preaching the gospel… and other stuff :: an honest question the week before seminary begins

September 2, 2010

I haven’t had a single preaching class yet.  No formal hermeneutics training on my resume.  No Greek or Hebrew language study…  yet.  I start Seminary in 5 days.  So I’ll probably learn all this stuff in class.  But until then, I have an honest question…

Does every message I give need to be a presentation of the Gospel?

I love this video, but I see a potential non-sequetor leap in logic here.

I, too, agree that Jesus Christ is the central figure in all of Scripture, cover to cover.  I have a deep reverence for God’s Word, and my view of Scripture is very Christo-centric.  I believe that the Old Testament stories all point to Jesus the coming Messiah, the center-point of history, and the New Testament explains the New Covenant through Jesus the Lamb, sacrificed on our behalf, for the forgiveness of our sin and the redemption of our souls for eternity, all for the glory of God.  I believe the Gospel is our only hope, and that our own “self-improvement” efforts cannot move us closer to Godliness without Jesus’ atonement by His blood.  I believe the Bible is seamlessly telling one story:  Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, lived a sinless life, was crucified as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, and rose again from the dead, declaring victory over sin and death forever.  Jesus crucified and risen again is the Hope of the world.

So far so good.  Then the video above comes to a focal point with the following statement:  “Every sermon should center around who Jesus is and what He has done.”

To be honest, in my heart of hearts, I think I agree with that.  This life, this world, the Bible, God’s story, and our every heartbeat in every moment is created and designed for God’s pleasure and His glory.  We are the beneficiaries of His love as we honor Him with our thanksgiving and worship.  But the story we’re living – all of us – is a God story.  It’s not about us.  So why would even be pressing back on this idea?  Why would I want to teach anything else?

I’m back to my question… even with all that I have stated above, does every sermon really need to be a Gospel message at it’s heart?  I ask because I have been warned by theologians and gospel watchdogs (I mean that respectfully) that challenging your congregation to take action, make a life-change, to DO SOMETHING in response to a message smacks of works-righteousness (“earning favor” with God)… or simply self-help man-centered false-gospel guilt-trip theology masquerading as God’s life-giving message.

And I guess I’m asking for some clarification from my wiser counterparts in ministry.  Didn’t Jesus command us, as a part of the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28, to go, make disciples, baptize them, and then “teach them ALL I have commanded you”?  He did say ALL there.  Also, in Acts 20:27, aren’t we challenged to preach the “whole counsel of God”?  What about 2 Timothy 3:16 that says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…”?

The Bible has TONS to say about wise financial management, for example.  About relationships, parenting, marriage, sex, heroes and villains, even how to politely wake someone from their morning slumber (see Proverbs 27:14).  All those verses seem to be covered under the “ALL scripture” banner.  Isn’t it appropriate to teach topically – provided we correctly exegete the Word and ask the Holy Spirit to do His life-changing work?

I have been given the impression by some that any topical preaching that encourages making an effort to align with scriptural principles can be the first step on a slippery slope towards a false gospel… and guilt-ridden bondage.

Like I said, I haven’t been to Seminary yet.  But this doesn’t seem like it needs to be an either/or proposition.  Can’t we exhort our congregations to love and good works without expressly articulating the Gospel fundamentals in each and every message?  It seems like undue pressure and a legalistic expectation is being placed upon that 30 minutes of the week when we listen to our pastor.  Can’t the Gospel be central to our message and the life-blood of our church without it being the one and only message our church has to teach?

Pastors, seminarians, gospel-watchdog friends… I welcome your input.  I’m undecided.  I’m open to hear and learn on this one.

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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

30 responses to preaching the gospel… and other stuff :: an honest question the week before seminary begins

  1. Hey,

    I’m not a pastor, but my dad and both grandfathers are, so whatever that counts for 🙂

    My guess is that there is nothing in the bible that can’t be related back to the person and work of Jesus. The redemptive work of Christ is so all-encompassing. I mean money: we give because he gave everything. Sex/marriage: a picture of the intimacy of the trinity. Heroes: Jesus is the hero when we are all villanous.

    Think about Romans 12:2. “Do not be conformed any longer.” Paul is saying: Change. He wants transformation, and discernment. Is that not urging someone toward life-change?? But think about Romans 1-11. He just finished talking about how we are dead to sin, in dire need of a savior and the grace that is offered as a result. Then he moves to “in view of God’s mercy, present your bodies as a living sacrifice.”

    I’m not an expert, but it seems like you don’t need to force everything to relate to Jesus, that’s just the way it works.

  2. Stephen – thanks for weighing in, brother. And greeting from across the pond. Bring me back some lefse and goat cheese, would you?

    I think your last line is a great summary of what I have experienced in the Scripture and in my own teaching experience… “You don’t need to force everything to relate to Jesus, that’s just the way it works.”

    I suppose while I agree with that, it seems there are some on the church who draw a harder line – to the degree that if you don’t explicitly layout the gospel in each message, it is just wasted breath – wasted opportunity. I can hardly imagine a message not communicating the centrality of Jesus and His finished work. But I CAN imagine (and have taught) messages that do not walk through the Gospel bullet point by bullet point.

    In any case, brother, I think we agree. God bless, and thanks again for your input!

    • Love what Stephen wrote. Sounds great!

      I wonder if you’re getting hung up on a word. To me, gospel means “good news”. To us over-churchified people who speak fluent Christianese, “the gospel” often means a Chick tract, or worse some boring sermon series outlining every reference in Isaiah and its corresponding fulfillment.

      While all these may have their place (except the tracts), I take gospel as “Christ and him crucified”. To me, something like the following would cover the base adequately:

      “God sent his only Son into this wretched world in order to pay the penalty for what my actions deserve. Nothing I could have done would have set it right, but Jesus bled and died, and he bore the weight I should have carried. And because of that, I owe everything to him.”

      That could be a 15 second leaping-off point to talk about loving your wife as Christ loved the church, or giving unselfishly to God because he gave unselfishly, or submitting to one another as Christ submitted to God’s will, or any other topic worth covering.

      • Thanks Scott. The more I pray and think about it (and read these responses), the more I am coming to the understanding that anything worthwhile we have to teach will be because of and through the work of Jesus on the cross for us. I’m racking my brain for an exception here… can’t think of any.

  3. My guess is, that when you get to seminary, you will be strongly encouraged to make sure each sermon has a clear presentation of BOTH “Law” AND “Gospel”… not just the Gospel.

    In all openness, I have in the past felt a heavy burden because of that expectation placed upon my sermons by others. When I would preach with other pastors/instructors present, I would feel their critiquing of whether or not I satisfied that “Law” and “Gospel” inclusion in the message.

    I would read Scripture passages and wonder, “Where is Peter presenting Law & Gospel in that sermon, or where is Paul presenting both in that particular writing, or where in that parable/teaching is Jesus clearly presenting Law and Gospel. It confused me. It confused me because I couldn’t always find it “clearly” presented in all those Biblical examples.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do try to incorporate a clear presentation of both in my messages, however, I no longer do so because of man’s legalistic “requirement” to do so.

    Now, I just preach the Word. All of it. I strive to be prepared in season and out of season. I’ll do my best to correct, rebuke and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction. I’ll let the Holy Spirit guide me. I’ll preach the Word and let the chips fall where they may.

    • Paul – you bring up a topic that needs clarification. Thanks a TON for checking in on this one.

      I should have been more clear, because precise language is so important. When I speak of sharing the Gospel message in my post, I was intending to communicate both Law and Gospel. It has been deeply ingrained in me that they go hand in hand. The law without grace brings guilt and death. And the “good news” with no conviction and repentance is feel-good cheap grace. God is a God of LOVE and JUSTICE, and our message to the world must pair Law and Gospel, or the message is incomplete.

      So, I expect that what you say in your first paragraph will be true, and I agree. I should have clarified that up above. As to your second paragraph and following, that is my concern. Sometimes when my father-in-law or other AFLC leaders have been in our church when I have preached at Living Hope, I have felt like I needed to apologize or clarify that this particular message maybe wasn’t as clearly exegetical, or as clearly “Law and Gospel” balanced as it could hve been. For example, I spoke this Mother’s Day on “Why God Made Moms.” I have it posted under the TEACHING tab above. It was VERY topical, jumped from verse to verse, and was designed to be a blessing and encouragement to our moms. Yes, at one point I talked about how a momther’s sacrificial love for her children reflects Christ’s sacrificial love for us – it was a moment to focus on the Gospel within the larger message. But it wasn’t my focal point. I think this was a great encouragement to our moms (several of them talked with me about it), and I felt like the Holy Spirit helped craft that message – full of Biblical truth, I hope and believe. But I did have that feeling of not meeting the expectation. And I feel tension inside me about that guilty feeling. Makes me wonder whether that tension stems from my corrupt heart – a defensive reaction to authority (or at least, to the counsel of my elders)… or is it a healthy heart-check, to make sure I never get too comfortable preaching feel-good, self-help messages.

      I also taught a two-week series this year called “The God of Love and Justice” which was a very explicit Law and Gospel message – both weeks. So, is it possible that we sometimes are putting too much pressure on ONE message, when the clear Law-and-Gospel truth can be shared over and over again in messages throughout the year? THAT is the heart of my question.

      Loved your thoughts, Paul. Thank you. God bless you down in John McCain land. 🙂

  4. Another non-pastor, regular guy here. My initial thoughts…

    1 – Must every sermon have the gospel at its core? Absolutely! If not, why should I strive to have my finances in order, love my wife, or refrain from kicking my dog? If there is no eternal consequence, what are we all doing? The gospel message should be at the core of everything. It should point people to Christ, as well as using the motivation of relationship with Christ to inspire change. Which leads me to…

    2 – Works. A few things about that in James. Faith without works is dead. In other words, show me a person w/o works, and I’ll wonder if their heart has truly been transformed. We are saved by grace, but that does not mean we remain in a state of suspension. The fact that we have been saved (the gospel) should motivate us to act! Again, if not, what are we all doing here? Might as well just turn on Oprah. Even she can make people feel better about themselves.

    3 – How to teach? I prefer sermons that are expository. The bible is the word – let it speak for itself. Also, it will force issues that you will not choose on your own. Look thru some of the dirty laundry in 1 Cor for some examples! I don’t know that I would say topical is wrong, but I think human nature says that you will tend to revisit the same topics. (Some prefer faith, some judgment, some prophecy… you get the idea.) I think that expository preaching results in a congregation (and pastor?) that is better versed in the bible.

    4 – “Can’t the Gospel be central to our message and the life-blood of our church without it being the one and only message our church has to teach?”
    Nope. 🙂 Not in this guy’s opinion anyway. Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. The gospel simply IS our only message. Think about it – without it, we’re just another religion! So, I’m back to my #1. You have two ways to structure a message as I see it. One is to preach toward the cross in an effort to lead people to salvation. The other is to preach from the cross and ask your church what they’re going to do about it. (Not that either of these should be mutually exclusive!)

    Ok – I wanted to get that out while it was stuck in my head! Now I’ll go read previous comments. 🙂

    • Scott – I love you, man. 🙂 **insert manly back slap here…**

      Thanks for these thoughts. I love that you come out and answer my question about whether the church can have other messages to teach beside the gospel with an unambiguous NOPE. 🙂 Way to man up. Your clarity makes for good conversation. HOWEVER, I think we really agree here… and I think we maybe are wrestling with semantics.

      I don’t want to get tangled in semantics – only to have discussion that honors God and challenges the Church to think through their faith and grow. So when you say NOPE, do you REALLY mean NOPE? I push back because I want to get inside your head on this.

      For example, I can think of 2 messages I’ve given this year that were neither strictly exegetical (expository) nor “Law and Gospel” centered. (1) “Why God Made Moms” and “Going: How to Know When God Says GO.” Both were topical. Both had a specific sub-set target audience within our congregation. Both were taken from and shared scriptural principles, and both contained brief references to Jesus work on the cross and our deep need for Him. But neither message was necessarily “Gospel” centered. My question is really, “Is that OK?” Within the context of a greater scope of teaching, is it healthy or dangerous to include some more topical, targeted messages in the mix?

      The money quote from your comment, which I intend to steal and claim as my own from this point forward, is this: “You have two ways to structure a message as I see it. One is to preach toward the cross in an effort to lead people to salvation. The other is to preach from the cross and ask your church what they’re going to do about it. (Not that either of these should be mutually exclusive!)”

      Excellent, brother. Thanks for the challenge and encouragement. Bless you and your fam!

      • Hey Josh. I love the discussion!

        Hmmm… maybe this *is* a semantics issue.

        You said: “Can’t the Gospel be central to our message and the life-blood of our church without it being the one and only message our church has to teach?”

        Perhaps you are not being consistent with the meaning of the word “message”. (If that’s the case, I’ll happily forgive you. 🙂 Not trying to nitpick – just want to make sure we’re on the same page.)

        “Message” is commonly used in faith discussions to mean our mission, or our primary underlying theme and purpose. However, in Christianese, it can be synonymous with sermon.

        So… which did you mean? If your sentence could be reworded “Can’t the Gospel be our central purpose and the life-blood of our church without it being the one and only sermon our church has to teach?” then I could agree with you.

        My point is, the gospel is our one and only message. Our only purpose. Our only mission. Any good sermon topic, and any book of the bible can ultimately be tied to the gospel message. That’s what I was driving at.

        Does that clarify things, or have I muddled it more?

        ===================

        As for the topical examples you gave, if done well (which I’m certain you did), they can certainly still be gospel-centric messages.

        Moms: God created mothers to nurture and guide their children in similar fashion to what God the Father does with each of us. He calls them to lay down a good portion of their lives (career opportunities, etc.) for their children. Isn’t this what Jesus called us to? Isn’t that (on a much smaller scale!) what he in fact did for us on the cross? Just as we are to honor God for all that he has done for us, we should also honor our mothers.

        Going: Isn’t “going” a response to God? If we are doing anything for a reason other than a response to God first calling us and sacrificing himself on our behalf, then we have to check our motivation. But if we are responding to the transformation he has made in our life by way of the cross, then our motives are right. All that remains is discernment. (Which, by the way, comes from relationship with God, which is only made possible by Christ’s actions at the cross that removed the barrier of sin that separated us from God.)

        What do you think?

        (Feel free to use the line. I’ll send you my address for any necessary royalties.)

        🙂

        • You wrote: “If your sentence could be reworded ‘Can’t the Gospel be our central purpose and the life-blood of our church without it being the one and only sermon our church has to teach?’ then I could agree with you.”

          Bingo. Thanks for clarifying my muddled Christianese. That sentence in its original form was unclear. Your revision was much better, and YES, that is what I am asking.

          As to the points you make on both of my message topics… yes, I believe I kept the focus on the Gospel as our motivation. I’m a big proponent of our obedience and service to God being our worship – because of our DELIGHT in God – motivated by LOVE and THANKSGIVING rather than DUTY. And whenever I teach in such a way to challenge people to respond in one way or another, I try to clarify that. We respond to God out of thanksgiving for what He has done (the Gospel). I think this truth came through clearly in both messages. They are posted on this blog, so I suppose anyone can listen and call me out if that’s not the case. 🙂

          Symantics aside, I think we are kindred souls on this, Scott. And most likely on many other things. Thanks for your thoughtful response here.

  5. Josh I can’t answer you as a preacher but as an old guy who has more than a fifty year walk with our Lord. I sense in your writing a precious commodity, a genuine desire to be pleasing to the Lord. In the final analysis it doesn’t matter what the “watchdogs”, other preachers, or even professors think. The most humbling of all truths is that someday you will stand before the Lord Jesus to give account of your life lived for Him. I really don’t think that it will hit any of us who know and love Him until we see with our own two eyes the nail prints in his hands and the hole in his side. I think it will be very special to know that all His promises to us has been fulfilled. I can’t imagine not falling at His feet with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and the overwhelming realization that no matter how we have served Him it will not seem to us to have been enough. God forbid that we stand in His presence empty handed with no token of appreciation to give back to Him. Yes, I agree it is all about Him, not us. With that said I don’t feel that every sermon should be a salvation message geared to the lost. If that is one’s passion perhaps the work of an evangelist and not a pastor would be more appropriate. A pastor must deal with many issues and responsibilities. I once sat in a service in which the pastor had to address a problem of gossiping and backbiting by his church leaders that was crippling or rather killing the church. In our current world of anything goes morality I do believe it is proper if Spirit led for the pastor to bring a sermon on Christian sin and its consequences. Reproving and rebuking is a part of the job. If the Holy Spirit leads you to bring a message then trust Him to work out the details. I once heard of a man who was so under conviction by the Holy Spirit that he actually came forward to accept the Lord after a sermon on giving. The best advice I can give you is stay in the Word, stay on your knees, and never let your calling become habitual. Start each day with a fresh desire to please God. If your heart is sincere and your motives are real, then you will please the One who matters. Your job is not just to lead the lost to the Lord but to teach and encourage your congregation to join in this work too! As a practical matter it is a tradition in my own church that we never have a service without having an invitation to prayer and/or salvation. You never know how the Holy Spirit will apply the Word to meet the needs of the heart. Ten people may hear the same message and each be blessed in a different way. I appreciate you brother. May you have a very rich and fulfilling educational experience. I think it is already evident that you have been in the presence of the Lord.

    • Paul, my friend, you are such an encouragement. Your thoughts about standing before Jesus some day brought me to tears. I fear and long for that day.

      What you write rings true to me. “Stay in the Word, stay on your knees, and never let your calling become habitual. Start each day with a fresh desire to please God. If your heart is sincere and your motives are real, then you will please the One who matters.” That is what I want more than anything – to honor and please my King.

      The more I process this, the more I am coming to believe that in almost every circumstance, in almost every message, the GOSPEL is the heart and soul of our message. When I do feel led to speak topically, it is because of the Gospel truth of Jesus finished work that we aresanctified. The more I read, pray, think… the Gospel must be at the heart of it all.

      Although it is not always comfortable, I a prone to self-analysis. My lingering question about myself right now as I head into Seminary is this… Is my own strong belief that JESUS crucified and risen again is central to everything we do in church strong enough of a safe-guard against self-help preaching to challenge church members to take action because of their faith without communicating a law-oriented works-righteousness message? If not, then stricter guidelines mut be adhered to. I tend to think that a single message will not make or break the greater message of a local church’s ministry. Timne will tell as God continues to work on me.

      Thanks again Paul. I really appreciate you.

      • Paul Johnston Sr September 3, 2010 at 1:20 pm

        I think you are overthinking for lack of a better word. You have the truth. Stay in the Word, keep the prayer lines open, and stay humble. Follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and LET HIM DO THE WORK. Its not you my dear friend who does the work of the ministry its Him. I love your spirit. When I was a young man I did some speaking in front of a congregation. I was amazed at how it seemed that I just let go and stood back and watched myself speak. I am sure you have experienced the same thing. You won’t slip into apostasy if you yield to the Word and not your own thoughts and ideas. Stay true to the Word and the central theme of redemption as a gift purchased by the blood of Jesus. Exalt Jesus and our heavenly Father and not yourself and you will have a successful ministry and will appear before Him one day unashamed.

        • Hey Paul. You wrote: “I think you are overthinking for lack of a better word.”

          🙂

          As I read back through my comment to you I’m quite sure that you are right. 🙂

          And yes – you are absolutely right. The Holy Spirit does the work, not me. If I think that it is up to me to get the words exactly right in order for God’s work to be accomplished, I’m giving myself too much credit. Way too much credit.

          Thanks friend. You have lowered my blood pressure. I love your input.

          • Paul Johnston Sr September 4, 2010 at 2:27 pm

            Amen, now you get it! A mouse and an elephant approached a swinging bridge. This unlikely pair of friends were walking along talking pleasantly to one another. As the pair stepped onto the bridge the weight of the mighty elephant caused the bridge to swing back and forth wildly. As the two stepped off the other side of the bridge, the little mouse looked up at the elephant and said, “Boy, WE sure did shake up that bridge, didn’t we!” The elephant looked down and just smiled.

  6. Hey Josh–glad I found your blog–nice to catch up with you, if only electronically 🙂

    I think others have pretty much answered as I would. I have had to expand my thinking on this. I used to think presenting the gospel was just talking about what was needed for conversion. Christ does much more than that–conversion is on the starting end. After conversion comes sanctification–a progressive work that continues until we die or Christ returns.

    The gospel is the good news that we are saved in Christ. Not only saved, but being saved (we were converted, yes, but also being sanctified and upheld–Jude 1, 24 are examples).

    So, I think the gospel is at work in an 80 year-old who’s been a Christian for 60 years just as much as it is for one who is hearing for the first time and beginning to see light.

    At the heart of even the most complex, difficult parts of obedience–things that take great spiritual maturity–is the fact that NONE of it can be done apart from Christ and his work in our life. So, I think if that can come out in your preaching, you are being faithful to the message of the gospel.

    • Tony! Great to connect here!

      I love your thoughts on this. I just add an AMEN. 🙂 I love the statement “Conversion is on the starting end…”

      Thanks for checking in, brother. God bless!

  7. Sorry, I meant to share this earlier. As I alluded to before, there have been times in the past when I’ve struggled preparing a message because I would always wonder, “How am I going to incorporate a part about sin and our need for a Savior and let the Law point out our sin and drive us to the Savior and then include the good news of Jesus Christ paying the price for our sins… in a sermon that is exegeting a passage about mothers, or the division of the land, or Saul & the witch of Endor…?” I would always feel I need to do that to satisfy those individuals who would tell me “EVERY message must contain a clear presentation of the Law & the Gospel.”

    Here’s something I do now instead: During the course of a Sunday morning service (not necessarily in the sermon itself) I’ll make sure a clear presentation of both is made. For example, during a time of Confession of Sin I’ll just openly begin sharing the Gospel (which includes the Law as you mentioned earlier.) Then I’ll continue sharing the Gospel right into a time of Confession of Faith, possibly even incorporating some music/songs into that commnication process. Right now I’ve been using the acronym GOSPEL (expounding on each letter) as a way to help the congregation learn a way to simply share Law & Gospel with their friends or those they meet.

    God created us to be with Him.
    Our sins have separated us from that relationship.
    Sins cannot be removed/repaid by good deeds.
    Paying the price for sin, Jesus died and rose again.
    Everyone who repents & trusts in Christ alone has eternal life.
    Life that’s eternal means that you will be with Jesus forever in heaven.

    By doing this during the service, it has freed me up to simply listen to the Holy Spirit as I prepare messages from His Word. I strive to preach the Word, pleasing Him, not man. Since the Gospel is present throughout all of Scripture (all Scripture points to Christ), then by simply preaching the Word, the Gospel will also be present in the message, without a man-mandated “forced” inclusion of certain words and phrases.

    Not sure if these thoughts totally mesh with your questions, but here they are none the less. 🙂

    • PAUL!! This is a GOLDMINE of goodness. 🙂 Thanks so much. You have NAILED it as far as my conundrum goes. I could easily see myself in your shoes, unpacking a passage about conflict resolution (or one of a hundred other topics), trying to tie in Law and Gospel when it isn’t explicitly there – just to satisfy the “you’ve gotta get the Gospel message in there” rule. Isn’t that actually “adding to scripture” in a manner of speaking? I think the correct way to teach from the Word (this, of course, is the not-yet-Seminary-trained me talking here) is to prayerfully interpret precisely what the Word says – without forcing it into any preexisting mold.

      HOWEVER, I completely and totally LOVE your idea of making sure the Law and Gospel message is clear SOMEHOW in the service. This seems like an extremely feasible and important standard. It keeps the focus of the service (and your local church’s ministry) GOSPEL-centric, no matter what the sermon content.

      And, as you correctly say, since the whole of scripture points to Christ and His sacrifice on the cross, simply exegeting the Word properly will (with very rare exception, I would think) bring Jesus and the cross to the forefront – no matter the passage of scripture we unpack.

      Thanks Paul. You are helping me think this through.

