Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. Colossians 1:28 ESV
Journal Entry: A Sunday in the summer of 2013. On vacation in another state.
I sat through a solid sermon today. It was about God. It was delivered by a good man: a seminary-trained mature Christian pastor of many years, in a solid evangelical church. It followed a classical sermonic outline: introduction, explanation, illustration, application, conclusion. It referenced several Bible passages, some from the Old and some from the New Testament. It quoted at least two well-known Christian theologians. It contained sound doctrine about God, his character, his attributes, and his desire to transform our character, along with gentle reminders of our hypocrisy for not living out our faith more practically. It had a touch of humor, which the congregation responded to, and some observations about our world that resonated with everyone in attendance. The sermon was preceded by three hymns of long pedigree, each clearly chosen to match the subject of the message. Everything that the preacher said was absolutely true; no whiff of heresy or compromise fouled the sanctuary air. There was only one problem … it was not very Christian.
This sermon would have passed muster (albeit with different hymns and some slight changes of vocabulary) in any Jewish (or possibly Muslim) gathering. It did not mention Christ directly or even indirectly, though it did make one oblique reference to “Christianity.” In substance there was nothing distinctly Christian about it. It was true as far as it went; it was “biblical” in the sense that it quoted several passages, and God-centered in that his character was the main topic, but it was not Christ-centered. Which means it was not Christian in any clear way. The gospel, the profoundly freeing and regenerating message of who Christ is and what he did for us, was not heard at all, from the beginning to the end, even though there were at least three places in the sermon that fairly screamed for gospel relief. The applications were numbered and alliterated well. They each focused on what we should believe about God’s character and why we should believe it. But none of them mentioned or even alluded to Christ or what he has done for us, in us, or through us. Which means that the applications were all so to speak “on us.” They reminded us of how and what we should believe about God, the “God of the Bible,” and what that belief would do to help our lives. But the object of our faith was God the Father without reference to Christ through whom we actually believe in God the Father.
I suspect that the reason this sermon didn’t mention Christ is because the perception is that everybody in church already knows who Jesus is and what he has done, or rather, what God the Father has done through him. Or at least they think they do. They don’t feel the need to explain or re-visit the actual message of Christ because 1) they “already know that,” 2) the gospel message is not crucial to understanding the doctrine of God (the stated topic of this particular sermon) or living out the life of faith (the practical goal of any sermon), and 3) there are no serious non-Christians present in the congregation who need to have the gospel clarified so they can respond to it. As I look back over my career in Christian pastoral work I realize I have made these assumptions regularly, without thinking about it. But are these things true?
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Speak for a Reason
Do all Christians really grasp the gospel? I don’t think so, and I’ve been teaching Christians for 35 years from the pulpit and in classrooms. If I ask a group of Christians to write down in just a few sentences what the gospel is, I get as many different answers as there are people in the room. They all get something right in their answers, of course. Very few are blatantly or thoroughly mistaken. But usually, unless they have been coached, the answers do not focus on the gospel itself but rather on what we should do in response to it (repent and believe) or the benefit it brings to us (forgiveness by grace through faith). As important and glorious as these truths are, they are not the gospel itself. The gospel is not our response to the message of Christ—it is the news itself. It is the news of who Jesus Christ really is (the Lord, God in the flesh, Messiah, King) and what he has done (singlehandedly changed the destiny of the universe by atoning for sins, coming back from the dead in resurrected human life, ascending to the ultimate authority over the universe). In a shorter version favored by Paul, it is that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord and Savior (Rom.1:1-6, 16-17; 10:9-10; 1Cor.15:1-8; Gal.1:3-5; Phil.2:5-11; 2 Tim.2:8). The practical entailments of this incredibly good news are almost infinite and should be the subject, more or less, of any and all Christian preaching no matter what passage of Scripture or topic an expositor is opening. If we preach a passage from the Bible and fail to show how it relates to the gospel of Christ it is hard to see how we are “preaching Christ” in the New Covenant sense (1 Cor.2:2; Col.1:28.)
Does the mature Christian life need regular and specific nourishment from the actual gospel? Some apparently don’t believe so, thinking perhaps that believing the gospel is a one-time entry requirement solely aimed at un-converted folk. Yet, the apostle Paul describes his ministry to the Roman Christians as “preaching the gospel to you who are in Rome” (Rom.1:15). Weren’t they already Christians? He called them “saints” in verses 6-7. Apparently he felt the need to apply the gospel to them continuously and with increasing depth.
My New Year’s Resolution: Preach Christ in one way or another, from every passage I unfold, in every sermon or devotional I do.
Just a Thought,
Rick Booye is the senior and founding pastor of the Trail Christian Fellowship in Eagle Point, Oregon where he has been the main teaching pastor for over 35 years. Rick is a graduate of Biola University (BA in Bible) and Western Seminary in Portland Oregon (M.A. Exegetical Theology; D.Min.).