Over the past ten years or so, there has been a rapidly growing interest in gospel-centered preaching. With the help of the internet and its resources, many preachers like myself have been transformed by the examples of Timothy Keller, Art Azurdia, Anthony Carter, and countless others. We have come to believe, like them, that every sermon should faithfully connect that week's text and theme to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Those of us who hold to this philosophy do so because it is consistent with Jesus' teaching in Luke 24 and with the ministry approach modeled by the Apostles throughout the New Testament.
Yet, as with any philosophy, it is often easier to believe in theory than it is to implement in practice. In this blog we will look at three common ways that those committed to gospel-centered preaching unintentionally forget to preach the gospel.
#1 Preaching Jesus does not equal preaching the gospel
One can preach about Jesus every week and never once preach the gospel. On the surface, this sounds ridiculous, since the message of the gospel is the good news of who Jesus is: God in the flesh; and what Jesus has done: lived perfectly, died sacrificially, risen victoriously, and ascended finally to God's right hand. Yet it is surprisingly easy to talk about Jesus without talking about his redemptive work. This happens when we focus on Jesus' perfect life without focusing on the fact that he lived this perfect life as our substitute, and not merely as our example.
@@One can preach about Jesus every week and never once preach the gospel@@
These Jesus-centered sermons tell us to love like Jesus, forgive like Jesus, tell the truth like Jesus, pray like Jesus, disciple like Jesus, obey God like Jesus, and so forth. Yet these Jesus-centered sermons are not gospel-centered sermons. They are the opposite of gospel-centered sermons. They are moralism-centered sermons. They leave people with the burden of imitating Jesus to please God, instead of the joy of knowing that Jesus has already pleased God for them.
Certainly, gospel-centered sermons can include a call for believers to imitate Jesus as an example, but not in place of calling people to trust in Jesus as a redeemer. For only the person who knows that his or her disobedience has already been covered by Jesus' obedience will ever have the proper motivation (gratitude) and power (the Holy Spirit) to obey in return.
#2 Preaching about the gospel does not equal preaching the gospel
To preach the gospel, one must proclaim the good news of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done, inviting Christians and non-Christians alike to trust in this message and receive the countless free benefits that result. Yet many who are theoretically committed to gospel-centered preaching often use the word "gospel" to summarize all of the above without actually proclaiming any of the above.
These sermons about the gospel tell us we need to trust in the gospel, believe the gospel, preach the gospel, live in light of the gospel, be a gospel-centered believer, attend a gospel-centered church and find the gospel in all of Scripture. What they do not give us is the actual content of the gospel. As a result, they are not gospel-centered sermons. They are, instead, moralism-centered sermons. They leave people with the burden of doing something with the gospel, instead of the joy of actually hearing it.
Of course, gospel-centered sermons can talk about the gospel and what we should do with it, but they cannot do so as a substitute for actually proclaiming the gospel. For the power of God that both saves and sanctifies is not found in our commitment to the gospel, nor in our endless words about the gospel, but in the actual content of the gospel itself.
#3 Preaching grace does not equal preaching the gospel
One of the benefits of this newfound emphasis on gospel-centered preaching has been a deeper understanding of the grace of God. The Church is growing in its awareness that both salvation and sanctification are gifts fully purchased by Jesus' work and freely given by God to his people. This is wonderful! What is not so wonderful is that this increasing appreciation for the grace of God can lead to sermons that proclaim grace without ever proclaiming the gospel.
These grace-centered sermons tell us that God forgives us, God accepts us, God loves us, and God blesses us in spite of the fact that we have done nothing to earn it and nothing to maintain it. This is all good and true. Yet, unfortunately, the sermons often stop there, and when they do, they fall far short of being gospel-centered. Instead, they become self-centered in one of two ways:
@@Sometimes grace-centered sermons become self-centered sermons@@
1. The sermon proclaims all the gifts we receive from God without actually proclaiming the gospel of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that makes that possible. As much as God's forgiveness and acceptance are closely related to the gospel, they are not the gospel. The gospel is focused on what Jesus has done, not on what we can get.
2. The sermon focuses on the forgiving grace the gospel supplies, while overlooking the transforming grace the gospel also provides. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection do not only make forgiveness possible; they also make obedience possible by gifting believers with a new heart, new desires, and new power from the Holy Spirit. True gospel preaching does not limit the gospel's power to the comfortable message of being accepted and forgiven, it also acknowledges the gospel's power to make us uncomfortable by transforming us into people very different from who we have been.
No doubt, gospel-centered sermons can and should talk about grace. But they cannot confuse grace with the gospel. For the only way we can ever come to know both the forgiving and the transforming grace of God is to know the message of the saving person and work of Jesus Christ.
Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook.
Image credit: Patrick Feller, https://flic.kr/p/6gTqZG