The Centrality of The Cross In Preaching

How does one practice expository preaching in light of one’s understanding of the larger biblical-theological story of redemption? The answer to that question, of course, relies largely on one’s understanding of the larger biblical-theological story of redemption. In other words, the conclusions drawn by any preacher’s particular views of biblical theology will have a profound impact on the expository preaching practiced by that man. For the sake of this paper then, it is necessary to identify the one theme that the author believes to dominate the story of redemption in the Bible, and that theme is Christ. All of Scripture before the cross builds to that climax and all of Scripture written after the cross looks back to it as the centerpiece of redemption and salvation. The Bible is essentially a book about one thing, Christ and the cross. The purpose of this paper, then, is to show that since Christ on the cross is the climax and centerpiece of Scripture, it must also be at the center of all truly expository preaching.

Richard Baxter once said, “A preacher must be oft upon the same things, because the matters of necessity are few.”[1] Jesus said something similar when asked about the greatest commandment. In reply, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[2] Preaching was once a respected calling, but in recent years, the art of preaching has come under much scrutiny and attack. The calls from many are to make preaching more needs based and consumer driven. However, in response to this call for variety and application, the preacher would do well to remember the words of Baxter and of Christ; for God’s word is a book that testifies to one great thing, and that great thing is the crucifixion of Christ.

The primary goal of preaching should never be to meet the needs of the hearer; instead, “preaching should be driven by a passion for the glory of God,”[3] and God’s glory is supremely displayed upon the cross. Because God is most glorified through the atoning death of his Son on the cross, the crucifixion event should dominate all truly Christian preaching that seeks to glorify God. Needs-driven preaching tends to lean toward one of two dangerous extremes; the preacher becomes either legalistic in his approach or staunchly liberal. The legalistic preacher looks to the wrongs of people and spells out a list of commands and rules from God that all should follow. The liberal minded preacher looks to the perceived needs of his congregation and re-interprets scripture in light of the current situation of his hearers. Rather than focused on the hearer, the sermon should always be focused on the God who created the hearer. John Piper quotes Cotton Mather as saying, “The great design…of a Christian preacher [is] to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.”[4]

On the necessity of gospel-centered preaching, Bryan Chapell writes, in his excellent book, Christ-Centered Preaching:

By exploring how this gospel of redemption pervades all of Scripture, this book also establishes theological principles for redeeming the expository sermon from the well-intended but ill-conceived legalism that characterizes too much evangelical preaching. Christ-centered preaching replaces futile harangues for human striving with exhortations to obey God as a loving response to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ and in thankful dependence on the divine enablement of his Spirit. True holiness, loving obedience, spiritual strength, and lasting joy flow from this precise and powerful form of biblical exposition.[5]

Further, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It is clear, however, that Paul wrote about much more than the life and death of Jesus Christ. In his writings, he writes about his life and the lives of his fellow Christians. But, Goldsworthy shows that Paul’s purpose in 1 Corinthians was to repudiate the worldview of the “pagan, the philosopher, and even the Jew who attempts to get a handle on reality apart from the truth that is in Christ.”[6] Goldsworthy further shows, “the reason for this Christ-centeredness is so that the faith of his readers ‘might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:5).”[7] Therefore, the necessity of preaching Christ as the central theme of Scripture is for grounding the sermon in the truth of God and not the perceptions of human beings.

Of course, the commitment to Christ-Centered preaching should never be a commitment to misinterpreting Scripture; rather it is the commitment to rightly interpret Scripture. Kaiser writes, “every sermon which aspires to be at once both Biblical and practical…must be derived from an honest exegesis of the text and it must constantly be kept close to the text.”[8] Piper writes, “In the cross of Christ, God has undertaken to overcome both obstacles to preaching. It overcomes the objective eternal obstacle of God’s righteous opposition to human pride. And it overcomes the subjective, internal obstacle of our proud opposition to God’s glory.”[9] In like manner, Goldsworthy illustrates that without Christ, even the Old Testament is not applicable to the Christian life: “While the temptation in preaching will be strong to proceed directly from the godly Israelite to the contemporary believer…there is no direct application apart from the mediation of Christ.”[10] Thus, Christ-Centered preaching is not the easy way out of difficult exegesis, rather it is the hard work that must be done by any serious preacher who claims to herald the truths of God’s word, because God’s word is Christ-centered.

Expository preaching that is cross-centered is only possible, however, if preaching is actually taking place. For many in the emerging church preaching has quickly fallen out of vogue. In an attempt to satisfy the wants and perceived needs of hearers, these emergent pioneers are anxious to rid themselves of the classic preaching event. Darren Rowse, a church planter in Australia writes:

At Living Room after 4 months we are yet to have a ‘sermon’ (in the traditional sense of the word), there have been no monologues and nothing that resembles preaching in the sense that I’ve previously seen it in the churches that I’ve worked. The only times I give a sermon these days is when I’m guest speaking at a church or a camp — and even then it often ends up more like a brawl (workshop might be a more correct way of saying it) than a ‘sermon’.
Having said that, there has been a lot of group learning, teaching and exploring. Scripture has been opened and expounded virtually every week. People have been challenged and stretched by God through the worlds of those sitting around the table with them. Whilst some weeks I do prepare something for the group to grapple with, most weeks the group itself is responsible for each coming prepared to participate in the learning experience.
[11]

The same blog lists a comment by a different author that mirrors many of the same concepts.

