First Encounters with Christ-centered Preaching
I first encountered Christ-centered preaching, when a substitute preaching professor gave me my first "C" on a sermon in seminary. After crying myself to sleep, I summoned the courage to ask him, "Why?" and was told, "I don't hear the gospel when you preach." That did not compute. I simply concluded that the professor was eccentric, and was grateful when the regular professor returned to give me the better grades I thought I deserved.
I fell in love with Christ-centered preaching years later, as it rescued me from pastoral despair caused by witnessing the powerlessness of my preaching to help struggling people apply Scripture to their lives. God graciously then exposed me to the book also cited by Walt Kaiser (in his previous post in this web conversation) as his earliest exposure to Christ-centered preaching: Sola Scriptura by Sidney Greidanus.
A Pastoral Path
I mention my path because it is somewhat different from the ones previously described by the wonderful theologians who have already contributed to this conversation. Their starting point for examining Christ-centered preaching was primarily exegetical and hermeneutical – seeking faithfully to analyze and interpret texts; mine was pastoral.
I always believed (and still do) that I was preaching the content of specific biblical texts, but my commitment to expounding duty and doctrine seemed often to burden God's people rather than to equip them for lives reflecting the power and priorities of their Savior. Words that spoke powerfully to me of the way out of this dilemma were in Christ's simple but profound admonition: "Apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
Exegesis or Eisegesis?
Christ's words helped me understand that the demands of duty and doctrine were futile without the enabling of the Savior. Then, my question, of course, was how to make sure my preaching included Christ without excluding what the biblical text actually said. That concern is obviously the primary one typically (and often legitimately) leveled at some versions of what is labeled "Christ-centered preaching."
Daniel Block states the concern well in the opening post of this conversation: "Is this exegesis [getting a message out of a text] or eisegesis [getting the text to say what you want it to say]?"
The smoking gun for those with "eisegesis" concerns is the host of allegorical and imaginative word-play sermons (in our time and in previous eras) that manipulate the text into some mention of Christ where such a referent was clearly not the intention of the original author. When the red of Rahab's cloth liquefies into the blood of Christ, and the wood of Noah's ark morphs into the tree of the cross, and the tent pegs of the tabernacle transform into nails in the hands of the One who tabernacled among us – then such exegesis really knows no boundaries and ultimately renders the Bible devoid of determined meaning.
The alternative to trying to make every biblical text mention Jesus is identifying the redemptive context of each text; i.e., where and how does this text function in the unfolding revelation of God's redemptive nature and plan. That plan was announced at the dawn of human history (Gen. 3:15), as God promised to provide a divine way out of the human dilemma created by the fall. All human history and biblical commentary unfolding beyond that point must be interpreted in the light of this promised provision of heavenly origin (as the Savior and Scripture teach us to do; e.g. Matt. 17:1-5; Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39; Acts 10:43; Rom. 3:21-22).
There is not only one way of doing this. David Murray (in an earlier post in this conversation) rightly identifies a weakness in some forms of Christ-centered preaching: "… the tendency to use the same interpretative method in every Old Testament sermon." And he realistically adds, "Unless we … find the right way, we will fail to do justice to the diversity of biblical literature and the intention of the divine author. We will also produce skeptical and even ridiculing hearers."
Better theologians than I can speak to the diversity of legitimate approaches and themes of redemptive interpretation but, as one with more limited skills who is primarily concerned for preachers in local ministry, I have suggested some straightforward approaches in the book Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Baker, 2005).
Here's the essence of what's said there: Many texts clearly describe, prophesy, or typify (set a pattern for) the ministry of Jesus. Straightforward identification of obvious gospel truths is sufficient for redemptive understanding of these texts. However, there are many more texts that prepare for, or reflect upon, Christ's ministry by disclosing aspects of the grace of God that find their completed expression in Jesus.
These "gospel windows" that reveal God's gracious nature and provision may be identified and/or described through a variety of means—for example, identifying how God's Word predicts, preparesfor, reflects, or resultsfrom the person and/or work of Christ. These four categories of gospel disclosure are not meant to be exhaustive or kept rigidly separate, but they do help us explain how all Scripture bears witness to who Christ is and/or what he must do (Kaiser's earlier post nicely quotes Ralph Davis's regarding all Scripture "bearing witness to" Christ, rather than always mentioning him directly; Jn. 5:39).