Is Christ-Centered Preaching a Biblical Mandate?
Preaching is God’s ordained method for the pastor—but not just any kind of preaching! Our Lord and His apostles were masters of Christ-centered preaching. Every Word our Lord uttered ultimately was about His Person and work as our Prophet, Priest and King; especially when He expounded Old Testament texts! And the apostles followed suit. Every evangelistic sermon and every epistle was centered on Jesus Christ. Every application to the hearer’s life calling for obedience and faith was founded upon His Person and perfect work.
Christ-centered preaching is more than:
- Preaching an expositional sermon, even from a New Testament text, yet without mentioning Christ except in some sort of evangelistic appeal at the end
- Preaching a sermon filled with illustrations and humor while only nominally mentioning a text, or Jesus Christ Himself, once in a while
- Preaching a “relevant” message with adjectives like “exciting, awesome, extreme, life-changing, etc.”, without explaining God’s written Word and the Person and work of Christ
- Preaching a “practical series” on marriage, joy, etc., without explaining how the Person and work of Jesus Christ applies to marriage, joy, etc.
None of the above measures up to true Christ-centered preaching. Much passes for “biblical preaching” today without enough of Christ in the message to save an unbeliever or increase the believer’s understanding of Christ-centered living.
I have spent most of my vacations for over 35 years visiting SBC churches. On two hands, I can count the number of sermons I have heard that were truly Christ-centered, even from conservative, Bible-believing preachers. I believe we need to reform our preaching to make it more Christ-centered today. So, the first question to ask is this: Is Christ-centered preaching a biblical mandate?
It is a biblical mandate to preach Christ to all men
It is clear that the apostles preached Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to the unconverted (Acts 5:42, 8:35, 11:20). He was the center of their message. When Paul first came to Corinth, he said:
For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man, His Person and work, was the subject matter of Paul’s evangelistic preaching in Corinth. But that is not all. Paul preached Jesus Christ to Christians as well. You cannot read his epistles, which were read in their entirety to the churches, without seeing that he rehearsed the Person and work of Jesus Christ as the power of their salvation and the center point of their sanctification. To the Colossians, Paul described his preaching and teaching to Christians:
We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ (Colossians 1:28).
Paul’s message, even for Christians, was to proclaim Christ to make every man complete in Him. Should we do any less? It is a biblical mandate to preach Christ to unbeliever and believer!
It is a biblical mandate to preach all of Christ
We must preach Christ to all men, but we must also preach all of Christ—His beauty, His perfections, His righteousness, His glories—His life and death and resurrrection and ascension. We must faithfully declare the gospel “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). We must call upon all sinners to repent and believe in the resurrected Lord.
Yet we often hear little of Jesus’ resurrection in evangelistic presentations and preaching today. The emphasis upon the need to go to heaven, the need to be happy, even the need to be forgiven, often receives more place in preaching that the glory of Jesus Christ in His perfect life, horrifying death, glorious resurrection, almighty reign, sobering judgment, and glorious return. In fact, there is more said in the evangelistic messages of Acts on the reality of His resurrection and exaltation than even His cross! For the cross means nothing without His glorious resurrection and exaltation in victory over sin, Satan, death and hell for repentant and believing sinners.
When is the last time you preached the gospel to sinners and emphasized Jesus’ resurrection, that He is God and He is alive, bringing each hearer, condemned in their Law-breakings, face-to-face with the Resurrected One? This alone is Christ-centered evangelistic preaching! This alone pierces the heart by the Holy Spirit to cause sinners to fall down to Christ for mercy and salvation. This alone carries the idea of a faith in Him that also includes submission to Him as Lord of one’s life.
It is a theological mandate to preach Christ in every sermon
Since Genesis 3:15, Jesus Christ is the patent center of God’s revelation to man. Adam represented us and fell into sin, breaking God’s covenant requiring perfect law-obedience. Now, Jesus Christ, the last Adam, is the only Mediator between God and man. He is the only Savior of sinners and Lord of the saved. The entire Old Testament is subservient to revealing His coming. The entire New Testament is the revelation of His coming to mankind and the explanation of how the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes, in the rediscovery of biblical truth and the reformed faith of our Baptist forefathers, we hear phrases like this: “the central truth of all Scripture is the sovereignty of God over all things” or “the central truth of all Scripture is the glory of God.” Sometimes we hear sermons and read books glorifying the sovereignty and glory of God. But, even then, something is often missing: Jesus Christ and Him crucified, risen, reigning and coming—His Person and work.
I believe that God is sovereign over all things, and that everything is for His glory, rightly understood and deserved. But if you ask me what is the center point of Scripture in revealing His glory and sovereignty to man, it must be said in the clearest of terms that it is Jesus Christ, His Person and work. It is a theological mandate to preach Christ in all the Scriptures.
Preaching Christ from the Old Testament
The Old Testament is theologically centered in Jesus Christ. Our Lord taught this to the disciples on the Emmaus road:
Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27).
When Adam fell into sin, he brought our whole race into condemnation under God’s Law (Romans 2:14–16; 5:12–19). His fall brought the need of a Savior into history. This is why the Law of God must be preached to all men to show them that they are sinners (Romans 3:19–20). Yet, from Genesis 3:15, God promised Satan that the Seed of the Woman would bruise him on the head. This is Christ alone, the hope of sinners, the last Adam who brings redemption from sin against God and His Law. We must preach both the Law and the gospel to be faithful to the theology of Scripture.
This promise of Christ to come was slowly unfolded in the Old Testament “covenants of promise” as Paul calls them (Ephesians 2:12), until the Seed to whom the promises were ultimately made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel and David came with His new and everlasting covenant of peace (Galatians 3; Jeremiah 31:31–34, 32:40; Isaiah 54:10, 55:3, 61:8; Ezekiel 16:60, 24:25; Hebrews 8:8–10, 13:20).
The Old Testament saints were justified by faith in the promise of Christ to come (Romans 4, Hebrews 11, James 2). The New Covenant of Jesus Christ was so prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament that we may legitimately preach any Old Testament text where it fits into the history of redemption pointing to the future coming of our dear Lord.
For example, if we preach from God’s Law (the Ten Words), it foreshadows the perfections of Christ and the need of His atonement. If we preach from an historical narrative, its ultimate meaning is to sustain the lineage of Jesus. If we preach from the prophets, they condemn the broken Sinai Covenant yet point to the covenant mercies of God in the future Messiah. If we preach from the Wisdom literature, its ultimate fulfillment is in Jesus Christ, in whom is hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Peter summarized the meaning of the Old Testament:
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10–12).
The New Testament interprets theologically how the Old Testament taught of Christ. The Old Testament is theologically centered in Christ. This is why He must be proclaimed from every Old Testament text.
Preaching Christ from the New Testament
The New Testament is theologically centered in Jesus Christ. John 1:1–18 tells of the eternal history of the Word of God—the One who is God, who made all things, who came to His own, who was rejected of men, but who gives eternal life to all who believe and receive Him as Lord. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself is that Light of the world in whom God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit has revealed Himself to man:
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:1–4).
In the face of Jesus Christ, we see the Trinitarian God revealed to man. As He said: “He that has seen Me has seen the Father.” The Christian faith is a Trinitarian faith theologically. But both the Old Testament and the New Testament require theologically that Christ remains the center of the revelation of this Trinitarian God to man. Though He may not be mentioned by name in every text of Scripture, He is at the center of every text of Scripture. For He is the reason the Old Testament history continued after the Fall; and He is the reason the New Testament revelation was given by the Father through the Holy Spirit.
We need to remember that each verse in Scripture should be interpreted by all of Scripture. Therefore, true expository preaching always brings the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who is the center of Scripture, into each text. This is especially true of the New Testament epistles and letters to the saints. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
How does one preach Christ from Romans 8:28?
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Once I heard a sermon by a very good man on this text about the Providence and Sovereignty of God in all the life of a Christian. It really was very good in its exposition of the words and grammar of the text. However, there was no mention of Jesus Christ till the conclusion of the sermon when the preacher called on the hearers to believe in Christ for salvation. I do not recall that he mentioned either the deity of Christ, the atonement of the cross, or His resurrected glory. I am glad that Christ was mentioned, but I am sad that He never actually was preached at the center of the text. For, you see, the reason we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose, is because of the Person and work of Jesus Christ. In the immediate context of Romans 8:28, Paul explains how we “know” that God the Father will work all things together for good:
For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us (Romans 8:29–34).
