Rethinking Gospel-Centered Preaching

For a decade or two, there has been a resurgence in Reformed churches of what is generally called “Gospel-centered preaching.” Popularized by celebrity pastors and supported by dozens of books written to budding pastors, this has become a preeminent approach to preaching the Bible in many conservative and particularly Reformed churches. And in many ways, it has come at a very important time. With many churches fading into liberalism, emphasizing moralistic or therapeutic sermons, a return to preaching the explicit Gospel has been refreshing and vivifying for the church. But of course with every trend comes danger. In this case, one wonders whether these Gospel-centered sermons truly preach the whole Gospel, and whether the whole Bible is actually being exposited.

The dangers of contemporary Gospel-centered sermons are two-fold: a truncation of the full Gospel and a neglect of the multi-faceted messages of the Bible. While the intent to preach Christ and the Gospel from every Bible passage is laudable and well-intentioned, often neither the Gospel nor the Bible passage is well-represented. Too many times Gospel-centered sermons all start to sound the same, even though the preacher might be preaching from a variety of Old and New Testament books. Whether the sermon is on Exodus, the Psalms, Romans, or Revelation, each sermon ends up essentially presenting the message that we are sinful and without hope, but Christ’s death has secured our forgiveness and Christ’s perfect life has secured our righteousness. The problem isn’t that this message is wrong as it stands. The problem is that this isn’t only what the Gospel is about, and this certainly isn’t the only thing the Bible talks about. If it were, the Bible could have been a lot shorter!

The problem with this type of preaching isn’t that it’s wrong about the Gospel-centered nature of the Bible. The Bible is definitely Gospel-centered. The problem stems from a misunderstanding of what the Gospel really is and what the Bible is all about. Often, the Gospel gets truncated and boiled down to penal substitution and double-imputation: that Christ was our sacrificial lamb and our perfect righteousness so that now we are forgiven of our sins and can go to heaven. This is definitely part of the Gospel, but it’s not the whole thing. The Gospel is far bigger than this. If this was simply what the Gospel was about, we wouldn’t need most of the Old Testament. And most of what happens in the Gospel accounts wouldn’t make much sense, either.

Often, Gospel-centered sermons miss the fact that Jesus didn’t merely come to save us from the penalty of sin. He also came to save us from the power of sin. He didn’t come merely to enable us to go to the Kingdom of Heaven when we die. He also came to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus didn’t merely come as a sacrificial lamb or as a priest to bring that sacrifice to the Father. He also came as a King to rule over his Kingdom and as a Prophet to teach us who God is and what God requires of us. When Gospel-centered preaching merely contents itself with rehashing penal substitution and double-imputation, the other reasons why Jesus came often get ignored and the other offices Jesus fulfills often lie forgotten. And with this comes a neglect of much of what the Bible teaches us about what Jesus came to do and what God requires of us now.

The Gospel is a story of redemption, restoration, and renewal. It’s a story about forgiveness of sins and victory over evil. It’s a cosmic story, a story about the human world and the spiritual world. It’s a story about everything created, both seen and unseen. It’s a story about how the penalty for sin is paid and the power of sin is crushed. It’s a story about how Satan is defeated and destroyed forever. It’s a story about how death dies. It’s a story about the past, the present, and the future. The whole Bible is about God’s cosmic story of redemption, restoration, and renewal. It’s much bigger than simply personal forgiveness of present sins. If we’re going to preach true Gospel-centered sermons, perhaps we should start by looking at Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Jesus didn’t preach a lot of “Gospel-centered sermons,” at least in the contemporary way we understand them. If a preacher was to preach verbatim the Sermon on the Mount in a Gospel-centered church, he’d be accused of legalism. What if someone came to our pulpits and said “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is here!”? We probably wouldn’t say he was preaching the Gospel. And yet, most of Jesus’ sermons and teachings centered on the idea of the Kingdom of God more than simply the idea of personal forgiveness of sins (granted, they aren’t mutually exclusive but when understood correctly, they mutually inform each other). Of course, he most certainly talked about forgiveness of sins and he did come to die on the cross, after all. But his death was a part of the context of his main message, which was at its heart about the Kingdom of God coming in its fullness. And why did he cast out demons if he was simply concerned with forgiveness of sins? Because in order to usher in God’s kingdom, Jesus needed to confront the rival kingdom that had been enslaving and deceiving the world since the Fall: the kingdom of Satan, sin, and death.

