ. They set forth incessantly his name, his work, and offices: and exalt him as the only Saviour of the world———This, like the sacrifice which Noah, and which Christ himself, offered, is to God “an odour of a sweet smell.” It is to him “as ointment poured forth.” (Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae Vol. 16: 1 and 2 Corinthians, 436)

Is human response to the preaching of the Gospel important? Yes. Eternally so. It truly is a life or death matter. But in the end the verdict that ultimately matters is God’s.

Colin Kruse notes that “in the Roman victory procession the incense was offered to the gods, even though it was the people who smelt its aroma” (2 Corinthians, 87). Even so our preaching is to be offered first unto God as a sacrifice. And we can be assured and encouraged that whenever and wherever we “spread the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” we are “an aroma of Christ to God.

I have a friend who recently preached a powerful message from this portion of Paul’s letter. As an aspiring church planter he determined before the Lord that if he ever showed up to church and no one else was there, not even his own family, that he was going to do the service from beginning to end “for God’s pleasure.” That’s good. Real good.

Here are the questions, then, that I need to be asking myself:

  • Am I convinced that God loves to hear the gospel preached?
  • Do I preach ultimately for the pleasure and glory of God?
  • Is my chief concern in the pulpit to enjoy “the conscious smile of God”?
  • Am I unduly influenced in my preaching by the human response to my message (positive or negative)?

Question: How do you personally deal with the fear of man in preaching? What part should (or does) “human response” play in your preaching?

Before I preach I nearly always ask God to cleanse my heart and purify my motives. It’s so easy to preach the right message for all the wrong reasons (cf. Phil. 1:15-17).

In a section dealing with division within the church at Corinth, Paul writes,

11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I followApollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. . . . 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:11-17)

Paul was called to preach the gospel not to win people to himself. In other words, “he was not sent to start a cult of people baptized by him” (MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 33).

But even in his primary calling of preaching he sought to direct people away from himself and toward the cross. He says his preaching was “not with the words of eloquent wisdom.” That means Paul’s preaching of the gospel wasn’t characterized by “clever, skilled, educated, or rhetorically sophisticated speech” (Garland, 56). For Paul preaching wasn’t about “winning arguments and impressing an audience by rhetorical display rather than content” (Witherington, 103-104).

Why not? What’s the problem with that kind of preaching? It’s found in the reason Paul gives at the end of v. 17: “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

Leon Morris explains that preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom”

would draw people to the preacher. It would nullify the cross of Christ. The faithful preaching of the cross leads people to put their trust, not in any human device, but in what God has done in Christ. A reliance on rhetoric would cause trust in men, the very opposite of what the preaching of the cross is meant to effect. (1 Corinthians, 48)

Or in the words of David Garland,

The problem with this style is that it earns the preacher the crowd’s golden opinions. Consequently, Paul is not defending his apostolic power in spite of his speaking deficiencies but attempting to undercut one of the values that has contributed to their divisions: the thirst for honor. Eloquence that elevates the status of the preacher cancels the power of the cross. (56)

Paul bent over backwards, as it were, even in his rhetoric, to point people away from himself and toward the cross and thereby foster unity within the body of Christ.

Perhaps we should do some self-assesssment in order to bring ourselves more in line with Paul’s cross-centered philosophy and practice of preaching:

  1. Does my preaching draw more attention to me than to Christ?
  2. Am I more concerned about how I preach than what I preach?
  3. Am I preaching to secure the approval of Christ or the approval of my listeners?
  4. Am I preaching in such a way that it encourages people to follow me or to follow Christ?
  5. Does my preaching encourage unity within the body of Christ or disunity?

Questions: What does preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom” look like today? What can we as preachers do to avoid emptying the cross of Christ of its power?

It must never be forgotten, that there is but one mode of preaching that God has promised to bless: “when all our sermons . . . are made to set forth and magnify Christ the Lord.” – Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry

The One Mode of Preaching God Promises to Bless

Obviously as a preacher of the gospel I am concerned about the what of preaching–my message. But I must not stop there. I cannot content myself with simply asking “What am I going to say?” I must also examine the why of preaching–my motives. “Why am I going to say what I’m going to say in the way I’m going to say it?”