The very reason we “know” that God will work all things together for good for the saints is because:
- He has predestined all whom He foreknew to be conformed to the image of Christ, His Divine Son;
- And all whom He predestined He effectually calls and justifies by faith alone in Jesus’ blood and righteousness to be safely brought to glory, no matter what trials enter their life;
- And, the proof that He works all things together for good like this is that if He delivered His Son up for us all, how will He not also freely give us all things:
- And, we know that all things work together for good because the risen Son of God is seated at the right hand of God the Father continually interceding for us.
In other words, to preach the Providence of God for the saints without being Christ-centered in the explanation and application is not being faithful to the context, which is Christ-centered for the saints!
How does one preach Christ from 1 Peter 4:19?
Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (1 Peter 4:19).
In such a text, do you just appeal to the sovereign will of God who does what He wants? Do you just appeal to God as our faithful Creator who always does what is right? Therefore, you just quit complaining and endure suffering because of the sovereign will of a righteous God? Of course not! Such an explanation could be preached by a Muslim! This text is given in the context of the whole book of 1 Peter. Peter has given a veritable theology of suffering in his letter, based wholly upon the Person and work of Jesus Christ! We trust in the faithful Creator who does only what is right because He has proven His faithfulness and sovereignty in the suffering of Christ for our salvation and comfort.
In the broader context of Scripture interpreting Scripture, Peter explains why we can trust in the sovereign God during suffering according to His will:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:1–9).
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:21–25).
Peter went to the Gospels and preached the Person and work of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, risen, exalted and coming again to comfort these suffering Christians. He calls them to trust in the sovereign God who sent His Son to suffer on their behalf, Who Himself entrusted Himself while suffering to His Father who judges righteously, Who uttered no threats and did not attack those who persecuted Him.
The comfort of Christians in suffering is not the bare sovereignty of a right God, but the God who had a purpose in sending His own Son to suffer for them, and Who bore that suffering with trust in the God who was providing the salvation of sinners.
To preach 1 Peter 4:19 without a full display of the context centered in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, raised, ascended, and coming again cannot comfort Christians in trial nor display the salvation of God to the unconverted present. It may be textual preaching of some sort, but it is not true, expository, Christ-centered preaching!
How can you preach Paul’s exhortation to love one’s neighbor through fulfilling the laws of the 10 Commandments in Romans 13:8–10 if you do not refer to the Christ who perfectly loved you and said: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
How can you teach church members to love one another, to put away all bitterness, malice, clamor, and slander, unless you remind them of Christ?
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).
How can you encourage yourself and other pastor friends to be faithful in their labors, especially when you are being opposed and see so little fruit? Paul gave the secret of his perseverance in these words:
Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart… (2 Corinthians 4:1).
Having received the mercies of God through Jesus Christ, remembering the life, death, resurrection, ascension and coming of His Lord, Paul did not lose heart when he ministered to the cynical and hard faces of men. His remembrance of mercy through Jesus Christ fueled his heart to persevere.
The application of Jesus Christ, His Person and work, to the saints in the different situations of life is the necessity of true expository, Christ-centered preaching. The examples of the New Testament preaching are the models for us. To leave out the whole message of God’s grace in Christ while preaching particular texts is not preaching “the whole counsel of God.” In fact, it is hiding Christ from His own people. It is robbing them of the gospel which first saved them and which is necessary to continue to believe in order that they may lead faithful, Christ-centered lives.
It is theologically necessary to preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified, risen, reigning and returning in every sermon. Therefore, Christ-centered preaching teaches Christ from every text, not forcing it, nor allegorizing it, but through understanding theologically that all of God’s revelation to man is about and through Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Word. It is a theological mandate to preach Christ to all men from all the Scriptures. Christ-centered preaching is “theology on fire” with Jesus Christ.
Objections to Christ-centered preaching
Some object to Christ-centered preaching from every text because we must be exegetically constrained by the subject matter of each text. Therefore, they say, it is legitimate to preach a sermon from an Old Testament or New Testament text without even mentioning Jesus Christ, His Person or His work.
