What Makes Preaching/Teaching Christian?

Trevin Wax, at LifeWay, has a post up about the gospel and making Jesus central, and he is asking a good question:

What makes preaching or teaching distinctively Christian?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — There has been a lot of talk in recent years about making the Gospel announcement of Jesus Christ front and center in our preaching and teaching. As our society becomes increasingly post-Christian, it is critical for us to not assume lost people know who God is, what He is like, and what He has done for us. We need to be clear in what we teach, with a laser-like focus on Jesus Christ our Savior.

But how do we make sure that Jesus is center-stage in our church? How do we keep other things from taking His place in our sermons, our Sunday School classes or our small groups? In other words, how do we maintain Christ-centeredness when there are so many other good things vying for our attention and time?

In his second point, he goes directly at this question: What do you think?

2. What is distinctively Christian about the way I am addressing the topic/passage?

Here’s the question that will lead you back to the Gospel. The distinctively Christian thing about Christianity is Jesus and His grace. It’s the good news about how He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave on the third day. So how do we ensure that our preaching and teaching gets to Jesus? I suggest three follow-up questions under this one.

— Is there anything about my treatment of this Old Testament text that a faithful Jew could not affirm?

If we preach the story of Moses, for example, without ever pointing forward to our Passover Lamb (Jesus Christ), then we are preaching the Old Testament much like a rabbi, not like a Christian herald of the Gospel. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus told His disciples that the Old Testament pointed to Him. The Baptist Faith and Message says “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ.” So when we preach from the Old Testament, it’s imperative that we point people forward to the Messiah.

— Is there anything about my treatment of this New Testament text that a Mormon could not affirm?

LifeWay’s Ed Stetzer often says that this is one of the questions he asks of every sermon he preaches. The issue isn’t whether or not you talk about Jesus. Mormons talk about Jesus. Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about Jesus. Self-help preachers talk about Jesus. The question here is about how we present Jesus. Is He Savior and Lord? Or is He just a helper? Is He God in the flesh? Or is He just a good teacher? We must make sure we do not present Jesus only as a moral example, but that we present Him as the only Savior, the One who calls for repentance and faith.

— Is there anything in my application that an unbeliever off the street would be uncomfortable with?

We’re not asking this question from the seeker-sensitive perspective that wants to alleviate any discomfort. We’re asking this question from the perspective of the pastor who wants to make sure that application goes beyond “be nice.”

In other words, if the application at the end of your message is “Husbands, love your wives,” we should ask: Would an unbeliever have a problem with that? Probably not. We could survey people from different religions and they’d probably agree that husbands ought to love their wives. So how do we tighten up this application to focus on Jesus? By doing what Paul did. By saying, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” When we tell people to forgive, we ought to ground it in the Gospel: forgiving one another, “as Christ loved and forgave you.” When we tell people to be generous, we ought to ground it in the Gospel: “for Christ, though He was rich, became poor for your sakes.” Ground your application in the Gospel.

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  • John W Frye

    I like Trevin’s suggestions in this post. I’d add a thought I picked up from Peter Enns about the use of the Old Testament and the church. Enns suggests that we not only read, let’s say, Exodus and then fast forward to the New Testament fulfillment, but we let the New Testament fulfillment in Christ actually be the “lens” through which we now read Exodus. So we don’t just look forward from Exodus “to” Christ, we look back to Exodus “through” Christ. I don’t think Trevin would disagree with this idea.

  • Scot McKnight

    John, that’s sometimes called “christotelic” reading and fits in the “regula fidei” approach to reading the Bible.

  • RJS

    “The distinctively Christian thing about Christianity is Jesus and His grace. It’s the good news about how He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave on the third day”

    Yes this is a distinctively Christian message, and an essential part of the Christian message – but I don’t think it is the full distinctively Christian message. Without God’s grace through Jesus we go no further – but if we go no further we’ve lost. I don’t think anything in the NT stops here.

    In practice Trevin probably agrees, but perhaps not. Or perhaps I am misinterpreting what he means.

