Man-centered vs. Christ-centered Sermons

This is directed mostly to the guys who are in my Christ-Centered Preaching right now, since it relates to an article we have to read and process. But anyone is welcome to contribute to any discussion, so feel free no matter who you are.

Ok – here’s the deal. I just finished reading the article by Adams called “Preaching Christ.” I am not evaluating, assessing or criticizing his article, but I had a couple of questions come up that I wanted to get some interaction on.

I’ll quote a couple of thoughts that struck out to me, and then at the bottom, I’ll ask the questions I’m wrestling with. Maybe the answer was apparent to you when reading; if so, I’d love to know how you guys took it. Perhaps it wasn’t clear, but you have some thoughts in response to my question; great too. I’m hoping through this we can interact on the differences between Moralistic Preaching and Christ/Gospel-Centered Preaching. Here are the quotes:

…edificational preaching must always be evangelical; that is what makes it moral rather than moralistic, and what causes it to be unacceptable in a synagogue, in a mosque, or to a Unitarian congregation. By evangelical, I mean that the import of Christ’s death and resurrection – His substitutionary, penal death and bodily resurrection – on the subject under consideration is made clear in the sermon. 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. (p. 147)

and…

A good self-image comes not merely from acknowledging what we are in Christ, as the psychologizers suppose, but also from closing the gap between what we are in Christ and what we should become in our daily living. That is to say, it comes not only from justification, but also as a by-product of progress in sanctification. (p. 151)

These are the quotes that made me pause and want to ask a couple of questions. Here they are:

  1. How is preaching to enable a “closing the gap between what we are in Christ and what we should become in our daily living,” not a modified moralism (or Sola Bootstrapsa as Chapel would say)?
  2. What does it mean to preach Christ’s “sanctifying work,” in a non-moralistic way? What is the active response of the listener to this? The pastor?
  3. What is it we are really calling people to when we preach in this Christ/Gospel-centered way?

I guess what I’m struggling with is what does this look like practically. I’d love to get some interaction on this with you guys, so fire your comments away.

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9 thoughts on “Man-centered vs. Christ-centered Sermons

  1. Don’t look at it as either or, but both. Let me explain. Suppose you’re preaching a series from the Proverbs. Sure, the book contains a tons of moralistic principles explicitly and implicitly. But if I’m simply preaching corrective behaviors without the gospel, I’m giving a false implication that somehow my audience (combination of both regenerate and unregenerate listeners) can do those things apart from God’s redemptive power. And such preaching only produces Pharisaical audience.

    However, if I’m reminding the people that they cannot do and live out those biblical principles and prescriptives apart from the gospel (meaning, the spiritually dead cannot behave like the redeemed unless they experience the spiritual rebirth) that puts the premium on the gospel, God’s redemptive power. And such preaching makes distinction between those that are “in Christ,” as opposed to “outside of Christ.” Also, it explains what is expected of God’s redeemed, hence it sets biblical and sanctifying standard for godliness.

    As God’s spokesmen, we are calling our audience to biblical repentance unto biblical faith in Christ. I hope this helps.

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  2. after reading and struggling with that idea, I finally realized that what I need to do is stop moralizing within my own and see only Christ. When He really does (sure I say he is but we know the truth) become everything to me… The preaching will follow.

    Until he really is everything to me, the preaching will be weak. That’s really what it is – being dependent will produce preaching of dependence.

    My first objective is to fall on him. After that I am sure he will do just fine with me when I am out of his way.

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  3. Hey Jim,

    Great thoughts and I appreciate them. Let me ask you this though. You said

    I get that, but maybe what I’m struggling with is what do you do when “the spiritually redeemed” feel like the “spiritually dead?” And practically, how do you preach so as to 1) not put the burden of the work on “man”, and yet 2) not leave the sermon as a “lets just remember what Jesus’ has done for us?”

    I think that Jared, your comment helps shed light on this in my own heart, as does yours Jim. What I think I’m struggling with as I read htat article is something ascew in my own heart and experiene of the gospel. Thanks for sharing…and keep ’em coming.

