Letter to Timothy

Dear Timothy, 

In my last letter to you I began to discuss with you what a truly Christ-centered sermon actually is. You will recall, I think, that I mentioned, first of all, that a Christ-centered sermon was one which had as its pulse beat the perfect and efficacious atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. This truth must not be tacked on the sermon somewhere—perhaps at the very end; nor must it be mentioned from time to time in the sermon. It must be the truth from which the whole sermon flows. It must be the heartbeat of the sermon. It must be a truth woven into the very fabric of the whole sermon. 

I also mentioned that this truth in turn implies that a truly Christ-centered sermon is a sermon which begins and ends with God. I will never forget that near the beginning of my ministry an old elder, a veteran of many fierce and bitter battles for the faith, said to me: “Dominee, if you want to preach sermons that, are really Reformed then you must always preach so that God is everything and man is nothing.” (I wonder if it is still true today that elders take it upon themselves to speak to their ministers about these things. I had elders like that. I look back upon them with deep thanksgiving to God.) A truly Christ-centered sermon is a God-centered sermon, because Christ is the revelation of God Who is the God of our salvation. 

All of this I talked about last time. 

There is another element, though in a Christ-centered sermon that I want to discuss with you in this letter. This is perhaps a bit more difficult to express, but it is of critical importance and badly needs saying. A truly Christ-centered sermon is an Antithetical sermon. This means several things. 

If a sermon is truly antithetical, then, first of all, it has as an integral part of it the truth of election and reprobation. One almost feels compelled to hasten to add that this does not mean that the truths of election and reprobation have to be specifically mentioned in every sermon, much less that they must be explained and developed. That, of course, is neither desirable nor possible. But once again: just as Christ Himself as Savior is woven into the very fabric of the sermon, so must the truths of sovereign predestination be implicit in every sermon which is truly Christ-centered. 

It is not so easy, I suppose, to demonstrate exactly how this must take place, for how this is done involves a minister’s style, rhetorical method, homiletical approach, and such like things; and these differ from minister to minister. But, if we look at it from a negative point of view, a sermon which lacks this emphasis is a sermon which is so broad and general in its address that it could refer to any one, either in the audience or in the whole world. A sermon always has an address, you know. What the minister says is not simply speaking to the wind; yelling at the skies; a vague and undefined address which makes a sermon preachable almost anywhere. It must have an address. It is certainly true that, in part, the address is very broad and general, as the gospel is preached “promiscuously”; the general address of the gospel is the command which comes to all men who hear the gospel to repent of sin and believe in Christ. But this command of the gospel can never be the sole content of the gospel. It is not all that the gospel has to say. It is not even the main thing which the gospel has to say. The gospel is “good news.” A command or demand to repent of sin can hardly be called good news. The command of the gospel is not in itself the content of the gospel. That is why our Canons in II, 5 connect inescapably this command of the gospel with the proclamation of the promise: “This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be published promiscuously. . . .” 

It is also true that when the gospel is publicly preached, Christ Jesus as the only Savior is set forth and proclaimed in the gospel so that all who hear, hear also Christ proclaimed as the only Savior from sin. 

But it is here where we come to the nub of the matter. For when I say that a truly Christ-centered sermon is also a sermon which has as its heartbeat sovereign election and reprobation, this means that Christ is proclaimed in the sermon as the One Who saves His people from sin. How important this is. Never for a moment must the gospel ever leave the impression, either by direct statement or by implication, that the promises of the gospel are to all who hear the preaching. Never must the gospel come in such a way that the people who hear are left with the idea that the gospel is a statement of God’s love for all, God’s longing to have all come to Christ, God’s purpose and desire to save all. The gospel is always a very particular promise which God makes only to a select number of people. If there is to be truly Christ-centered preaching, the preaching must always have this truth as an integral part of it. 