  8. Josh –

    Excellent question to ask! I relate closely to Scott Smith’s first point, which I’ll paraphrase as: It all starts with the Gospel. Why should I love my wife? Because of the Gospel. Why should I work hard at my job? Because of the Gospel. Does that mean every message is a hard-core presentation of the Gospel? Doesn’t have to be, but a congregation should always be given the “why” if the sermon is more topical. Most any biblical topic can naturally flow into one or more aspects of the Gospel message (God’s holiness, man’s fallenness, Christ’s payment, the need for a response of repentance and faith).

    Beyond all that, this thread touches on something else the is becoming more near and dear to my heart: The method of preaching (exposition, topical, etc.). If you haven’t already explored it, I strongly recommend Mark Dever’s works (especially “Nine Marks of a Health Church” and “The Deliberate Church). Mark started an organization (www.9marks.org) that focuses on heavily biblical approaches to church leadership. Why is all this relevant to this topic? Mark’s first mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. His main point: Growth always occurs where God’s word is heard. Either from God Himself or from us as His instruments. Preach the Word and it will “not return void.”

    One final thought: Does every message have to be about the Gospel? Why wouldn’t you want to???!! It’s simply the most amazing thing out there. What is more interesting? More impacting? More life-changing?

    God bless as you move into seminary! You take on a serious responsibility. Carry it well.

    In Christ – Brett

    • Brett! So good to hear from you. Please high-five Mary for me, too. It’s been a long time, and I hope you guys are doing great.

      In response to your first paragraph – I agree with you guys. That’s the short answer. 🙂 The Gospel is not only our central message, but the motivation behind all of our worship, obedience, response, and service to God. Amen and amen.

      In response to your second paragraph – THANK YOU for the resource at 9marks-dot-org. EXCELLENT stuff there! I spent some time reading, watching videos, getting to know them a bit tonight. VERY solid teaching/training for ministry leadership. It is saved as a favorite now, and I’ll be spending more time with Mark, I’m certain. Yes, I too, see the importance of expositional teaching, but I don’t think that means we NEVER teach topically – or more to the point – that so-called “topical” teaching can’t ALSO be expositional. In fact, I see that the two MUST be conjoined for topical preaching to be a conduit for the power of the Holy Spirit. (The alternative would be coming to a message with a predetermined core idea, and then searching – or bending – scripture to match your main point. This is man-centered theology, and it can be manipulative and dangerous.)

      As to your third paragraph about “why would I want to teach anything else…” I understand the heart behind the question, but let’s be practical for a minute. It is easy to forsee a pastor giving a message about marriage. Or finances. Or any number of the facets of life that the Bible shines its wisdom on for us, without the “law and gospel” being the “main point,” so to speak. I guess I’m pressing back on the idea that some hold to that if a sermon does not clearly articulate the Law and Gospel as it’s central theme, then the sermon must be flawed. And I think that some passages of scripture talk about other things, and should be shared explained and taught to a congregation to say exactly as it stands – without any artificial pre-existing conditions. Just read the Word, prayerfully apply the Word, and do not add to or take away from the Word.

      That’s my take. For now. I’m always a student, and soon to be more than ever before. 🙂

      Thanks again for your input, dude. It’s good to hear from you again. Bless you and the fam!

      • Josh –

        Regarding your response to my third paragraph (I can quickly see why the monks split the Bible into chapter and verse…) I think agree. Every message may not need full law and gospel. But there can likely be references to one or more of the four aspects I mentioned in my first paragraph (God’s holiness, man’s fallenness, Christ’s payment, the need for a response of repentance and faith). Your reference to a message on marriage is a perfect example: The husband playing Jesus, the bride playing the Church.

        Also agree that not EVERY sermon needs to be expositional. But, totally agree that topical sermons need to be taken in context. You are right: So many topical sermons are driven by the topic with verses taken out of context and/or twisted to support.

        Thanks for the well wishes! The best to you and your family.

        – Brett

        • Brett – thanks again for the conversation. All of this helps me think it all through. I appreciate your input big time.

          Based on what you’ve written in this comment, I think we agree all the way. So when we are led to teach topically, we must go FIRST to the Word, prayerfully study, and faithkfully communicate what the WORD says… not taking verses out of context to fit our preconceived point. Of course, if you are making a point that is clear in scripture, it is likely there will be multiple verses that reenforce the point. The Word supports itself, because God is One. Therefore, I have no problem teaching a point and sharing multiple verses that support that point – as long as scripture is being properly interpreted and not “bent” to fit the point.

          This has been extremely helpful. Thanks a ton, brother. Bless you guys. 🙂

  9. My initial answer to your question, without even reading the post, is “Of course it does.” If a message is supposed to be Christian, then the Gospel, which is the one thing that makes Christianity unique, must not only be present, but it must be the focus. Not the means to another end, but the end itself.

    [Pause to read article…]

    And I still feel the same way. But having seen how you frame the question, I wanted to clarify a couple of things that I’d left out of my first paragraph for brevity but that seem to apply.