When is the last time we stopped to ask ourselves questions like . . .

  1. What ambition is driving me forward in my sermon preparation?
  2. What is the consuming passion governing the form and content of my message?
  3. What is my ultimate goal and purpose in delivering this message?
  4. What would bring me the greatest pleasure as a result of preaching this sermon?

Recently I read J. I. Packer’s little book called Weakness Is the Way. In one section Packer examines Paul’s motivations for ministry. In other words, “what drives [Paul] in the risky, hazardous, and often pain-laden service of Jesus Christ that has become his life’s work” (30)?

In one chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians Paul reveals his threefold motivation for ministry. Here they are in Packer’s words.

1. “Paul wants to give constant pleasure to Christ.”

In 2 Corinthians 5:9 he writes, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [Christ].”

Packer notes that this is a “demanding occupation”:

It requires sustained love to Jesus, expressed in adoration of him for all that he is in himself and thanksgiving to him for all that he has done. . . . It requires sustained obedience to all his commands, up to the limits of our understanding of them. It requires constant watchfulness against temptations to self-indulgence, and constant battling against sloth, laziness, and indifference to spiritual issues. It requires respectful and caring treatment of all others as persons created to bear the image of God, and self-denial at all points where self-absorption would conflict with and damp down active neighbor-love. It requires daily holiness, from morning to night, a daily quest for opportunities to bear witness to Christ, and daily prayer for the furthering of Christ’s kingdom and the blessing of needy people. (31-32)

2. “Paul wants to be found fully faithful to Christ on judgment day.”

In 2 Corinthians 5:10-11 Paul writes,

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.

Packer writes,

Knowing that he and his colleagues, like every other Christian, must one day give account to God for the way they have served the Savior since their conversion, and being thoroughly solemnized in his heart by awe in face of this responsibility, he with them invests himself wholeheartedly in their God-appointed evangelistic ministry. (36)

3. “Paul is controlled, claimed, driven, directed, set going, and kept going by the love of Christ.”

Paul writes in 5:14

For the love of Christ controls us.

This is the “final, climactic motive of Paul and of his teaching.” (37)

Conclusion

Here’s what became clear to me after considering Paul’s motives for ministry: my motives as a preacher must be as Christ-centered as my message. Not only is it necessary to preach with Christ as my central message, it is also critical to preach with Christ as my central motive.  I preach Christ because of Christ–because I want to give him pleasure, because I want to be faithful to him, and because of his great love for me.

 

The web was alive with preaching resources this past week, especially with discussions related to Christ-centered preaching. Enjoy!

Christ-Centered Preaching (Part 1): The “Dilemma” of Christ-Centered Expository Preaching – Tony Merida

Essentially, expository preaching attempts to explain and apply the biblical text in its context. This poses an interesting dilemma for Christian preachers. How is one to preach Christ where he may not seem to be present in the text?

Christ-Centered Preaching (Part 2): The Centrality of Christ in the Bible and in Expository Preaching – Tony Merida

Understanding the nature of Scripture seems to be an essential requirement for preachers who wish to expound what the biblical text says. Many homileticians assert that the primary emphasis of the Bible is upon redemptive history, which culminates in Christ’s person and work. If the Bible focuses upon Christ’s redemptive work, then this should have practical implications for expositors who wish to proclaim the Bible accurately.

Christ-Centered Preaching (Part 3): Practical Application in Christ-Centered Expository Preaching – Tony Merida

Merida’s post briefly addresses “how the preacher should structure an expository sermon that integrates biblical theology thereby emphasizing God’s redeeming work in Christ.”

Merida also gives 3 “benefits of integrating biblical theology with expository preaching.”

Jason Allen and the Gospel Project – Eric Hankins

While Christ should always be exalted when preaching, authorial intent alone is the exegetical launch pad for any sermon (“Be Expositional First and Christological Second,” 145). Allusions to Christ may certainly be made when Christology isn’t explicit, but allusions are what they are and no more (144). Care must be given not to read any meaning into a text that is not rooted in the author’s intent.

