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Last week, Jerry Vines, a retired Southern Baptist pastor and a key leader in the Conservative Resurgence, commented on  ”gospel-centered preaching”:

We are hearing a great deal these days about gospel-centered preaching. Just what is meant by the terminology? In some circles it is a code-phrase for a particular systematic theology. Others use it to refer merely to evangelistic preaching.

Dr. Vines then turned to 1 Corinthians 15 as a summary statement of the gospel, focusing on the death and resurrection of Christ as the solution to human sin and death. He concluded by saying:

Gospel-centered preaching is declaring the cross and the empty tomb. If a preacher declares those twin towers of God’s provision for the two mountains of man’s misery, he is a gospel-centered preacher!

A few weeks ago, one of the questions for the panel at Band of Bloggers concerned the phrase “gospel-centered,” and whether or not this adjective was becoming merely a catchphrase void of meaningful content. In answer to the question “What does gospel-centered mean?”, I focused on the truth that the gospel is the fuel of the Christian life, not just the ignition that starts the journey.

But Vines’ blog post got me thinking specifically about how gospel-centeredness applies to preaching. It’s true that the gospel announcement focuses on Christ’s substitutionary death and his glorious resurrection. But when we say “gospel-centered,” we’re referring to the centered part as much as the “gospel” itself. We then contrast gospel-centered preaching with preaching that is centered on something else.

Here are some examples:

1. Gospel-centered preaching vs politics-centered preaching

Some pastors continue to give the essence of a gospel presentation and call people to faith, but they are not gospel-centered because the bulk of their preaching focuses on current events and societal transformation.

For example, let’s say you walk into this church during December and you hear a message called “The Battle for Christmas.” The message is about the controversy over saying “Merry Christmas!” or displaying nativity scenes in public. The sermon application is not repentance and faith, but “stand up and take back America!” (The implication is that this change will take place through the political process.)

The gospel may still have a place in this kind of message, but it has been relegated to the final remarks of the invitation. In no way is the message centered on the twin truths of Christ’s death and resurrection.

2. Gospel-centered preaching vs advice-centered preaching

Many pastors focus the majority of their sermons on practical themes like raising a family, managing your finances, or cutting down on stress at work. These messages may also include the news about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but the main focus of the sermon is how to improve your life.

In this kind of preaching, the gospel is viewed as an entryway into the Christian life. The rest of the Christian life is a do-it-yourself model. The gospel ignites the engine of faith, but “do this” and “don’t do that” becomes the main fuel for the Christian life, and these commands (biblical as many of them may be) are disconnected from the gospel that brings transformation.

In the end, we wind up with a Christianized version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The focus is on what we need to do, but these imperatives are disconnected from the truth of what Christ has done.

(Note: Imperatives are not bad; they are biblical! But they should always be grounded in the indicatives of what Christ has done for us on the cross.)

3. Gospel-centered preaching vs evangelism-centered preaching

One might wonder how I can separate evangelism-only sermons from gospel-centered preaching, since it should be assumed that evangelism-only sermons are gospel-centered. (I wish that were the case, but too often I have heard “evangelistic” sermons that focus very little on the death and resurrection of Christ.) Even if the evangelistic sermon does center on the evangel, I think we still mean something when we speak of “gospel-centered preaching,” since the latter generally refers to a steady diet of sermons.

Gospel-centered preaching will, of course, be evangelistic, but it is driven by the realization that Christians need the gospel too. It’s not that the lost need to hear the gospel and now Christians need to move on to something deeper. It’s that the lost need the gospel and Christians need to move deeper into that gospel as well.

The gospel saves us (once and for all) from the penalty of our sin. But a continual exposure to the gospel is the means by which Christ delivers us from the power of sin and prepares us for the day we will be delivered from the presence of sin as well.

4. Gospel-centered preaching vs virtue-centered preaching

Sometimes, preachers mine the Old Testament looking for characters to make examples of, whether good or bad.

  • “Dare to be a Daniel.”
  • “Fight the giants in your life like David.”
  • “Build up your leadership skills like Nehemiah.”

While these sermons may indeed be helpful, they are generally not what we mean by “gospel-centered,” in that they are largely disconnected from the overarching story of the Scripture that is pointing to Christ.

It is true that the Old Testament characters are given to us as an example, but it is also true that they are about Jesus. So David is more than an example of courage; he is foreshadowing the lowly Jesus who will defeat the Evil One and set prisoners free. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are more than an example of steadfast resolve; their faith unto death represents a vibrant hope in resurrection and restoration, which is the culmination of the Grand Story of Scripture.

Gospel-centered preaching takes the Old Testament texts and, while not ignoring helpful truths learned from the lives of these saints, connects them to Christ.

What do you think? What are some other descriptions that come to mind when you think of “gospel-centered” preaching?

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9 thoughts on “Gospel-Centered Preaching”

  1. Trevin, these contrasts are quite helpful. Reflection on genuine “gospel-centeredness” is long overdue.

  2. Derick Harper says:

    Turn to the “church channel” on local cable TV & one typically finds all of these types of preaching rather than true gospel-centered preaching. In my experiences I would say the order from most frequent to least would be 2, 4, 3, 1. My pastor likes to refer to #2 as Home Depot preaching; “You can do it, we can help!”

  3. John Gardner says:

    Excellent distinctions, Trevin. Thank you for sharing!

    One related question that I’d be interested to hear you (and others) address is: What is the Christian layperson to do when he realizes that he is in a church with preaching that is not gospel-centered? How can individual church members (particularly in a congregationally-governed church) help to influence a revitalization of gospel-centrality in a church that seems set in its ways? Are there alternatives to simply seeking another church?

  4. dave says:

    Faith banqueting on grace.
    Present faith banqueting on beginning grace.

  5. The church must understand that a gospel-centered message makes the church relevant.
    Great post.

  6. Josh C says:

    John poses a great question.

    Excellent post, Trevin. When I think of Gospel-centered, I think of “indicative informs the imperative” (as you wrote), or of “if Christ is not risen, could I still preach this message as is?”.

  7. Theresa says:

    You failed to mention gospel-centered preaching vs. preacher-centered preaching LOL!

    Many times have I heard half the sermon or more about the preacher’s personal experiences.

  8. jerry cichon says:

    Jesus never told the disciples to preach the gospel of christ, he told them to preach the Kingdom of God?

  9. Jeremy W says:

    I’d like to echo John Gardner and request a follow-up aimed at people who have come to realize they are in a church where the preaching is not gospel centered. My wife and I are in a church that is increasingly focused on advice-centered preaching. We are struggling with our future in this church. We don’t want to church-hop and we’re not sure how leaving would affect friends we’ve brought into this church. I would appreciate any guidance you can give to us and others in this position.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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