We’re planning to avoid the sermon format. We’ve found that it’s even more boring for one person to talk in a small group than it is in a large group. There is a wealth of alternative formats to use – from ancient practices to modern education workshop formats. No reason for one person to A) Spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of things to say to his peers B) Ignore the contributions others are ready to make.[12]

But preaching is a necessity. D. Martin Lloyd Jones writes, “preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called…the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.”[13] There are great things to be learned from the emergent tradition, such as the necessity of maintaining relevance and authenticity in one’s preaching. One emergent author writes, “if the lives of Christian leaders are not modeling authenticity, including an honest self-awareness of their sexual sins, how can what they’re preaching be good news?”[14] Authenticity by the pastor or preacher is an absolute necessity and it is good for all ministers to be reminded of that requirement, but it is hardly a new concept with the emerging church. Phillips Brooks famously said, “Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.”[15] In Lectures To My Students, Spurgeon quotes John Owen as saying, “No man preaches his sermons well to others if he doth not first preach it to his own heart.”[16] Spurgeon goes on to say that “it is a horrible thing to be an inconsistent minister.”[17] Thus, the call to authenticity in and out of the pulpit is a long standing exhortation from pastors to pastors. It is good to hear this charge echoed through the emergent church, but it must be recognized that the call for authenticity and relevance in application did not begin there.

Critics of the emergent movement are quick to point out that one must be cautious in one’s attempts at relevance. William H. Willimon, Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, comments:

Sometimes in leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear that we may have fallen in! When, in our sermons, we sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the new modern world, the traffic was only moving in one direction on that interpretive bridge. It was always the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like “This relates to me,” or, “I’m sorry, this is really impractical,” or, “I really can’t make sense out of that.” It was always the modern world telling the Bible what’s what.I don’t believe that the Bible wants to “speak to the modern world.” Rather, I think the Bible wants to change, convert the modern world.[18]

Changing and converting the world is exactly what the cross of Christ was intended to do. Application is essential in the sermon, even the great John Broadus writes, “The application in a sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it, but is the main thing to be done.”[19] The application of the sermon is precisely the change that is mentioned above by Willimon and is wrought by the cross of Christ. Preaching should have God’s glory as its primary motive, but God is glorified not only through the preaching event, but through the application of his word to the lives of the sermons hearers. So important is application in the sermon that Vines and Shaddix consider the motive of preaching to be positive response;

The preaching event is driven by the desire to see people respond positively to God’s word…biblical truth innately demands a response. It was not given for the purpose of trivial consideration or entertainment. God’s Word was intended to be acted upon.[20]

So, how does one practice expository preaching in light of one’s understanding of the larger biblical-theological story of redemption? One practices expository preaching by submitting one’s exegesis and exposition to the authority of God’s redemption. Unless God is schizophrenic, God cannot and will not change. God is a redeeming God and his redemption through Christ on the cross is the overarching theme of Scripture. Thus, all preaching, teaching, devotion, and study must be done in light of God’s work through Christ on the cross. A hymn by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend captures the essence of Christ-centered theology and preaching well:

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.[21]

The Westminster Catechism asks the question, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” If that is indeed the chief end of man, then it ought also to be the chief end of the sermon. Expository preaching should prompt men and women of all ages to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The only path toward that glorification and enjoyment is Christ. He is the path to reconciliation between God and man. The short answer, then, that sums up the whole of this paper is that one practices expository preaching in light of one’s understanding of the larger biblical-theological story of redemption in and through Christ and his atoning sacrifice on the cross. A great speech may be written and recited that does not focus on Christ, but it will never be a great sermon unless it has Christ at its center.

Footnotes/Bibliography

[1] Richard Baxter. The Reformed Pastor (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 114.
[2] Matthew 22: 37
[3] Jim Shaddix, The Passion Driven Sermon (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 3.
[4] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2004), 26.
[5] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming The Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic Books, 2005), 20.
[6] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 2.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Walter C. Kaiser Jr Toward an Exegetical Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1981), 19.
[9] Piper, 33.
[10] Goldsworthy, 116.
[11] http://www.livingroom.org.au/blog/archives/preaching_the_emerging_church_way.php
[12] Ibid
[13] D. Martin Lloyd Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), 9.
[14] Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007), 266.
[15] Phillips Brooks, The Joy of Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1989), 26.
[16] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1954), 15.
[17] Ibid.
[18] http://willimon.blogspot.com/2007/11/on-not-reaching-our-culture-through-our.html
[19] John A. Broadus, Jesse Burton Weatherspoon, ed, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (New York, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), 210.
[20] Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit: How to Prepare and Deliver Expository Sermons (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 1999), 26.
[21] Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend, In Christ Alone, 2001.