A Defense of Christ-Centered Exposition: A Friendly Response to Eric Hankins (Part 2) – Jonathan Akin

The Christocentric approach starts with the historical-grammatical method but it doesn’t stop there. Sadly, many evangelical interpreters are held captive to Enlightenment reductionism that would elevate modern hermeneutical methods above the methods of Jesus and the Apostles.  We must be diligent to escape this captivity.

A Defense of Christ-Centered Exposition: A Friend Response to Eric Hankins (Part 3) – Jonathan Akin

Christ-centered exposition bases the imperatives to live faithfully in the gospel indicatives of what Christ has already done for us.

I linked to part 1 of Akin’s series last week. But in case you missed it here’s the link.

7 Ways of Preaching Christ from the Old Testament – Trevin Wax

In the initial chapter of his book,Preaching Christ from Genesis,Sidney Griedanus lays out seven ways that a preacher can legitimately preach Christ from the Old Testament. I’ve adapted the examples for each category in order to keep the focus on how there are multiple ways to preach Christ from an Old Testament account (such as Noah).

Should We Preach Christ in Every Sermon? – Fred Malone

Preachers in the New Testament did not preach in the manner that has become customary to us. They did not take a text out of the New Testament, analyze it, expound it, and then apply it. What did they preach? They preached the great message that had been committed to them, the great body of gospel truth, the whole doctrine of salvation revealed from Genesis to Revelation. My argument is that this is what we should always be doing, though we do it through individual expositions of particular texts. That is the relationship between theology and preaching.

Spurgeon — as Guest Preacher? – Dan Phillips

[One author] knew that pastors occasionally need study breaks, even beyond vacation times. His suggestion was to pick from the rich array of nearly 2000 years of Christian sermons, and have a “guest preacher” fill in on occasion. Find one of the great sermons, or one of the great preachers, and let him step in.

 Deadly, Dull, and Boring – Phil Campbell

We should be absolutely consumed by trying to design sermons that are simple without being simplistic, that are understandable and clear. We should try very hard to avoid unnecessary complexity.

Clarity comes from what you leave out. Clarity comes from focus. Usually, complexity comes from ‘over-inclusion’.

Everything I Know About Pastoral Ministry I Learned Riding with Pastors – Thabiti Anyabwile

“Remember: You preach for an audience of One.”

That was Peter Rochelle’s remark to me before I preached my initial sermon. We certainly may preach to audiences of more than one, but we only ever preach for an audience of One. With that remark he helped me settle my highest loyalty as a preacher and drove a stake deep into the heart of this preacher’s fear of man. I’m forever grateful for that conversation and the path Peter set me on. He was my first model of exposition and pastoral care.

How to Get Over the Fear of Public Speaking – Michael Hyatt

Even after I had been speaking publicly for years, I still struggled with fear. Even when I was well-prepared. This happened nearly every time I spoke.

The problem, as I eventually discovered, was I was focused on myself. . . .

Next time you have the opportunity to speak publicly and find yourself getting nervous, try refocusing on the needs of your audience. Give them the gifts they need to succeed. It will make a difference. For you and for them.

PM 501 Fundamentals of Expository Preaching Lectures – John MacArthur and Steven Lawson

Sanctified Sin – Peter Mead

Bible teaching is not really helping if our goal is to facilitate independent functioning on the part of those who hear.  If they are being equipped and encouraged to live independently in their newfound personal holiness, then what is the teacher achieving?  Is this really helping people?  Ever since Genesis 3 we have been saturated in the brine of independence.  Some manifest it by overt rebellion, but others of us are prone to manifest our sinful bent through self-righteousness and personal spiritual “success.”  The latter looks so much better, but it can still be a fleshly attempt to push God away and function without direct dependence on Him.

