There is a difference between preaching a gospel-centered sermon and preaching a sermon with the gospel in it. Either the gospel is the sun, or it’s Saturn or one of Saturn’s moons or – worst case – Pluto. Does your sermon revolve around the work of God in the Lord Jesus? Or does Christ’s death and resurrection revolve around your sermon at a distance? And can that distance be measured in light years?
So how can you place the gospel at the center of your preaching, instead of just tacking it on somewhere near the end because you’re supposed to?
1. Apply the gospel to your life every day, throughout the day
Do you let the significance of what Christ has done guide your interactions with others throughout the day? Do you process the ups and downs of your day in light of the cross? By the time the afternoon rolls around, have you preached the hope of a new heavens and a new earth to the morning’s disappointments? How quickly do you repent of a moment of envy, anger, lust, gossip, impatience, etc.?
How are you going to be a gospel-centered preacher if you aren’t a gospel-driven person?
I’m confronted with my need to grow in this area when I discipline my children. I sit them down to explain what they did that was sinful, why it was sinful, how it hurt another person (often a sibling), and how it is the opposite of what the Bible teaches. Often as I do this, I think to myself, I need to go through this process more often.
The more faithfully we bring the gospel to bear on our own hearts, the more it will become central to our preaching.
2. Preach against the sins and sinfulness raised in the passage
You can’t preach the good news without the bad news, and most passages come with the shelves well stocked with the bad news. We are sinful and we can’t do a thing about it.
Preaching that is positive and encouraging, but fails to preach against sin is only telling half of the story, and will ultimately leave people wondering why they need the encouragement in the first place.
The more you can help your church to feel the weight of the bad news, the better the good news looks. So describe sin’s consequences with vividness – the consequences in this life and the life to come. Tell your church what is at stake if they continue in the sinful pattern described by the Scriptures you’re focusing on.
3. Look for the gospel-solution that is right there in the passage
I find that pastors are usually able to find the main sin issue addressed in the passage, but often struggle at identifying the “gospel-solution” to that sin issue that is right there in the passage. The result is either neglecting to preach the gospel, or attaching the same gospel message to every sermon. (How many of your sermons end with the same “Jesus did for you what you couldn’t do for yourself” line?) A sermon with a perfunctory gospel presentation can hardly be called gospel-centered.
Every passage has a unique take on the gospel: In John 10 you are a sheep who needs a Shepherd to lay down his life for you, in Ephesians 2 you are a spiritual zombie who needs to be raised to new life, in Psalm 72 you need a king who executes God’s justice and righteousness. All unique gospel messages, yet all are gospel. And notice how only one of them involves the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
Do you tend to tack the same gospel message onto every sermon? Or do you look for the unique demonstration of God’s grace in each passage you preach?
4. Prepare the sermon for your own spiritual growth, as well as your church’s
Imagine you are at a steakhouse and you get to pick the cook who will grill your ribeye. You can choose between two equally talented chefs. One is a big dude named Bud (whose arteries you’re guessing have about 63% blockage). The other is a skinny vegetarian. Again, they are equally talented chefs. Who do you pick?
I don’t know about you, but I’m going with Bud. I have a feeling that he feasts on the stuff he grills. He can taste the thing the whole time he’s cooking it. He can prepare it for you how he would prepare it for himself. The vegetarian is personally invested in me enjoying the meal,
But when it comes to your pulpit, are you Bud, or are you the other guy?
We need more preachers whose arteries are even gospel-centered, who are feasting while they are preparing. I fear that many preachers have good homiletical skills, but are skin and bones spiritually because they only work to feed others.
5. Rely on the Holy Spirit – not the preaching style itself – to bear fruit in your ministry
Don’t treat gospel-centered preaching like a formula to guarantee ministry results. Keller, Piper, Dever, etc. are gospel-centered preachers, and they have huge ministries. If I apply their style of preaching, then my church will grow, too!
Ummm, no. That’s not how it works. And even if it did, that would be God working despite the preacher, not because of him.
The Spirit does his work in God’s people through God’s word, but the Spirit also blows where he will. Preaching style is a matter of what gives the Spirit the most to work with, not what coerces him into doing a work. I happen to believe that gospel-centered, expository preaching gives the Spirit the most to work with because it aims to let the word run at top gear. It’s Lamborghini of preaching styles because it most aims to put the Spirit in the driver’s seat.