    Joshua, your question assumes that those arguing for the gospel to always be present see a sermon as one and only one of these two things:

    1) A gospel presentation (e.g. answering “what must I do to be saved”)
    2) A law presentation (e.g. answering “how should we live to please God”)

    That simplification falls into the logical fallacy of the false dilemma; it definitely wouldn’t be how *I* think about the topic.

    It’s not wrong to preach on the imperatives of Scripture; you *have* to do so in order to be true to the text. Put in a Lutheran way, one of the functions of the Law is to be a rule for Christians, to show us what we should do. We can’t ignore that and still handle the Word rightly.

    However, the problem with not including (or not highlighting) the Gospel is that the *context* of those imperatives is lost. The first-half/second-half structure of most of Paul’s letters echoes this. He doesn’t give instruction to his readers until he first proclaims the unmerited free gift of grace; all instruction is given *in view of that mercy!*

    We cannot fulfill the Law at all. Our good works (yes, even as Christians) are good because of Christ and the cross, not what we did. Believers and unbelievers alike must constantly be pointed to Jesus and His work, not their own, because only the Gospel saves. Only the Gospel preserves. Only through the Gospel are we able to do the good works God has prepared for us beforehand. (Eph 2:10)

    Put negatively, a sermon without the gospel is not Christian because it lacks the good news of Christianity. It may be a Bible-based lesson on morality, but in the long term, it can do nothing but condemn the Christian, Mormon, Jew, Muslim, or atheist that hears it.

    That’s my two cents as a non-seminary-trained non-pastor anyway. You’ll be learning from men who’ve got years of practical struggling with this question and they may identify nuances and shadings I’ve not provided (though I’m hopeful I hit the nub of the issue squarely).

    And speaking of AFLTS, enjoy and use fully the time God’s given you to be there! While I’ve not been gifted or called to be a shepherd, I do a little teaching, and I’d love to have such a chance to study and learn. You’re on my prayer list.

    • Jason, thanks so much for your input here. You always bring clear thinking and communication to these discussions, and I value your input very much.

      As is often the case, I am trying to tackle a nuanced issue in short form, and that often leads to incomplete (if not outright erroneous) communication sometimes. I think that you would be right to say that my post presents a bit of a false dichotomy if I am limiting a sermon topic to only (1) a gospel presentation or (2)a law presentation (as you have described them above). I don’t mean to do that. I am trying to find clarity in the nuanced world of real-life application as we come to the pulpit.

      I think you are dead on when you speak about the necessity of the Gospel being the *context* for the imperatives of Scripture – and the necessity of preaching that context in order to properly handle the Word.

      Thanks for your well-wishes and prayers as I start Seminary, Jason. Had my first day this morning. I count it a great priviledge and blessing to be in the company of such wise, humble, confident teachers – and the guys in Seminary right now are an inspiring bunch. LIVING faith, and a hunger to be close to God in these guys. I’m just deeply grateful to be here with them.

      God bless you and Paula and your kiddos. Thanks again for the clarifying discussion and the thought you put into your comments here. Have a great day!

  10. Josh asked me to take a look at this- so I will. And, with Josh’s permission, I will use all this somehow on my own blog someday- Because it is absolutely essential. It is “hermeneutics,” or the right understanding of God’s Word.

    *Short answer:* Keller is right- the Bible is basically about Jesus and what He has done.

    *Longer answer:* You have tension because there is more to the story- the Bible is basically about the Living God (including Who He is and what He has done in the Messiah) and how He interacts with the pinnacle of His creation, man (He didn’t reveal Himself to rocks/trees/animals, but precious, eternal human souls).

    *Sufficient (I think) answer:* Theology (by definition) is a word about God, not a word about man. But theology for the sake of theology is theology misused. God revealed this word about Himself to mankind. In it we see His character, and by contrast our character. We read what God demands (His perfect law obeyed and fulfilled, His character affirmed by our thoughts words and deeds) and what God has done in the Messiah (the substitutionary atonement of Christ).

    There are two sides to the truth of the Gospel: Objective and subjective. Objective asks “What happened and did it happen?” Subjective asks “Do I trust in what happened?” Jesus, to Martha, asked similarly in John 11: “I am the resurrection and the life…” (Objective). “Do you believe this?” (Subjective).

    The job of a sermon (or your job in your own Bible reading) is to look at the God’s Word objectively and apply it (which is subjective). Note how I am using these terms: Subjective does not mean that truth is defined by the one to whom it is being applied.

    *Handling God’s Word Objectively*
    The pastor/expositor/theologian must first of all be faithful in “handling accurately the Word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). To do so you must observe the content and interpret it rightly:

    *Content-* What does God say in His Word? Read it. If you know languages you can dig into terms by definition. But primarily your job is to read it. Use a version of the Bible that is farther to the translation end of the translation/paraphrase spectrum. Read it. Savor it. Enjoy it. Accept it as your authority- the voice of what you will preach. You know you have crossed the line when you are looking for a text to say what you already know you want to teach your congregation. Or praying, “God, please give me a good text to go with that illustration.”