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  4. Chris,
    1. In regard to your first question concerning the second quote: I think I had the same concerns. I think that I agreed with what Adams was trying to say, i just don’t think he said it. Certainly it is not all about our “self image” but the indicatives drive the imperatives. Who we are in Christ, and what Christ has done is the only thing that is going to propell us on to “faith and obedience” it is the only thing that is going to compell us to “do the do”.

    2. It comes down to recognizing that we can’t “do the do” only Christ can and did. And only his Spirit with in us is going to accoplish his work. Tim keller said it like this (and I paraphrase) – In preaching we must start with what is said in the text, what it meant, what it means, and what it calls us to do. Then we need to move onto awakening within ourselves and our congragants that “oh yeah I don’t do that, and I can’t do that” but oh year here comes the Gospel “Jesus did it” and it is only thorugh union with him that the gap (see above quote from Adams) is bridged. The gap between what we are and what should become is not a matter of us “doing” but a matter of the Spirit causing the gospel to take a deeper root in our hearts so that we better understand and believe what we are right now in Christ.

    Hope this is helpful (I am kinda just going off and trying to clearify my thoughts) I am willing to be corrected and to repent of any error in this statment.

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  5. Chris, I think I get your questions. Though, I’ve got such loud questions in my own mind that I may be reading mine into yours. I’ll lay my thoughts out and you can see if there is an overlap…

    Both moralistic and gospel-centred preaching address at some point our failure to live up to God’s standards. That isn’t in dispute. The difference between the two comes in how to fix the failure. The moralistic approach says, “You must fix it.” The gospel-centred approach says, “Jesus will fix it.” Sounds great. Except if that’s true we’ve got the wrong people in the pews. If there’s a lack of holiness in the congregation and we take a gospel-centred line we should sit Jesus and the Spirit in the pews and give them a good talking to. Holiness is, after all, their work not the congregations, right? (Apologies for the irreverence – it’s by no means intended.)

    That poses the question, but there is a fallacy in the paragraph above. The fallacy is that the distinction between moralistic and gospel-centred preaching is *who* does the fixing. Clearly, *we* must do the fixing. After all, it’s not like Paul wrote letters filled with imperatives to the members of the Trinity – he wrote them to Christians.

    The real distinction is not *who* does things but *how* we do them. Are we going to attack the problem with Christ or without Him? Moralism says, “You can do it on your own – just try harder”. Christ-centred preaching says, “You can’t do it on your own but you can do it with Christ working through you.”

    There’s a big difference in the motivation for the imperatives too. In moralism we must perform in order to gain good standing with God. In the Christ-centred model it is because we already have good standing with God – we are new creations, citizens of the New Kingdom – that we act in accordance with His character (and our new character). Moralism is trying to live up to God’s standards. Christ-centred Christianity is living out our re-creation in Christ. (Loud echoes of Dr Douglass’ class last year here).

    That doesn’t answer all the questions, though. The one big question being how we get Jesus to work holiness through us. Apologies again for the way that’s phrased – He is God and we don’t *get* Him to do anything for us. I suppose we can safely assume He really wants to do this stuff through us, so a better question is “How do we *let* him work holiness through us?”

    The starting point in answering that question is faith – we need to trust that He wants to do this thing and is capable of doing it. Even if that is all there is to it, it doesn’t solve the problem for the preacher. Can the person in the pew simply switch from impotent faithlessness to potent faith at the simple command of a preacher? Likely not if the person has a whole lot of failure in their history. And is that command not straight out of the moralistic methodology anyway (as you put it, “a modified version of sola bootstrapsa”)?

    Maybe the answer is that we need to *show* people Christ and help them believe that He has the power to work through them. Rather than the bald command, “Trust Jesus” to talk people through what He has done, how he’s given us His Spirit, how the Spirit works, show examples of how He has worked etc. And in so doing to slowly, organically raise their faith, help them to plug into Jesus and see Him bear fruit through them.

    That’s as far as I’ve got on this. There are a lot of questions in my mind – particularly when I move away from the clean white board of theology to the messy mud of my life and others.

    I’ll bravely venture to answer your questions…

    1) It’s not moralism for 2 reasons. First is that moralism is doing stuff to get right with God, this is living out a right standing with God. Second is that the closing of the gap is empowered by the Spirit, not ourselves. I don’t really have any idea what “empowered by the Spirit” means in any real, practical way. The thousands of dollars and 4 years I’ll spend at CTS would be worth a working answer to that alone.
    2 A) The active response of the listener is to do
    what needs doing but do that with their power cable plugged into the Jesus socket not the Me socket. Part of that means that they genuinely believe that as they attempt to do this thing they are going to get supernatural help to do what they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do themselves. And if they succeed the litmus test would be who’s back they pat – their own or Jesus’? 2 B) What does it mean for the pastor? I think we’ve got to be helping people find the Jesus socket then plug in and do whatever is necessary to get power flowing down those lines. That seems to be the key to living in Christ. How come I’ve been a Christian 20 years and I know more about the Jewish sacrificial system and the thought forms of 1st century Palestine than that?
    3) We are calling them to live according to God’s standards. But not to live up to them (which ignores the work of Christ in us). Instead, to live them out (taking into account the fact that we are new creations – we are in Christ). We’re calling people to live out their union with Christ in all of the richness of that – His power, His righteousness, His re-creation of us etc…

    I’m really glad you raised this question. This stuff never gets raised in Christian circles (at least not the ones I’ve been in) and if it does everyone nods sagely and moves on swiftly like they know what it’s all about. I don’t so let’s keep talking. A visit to Growler’s with some of the wise might be in order.

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  6. Great thoughts Grant. I liked the analogy of getting peple (and myself) “plugged into the Jesus socket not the Me socket.” I think your on to something too when you talk about “showing” people Christ instead of just issuing a “trust Jesus” imperative. Its when I hear alot of talk of preaching Christ/Gospel-centerdely, I don’t really hear much more than “just trust Jesus,” and that’s where I personally get discouraged, let alone what may come out when I’m preaching.

    And yeah – I’m up for a Growler’s round 2. Fellas, what do you think? We can continue talking about this, baptism, you name it…I’m in.

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  7. Dave,

    My bad on not commenting sooner. I like what you wrote, especially:
    “The gap between what we are and what should become is not a matter of us ‘doing’ but a matter of the Spirit causing the gospel to take a deeper root in our hearts so that we better understand and believe what we are right now in Christ.”

    I think I’m just not clear on when we actually call people to “do” something/anything as a response to the gospel, if at all. I think its a fine line between preaching the gospel, and then just mentioning it. And you’re right – the gap is only bridged by God’s spirit working in our hearts, but what was it we learned the first few days of prep. and del. (Preparation and Delivery of Sermons):
    Q: Who or what has the ability to change people’s lives
    A: The Holy Spirit working by or with the Word of God in our hearts.

    When thinking about preaching, I’m trying to discern when and how I might get in the way, or when or how I might neglect my calling to be a faithful preacher of Scripture because I’m just going to “leave it to the Spirit.” I know that’s not what you were saying (don’t hear what I’m not saying, people), and I totally agree with what you wrote; just trying to flesh it out and work through it some.

    Maybe its Growler’s time?

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  8. Pingback: Thoughts on Preaching (pt. 2) « Intersection

  9. What is the goal of our faith? Is it to be moral? Or is it to know and understand God? Why so often does preaching always have to point back to “so what are you going to do about it?” It drives me crazy. I’m pretty sure when we sit infront of God for eternity beholding his glory in awe of his majesty that we arn’t going to break the gaze so that we can think about how it applys to our lives. Sure there are times when a what are you going to do about it needs to get said in a message but man, please don’t punish people by trying to shove that into every message as if its all about making people perfect in this life. That’s not the goal. This is eternal life, that we know God and Jesus Christ his one and only son.

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