The “gospel-centered” movement has swept through many churches. This is a good thing. It’s even impacted preaching as many pastors now strive to preach Christ in every message. The bankruptcy of merely preaching a message on how to be a “good” person has been exposed. But when you actually read the Bible, you are confronted with a lot of commands. Even the New Testament contains many sections where believers are exhorted to live a new life in Christ. So how can we preach these commands to our churches without resorting to rank legalism?
Enter: Tim Keller. In his book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Keller provides for pastors an effective template for preaching Christ-centered messages, even messages based on biblical commands.
An Effective Template for Preaching Christ-Centered Messages
Buried in the appendix, Keller unfolds his outline:
Point 1: Here’s What We Must Do
The first main point of your message will be to lay out the command present in the text. Keller writes:
In every text of Scripture there are imperatives, moral norms for how we should live. That norm may be seen in what we learn about the character of God or Christ, or in the good or bad example of characters in the text, or in explicit commands, warnings, and summonses. (232)
For example, if you are preaching on the seventh commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”, your first point will be simple: don’t commit adultery. You can even flesh out the full depth and intent of the law by using Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 to highlight the difficulty of obeying such a command.
Point 2: Here’s Why We Can’t Do It
The second point highlights our inability to perfectly keep God’s commands. Of course, the “macro-answer” for such an inability is sin. But in what specific manifestations does our sinful nature sabotage our ability to obey the command. More Keller:
The next assumption is that this moral imperative always presents a crisis, for when properly understood, the practical and moral obligations of the Scripture is impossible for human beings to meet. If the preacher does not bring that out, the sermon is headed for moralism, for implicitly or even explicitly asserting that our moral efforts could be sufficient to please God. If instead, the preacher makes the crisis clear, then the listeners who have followed the path of the sermon to this point are seemingly lead to a dead end. (232)
Relating back to the prohibition on adultery, a question you may explore would be: Why can’t we be totally faithful to our spouses, even to God? In another section, Keller points out that our selfish hearts can either be overly-dependent our under-dependent on our spouses (237-38). In other words, we can idolize our spouse, or sex, or love and this leads us to be unfaithful in various ways.
Point 3: How Jesus Did It
To put it bluntly: your first two points of the sermon should lead people to despair, or “crisis,” as Keller puts it. But then you need to show how Jesus faithfully fulfilled the commands on your behalf (Side note: Theologians call this Jesus’ active obedience).
If instead, the preacher makes the crisis clear, then the listeners who have followed the path of the sermon to this point are seemingly lead to a dead end. Then, when we point to the gospel, a hidden door opens and the light comes in. Jesus has fulfilled the law’s requirements in our place and so protects us from condemnation. (232)
Speaking to the issue of adultery, you can show how Jesus was completely faithful to God’s will (John 6), but also completely faithful to His bride, the church. Jesus never cheats on His bride, casts her away, or lord’s his authority over her. But he willingly lays down his life for her.
Point 4: How Through Faith in Jesus You Should Now Live
Grabbing hold of plutonium with a naked hand would lead to severe health issues if not death. Only a hand outfitted with the glove can properly handle it. The same is true with God’s commands. Trying to obey them on our own leads to despair, to spiritual death. We must be clothed in the righteousness of Christ first. Then, and only then, can we properly “handle” God’s commands as a basis for Christian living. Keller:
More than [Jesus fulfilling the law’s requirements], when we put our faith in that saving fulfillment, it changes the structure of our hearts, melting them away where they are icy, strengthening them where they are weak. Faith in Jesus is our only hope–but it is a sure hope. (232)
In relation to the seventh commandment, only when we see how faithful Jesus is to his spouse, will we be moved to be faithful to our own spouses (238). When we realize that Jesus’ love is everything we need, we will not look to our spouse too much or too little to satisfy us. We won’t be demanding or demeaning.
Putting It To Work For You
By following Keller’s lead, you can preach the gospel every time, even if you’re preaching biblical commands. The goal of the sermon is present Christ. But as Keller notes, we must also feel a need for Christ, which happens by strongly preaching the Law: “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:23). Just don’t leave people under the tutelage of the Law, lead them to Christ.
How Do You Ensure You Are Preaching Christ-Centered Messages?
Chris Pascarella is one of the pastors at Lincroft Bible Church in Lincroft, NJ. He holds an M.Div. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Heather and they have a son, Roman. He enjoys drinking coffee, watching TV, and following the New York Giants. He blogs at Raising Lazarus
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