    *Interpretation-* What does God mean when He says this? Note: If this doesn’t match what you learned as you looked at the content, you are erring. But now is the time to look at historical settings, and term definitions, etc. Are there promises made? To whom? Why? Have I believed novel interpretations that turn place names into prophetic statements, when all the author really meant was to give a place name? Am I interpreting allegorically when all the author wrote was history? Remember to allow the text to speak- to you and your congregation- louder than the commentators.

    Souls are stumbled when we do interpretation in the place of content, much like the serpent in the Garden: “Has God really said?” In our desire to apply the text to the precious eternal human souls in our care, we often rush to application. We want to “be relevant” after all. But you will do well to establish what the text says and means before you apply it. Otherwise you are the clothier who only sells one size of suit; or the carpenter who only has a hammer- so all he sees is nails.

    Then you can get *subjective*
    Application- How does this word of God apply to my life? It is true: God’s Holy Spirit will do the applying. I am constantly surprised by what people say they got out of my messages. Sure, the text wasn’t about adultery, but the adulterer will be convicted of adultery when confronted with the character of God.

    And while I affirm that the Holy Spirit of God is the primary applier of God’s Word, as my history prof Charles Aling said, “God spoke to man, not poached eggs.” It is entirely appropriate, in speaking or in private devotion to ask a respectful “So what?” of the Living God. So much of Scripture is God applying His Word to mankind, the pinnacle of His creation. You aren’t really preaching the Gospel if it is only unapplied fact- or, as my seminary prof Phil Haugen used to say, “Men, in a sense, if you preach the Gospel as potential, you aren’t really preaching the Gospel, are you?”

    *The Gospel*
    The Gospel, the “good news” of God, is a broad term. I think some of your tension comes from an imprecise use.

    In the sense that God’s character and work (you cannot separate these) is good news, every message is a Gospel message.

    In the sense that the Gospel- what God has done for us in Christ- is where the Law of God drives us, giving us a way to be saved from God’s righteous wrath, every message must be a Gospel message.

    But I am guessing you mean a Gospel message, as in, does every message include a call to personal repentance and faith? I say “no.” I especially think this is the case if you think some particular external call/response is necessary to truly facilitate such a response. I choose to present the way of salvation in short form (hopefully not perfunctory) in most every message- what if they get hit by a train on the way home? But if Scripture truly is Christocentric every message really does point to the cross in some way, shape or form. It is our job to show people God’s character in His Word, help them see their need in contrast, then to grab them by the hand and run to the cross. We preach the law with no way out and the Gospel with no strings attached. We show them Jesus. He is not an emotion or a caricature of “niceness,” but a person of the Godhead by whom God accomplished our redemption at the cross.

    *In Conclusion*
    Souls are stumbled when we do not allow God’s Word to speak. We must start with content, even if our message is topical or textual instead of expository. Regardless of your creed, people will know if you trust the Word of God by whether or not you allow it to be your authority. Pulpits our filled with men who say they believe the Bible is the inspired/infallible/inerrant authority, but use it only like a national anthem to introduce their message or a canvas on which they paint their own insights. Every lie is a form of “Has God really said?” Never listen to talking snakes- especially when the disagree with God.

    Souls are stumbled when we allow application to poison interpretation, much like the relativist who says, “This is what God’s word means to me” instead of allowing it to stand, then apply to his/her life. We do this for our listeners when we fail to let God work on us before presenting what He says in His Word. My pastor from youth- Brian Pearson- used to say, “A message prepared in the head reaches the head; a message prepared in the heart reaches the heart.”

    Souls are stumbled when we get content and interpretation right… and fail to apply the text to our listeners. If God is who He says He is, and we are who He says we are, and Christ did what God said He did, we have no boring mantra to recite, but an urgent message to save the souls of men. Paraphrasing Haddon Robinson, it is a sin to bore your listeners with so grand a subject as the Living God.

    Press on, friends, and let them see Jesus.
    WM

    • Wade – I’m two days into Sem and a little freaked out. 🙂 But hard is good, in this case. “…through Christ who strengthens me.”

      Your answer is so brilliant and clear I’m trying to decide what to do with it. Since this post is now a week old, I think that many people who could really benefit will miss it at this point, since it is comment #27 in a string of LONG comments.

      So, first of all, of course you can repost this on your blog – it’s all yours. I very much value your thoughts here in the discussion. But the thoughts are yours – take ’em and run brother! My first Hermeneutics class will be tomorrow morning, by the way. Good times.

      I’d also like to ask permission from YOU to basically repost this comment as a new blog post. I would make it very clear that you are the writer and link to your blog. I think it could be valuable to post this in multiple locations to reach a broader audience.

      What do you think?

      Thanks so much man. Very good thoughts here. I’m going to see if I can test out of Hermeneutics now. 🙂

      -js

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