This objection does not stand because exegesis of a text is only the foundation of preaching the meaning of the text enlightened by all of Scripture. We believe in the analogy of faith, or, Scripture interpreting Scripture. After studying all of Scripture, we understand that the meaning of any text or subject must be subservient to its place in the totality of the message of Scripture, which is Jesus Christ.
Others object that if we just preach expositionally through Scripture, we will give the whole counsel of God and eventually preach all of Christ over a period of time. So, we do not have to preach the Person and work of Jesus Christ in every text.
Neither does this objection stand up to the commands and examples of preaching in the Scripture. For example, if we preach through the Sermon on the Mount verse-by-verse, remaining strictly to each text, we must recognize that Christ Himself is not mentioned in most of the texts. However, we cannot preach any Beatitude without remembering WHO preached it, and how HE HIMSELF fulfilled it through His life and work. Who is more spiritually poor than the One who became sin for us? Who mourns more than the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief? Who is more meek than He who emptied Himself unto death for others? Who hungered and thirsted for righteousness more than our dear Lord? Who was more merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, or persecuted for righteousness sake than our Lord Jesus Christ? Who fulfilled the Law against murder, adultery, false vows, loving one’s enemy more than Jesus Christ? Whose prayer life was more constant and humble than our dear Lord’s?
Shall we wait in preaching Christ’s Person and work in the Sermon on the Mount till the very end when He condemns false converts at the judgment? Of course not! The analogy of faith requires that we preach Him all through the text. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
The right use of systematic theology is, that when you discover a particular doctrine in your text, you check it, and control it, by making sure that it fits into this whole body of biblical doctrine which is vital and essential.
In other words, I am contending that our primary call is to deliver this whole message, this ‘whole counsel of God’, and that this is always more important that the particulars, the particular parts and portions.
Perhaps I can clarify this by reminding you that it is obvious that in New Testament times, and in the early days of the Christian Church, they did not preach in the manner that has become customary with us. They did not take a text out of the New Testament and analyse it and expound it and then apply it, because they did not have the New Testament. Well, what did they preach? They preached the great message that had been committed to them, this great body of truth, this whole doctrine of salvation. My argument is that this is what we should always be doing, though we do it through individual expositions of particular texts. That is, to me, in general the relationship between theology and preaching.
Exegetical, expositional, Christ-centered preaching does not wait for weeks till we get to a text that verbally mentions Christ. It is “theology on fire” with Jesus Christ. It preaches Christ in all the Scriptures—in every sermon! It preaches the whole counsel of God to the whole man.
Dear preacher, is this how you preach Christ in all the Scriptures? Is this your controlling principle as you study each text? Is this how you preach “the whole counsel of God”? If it is not, you may be guilty of hiding Christ from your hearers. Instead, consider the whole message of the Bible as you preach each text. Let Scripture interpret Scripture!
Christ-centered preaching is mandated biblically and theologically in the Bible. We must be men saturated with Scripture and saturated with Christ revealed in Scripture so that we can set Him before the lost and found ears of our hearers. As an old Anglican, Bishop Reynolds, exhorted preachers:
Preach Christ Jesus the Lord. Determine to know nothing among your people, but Christ crucified. Let his name and grace, his spirit and love, triumph in the midst of all your sermons. Let your great end be to glorify him in the heart, to render him amiable and precious in the eyes of his people, to lead them to him, as a sanctuary to protect them, a propitiation to reconcile them, a treasure to enrich them, a physician to heal them, an advocate to present them and their services to God, as wisdom to counsel them, as righteousness to justify, as sanctification to renew, as redemption to save. Let Christ be the diamond to shine in the bosom of all your sermons.
Christ-centered preaching is mandated by Scripture and best exampled by our Lord and His apostles. After many ages, it still must be our determination to know nothing among men but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, risen, exalted, and returning—both to sinners and to saints!¦
1D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (London: Hodder and Staughton, 1972), 66–67. I believe this book to be the contemporary classic for preaching. Buy it and read it!.
2Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust), 258. This book, I believe, is the greatest work ever printed for the pastoral ministry outside the Bible. It is the primary textbook I would use to teach a course on pastoral theology. Buy it and read it, too!