I suppose it is not surprising that you should ask: what is a “Christ-centered” sermon. The ultimate compliment that can be made about any sermon is that it is truly “Christ-centered.” And the ultimate criticism of any sermon is surely, “That sermon was not a ‘Christ-centered’ sermon.”
If someone says of your sermon that it is not Christ-centered, they are really saying that you did not preach the Scriptures, the Word of God. This is, of course, serious criticism and precisely means that you have been unfaithful in your calling. You have been taught that every sermon which you preach must indeed be Christ-centered, and God’s people know very well that if a sermon is truly to feed their souls, it must be truly Christ-centered.
There is good reason for this. There is first of all the fact that Paul himself, the great preacher of the early New Testament Church and the instrument of a large part of. divine revelation in the New Testament Scriptures, said: “We preach Christ crucified!” And he meant by this that Christ crucified formed the content of all his preaching. He never talked about anything else in all the sermons which he gave, but Christ crucified. Scripture tells us this so that we may model our sermons after those of the inspired apostle. Our sermons too must speak of Christ crucified.
And this is not surprising. Sermons must be based on the Scriptures, which form the content of our preaching, and the Scriptures are, themselves, the written record, infallibly inspired, of the revelation of God as the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ.
The Scriptures are an organic unity. As an organism, they are composed of diverse parts. There are differences of testaments, and of books; differences of kinds of writings (poetry, history, prophecy, e.g.), and contents; differences in the styles of the different men God used, and the way these men expressed themselves; differences in language (Hebrew and Greek), and literary form; differences which are rooted in the organic development of the promises (the revelation of God in Christ is different in Genesis from what it is in Isaiah), and the fulfillment of the promise in our Lord Jesus Christ. An organism needs differences to be truly an organism. But there is, in Scripture, one principle of unity—as every organism must be a unity of diverse parts held together by one fundamental principle: and that principle of unity is our Lord Jesus Christ.
Everywhere in Scripture Christ is talked about—nothing else. Those who want to emphasize some kind of disjunction between Scripture itself and the divine message of Scripture (a ploy used to attack Scripture’s inerrancy) find a great deal in Scripture which is not a part of the divine message of salvation. But they do not understand Scripture. Whether Scripture is talking about the creation of the world in Genesis 1, the flood in Genesis 7, the chronologies in I Chronicles, the plight of Jonah in the whale’s belly in Jonah 1-2, the problems in the Galatian Churches, or the footsore and weary apostle Paul in his trek across Asia Minor, the Scriptures are talking about Christ.
My old Bible teacher in high school emphasized this point by saying: “Wherever Scripture is cut it flows with the blood of the Lamb.” How true that is. Or, to change the figure, Scripture is like a portrait of Christ. It is a perfect portrait painted by the hand of God. There are more important and less important parts of that portrait—the differences between the background and the face (after all, the book of Romans is more important than the book of Esther); there are the predominant features of that portrait and less noticeable features (relatively obscure texts with which we are not acquainted and which are somewhat difficult to understand, and texts which we have learned as children, which almost every child of God has memorized); there are light places and dark places; but each part is necessary for the perfection of the whole, and, taken in its entirety, the Scriptures are a perfect and beautiful portrait of Christ. When we look at Scripture we see Christ. We see Him not face to face, it is true. (See I Corinthians 13:12.) Only in glory will we see Prim face to face; then we will have no need for Scripture anymore either. Our seeing is limited to looking in a glass darkly. But it is the divine portrait of Christ Jesus. And it is very beautiful.
But if all this is true, then it stands to reason that one who preaches from Scripture (as all preaching must be) is also one who preaches Christ-centered sermons. One who is truly biblical is also one who is truly Christ-centered in his preaching.
But we must ask the question and answer it more specifically: What is meant by a Christ-centered sermon? You asked for some particular ideas and your request almost makes it sound as if there has been some discussion about this in your congregation. Such discussion can only be good. It can be good for you because it will remind you of the importance of preaching Christ-centered sermons. I recall the days when I was still a student in Seminary. Our Hermeneutics professor was telling us about the need to preach Christ and Him crucified. He told us that we would probably not appreciate very much what he had to say on this point because we would be so conscious of the need to preach Christ as the center of our preaching that we could not possibly imagine anything but a Christ-centered sermon. But he told us that it is unbelievably difficult to preach always so that Christ is indeed the center of every sermon; that we would surely forget this somewhere in the course of our ministry; that there would be many sermons which would indeed be Christless unless we consciously and deliberately went out of our ways to remind ourselves of the importance of this truth. He suggested that, prior to writing out our sermon, we put a cross, similar to the one on which Christ was crucified, on the upper right hand corner of the first page of our sermons to hold continually before our mind the need to preach Christ crucified. I recall that I did indeed think he was a bit foolish to emphasize this so strongly because it seemed to me a thing incredible that a minister of the gospel could do anything less. But he was speaking from experience; and now I too speak to you from experience. It is indeed the easiest thing in the world to make a Christless sermon. We do indeed need to remind ourselves of the importance of doing this every time we sit down to make a sermon. We get bogged down in the grammar and syntax of a particularly interesting passage. We become overly enamored with the background and history involved in a certain part of God’s Word. And we forget all about the cross. Or, we are so adept at holding our fingers in the prevailing ecclesiastical or congregational winds to adjust our preaching to the current sentiments of the majority whose favor we covet that the need to be pleasing prevails in our thinking and Christ and Him crucified gets shoved into the background.
The churches which extol the virtues of man (see Robert Schuler’s latest book) are so busy patting man on the back that they have no time to talk about Christ and the cross on which Christ died. The ministers who are so overcome with the world’s social ills that they preach on world hunger, world poverty, world war, world this and world that, have no time left to talk about Christ and the cross on which Christ made atonement for sin. The churches who are slickest at making use of radio and television (and who depend upon their audience to finance their elaborate ventures into the field of electronic evangelism) produce neat and eye-catching shows and put on elaborate productions, but fail miserably to set forth Christ crucified.
But the congregation also must know what a Christ-centered sermon really is. It is to be feared that this is not always the case. One wonders sometimes how much the spiritual discernment of the people of God has been dulled by failure to study God’s Word and by perpetual engrossment with TV, worldly amusements, and what the apostle John calls the lust of the eyes. Can a congregation always tell what is a Christ-centered sermon and what is not? One wonders sometimes. It is very easy for a congregation to be carried away by oratory, by a glib tongue, by a smooth speaker who has a way with words and a knack for the well-turned phrase. Swept off their feet by sheer oratorical ability, they speak of being especially blessed by a wonderful sermon. Or a congregation may be dazzled by the brilliance of exegesis which a minister presents, by the many “quotes” which he is able to make which show so clearly that he is scholarly, well-read, and a hard worker besides; they may be moved by the pathos which a minister is able to elicit from his audience as he leads them down tearstained paths; they may be aroused to heights of excitement by the ability of a skilled drawer of word pictures to make sermons dramatic; they may even appreciate the wit of a minister who dares to bring his audience to laughter in the solemnity of worship; or there may be those who are satisfied and delighted that the dominee this morning really got after those rascals in the congregation who were so in need of being admonished. But all these things are sometimes substitutes for Christ-centered preaching. Christ was not there, and the congregation did not notice it.
Christ speaks through the preaching. God’s people come to church to hear Christ. But Christ always talks about Himself—about Himself as the revelation of God the Father triune to Whom belongs all praise and glory.
Paul, after telling the Corinthians that he preached Christ crucified, went on to say (I Corinthians 2:1-5): “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”
That ought to be our preaching.
But more about this next time.
Fraternally in Christ,