A Call for Gospel Centered Preaching
God saved me at a conference at which John Piper was speaking in Atlanta in 2001. Through his public ministry, Dr. Piper has been one of the most influential men in my life. Last month, he wrote a post, Should We 'Make a Beeline to the Cross'? A Caution for Gospel Centered Preaching, in which he raised a caution about "gospel-centered" preaching. I have concerns about how many might misunderstand or misuse this post. It is probable that John Piper agrees with much or most of what will follow, therefore, this should be received as more of an addition to the discussion than a rebuttal.
Piper's intentions in his post are not altogether clear. The post contains enough qualifiers or nuance to leave me with the following questions: Does John Piper believe it is appropriate to have sermons with no gospel in them or not cross in them? Is he advocating for sermons that do not have the cross in them if the text does not specifically mention the cross? Is he advocating for sermons that do not have Christ in them if the chosen text does not specifically mention Christ?
Prior to considering what the Scripture teaches about preaching the cross, I want to start with some points of agreement with truths that Piper affirms in his post.
First, no text of Scripture should be treated quickly or superficially. Second, We should not give a mere nod to any portion of Scripture. Third, all Scripture is God breathed and profitable that the man of God may be complete. Fourth, we must declare the whole counsel of God.
That being said, I believe that every sermon should contain the person of Christ and the gospel of Christ. Central to the gospel is Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sin. Here are 12 arguments in defense of this thesis.
1. Like Piper, I could not find a source for the beeline quote many have attributed to Spurgeon. However, a cursory reading of Spurgeon's sermons reveal his great love for preaching Christ and Him crucified with incessant frequency. Here are a few Spurgeon quotes that make his views plain on the place of Christ and the gospel in preaching:
In his Sermons to Soul Winners, Spurgeon explained,
"I believe that those sermons which are fullest of Christ are the most likely to be blessed to the conversion of the hearers. Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the gospel. As for myself, brethren, I cannot preach anything else but Christ and His cross, for I know nothing else, and long ago, like the apostle Paul, I determined not to know anything else save Jesus Christ and Him crucified. People have often asked me, "What is the secret of your success?" I always answer that I have no other secret but this, that I have preached the gospel,--not about the gospel, but the gospel,--the full, free, glorious gospel of the living Christ who is the incarnation of the good news. Preach Jesus Christ, brethren, always and everywhere; and every time you preach be sure to have much of Jesus Christ in the sermon."
In Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students, we read,
"Brethren, first and above all things, keep to plain evangelical doctrines; whatever else you do or do not preach, be sure incessantly to bring forth the soul-saving truth of Christ and him crucified." And, "Of all I would wish to say this is the sum; my brethren, preach CHRIST, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme." And, "O that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God."
2. Every sermon in the book of Acts contains the person of Christ and the gospel of Christ, every sermon includes reference to the cross of Christ. The apostolic pattern of preaching is still a pattern of preaching for us today.
3. Every epistle written to God's people by Paul, Peter or the author of Hebrews preeminently centers on the person of Christ and the gospel. This is significant insomuch as that is how we discover what the apostles believed about what should be included in the saints' diet of truth.
4. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). Central to the gospel is the cross. To not preach the gospel, therefore, assumes that there are no unbelievers present in the congregation, or it assumes it is unnecessary for unbelievers who may be present to hear to the gospel.
5. Believers need the gospel because the gospel, produces fruit in the believer's life (Col. 1:5-6). Tim Keller writes, "The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom." In his Commentary on Galatians Martin Luther writes, "Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually."
6. Have you ever wondered why Paul was eager to preach the gospel to Christians? Have you ever wondered why every Spirit inspired writing we have from Paul and Peter to God's people contains in it the the gospel.
7. Since we should take seriously Piper's encouragement not to superficially and quickly deal with any text then we should include with these deep treatments a proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified. Here is what I mean by way of example: Let's say that a preacher's given text for the day is 1 Peter 4:7-9 (the Scripture Piper cited), which deals with self control. Dealing deeply with self-control will bring us face to face with our need for the cross. After a careful treatment on self control, the cross would be a cup of cold water to those of us who have failed to have been as self controlled as we ought--which is all of us. In fact, Peter teaches us that the one who lacks self control and other godly characteristics has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins, which happens at the cross. Peter, therefore, teaches us that we need a reminder of the cleansing provided by Christ crucified (2 Peter 1:4-11).
We are not not arguing for a reductionistic preaching that only speaks about the cross of Christ. Like Paul, we must declare all of God's counsel. However, we can not say we have preached Christ crucified on any given Sunday if we did not preach Christ crucified. Preaching Christ crucified means preaching Christ crucified. Paul wrote, "we preach Christ" and "we preach Christ crucified" (Col. 1; 1 Cor. 2:2) He used words to preach the person of Christ and cross of Christ.
8. No matter how mature a saint is on this side of eternity he never gets past his need to hear the good news of Jesus who died by being crucified. When John the apostle was an aged, mature saint on the isle of Patmos, he had a vision of Jesus. John was in the Spirit on the Lord's day. What did Jesus deem necessary for the mature Apostle to hear while in the Spirit on the Lord's day? Jesus said, "Fear not...I died (Rev. 1:17-18). The solution to the fear every saint deals with is found in Christ's words-- "I died."
9. God's word inextricably, continually and explicitly connects sanctification or the living of the Christ life to the gospel of the cross. We cannot treat sanctification or the Christian life atomistically apart from the cross. The apostles do not separate out these subjects in their writings. They are inseparably connected in Scripture. Many, many examples can be furnished from the NT. Here are a few.
"What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."
"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations."
"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
Ephesians 5:25-26: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her"
10. When we fall short at fulfilling the many imperatives in God's word--as we surely will--we need to hear the good news of the cross. Preaching that leaves off the gospel of the cross is preaching that can assume that God's people have a good enough grip on the gospel, particularly when it comes to applying the cross the our failures in all the imperative sections of Scripture. As Piper has explained, "the only sin that can be repented of is a forgiven sin." The good news is necessary in repentance, which is a consummate part of the Christian life. A non-superficial treatment of any text will bring all of us face to face with our need for repentance and the gospel of the cross. None of us grasps the gospel like we should. Peter, after being discipled by Jesus, after Pentecost, stood condemned because his conduct was not line with the gospel. If this can happen to Peter, it can happen to any of us. We must not assume the gospel of the cross with even the most mature among us. We must not assume the gospel with anyone. Assuming the gospel leads to the loss of the gospel.
11. I am not arguing for anything less in our preaching and teaching than that for which Piper was arguing. I am arguing for more. We must not treat any text quickly and superficially. and we must take care so that we can say with Paul, "we preach Christ crucified." We must ensure that we can say that our sermon had that in it which is the power of God unto salvation. Let's make sure that we can say that our sermon had the gospel which produces fruit in the life of the believer. The cross is made explicit in the apostolic preaching and writing. Shouldn't we follow the pattern of the apostles in our preaching week in and week out?.
12. God also uses the preaching of the cross to stir up the saints to take the gospel to the lost, to the nations. As Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." May our preaching aim to have the saints hearts full of the gospel so that they live it, share it with the lost around them and work for it to go to the nations.
Why would we leave out of any sermon that which is the song and saying of the throne room of God in heavenly, corporate worship: "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation...Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing" (Rev. 5:9; 12)! The cross is not only the means of sanctifying God's people, but the cross is how God glorifies Himself, which is the chief end of all things.
Stephen Burch is the Pastor of Centrality Church in Asheville, NC.