It is true, of course, that the gospel preached does not always specifically refer to God’s people as God’s elect. The Scriptures do not do this either. Oftentimes the Scriptures speak of God’s elect people by using their spiritual names: weary and .heavy laden, thirsty, those who believe, those who call upon the name of the Lord, etc. As you know, oftentimes the texts which use these expressions are appealed to in support of the fact that the promises of the gospel are meant for all. But this is not the case. Scripture often addresses God’s people by their spiritual names or characteristics—and does this because the preaching is always worked in the consciousness of God’s people by the Holy Spirit through Whose sovereign efficacy the internal call is irresistibly effected. By the operation of the Spirit, the truth of the gospel is reflected in the very consciousness of God’s saints. 

But even while Scripture often addresses God’s people by their spiritual characteristics—and the preaching ought to do the same—it is also clear that Scripture ascribes even these spiritual characteristics to the work of grace by the Spirit only in the hearts of the elect. 

Especially under the influence of Puritan preaching, many teach that there are certain spiritual characteristics which are a general fruit of the preaching, but which are not a part of salvation. When a sinner, unregenerated, hears the gospel preached, so it is said, that gospel has a certain effect upon him: he comes under the conviction of sin, realizes how great a sinner he is, is tormented by the consciousness of sin and guilt, even longs to a certain extent to be delivered from this misery, sometimes even lifts up his tortured soul to God in prayer. All this is an effect of the gospel apart from regeneration; in fact, a person who experiences all these things may eventually not be regenerated at all, but go lost. In the light of this conception of the preaching, many have spoken of a general address of the gospel to these suffering and struggling souls which speaks of God’s love, the sufficiency of the cross, God’s desire to see them escape from their troubles and find salvation and happiness in Christ. But this is contrary to Scripture and our Confessions. The Canons of Dordt specifically brand this as Arminianism and a doctrine to be rejected by those who hold to the Reformed faith: “The Synod rejects the errors of those who teach: That the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God. For these are contrary to the express testimony of Scripture. ‘Ye were dead through trespasses and sins,’ Eph. 2:1, 5; and: ‘Every imagination of the thought of his heart are only evil continually,’ Gen. 6:5Gen. 8:21

“Moreover, to hunger and thirst after deliverance from misery, and after life, and to offer unto God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed, Ps. 51:10;Matt. 5:6.” 

Over against such a, position, therefore, the preaching must always be antithetical, i.e., must be addressed in such a way that the promises of the gospel are directed to God’s people alone. 

These points bring up another point which is important in understanding what antithetical preaching is. When the doctrines of election and reprobation form the warp and woof of the preaching, then it also follows that preaching always emphasizes that salvation is all of grace and of grace alone. This, too, must be not only explicit in every sermon, but must be the starting point, the approach, the fundamental perspective of every sermon. Never must this be left to the imagination; never must the minister say that he did not talk about this because, after all, it is presupposed; never must he simply assume that the congregation will understand that he certainly believes in this. It must be the spiritual perspective of the whole sermon. If it is not; the sermon is not Christ-centered. 

This truth of sovereign grace is the truth that all salvation is worked by God through Christ and by the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit. And because this is true, this grace is a grace of God shown only to theelect

But, it ought to be clear by now that all this also implies that the preaching must set forth these truths over against false doctrine and the lie. This too is antithetical preaching. A minister must not shy away from exposing error, warning against false doctrine, instructing the people of God of the truth of Scripture specifically as it stands opposed to all the lies. He must do this sharply, clearly, precisely, and in such a way that the people of God are told that their salvation and blessedness lies only in the truth—that the lie is a trap to ensnare the unwary and rob them of the joy of salvation. 

Always the defense of the faith lies here at this point. One of my colleagues in Seminary mentioned to me just the other day that it is after all only rarely in all the history of the church that the church has held firmly and consistently the truths of sovereign grace. Even after major battles have been fought and won in defense of this truth, soon once again the very truth for which the church struggled begins to slip away. How true this is. But without it there cannot be Christ-centered preaching. 

Now I must close. In another letter we can give some concrete instances of Christ-centered preaching—from different parts of Scripture.

Fraternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko