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What Makes a Sermon Genuinely Gospel-Centered?
Six principles to guide the way.
Just like overused tires may get worn and lose their gripping power, words may become so overused that they no longer retain the tread with which they were originally created.
Consider, for example, the word awesome. In view of the truly awesome (awe-inducing and worthy of reverent wonder unto potential terror), the way I tend to use the word has stripped it of its originally intended force.
Fries that are crispy on the outside but soft on the inside are awesome. A British mystery that closes with a crazy surprising twist is awesome. The sunrise over the mountains (now we are getting closer) was awesome. My fresh ground coffee brewed in a French Press this morning was pretty awesome.
It is possible to ascribe awesomeness to all kinds of lesser-than (truly) awesome things or events. And yet we know what we mean when we use the word. To be awesome is to inspire awe, wonder, and a “wow” response that needs a special designation to separate it from other, more common but similar things.
That was not just an ordinary trip to the beach. It was awesome.
However, if we want a referent for what awesome really is, we would do well to ask Isaiah.
6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isaiah was struck with awe when beholding the holiness of God. Wonder mixed with dread. Then, as a thrice holy God reveals not only the justice Isaiah expects but the mercy he doesn’t, the core wiring of his internal desire is utterly transformed.
Isaiah would no longer have to speculate about what was genuinely awesome. He now had a touchstone by which anything else claiming to be awesome could be evaluated.
The same thing is true with the phrase “gospel-centered.”
We talk about gospel-centered ministry. Gospel-centered small groups. Gospel-centered worship. Gospel-centered discipleship. Gospel-centered leadership. Gospel-centered youth ministry. Gospel-centered outreach. Gospel-centered mercy ministry.
And gospel-centered preaching.
While the phrase is widely used, like the word awesome, is there a referent or touchstone by which we can evaluate whether a sermon is genuinely gospel-centered? I think if we can nail that down, it will help in evaluating the other aspects of ministry that we desire to be gospel-centered, too.
Anyway, here are six thoughts on what doesn’t and what does make a sermon distinctively gospel centered.
1. A sermon is not gospel-centered just because it is based on a passage in the Bible.
Bryan Chapell, in his brilliant book, Christ-Centered Preaching, uses the illustration of explaining an acorn to show how it is possible to teach from the Bible and miss the main point of the Bible.
For example, if you explain all the details of an acorn but fail to relate the acorn back to the oak tree from which it came and into which it will become, you have not really explained an acorn in its fuller context. The same is true with preaching and teaching.
Unless we preach a passage in the Bible in view of its meta-narrative, we have not really preached the text in its fuller context, which we will see is the story of reconciliation through substitution.
2. A sermon is not gospel-centered just because it mentions Jesus.
For many, Jesus is primarily a respected moral teacher who practiced what he preached.
Whether this is the focus of a Christian sermon, where Jesus is held up as a great example for how to live, or an anecdote at a business leader’s luncheon that might glean leadership principles from the life of Jesus that transfer to how to manage a team, just mentioning Jesus does not make a sermon or seminar gospel centered. Islam respects Jesus. Gandhi was inspired by Jesus’s moral example and willingness to sacrifice.
In the same way, if a sermon mentions Jesus, without making an explicit connection to the substitutionary nature of his life purpose centering on the cross, it will remain sub-Christian and lack gospel-centeredness.
In his earthly life, Jesus did practice what he preached. But he wasn’t primarily a moral example to emulate as much as he was a judicial substitute to receive.
3. A sermon is not gospel-centered just because it provides a moral lesson or a helpful life application.
Practical preaching is popular, and rightly so. A Christian worldview is not a theoretical philosophy. It is a functional theology with application for the nitty-gritty of everyday, real life.
Many Bible-believing preachers have picked up on this and have become skilled at crossing the bridge between the Bible and contemporary culture, making the truth of Scripture feel incredibly relevant. As it should. However, with a focus on the application side of a sermon, what often is missing is the redemption side. Rather than running application through the cross for processing, practical ideas are just that — suggestions for how to not need Jesus.
Ironically, preachers of practical Christianity who offer steps to success may unintentionally be creating a new set of laws for people to pursue. After all, if I can get my life in order by implementing a number of Biblical principles, I can reduce what is broken in my life and finally possess the peace, rest, and joy that my heart craves.
In this scenario, rather than experiencing salvation through penal substitution, we experience salvation through moral reformation. While life change is an implication of the gospel, in itself it is not the gospel. The result is that when moral lessons and life applications are not tied and tethered to the cross, we are left with a new law of contemporary rules that “feel biblical” because the principles are found in the Bible.
