Why Mature Christians Need Gospel-Centered Preaching
Anwar is one of our elders and a father of three in his 50s. He teaches adult education classes, he leads Bible studies in both English and Arabic, and he meets with a platoon of men weekly at 6:30 a.m. before church for accountability and discipleship. The brother is a shepherding machine. He fearlessly wades into sticky pastoral situations and commands the respect and trust of the congregation.
Deborah has walked with her savior for 58 years. She listens to my sermons with her Bible open, pen in hand. She takes the treasures from the Word into her week to mentor others. Deborah prays like she has a direct line to God. She’s faced many difficulties over the years, but these struggles only drive the stake of her faith deeper into Jesus. Her white hair is a glorious crown of wisdom and maturity.
Do seasoned saints like Anwar and Deborah need gospel-centered preaching? Haven’t they progressed way past the basic truths of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Isn’t proclaiming Christ crucified week after week to them like telling a gourmet chef how to fry an egg, or reminding an ER doctor how to check vital signs? Aren’t we supposed to “leave behind the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1)?1
In my experience, mature believers not only need gospel-centered preaching, but in fact savor it. Here’s four things this type of preaching does for those grown-up in their faith.
1. It connects the Bible.
Mature Christians love the Scriptures. You can sometimes spot the veteran believers at church by the worn Bibles they carry, filled with highlighted pages. But these life-long Scripture students still need help putting their Bibles together. They know the stories, but often they haven’t been shown how all those stories connect to form a single narrative that culminates in Jesus Christ.
They’ve heard sermons, for example, about how to imitate Joseph’s integrity by fleeing sexual temptation. But they often haven’t been shown how Joseph prefigures the betrayal, innocent suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and global salvation of Jesus. They can tell you all about Adam in the garden and draw good morals from the story. But they likely can’t articulate Adam’s royal-priestly calling or map out God’s successive, but unsuccessful, Adamic “reboots” through Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David. They can’t explain how all this climaxes in Jesus, the last Adam, the true Son of God.
Gospel-centered preaching threads together the Bible’s precious texts into a sparkling necklace, and Jesus is the crown jewel in the center. It creates biblical-theological “aha” moments that thrill mature Christians like Anwar and Deborah. Seeing Jesus in all of Scripture is like going through the attic and finding letters or old photos from your beloved grandmother whom you’ve known for years. They help you know her and treasure her all the more by learning more of her story.
2. It inspires spiritual growth.
Anwar and Deborah would be quick to tell you that they haven’t arrived yet spiritually. They have a long way to go. “Mature” and “maturing” aren’t mutually exclusive categories. Even the apostle Paul said of himself:
Not that I have already obtained all this or am already perfect (teleioo), but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature (teleios) think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” (Phil 3:12–15).
According to Paul, mature (teleios) Christians like himself press on to be perfect (teleioo). And what does perfection entail? Perfection is knowing Christ and having a life shaped by his death and resurrection. Paul again:
Indeed I count everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes from faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:8–11).
Even mature believers experience mission drift. The world, the flesh, and the devil distract us from the great aim of knowing Christ. Gospel-centered preaching empowers precisely the kind of Christ-pursuing mindset and sanctification Paul describes by holding Christ up before saints like Anwar and Deborah. We all need someone to stand before us weekly and call us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. The Bible is not ultimately an instruction book for life, or a moral encyclopedia of do’s and don’ts. It’s a great drama, an epic saga in which Jesus Christ is the heroic leading man who’s death and resurrection enables us to know him and be like him.
3. It fosters unity.
The Roman Christians seemed to be mature. Their faith was being proclaimed throughout the whole world (Romans 1:8), and Paul was convinced that they were “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). Yet he was “eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Romans 1:15) and in fact spent the first 11 chapters doing so.
Part of the reason Paul sent this gospel-soaked letter was because the Roman church struggled with unity. Rifts between Jew and Gentile, between the strong and the weak (Romans 14), strained their fellowship. Yes, even mature Christians can struggle to maintain unity. Even proven gospel workers like Euodia and Synthche needed help agreeing (Philippians 4:2–3). I’ve noticed over the years that often the ugliest church splits revolve around conflict between long-time, pillar members.
Regular gospel-centered preaching reminds mature Christians of our unity in Christ. Those who have been reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and resurrection have no excuse to be at odds with one another because the gospel is the power of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 1:16). The gospel destroys walls of hostility and makes one new man out of two (Ephesians 2:13–18). Preaching Christ crucified weekly reminds us that Jesus laid down his rights to serve and save us. That’s why Paul reminded the Romans that both strong and weak Christians should respect one another’s consciences in debatable matters. Christ lived and died for them, and both the strong and weak were trying to live for Christ according to their conscience (Romans 14:1–9).
4. It stokes worship.
Most importantly, gospel-centered preaching fuels awe of Jesus. Our hearts swell with affection for Christ when we see him and his gospel as the center of history, the ground and model of our sanctification, and the source of our unity in the church.
Mature believers need this desperately. Our flesh still craves idols, even after decades of walking with God. Our fear of God leaks. The bonfire of devotion burns low. We living sacrifices keep crawling off the altar. Even the most mature believer can grow numb at Jesus’ worth and take the wonder of our salvation for granted. We need regular exposure to the glory of God as revealed in the cross.
Gospel-centered preaching does just that. If Christ and his saving work is like a perfect, million-carat diamond with thousands of facets, then gospel-centered preaching aims to lift up and slowly turn that diamond before the congregation so that everyone may be dazzled again and again by seeing Jesus’ excellency from different angles.
We gospel preachers have a great privilege. We get to walk every week with the blood-bought people of God—both spiritual babes and spiritual adults—just like Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And like Jesus, we open our Bibles to Moses and all the Prophets and interpret to our hearers from all the Scriptures the things concerning Jesus. And when we do, Jesus exalts himself in their hearts and minds, and they exult in him. And by God’s grace, they will say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).
1 Hebrews 6:1–3 might seem to suggest that the gospel is something that mature Christians leave behind. Jared Wilson ( https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/jared-c-wilson/hebrews-6-teach-move-gospel/ ) and John Piper ( https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-hebrews-tell-us-to-grow-up-beyond-the-gospel ) give helpful responses. It’s also noteworthy that the entire epistle of Hebrews gives us some of the richest, deepest theological reflections on the meaning of Christ’s death in the New Testament. It stretches credulity to think that the writer of Hebrews sees his letter as an elementary doctrine of Christ that should be left behind.