    I also struggle a bit with the idea that we should test the message of every OT passage against the question “Is there anything about my treatment of this Old Testament text that a faithful Jew could not affirm?” There are certainly OT texts where the faithful Jewish and Christian treatments would be no different. We look back to the OT “through” Christ as John noted, but this is not quite the same as the critera Trevin gives.

  • Drew

    I like to extend the central message of the gospel. It helps me to consider the birth, life, death, resurrection and impending return of Jesus as I read Scripture

  • Nathan

    I think distinctively Christian preaching is great. But I don’t construct my messages around negative distinctions. To me, there’s something fundamentally misguided in pursuing negative criteria to establish a particularly Christian deployment of our sacred text.

    And while I understand what stream Trevin most likely writes from and lives in, none of us (even SBCers) really need the BFM to tell us that Christ is the singular witness of scripture. I’ve got the Fathers, they’re way better. We’ve also got the Reformers too. Just saying’….evangelicals need to learn about those wells and drink from those wells first.

  • Matt Edwards

    I disagree that we always have to do this. (This is probably the Dispensationalist in me talking.)

    For example, I preached on Proverbs 30:8–9, 18:10–11, and 14:31 last Sunday. We were talking about wisdom and wealth, and a non-Christian Jew could have affirmed just about everything I said. (At the very end, I said that we should be generous because God is generous and I tied that to the Gospel. Also, during the Lord’s Supper we read 2 Cor 8:9. Those are probably the only parts that a non-Christian Jew would not have affirmed.)

    I don’t read anywhere in which the Scriptures tell us that we have to preach that way. I usually let the OT speak for itself and explain what it tells us about God. Jesus said a lot of things that his contemporaries would have accepted, even if they didn’t believe his Christological claims about himself.

  • Keith Whitaker

    Perhaps a fourth is in order: is there anything in the message that makes the Christian in the pew uncomfortable? Seems fitting to me. Jesus spent most of his preaching shaking God’s people out of their comforts.

    I believe we do need to be clear about what we preach, “with a laser like focus” on Jesus. Amen to that. However, the truth is the majority of the people we preach to in church know the Christian story. Their default is faith in Jesus, his death and resurrection. With this as the foundation, the assumption of (most, but not all) our audience, I believe we have room to use our preaching time to stimulate thinking about following Jesus without brining every same to the same “laser-like focus.”

  • I agree that the gospel announcement of Jesus needs to be a part of our preaching but I also know that one can announce the gospel of Jesus and still completely miss the gospel. I want my preaching to call people into the gospel story of Jesus so that they not only believe in Jesus but that Jesus’ way of life, with his particular beliefs and values, becomes our (the church) way of life.

  • David Dollins

    I totally agree with Mr. Wax’s assessment.

  • I don’t think every sermon needs to do this every time. My intern was recently preparing to preach and asked me how to connect the passage to Jesus. I told her I didn’t think she needed to because that wasn’t the point of the text.

    The purpose of preaching is to help the congregation enter the whole story of God. And yes, the story of Jesus is the story of God. But Jesus does not need to be explicitly mentioned every time–especially if it’s a forced connection. Over the course of several months and years–if the preacher is being faithful to scripture–the congregation will experience the story of God and will more fully understand how Jesus fits into the story and how they, themselves fit into God’s story.

  • Bill

    “We must make sure we do not present Jesus only as a moral example, but that we present Him as the only Savior, the One who calls for repentance and faith.”

    I agree with Wax. But if I may, I think we can go one step farther. Preaching about Jesus is one thing. Preaching about Jesus being a certain type of person, like Lord, Savior, Redeemer, etc. is another. But effectively introducing Jesus, as that Person, as a Person, is the significant challenge of the proclaimer and it is done through the power of the Holy Spirit. The preacher introduces the facts but above all introduces the person of Christ to all his/her listeners.

    The preacher in effect, does the telling and introducing and God reveals. Kind of scary in a way especially if you think you know Christ.

