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."
Chapell identifies three common problems with sermon application: closing charges to "be like," "be good," and "be disciplined." While this problem pops up in sermons about Jesus, Old Testament character stories are also ripe for abuse. Clowney cites perhaps the most famous example of sub-Christian moralizing from the Old Testament: "We dare not preach David's encounter with Goliath as an example of bravery to be emulated in our conflicts with the 'giants' that assault us. Such an approach trivializes the Old Testament revelation." Such a sermon trivializes the Old Testament because it does not understand David as a "type" pointing toward the brave Son of God who endured the Cross and conquered the giant of sin and death in his Resurrection.
Though Christ-centered preaching may offer a necessary corrective to moralism, some scholars wonder if momentum has swung too far in the opposite direction. In particular, theologians specializing in the Old Testament fear that Christ-centered preaching ignores the diverse biblical genres and applications. The Bible speaks to us in many different ways, but we lose this variety if every sermon ends with Christ. Besides, even the New Testament leaders, including Christ himself, employ the Old Testament in different ways. Writing in the spring 2009 edition of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Jason Hood offers such cautions with his article, "Christ-Centered Interpretation Only? Moral Instruction from Scripture's Self-Interpretation as Caveat and Guide" (summarized here by Patrick Schreiner).
Hood's major concern is that the positive push to interpret Christ in all the Scripture has led pastors and scholars to sometimes overlook and even belittle moral instruction. In response, Hood cites several New Testament examples to make the case for moral instruction. Writing in Romans 15:4, the apostle Paul says, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Similarly, he writes in 1 Corinthians 10:6, "Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did." According to Hood, these passages show that Christians don't just see Jesus in the Old Testament. They also see themselves. Paul says the Old Testament offers believers encouragement and warning.
Surveying the New Testament, Hood finds several examples of the exhortation some Christ-centered interpreters denigrate. Chastising the selfish Corinthians, Paul shows them Christ's way of self-sacrifice (1 Cor. 2:2). The "hall of faith" in Hebrews 11:2-12:4 showcases Old Testament believers worthy of imitation. And who can forget Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which he concludes, "Go and do likewise." After amassing this evidence, Hood writes, "Claims that we only teach and preach Christ and that every sermon must be focused squarely on Christ are misguided."
Hood acknowledges that a compelling apology for the Christ-centered interpretation comes from the road to Emmaus: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Still, Hood wants interpreters to proceed with caution. Luke notes only that many passages testify to Christ, not that every passage leads to Christ.
Hood is right that not every passage is specifically about the person of Jesus Christ. But the Emmaus story, and Luke's subsequent story about Jesus' appearance to the disciples (Luke 24:44-47), demonstrate the power of understanding how all Scripture somehow testifies to Christ. Between his resurrection and ascension, Jesus taught his disciples to read the Old Testament in a new, Christ-centered way. Suddenly, they began to understand how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies, just as he had promised before his death. With guidance from the Holy Spirit, they finally grasped the gospel, why Jesus came, died, and rose from the dead. And when they saw the unexpected beauty of God's plan of redemption, they were transformed. Moral exhortation reminds believers of their obligations. But only the gospel empowers them to be good, be disciplined, and be like Christ.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site, including:
A Violent, Vicious Cycle | Who will deliver us from despair and death? (November 2, 2009)
Sheffield's Biblical Studies Program Survives | Student protests save department founded by F. F. Bruce. (October 15, 2009)
Transcending the Worship Wars | Bryan Chapell urges Christians to move past musical preferences toward Christ-Centered Worship. (September 21, 2009)