In recent years, there has been a rapidly growing interest in gospel-centered preaching. With the help of the internet and its resources, many preachers like myself have been transformed by the examples of Tim Keller, Art Azurdia, Anthony Carter, and countless others. We have come to believe, like them, that every sermon should faithfully connect that week's text and theme to the gospel. Those of us who hold to this philosophy do so because it is consistent with Jesus’s teaching in Luke 24 and with the ministry approach modeled by the apostles throughout the New Testament.
Yet, as with any philosophy, it is often easier to believe in theory than to implement in practice. Here are three ways those committed to gospel-centered preaching can unintentionally fail to preach the gospel.
1. Preaching Jesus ≠ Preaching the Gospel
One can preach about Jesus every week and never touch the gospel. On the surface this sounds ridiculous, since the message of the gospel is the good news of who Jesus is (God in human flesh) and what Jesus has done (lived sinlessly, died sacrificially, rose victoriously, and ascended finally to the Father’s right hand). Yet it is surprisingly easy to talk about Jesus without mentioning his redemptive work. This happens when we focus on his perfect life without focusing on the fact that he lived it as our substitute, not merely as our example.
It is surprisingly easy to talk about Jesus without mentioning his redemptive work.
These Jesus-centered sermons tell us to love like Jesus, forgive like Jesus, tell the truth like Jesus, pray like Jesus, disciple like Jesus, obey like Jesus, and so forth. Yet these Jesus-centered sermons are not gospel-centered sermons; they are the opposite. They are morality-centered sermons. They leave us with the burden of imitating Jesus to please God, instead of the joy of knowing Jesus has already pleased God for us.
Gospel-centered sermons can certainly include calls for believers to imitate Jesus, but not in place of calling them to trust him as Redeemer. Only those who know their disobedience has been covered by Jesus’s obedience will ever have the proper motivation (gratitude) and power (the Holy Spirit) to obey.
2. Preaching About the Gospel ≠ Preaching the Gospel
One can also preach about the gospel every week and never once preach the gospel. To preach the gospel, one must proclaim the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done, inviting Christians and non-Christians alike to trust in this message and receive the countless benefits that result. Yet many who are theoretically committed to gospel-centered preaching often use the word “gospel” to summarize all of the above without actually proclaiming any of the above.
These sermons tell us we need to believe the gospel, preach the gospel, live in light of the gospel, be a gospel-centered church, and find the gospel in all of Scripture. What they do not tell us is what the gospel is. As a result, they are not really gospel-centered. They leave people with the burden of doing something with the gospel, instead of the joy of actually hearing it.
Of course gospel-centered sermons can talk about the gospel and what we should do with it. But they cannot do so as a substitute for actually proclaiming it. For the power of God that both saves and sanctifies is not found in our commitment to the gospel, nor in our endless words about the gospel, but in the actual content of the gospel itself.
3. Preaching Grace ≠ Preaching the Gospel
One benefit of the emphasis on gospel-centered preaching has been a deeper understanding of God’s grace. The church is growing in its awareness that both salvation and sanctification are gifts fully purchased by Jesus’s work and freely given to God’s people. This is wonderful! What is not so wonderful is that this increasing appreciation for the grace of God can lead to sermons that proclaim grace without ever proclaiming the gospel.
These grace-centered sermons tell us that God forgives us, God accepts us, God loves us, and God blesses us in spite of the fact that we’ve done nothing to earn it and nothing to maintain it. This is all good and true. Unfortunately the sermons often stop there, and when they do, they fall far short of being gospel-centered. Instead, they become self-centered in one of two ways.
First, grace-centered sermons can become self-centered sermons by proclaiming all the gifts we receive from God without actually proclaiming Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection that makes them possible. As much as God’s forgiveness and acceptance are closely related to the gospel, they are not the gospel. The gospel is focused on what Jesus has achieved, not on what we can receive.
Second, they become self-centered sermons by focusing only on the forgiving grace the gospel supplies, while overlooking the transforming grace the gospel bestows. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection not only make forgiveness possible; this work also makes obedience possible by gifting believers with a new heart, new desires, and new power from the Holy Spirit. True gospel preaching does not limit the gospel’s power to the comfortable message of being accepted and forgiven; it also acknowledges the gospel’s power to make us uncomfortable by transforming us into brand-new people.
No doubt, gospel-centered sermons can and should talk about grace. But they don’t confuse grace with the gospel. For the only way we can ever come to know both the forgiving and also the transforming grace of God is to know the message of Jesus Christ’s saving work.
I'm exceedingly grateful for the renewed commitment to gospel-centered preaching, on the part of both preachers and hearers. But as we preach about Jesus and grace and the gospel, may we also remember to actually preach the gospel.