But what is the purpose of the law? To lead us to Jesus as our legal substitute for those of us who couldn’t keep or rightly apply the good principles of the law.
4. A sermon is not gospel-centered just because it mentions the word gospel.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve used the word gospel in a sermon, as if merely saying the word was endued with some magical power to melt hard hearts and start an avalanche of sinners falling on their knees to receive Christ as Savior and Lord.
The problem is that there’s no power in the word gospel.
Please don’t throw stones yet. Let me explain.
In Romans 1, Paul famously says that the gospel (the euangelion) is the power (dunamis) of God to save.
Here is the point.
The word gospel is not the power of God to save. It is “the gospel” which is the power. Meaning, it is when the substance of the good news is defined and explained, power is released as the Spirit brings the fire from heaven to ignite the kindling of gospel exposition.
I can preach a sermon saying gospel, gospel, gospel with great passion and urgency but get no reaction. Urging folks to “receive the gospel… believe the gospel. and live by the gospel.” I may expect a tsunami of “Amens,” but likely will just get crickets.
Yet if I am willing to unwrap the word gospel by revealing the gift of God in the living color of Jesus’s life and death substitution for sinners… watch out! You are carrying a wagonload of explosive nitroglycerin in breakable jars.
Now we are ready to shift to what makes a distinctively gospel-centered sermon.
5. A sermon is gospel-centered when it explicitly communicates a theology of substitution.
Charles Spurgeon, not a slouch of a gospel preacher, said,
“The doctrine of justification by faith through the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ is very much to my ministry what bread and salt are to the table. As often as ever the table is set, there are those necessary things. I regard that doctrine as being one that is to be preached continually, to be mixed up with all of our sermons.”
Not just some sermons. Not merely the evangelistic ones or the messages where the text mentions the cross. All of our sermons must communicate a theology of substitution because reconciliation through substitution is the very heart of the gospel.
If I do not make it clear that in order to reconcile me to the Father that Jesus fulfilled the law as my substitute in life and that in death he endured the justice my sin deserves, I have not preached the gospel.
I may have delivered a message that said a lot of true things that were relevant and practical for daily living. I may have used the word gospel and mentioned Jesus multiple times. But if I have not articulated the subsitutionary atonement of Jesus by tying and tethering the message to the cross, my sermon is not genuinely gospel-centered.
With substitution as the center of the gospel, we then are able to discuss everything else as a spoke on the wheel. The Kingdom of God, the design for marriage, parenting by grace, justice, and compassion, integrity in the workplace, global missions, personal identity, worship, etc.
6. A sermon is gospel-centered when it motivates change as an implication of abiding in Jesus as one’s perfect righteousness.
If point five dealt with justification as reconciliation through substitution, sanctification emphasizes transformation through reconciliation.
Do you see how reconciliation and transformation are inseparably connected?
Commenting on Colossians 2:6, the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible says,
“In the same ways that we received Christ — through faith, by grace — we move forward…The gospel [union with Christ] is for sanctification, not only justification; not only for conversion, but for growth.”
In his classic, True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer wrote,
“I became a Christian once for all upon the basis of the finished work of Christ through faith. That is justification. The Christian life, sanctification, operates on the same basis, but moment by moment. There is the same basis (Christ’s work) and the same instrument (faith); the only difference is that one is once-for-all and the other is moment by moment…”
Of course, the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible and Francis Schaeffer are merely echoing the dynamic of spiritual change that Jesus describes in John 15:4–5, where the Savior reveals in a word picture how sanctification works, and why faith in our union with Christ is the means for change.
What Jesus is saying is that spiritual transformation takes place from the inside out. In other words, as I abide by faith in Jesus as my perfect righteousness, the sap of the Holy Spirit (so to speak) flows from the Vine and into the branch at the point of the faith union between the believer and the Savior.
This is how the believer is filled with the Spirit. And when filled with the Spirit, I begin to have new motives and desires, along with a new ability to fulfill the longings of my new desires, which are no longer desires fueled by the flesh, but by the Spirit.
For this dynamic to be facilitated in preaching, not only must justification be tied to the cross, but so must the specifics of sanctification, because just as reconciliation with God comes through substitution, transformation by God is the fruit of reconciliation as we continue to abide by faith in Jesus as our perfect righteousness.
When you’re ready, feel free to check out my full preaching course here.