The Gospel concerns the Kingdom of God and the cosmic battle between God and His enemies (Satan, sin, and death), played out on the stage of human experience. Part of the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is here! And this kingdom has a King—Jesus. The Gospel is a declaration of victory over the kingdom of Satan, sin, and death: a victory accomplished by Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection; and a victory that hasn’t fully been completed yet, but will be completed when Jesus comes back to judge the world. So when we read the Bible, we find that there isn’t simply an emphasis on the need to find forgiveness of sins in a penal substitution. There’s also an emphasis on the need for a King and a Kingdom, the need for Satan to be defeated, the need for the power of sin to be broken so that we can lead obedient and joyful lives, and the need for there to be hope beyond the grave. These are important Gospel truths that are often passed over in Gospel-centered preaching. And these are important Gospel truths that are found throughout the Scriptures.

A simple example of this Gospel-truncation can be found when a preacher exposits a passage with a lot of imperatives: do this, don’t do that; live this way, not that way. Imperatives make up a large chunk of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ teaching. But often a Gospel-centered sermon will turn these positive imperatives into a “1st use of the law” imperative, merely giving us something we cannot hope to obey in order to show us that we need Christ’s righteousness. But the reality is that most of the imperatives of the New Testament come after the writer or speaker has already established the truth about the death and resurrection of Christ. Most of these imperatives are actually 3rd use of the law, teaching us how to live now that we are redeemed. In Jesus’ teaching, these imperatives function as both 1st and 3rd use: revealing to the audience the need for a penal substitution and also giving them a perspective on what “kingdom-living” looks like in the new era of the Kingdom of God now that the Messiah has come. Even the law in the Old Testament function as both 1st and 3rd use. The important thing to realize is that teaching imperatives is a Gospel-centered sermon. One of the truths of the Gospel is that the power of sin has been broken. We are no longer slaves of sin, but rather we are slaves of righteousness. We have been given the Holy Spirit. We are being made into the image of Christ. We actually can obey. That’s good news!

In order to be preach Gospel-centered sermons in a way that is faithful to the whole counsel of God, it is important to reorient our understanding of what is at the center of the Gospel. The whole Bible isn’t about penal substitution. But the whole Bible is about the Kingdom of God. A kingdom that we were excommunicated from; a kingdom God began to redeem throughout the Old Testament; a kingdom that Jesus ultimately reestablished by his birth, life, death, and resurrection; a kingdom that Jesus rules as king; a kingdom where Jesus is currently our High Priest; a kingdom that we currently take part in; a kingdom where Jesus continuously speaks to us by his Word; and a kingdom that will one day be reestablished over the entire world as the rival kingdom of Satan, sin, and death is ultimately destroyed. Within the context of God’s Kingdom, we can then fully appreciate and understand just how wonderful and marvelous Christ’s penal substitution and perfect righteousness actually are. And we will also know what it means to live these truths out in our lives within the Kingdom of God as it continues to grow and expand throughout the world.

So a Gospel-centered sermon can be as broad as the Bible is broad. It can be at times incredibly practical. It can be at times incredibly theological. It can be hopeful and it can be grave. It can be about sin, sorrow, or suffering. Over the course of many years and many Bible passages, Gospel-centered sermons should touch almost everything relevant to the Christian’s faith and life. If they don’t, then they aren’t Gospel-centered. Because the one thing we know about the Gospel is that it’s about all of life.

Of course, not all can be said in a short blog post. But let us rejoice that the Kingdom of God is here, that our sins are forgiven, that we have a good King who is currently ruling over his Church, and that the Gospel promises he will one day return to put down his enemies under his feet and lift us up to glory. Now that’s good news.

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