You've just heard a moving sermon about the life and teaching of Christ. The pastor concludes with three points: Be good. Be disciplined. Be like Jesus. You leave church with new resolve to love your neighbor, resist temptation, and read your Bible every day. Then you mutter curses against your neighbor who never mows his lawn. You give in to temptation. You snooze through your alarm and forget to read the Bible. Dejected, you return to church for another stirring exhortation to live like Christ. You fail again. Your faith dwindles. The cycle repeats.
Is it possible that a sermon about Christ might not be Christ-centered? That's the belief of pastors and scholars who advocate Christ-centered biblical interpretation and preaching. They teach that Christians sin when they fail to believe and apply the gospel of Christ's death and resurrection. Moral exhortations to live a more godly life fail to deliver moral transformation.
Many people think Christ-centered preaching is essentially allegorical, the preferred method of many early church interpreters, who found allusions to Christ even in the scarlet cord Rahab hung out her window (Josh. 2:18, 21). But it's really more akin to the law/gospel distinction made by the Reformers. Law brings us under conviction of sin, while gospel points us to the work of Christ and calls on us to trust.Consider the progression of the book of Romans, for example. Paul begins with the problem of sin, then testifies to the work of Christ, and later works out the implications for living in the power of the Holy Spirit.
You'll find Christ-centered theology and application in the books and sermons of Tim Keller. For a brief primer, see the seminar he taught with Ed Clowney, "Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World," a popular download at iTunesU. Or pick up The Prodigal God, where Keller treats Jesus' well-known Prodigal Son parable in surprising ways. He understands Jesus to highlight the resentful older brother so that we will long for a true one.
"Think of the kind of brother we need," Keller writes. "We need one who does not just go to the next country to find us but who will come all the way from heaven to earth. … The point of the parable is that forgiveness always involves a price—someone has to pay. There was no way for the younger brother to return to the family unless the older brother bore the cost himself. Our true elder brother paid our debt, on the cross, in our place."
You'll also see Christ-centered biblical theology in works by Graeme Goldsworthy, who advocates canonical interpretation. The retired Australian scholar teaches that passages must be understood in light of not just their immediate context but the whole Bible. Since Christ is the subject of Scripture, his person and work inform every passage. You'll even find this method in popular children's literature: The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones and The Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm.
And you're much more likely to hear gospel-based sermons these days thanks to one of the most popular preaching textbooks, Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. The Covenant Seminary president laments pastors who undermine Scripture's work of informing and bolstering faith while trying to root their sermons in the Bible.
"Messages that strike at the heart of faith rather than support it often have an identifying theme," Chapell writes. "They exhort believers to 'be' something in order to be loved by God. Whether this equation is stated or implied, inadvertent or intentional, overt or subtle, the result is the same: an undermining of biblical faith. Such damage is usually inflicted by preachers striving to be biblical and unaware of the harm they are causing because they see their ideas supported in the narrow slice of Scripture they are expounding. They can point to the five points for a better marriage in the text."