Paul’s Preaching Genius – Peter Mead

Preaching that promotes christian living, but doesn’t offer Christ, is not helpful at all.  If we simply instruct people how to behave and act like christians, then they will co-opt and corrupt that instruction to serve their incurvedness.

Why God Still Works Through Poor Preaching – Peter Mead

God works despite us and our preaching (and we need to be thankful for that!)

6 Things We Need to Learn from Youth About Preaching – Cameron Cole

If we’re serious about passing the gospel to the next generation, what do we need to learn from youth about how we preach? Here are six suggestions youth would offer to their pastors.

The Nancy Drew Principle: How to Help People Follow Your Logic – Nicholas McDonald

Here’s the principle: “Help people approach your sermon like a detective.” Let people know where they’re going to place the information you’re about to tell them. Demonstrate in the first five minutes that you’re going to solve a mystery (or a few mysteries) by asking good questions.

Entertaining Pulpits and the Legacy of “Tethered Preaching” – David Mathis

Initially, it may be tough to tell the difference. A gifted Bible-expositor and an entertainment-oriented preacher, with a penchant for garnishing his ideas with some Bible, may not demonstrate much disparity at first.

But give it some time. And check the congregation over the long haul. It will make a world of difference.

Get Thousands of the Best Sermon Illustrations for Free – ProPreacher

Personal stories will make your preaching more relatable, memorable, authentic and interesting. The payoff for having hundreds or even thousands of these stories at your disposal is huge.

These links and summaries are offered for your consideration and evaluation because they relate to preaching. Their inclusion does not necessarily imply my whole-hearted commendation. I can’t even recommend everything I write. As always, read with discernment.

I don’t get excited about reading too many dissertations, but here’s one I hope to tackle soon. In 2011 Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on The Christ-Centered Homiletics of Edmund Clowney and Sidney Greidanus in Contrast with the Human Author-Centered Hermeneutics of Walter Kaiser.

Any preacher committed to authorial intention and preaching Christ has no doubt wrestled with this question. I certainly have. That’s why I’m curious to read the discussion and find out how and why Allen reaches his conclusion:

Only one way to God exists, through Christ, but one can find many legitimate ways to preach Jesus from the Old Testament. In fact, many ways occur that one can consistently and faithfully preach Christ from the Old Testament without the interpreter ever having to contort a passage or abrogate the author’s intended meaning.

If you get around to reading it before I do, let me know what you think. Here’s one review that has generated quite a bit of discussion recently.

In a chapter entitled “Less Joe, More Jesus,” Joe Stowell reminds us that it’s easy to become preoccupied with ourselves as preachers.

Preaching has a way of sucking us down into the bog of To whom am I preaching? Will they like me? Will they listen? That’s the pre-agony. The post-agony is Did I do well? Did I get my point across? Oh, I should have said it this way; I should have said it that way.

If we’re not careful, preaching becomes all about the preacher. (in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, 313, emphasis mine)

Though we say “It’s all about Jesus,” our answers to these questions may reveal that it’s mostly about us. Now, there’s certainly nothing inherently or necessarily wrong with asking questions like “To whom am I preaching? Will they like me? Will they listen?” and so on. Those are natural questions to ask going into any speaking situation. Audience analysis and exegesis is an important part of the sermon construction process. But if my focus and priority in preaching is primarily on how I am perceived or how I will be received by the listener, I am already bent in the wrong direction.

My bent as a preacher must be that of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Our egocentricity must give way to a Christocentricity. Instead of highlighting the big “I” as we evaluate our preaching, we must

concentrate on issues like: Did I lift Jesus up? What would he have thought about my sermon? Did my listeners see him more clearly? Do they find him more compelling because of my sermon? Did I represent him and his calling in our lives in a winsome and yet authoritative way. (313-314)

So one of the ways we know if our preaching is ultimately about him or about us is by the preliminary questions we ask as we look forward to a sermon and by the evaluation questions we ask as we look back on a sermon. Are they predominately “I”-centered questions or “him”-centered questions? If I’m honest, I think I’ll find that the kinds of questions that preoccupy my mind reveal whether my preaching is really all about him or mostly about me.