There has been a lot of talk in recent years about making the gospel announcement of Jesus Christ front and center in our preaching and teaching. As our society becomes increasingly post-Christian, it is critical for us to not assume lost people know who God is, what He is like, and what He has done for us. We need to be clear in what we teach, with a laser-like focus on Jesus Christ our Savior.
But how do we make sure that Jesus is center-stage in our church?
How do we keep other things from taking His place in our sermons, our Sunday School classes or our small groups?
In other words, how do we maintain Christ-centeredness when there are so many other good things vying for our attention and time?
As editor of The Gospel Project, I’ve wrestled with this question. It’s one thing to have “core values” like “Christ-centered” and “mission-driven” written on the page. It’s another thing entirely to make sure that these values are actually expressed in the lessons. To help our writers, we’ve put together three big questions we want them to ask of every lesson.
The more I’ve thought about these questions, the more I am convinced that pastors ought to ask these questions of every sermon they preach. Teachers ought to ask these questions of every lesson they prepare. The questions are a helpful guide to keeping Christ as the focus of our ministry.
1. How does this topic/passage fit into the big story of Scripture?
It’s not uncommon anymore for me to talk with lost people who have little, if any, knowledge of the Bible. Surprisingly, I even meet church-goers who know individual Bible stories and some of the morals taught in the Bible, but don’t know how they connect to the gospel. They don’t know the overarching storyline of the Bible that leads from creation, to our fall into sin, to redemption through Jesus Christ, and final restoration.
If we are to live as Christians in a fallen world, we must be shaped by the grand narrative of the Scriptures, the worldview we find in the Bible.
Asking the “big story” question will help you as a pastor or teacher to connect the dots for your people. We need to help people learn to read the Bible for themselves, to understand the flow of the narrative, how the different genres fit into that narrative, and how to apply the truths of the Bible with wisdom.
2. What is distinctively Christian about the way I am addressing the topic/passage?
Here’s the question that will lead you back to the gospel. The distinctively Christian thing about Christianity is Jesus and His grace. It’s the good news about how He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave on the third day.
So how do we ensure that our preaching and teaching gets to Jesus? I suggest three follow-up questions under this one.
- Is there anything about my treatment of this Old Testament text that a faithful Jew could not affirm?
If we preach the story of Moses, for example, without ever pointing forward to our Passover Lamb (Jesus Christ), then we are preaching the Old Testament much like a rabbi, not like a Christian herald of the gospel. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus told His disciples that the Old Testament pointed to Him. The Baptist Faith and Message says “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ.”
So when we preach from the Old Testament, it’s imperative that we point people forward to the Messiah.
- Is there anything about my treatment of this New Testament text that a Mormon could not affirm?
Ed Stetzer often says that this is one of the questions he asks of every sermon he preaches. The issue isn’t whether or not you talk about Jesus. Mormons talk about Jesus. Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about Jesus. Self-help preachers talk about Jesus.
The question here is about how we present Jesus. Is He Savior and Lord? Or is He just a helper? Is He God in the flesh? Or is He just a good teacher?
We must make sure we do not present Jesus only as a moral example, but that we present Him as the only Savior, the One who calls for repentance and faith.
- Is there anything in my application that an unbeliever off the street would be uncomfortable with?
We’re not asking this question from the seeker-sensitive perspective that wants to alleviate any discomfort. We’re asking this question from the perspective of the pastor who wants to make sure that application goes beyond “be nice.”
In other words, if the application at the end of your message is “Husbands, love your wives,” we should ask: Would an unbeliever have a problem with that? Probably not. We could survey people from different religions and they’d probably agree that husbands ought to love their wives.
So how do we tighten up this application to focus on Jesus? By doing what Paul did. By saying, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.”
When we tell people to forgive, we ought to ground it in the gospel: forgiving one another, “as Christ loved and forgave you.”
When we tell people to be generous, we ought to ground it in the gospel: “for Christ, though He was rich, became poor for your sakes.”
Ground your application in the gospel.
3. How does this truth equip God’s church to live on mission?
There is no true gospel-centeredness that does not lead to mission, because the gospel is the story of a God with a missionary heart, a Father who desires that all come to repentance, a Shepherd who seeks and saves the one lost sheep.
The purpose of God’s Word is to reveal God and His plan to us, in order that we might then be empowered to fulfill His Great Commission. God’s plan is that people from every tongue, tribe and nation would bring glory to Him. When we study the Bible, we ought to see it in light of its purpose – to equip us to be God’s missionaries in our communities and around the world.
If there’s one thing we need to be clear about in our preaching and teaching, it’s the gospel announcement that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived a perfect life in our place, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose again to launch God’s new creation, and is now exalted as Lord of the world. In response to this message, we must call people to repent and believe. And as Christians, we must continue living every day in repentant faith, witnessing to the love of our great God.