  • James Rednour

    Isn’t this the Redemptive Historical method of preaching? I agree it’s always good to look at the OT stories and try to determine how they point towards Jesus, but sometimes that method just doesn’t seem to fit (How does the story of Samson or even Esther point to Jesus?). At that point, there are two options: 1) ignore the passages that don’t point to Jesus or 2) discuss those passages on their own terms (e.g. what morals they teach, or what they reveal about God’s character).

    So I think our focus should always be on Jesus and the cross first, but for some passages of the Bible that focus doesn’t work.

  • Bill

    #12 Hey James! If you want to go this route…I think you can direct and introduce people to Jesus with people like Samson and Esther. For instance, Samson’s vow gave him the strength, not really his hair. Look at the strength provided to Jesus because of his own vow to do the Father’s will. Esther interceded for her people. Doesn’t Jesus intecede for us as our High Priest?

    You can fill in the rest.

  • Brent Reese

    Keith (#7), great addition.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I affirm almost all of Trevin’s assertions. Yet I find them disturbing. Perhaps this is because I find them restricting. “Every time we preach we must…” Some of the best, aka most effective, preaching that I have heard, particularly on the OT, is deeply based in Rabbinic readings and has very little of Christ in it. I have also encountered too many people in situations of weakness where I do not believe that Christ is necessarily what they need to hear at that moment.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • I like what John Frye says, that we look back at the OT through the lens of Christ. This is how you are able to present the whole counsel of God. I’m Catholic and I find that the OT reading often fits beautifully with a point Jesus is making in the Gospel reading. Also, I just listened to Tim Keller’s sermon (available at no charge on itunes) on Jacob, Rachel and Leah -where Tim provides a great example of this kind of teaching.

  • MatthewS

    I appreciate this word from Trevin. The zeitgeist at TGC is towards gospel-centered, all gospel all the time. I have seen that done in stilted ways and sometimes unfair to genre and the passage at hand, therefore I receive this with a slight hesitation.

    However, I am deeply convinced of the need for us not to fail to point our people towards God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is our necessary source of life.

    There are pastors who seem to eschew practical application. They tell stories and communicate facts, they inform, perhaps they entertain, perhaps they provoke to some thought, but it seems to me that over the course of time, they may fail to accomplish what one has called “communicating for a change.”

    I find another temptation in reaction to the first, which is to accidentally fall into moralism. Taken to extreme, this actually strays into spiritual abuse when people feel pressured to try harder and do more, a load of obligation and guilt on their shoulders.

    Paul told us to “walk worthy of our calling” (Eph 4:1) but this walk is about walking in the Spirit, plugged into our source of life. Obviously our walk will have external aspects but those outward actions come from what’s on the inside. The church is not supposed to be a big board of Olympic judges, meeting out scores and deductions as people try harder to do more. Further, the distinctive of our Christian message is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This fact is followed up by the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Almost all religions, including the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, offer ways for us to be better people.

    A consistent message from the pulpit about how to be a better (or happier, healthier, wealthier, wiser) person may be a good religious or self-help message, and it might even be helpful to people, but if the consistent message from the pulpit fails to rely on the distinctives of the Christian faith, then that message fails to be distinctively Christian. It could be sent from any place of religion (or self-help seminar as the case may be).

    I think this is part of what Paul is getting at in Col 2 (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=col%202&version=NIV). Touch not, taste not, handle not – these sorts of religious rules fail to change the heart. But heart change is possible because of the death and new life of Jesus Christ.

  • I have to agree about our messages pointing to Christ – Paul said He taught Christ crucified. How do you force a message to Jesus – it’s all centered around Him. I can’t think of one message I’ve given in 20 years that did not point back to Christ. Why else preach?

    Also, an earlier comment stated that the pastor did not preach negative content or messages. If by that he means, hell, sin, dying to one self, the crucifixion, the blood; those subjects, then I would ask how a message can convict people’s hearts, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Unless people see themselves as having sin and needing to die to those sins that remain in them, how will they change? Teaching light, happy stuff tickles ears, but it doesn’t change hearts. Paul and Jesus both taught the negative stuff, and it worked.