A Gospel-Centered Sermon is a Gospel-Shining Sermon
Does The Princess Bride qualify as a classic movie? If memorable lines count for anything, absolutely! One of the classic lines is spoken by the beloved Inigo Montoya, who is confused by Vizzini’s repeated exclamation: “Inconceivable!” Montoya finally replies, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
When I consider the often-repeated descriptor of preaching as “gospel-centered,” I hear Inigo Montoya. We keep using that word, and I do not think it means what we think it means. So, come now, let us reason together.
DENIALS ABOUT GOSPEL-CENTERED PREACHING
A short list of denials may help to sharpen the boundaries of our understanding:
- It should be denied that preaching is gospel-centered merely because the sermon was based on the Bible. There is a way of preaching the Bible—even verse-by-verse, even the parts about Jesus—that is damning. The priests and Levites were masters of Scripture, yet Jesus rebuked them for having missed its Christocentric witness (John 5:39-40).
- It should be denied that preaching is gospel-centered merely because the sermon comforted people with grace. Gospel grace not only comforts but compels. It justifies and sanctifies. It grounds us in indicatives and grows us with imperatives: You are forgiven; now go and sin no more.
- It should be denied that preaching is gospel-centered merely because the sermon included a reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners. Certainly Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners is the core of the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Yet a dutiful summary of that message, as if it were an item on a checklist or an obligatory footnote—surely that is not what we mean by gospel-centered preaching.
AN IMAGE OF GOSPEL-CENTRALITY
The word “centered” is one of the culprits of our confusion. What exactly does “centered” mean in relation to preaching the good news of Jesus? Let me suggest an image. We should desire for the gospel to be central to our sermons the way the sun is central to our solar system. In our solar system, everything circles the sun and is brightened and warmed by it. The sun’s enormous mass creates a gravitational pull that holds the entire system together. The sun’s radiant light and heat reaches every object in its orbit.
So it should be with the gospel in our sermons. Christ the Savior is the sun, and the Bible is the solar system. Every passage, every doctrine, every theme—all of it orbits the saving work of Jesus. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection brighten and warm the whole of God’s revelation, as well as the people in the pews and the preacher himself. The degree to which a sermon reflects these realities is the degree to which a sermon is centered on the gospel.
In a gospel-centered sermon, the gospel is like the sun, pulling every facet of the preaching event into its orbit, radiating light and heat on it all. A gospel-centered sermon is a gospel-shining sermon.
Comparing preaching to our sun-centered solar system is imaginatively helpful, but we need to get a little more practical. Is there a way to evaluate how well we have done in centering a sermon on the gospel? What follows are three diagnostic questions that can help us evaluate our sermons. These questions, essentially, are affirmations in contrast to our earlier denials.
(1) Did the gospel shine like the sun upon the text of the sermon?
The main point of the text was proclaimed in light of the gospel. Whether having to do with creation, gender, covenant, temple, sacrifice, holiness, judgment, blessing, curse, purity, prayer, marriage, singleness, unity, justice, mission, Father, Spirit, whatever—the main point of the text was preached with a clear grasp of how the death and resurrection of Jesus fulfills it or reshapes it or enables it or empowers it. In short, the main point of the text was seen in clear relation to the saving work of Jesus. No truly gospel-centered sermon would be met with approval in a synagogue or a mosque.
(2) Did the gospel shine like the sun upon the life of the hearer?
The gospel illuminated not only the text’s point but the hearer’s life. Gospel-centrality shone on both interpretation and application. People were called to live in response to the gospel. In light of the grace of God in Christ, unbelievers were urged to repent and believe and be saved. In light of the grace of God in Christ, believers were encouraged to put off their old self, to be renewed in their minds, and to put on the new self. The life-transforming light of grace shines in a truly gospel-centered sermon. Gospel-imperatives arise from gospel-indicatives, and neither should be neglected.
(3) Did the gospel shine like the sun upon the heart of the preacher?
An honorable mention of the gospel is far better than no mention of the gospel at all. However, in a truly gospel-centered sermon, the preacher himself has been gripped by the gospel implications of the text. He himself has seen the light and felt the warmth of the sun, and so he stands before the congregation feeling less like Pluto and more like Mercury. He himself is exulting in Christ. Consequently, the preacher is earnest in his desire for the congregation to join him in his joy. He proclaims the gospel not as a lede to be buried but as headline news.
This is gospel-centered preaching at its best: preaching in which the gospel shines like the sun from the text, on the hearers, and in the preacher. The only thing inconceivable is that gospel-centrality would be defined in lesser terms. So ponder the denials. Run the diagnostics. And learn to preach the gospel like the sun rising “from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:6). A gospel-centered sermon is a gospel-shining sermon.