I recently asked, on Facebook, about thoughts on Gospel- centered preaching. It was a genuine question. I have held to the historical-redemptive frame work of the Bible and Gospel-centered preaching. Then I entered the pastorate and started heralding the Word of God. Of course I hold firmly to the historical-redemptive approach to the Bible. But I soon found it difficult to preach through books of the Bible and always make the Gospel the “center” of every sermon. Foundational, yes, but at the center, no. Perhaps that is what some mean by Gospel- centered?
So I asked the question on a Facebook group and the responses were pretty snide and arrogant. Answers like, “what other kind is there?” and “that is a nonsensical question to us.” Or comparing non Gospel- centered preaching to self-help sermons. As if it is one or the other. It is a false dichotomy. In simple words the answers were, “Duh, there is no other kind of preaching. What’s a matter with you. Any other kind of preaching is man-centered and not Christian” (no one answered that way explicitly but that was certainly the tone. And yes it is possible to have a tone in written format).
These answers relay a couple of things. One is that some people may not have studied the issue of preaching. Which leads to adopting a cliche (Gospel -centered preaching) without understanding the other views. I mean who would want to reject Gospel-centered preaching? It seems as if one does that they are rejecting the Gospel as foundational or placing it on the back burner. And certainly nobody desires to have that tacked onto their resume!
But would anyone dare accuse Calvin of preaching non-biblical sermons because he did not always preach the Gospel in every sermon? Or even mention the name of Jesus in some of his Old Testament messages? Was he preaching non-Christian sermons? Was he being man-centered and giving self-help sermons? Was he doing a disservice to his congregation? I don’t think anyone would dare answer those questions in the affirmative. We owe a large part of our Christian heritage to the fact that God raised up Calvin and gifted him to contribute to His own glory through Calvin’s writings.
There is no doubt that Calvin loved Christ and the Gospel which bears Christ’s name. He proclaimed it, defended it and rejoiced in it. Just read his Institutes of the Christian Religion, commentaries, and what his contemporaries said of His love and devotion to Christ our Lord. But the shocker is, for Calvin’s clear love and precise understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he was not always what we nowadays call “Gospel-centered” in his preaching. Not even christocentric. His preaching can be best described as theocentric. Sidney Greidanus writes:
But on the whole of Calvin’s sermons on the Old Testament are best described as theocentric. In introducing Calvin’s sermons from Job, Harold Dekker writes, ‘one of the most noticeable features of Calvin’s preaching is its utter theocentricity…very significantly, most of the Old Testament sermons [159 on Job] make no specific mention at all of Christ.’ Not even the words of Job, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives,’ warrant a reference to Christ. the same holds true for many of Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy.
There is no doubt that Calvin deeply believes in Christ’s presence in the Old Testament. He speaks of Christ as the ‘fundamentum,’ ‘anima,’ ‘vita,’ ‘spiritus,’ ‘scopus,’ ‘finis,’ and ‘perfectio’ of the law. But for some reason Calvin nowhere accounts for his lack of explicitly preaching Christ from the Old Testament, but several reasons come to mind. The first is that Calvin’s understanding of the triune God. Calvin himself says, ‘Under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we comprehend three persons…. Therefore, whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father….’ When Calvin, therefore, preaches a God-centered sermon, it is implicitly Christ -centered.
Here I can sympathize with one the greatest theologians, pastors, exegetes the church has ever known. Though I would find it extremely difficult to preach on a text without emphasizing Christ. But to mention the name of Jesus or speak of the Gospel of Jesus Christ hardly makes a sermon “Christocentric” or “Gospel-centered.” And I have found that those who do hold firmly to Gospel-centered preaching and insist they get the Gospel in every sermon do not always make the Gospel the “center” of their messages. Sure it is mentioned but it is not the focal point. Again this hardly makes it “Gospel-centered.” Foundational? Yes!
I believe there is a very real reason for this and here I hope to demonstrate. I have been preaching through the book of 1 Corinthians. Completely Gospel saturated and centered. Paul launches off into the cross of Christ (1:18-31). He lays the foundation. But we must ask ourselves why does Paul do this? Is it not because there was dis-unity among the Corinthians. Was it not because they lost site of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that united them? It was indeed the case (1:1-13). Were there also not problems with some of the Corinthians elevating the oratory gifts and great speech over the others? He does say so and we know that from where we get this most precious truth, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified:”
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Co 2:1–5).
And we say a hearty “amen” to v.2. But Paul’s point is not that everything he talked about and wrote to the Corinthians was only about the cross of Christ. The point of v.2 is simply that when Paul, on his secondary missionary journey, went to Corinth with sole purpose of preaching Christ and Him crucified for the salvation of those sinners. He did not get fancy with eloquence and words of human wisdom. He preached the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ. And he even gives us the answer to why- “and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (v. 4-5).
As you continue to read through that pastoral epistle you can see that Paul does indeed remind them of their foundation in the Gospel but he deals with other issues- sex, marriage, sexual immorality, church discipline, spiritual gifts, church unity e.t.c. So as I come to 1 Cor. 12:12-19, Paul is emphasizing the unity we have in Christ. The centrality there is in bodily unity. That God has placed every person and gifted them in the body of Christ as He pleased and not one member is “better” or less spiritual than the others. Again, that is only possible because of Christ. And he doesn’t even make the Gospel “central” at that particular point in his letter to them. It is foundational. But still the emphasis in on unity in diversity.
Of course I did mention the Gospel at the beginning of my sermon but that hardly makes it a “Gospel-centered” one. It certainly included the glorious Gospel but wasn’t the whole point of the sermon because it wasn’t (at that moment) the point of the text. And to further complicate things Paul seems to be singling out the person and work of the third person in the Godhead- the Holy Spirit (12:1-11).
My point being is that preaching “Gospel-centered” is not easy. In fact I prefer Gospel foundational. We see from that how “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Ti 3:16–17).
These are just some thoughts from a young pastor seeking to glorify Christ, preach the Gospel, shepherd my family, and the sheep that God has entrusted to my care. Ironically enough I have been told that I preach the Gospel too much!
Soli Deo Gloria!
For His Glory,
*Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ From The Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 199), p. 146-147