What makes a gospel sermon a “gospel sermon”? That might seem like a silly inquiry to make but it actually isn’t, especially considering the state of the “American sermon.” Perhaps I’m generalizing, but a cursory glimpse at North American church podcasts, which house a litany of weekly sermons, leaves much to be desired. There’s a lot of exemplary ethics being proclaimed, with not near as much of God’s evangel. Which is surprising, considering most of these churches would consider themselves “evangelical.” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though, when the conception of what makes one an “evangelical” has shifted so severely over the last few decades.
The political-ethical hermeneutic that serves as the primary framework around which most of these sermons are delivered has created a shallow definition for what constitutes “evangelical preaching.” The point being, sprinkling “a little Jesus” on top of your psycho-analytical-babble does not a sermon make. Preaching, bringing to bear the person and work of Christ alone, doesn’t come about with a mere spritzing of Jesus. The late Haddon Robinson, former Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, once posed the question: “If a thoughtful Muslim or a Jew would be satisfied with my interpretation of the Old Testament, could it really be Christian?”1 The inquiry is not meritless, neither is it esoteric. There is a serious conviction, here, that the centrality of our sermonic accent must stress Christ and Christ alone, yes, throughout all of Scripture.
And, to be sure, not merely, or not even specifically, the “ethical Jesus.” The bent of preaching ought to be what the Spirit of Christ himself is commissioned to do — namely, put the perfect life-giving atonement of Christ front-and-center. “Sermons that have nothing of the gospel of Jesus Christ in them are not Christians sermons,” attests Jared C. Wilson.2 “A Christian may be preaching them. The text may be a Christian text. But if the gospel isn’t there, neither is real Christianity.” Such is the true purpose and premise of gospel preaching. Christopher Gordon, writing for Abounding Grace Radio, agrees: “A gospel of the synagogue is no gospel at all but a different gospel that says we are made perfect by the flesh (Gal. 3:2). The difference between a synagogue and a Christian church should be as evident as light is from darkness.” I am reminded, here, of Christ’s self-describing words that he is the Light of the world (John 8:12; 12:46; 1 John 2:8; Ps. 36:9). The Light ever and always is the point of our exposition.
Therefore, great care ought to be given in how that exposition is conducted. The articulation of God’s Word is the central ministry and sole authority of God’s church. It is specifically the ministry of preaching that God has ordained to manifest his Word and change lives. Those, then, whose duty it is to expound that Word aren’t given leeway to be flippant with their exposition. “There is but one right way of preaching,” writes the Puritan Thomas Adam,3 “which is to speak the plain truth of the gospel plainly.” Michael Cooper, writing for The Center for Baptist Renewal, articulates this quite well in an article entitled, “Retrieving Sacramental Preaching,” in which he takes an extended look at the Genevan reformer John Calvin’s “high view” of preaching. Cooper writes:
Preaching, therefore, makes known the Word of the living God through human lips by the agency of the Spirit, effectively unites believers to Christ, communicates divine grace to those who receive it by faith, and actualizes the presence of Christ by offering Christ to the hearers.
The Word of God is still paramount in the church’s worship. Or it ought to be. Nothing comes before the Word. There is nothing that has greater value than the opening and preaching of God’s Word. It’s preeminence in the life of the church and the churchgoer cannot be renegotiated. We read and recite it. We sing. We gather around it. We study it. We expound it. We rejoice and revel in it. We are convicted by it. We are changed by it. We are sustained by it. It’s through the Word proclaimed that all things concerning our faith are made known. “Preaching communicates Christ,” maintains Cooper in that same article. The Word delivered brings to bear our deliverance. Consequently, if you’re in a church that doesn’t hold high the “preaching event,” that’s something to ponder and pray over.
Grace and peace.
Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 32. This same question, by the way, serves as the operative framework for David M. King’s book Your Old Testament Sermon Needs to Get Saved. Yours truly has a review of that work, that is humbly recommended to you now.
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 100.
Thomas Adam, Private Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects Connected With It (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843), 268.