When I started working on staff at Fellowship Baptist, I had a really bad habit of saying the wrong words in the “fury” of preaching. You know what I mean, right? Like the preacher I heard who said “fart” instead of “fault”–except mine were probably more awkward than that. I would get caught-up speaking a sentence really fast and then words would come out that made no sense! I’ve said quite a few dumb things from behind the pulpit and a few around the tables in a Sunday School class in the short time I’ve been in Liberal. But, as bad as those preaching mistakes were, they don’t compare to another preaching mistake I had made for years.
While serving at a church plant in Shawnee, Oklahoma, my pastor gave me the opportunity to preach at least once a month on Sunday nights. I decided that it would be good if I did an expository series through a book, so I decided to preach through the book of James. Many of you are familiar with the themes of the book of James: chapter one covers trials, God’s view of riches, temptation, and a proper response to the Word of God. Chapter two deals with the treatment of different classes of people that visit the church and the overall theme of how faith should affect works. When I dealt with each of these passages, my approach was almost the same: find out what James condemned in the actions of his audience and sound out God’s condemnation to how those same actions show up in the lives of those who were a part of our church. If I preached the first section of chapter two, I would exhort the church not to exhibit the partiality that those first-century Christians showed toward those of a less favorable social class. If I preached on the second section of faith and works, I would tell them to start acting like a Christian because faith is supposed to motivate works. While my interpretation of the text was accurate (to my knowledge), I had missed a vital part of application. Most of my sermons boiled down to some variation of this: “This sin is bad, you should stop doing it!” or “This action is good, so you should start doing it!”
Did I preach this way because I was unlearned in the art of Biblical preaching? No (although, that is up for debate), because I had taken college classes on preaching, read books on preaching, studied preaching in every message to which I listened. I knew a decent amount about preaching. I had a sense of what made an effective introduction, I was familiar with how to cover a passage and transition between my main points, and I had some ideas of how to effectively close a sermon. This mistake I made had less to do with a misunderstanding about preaching and more to do with a misunderstanding about Christianity
My view shifted when I read a book in a graduate school preaching course. Bryan Chappell, the author of Christ-Centered Preaching, said something that arrested my attention. He stated, “A message that merely advocates morality and compassion remains sub-Christian even if the preacher can prove that the Bible demands such behaviors.” He went on to say this, “You must not exhort your congregation to do whatever the Bible requires of them as though they could fulfill those requirements on their own, but only as a consequence of the saving power of the cross and the indwelling, sanctifying power and presence of Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit.” In short, God’s grace shouldn’t just be mentioned in a message on salvation; it is equally important when preaching a message related to sanctification.
Think about it: What is it that makes your preaching distinctively Christian? Is it the fact you teach from the Bible? Surely, Biblical truth is a low bar to set because even the most secular speeches will incorporate moral principles from the Bible. I’ve heard our current and past presidents quote parts of the Bible in several of their speeches, but that doesn’t make their speeches or our sermons distinctively Christian. What makes a sermon Christian is the fact that the preacher holds up Christ and God’s grace as the only means by which our obedience is possible and acceptable (1 Cor. 15:10, Eph. 2:8-9). As Bryan Chappell said, “Jesus Christ must be at the heart of every sermon you preach. That is just as true of edificational preaching as it is of evangelistic preaching.” Exhorting people in a congregation to exhibit the integrity of Joseph, the courage of David, or the compassion of Jesus apart from the work of the Savior is nothing more than mere Pharisaism, even if preachers back-up the actions with biblical evidence and good intent.
I couldn’t believe it! For years, I had hoped to somehow help people by telling them to muster up the will to obey God’s commands. If you remove the Christian vocabulary, what makes that message different than the one they receive from a secular counselor or life coach? “But I know that Jesus is who empowers me to live righteously! I don’t always have to say that,” I objected. Then it occurred to me–if I don’t always mention that people need Jesus to live righteously, am I sure that they know to look to Jesus in every area of their life? I had to come to grips with the fact that my preaching was a lot more humanistic than I previously would have been willing to admit.
How, then, should we preach? Allow me to introduce you to Christ-centered preaching.
CHRIST CENTERED PREACHING
Now, to be clear, I have some disagreements with Christ-centered preaching, as some have practiced it. From what I’ve seen, many who follow this philosophy are always trying to insert Jesus into Old Testament passages. In the story of David and Goliath, David represents Jesus, who came to defeat our giants. While that sounds like pretty good preaching, I just wonder if Samuel mean to represent Jesus through David. To me, I don’t think David in the story of David and Goliath is a representation of Jesus (which is how some would try to interpret this passage). In fact, I see David as a representative of any underdog, who finds God on his side because he is fighting for the glory of God. My point is that the hermeneutics of the Christ-centered philosophy are questionable, especially in some Old Testament passages.
But while I don’t think that preaching should be Christ-centered in its hermeneutics (meaning that Jesus isn’t always represented by a character in an Old Testament passage), I am convinced that all preaching should be Christ-centered in its application. Allow me to explain the difference with a passage that I almost preached the old way.
As I continued to preach through the book of James in Shawnee, I arrived at the classic passage on the tongue in chapter three, where James reminds his readers that the tongue holds immense power to do good or evil. I was planning to preach this passage in the same manner I’d always preached, but the Lord brought to mind another principle in the New Testament from Matthew 12:31-37. Not only that, but I noticed that James also made it clear that the tongue was like a spring; the solution wasn’t to change the water from bitter to sweet; the solution was to find a spring that produced sweet water. Here’s what I realized: I wasn’t supposed to tell them to change their words, I was supposed to point out that an improper use of the tongue was a symptom of a deeper issue–a heart that needs to be changed by Jesus.
In fact, this interpretation even makes sense in the larger context of the book of James. James didn’t point out all the things wrong with his audience so that they would fix their behavior by pure will-power; James was unveiling the many symptoms that showed that something was corrupted with their view of their faith. They thought that Jesus could co-exist with their sinful lifestyles, but James wrote to show them that Jesus came into their life to produce a change in their lifestyle.
You see, you and I don’t have the power to resist serving sin, apart from the power of Christ in our lives (Romans 6:3-6). We are fleshly people that fail every time we try to do something in our own power. When we accept the grace Jesus offers in that area of our life though, we can experience a true transformation of our speech. James wasn’t telling his readers to live by a list of rules as much as he was telling them to realize that they didn’t have as deep of a relationship with Jesus as they thought. They needed to spend time with Jesus, who would change their heart, which would eventually change their words.
If you read the context of the passage I referenced earlier about prayer and fasting, you’ll realize that Jesus didn’t spend much time talking about prayer before then. What Jesus did talk about a lot was believing. He rebuked the disciples for a lack of faith, but praised the dad for his simple faith in Jesus’ ability to cast out this demon. So, was Jesus calling us to pray and fast more, or was He calling us to have a bigger view of him? If we had more faith in Jesus’ ability to fix any problem, don’t you think that prayer and fasting would have a natural result of that change of heart?
Why do you think Paul wrote that “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified”? Was it that Paul only preached salvation messages, or that he preached Christ as the only way of salvation and the power for our sanctification?
Here’s a question every preacher should ask themselves, “When my listeners walk out the doors of this sanctuary to perform God’s will, with whom do they walk?” If they march to battle the world, the flesh, and the devil with only me, myself, and I, then each parades to despair. However, if the sermon has led all persons to God’s grace, then they may walk into the world with their Savior–and with fresh hope. Whether people depart alone or in the Savior’s hand marks the difference between futility and faith, legalism and true obedience, do-goodism and real godliness (Chappell, 295).