Preaching at Willow Creek, Part 2
Simply stated, a sermon should ultimately be about Jesus Christ. It should be Christ-centered.
That’s not to say that a good sermon won’t have a lot to say about you or the world around us. It will, but only in the light of Jesus and His finished work.
Today, many sermons are long on you, and short on Jesus. They are filled with moral motivators - the things that you should do or not do, think or not think, say or not say. They’re ultimately focused on you and your moral transformation, how to make you into a “better Christian.”
These sermons can sound quite pious, too. After all, they might talk a lot about holiness, the law of God, and taking God seriously - very seriously. Ironically, that’s what makes them so dangerous. If they’re so serious about God and the things of God, how could they possibly be wrong?
Actually, they’re all kinds of wrong. Here are just three major errors of the you-centered sermon.
First, they’re wrong because they focus more on your performance for God than God’s gracious performance for you in Jesus Christ. They’re you-centered, not Christ-centered. However, Christianity is not ultimately about your moral transformation. It’s ultimately about Christ’s substitution, the willingness of Jesus to be for you what you could never be for yourself. A good sermon is ultimately about Jesus, not you.
Is there a moral dimension to Christianity? Of course! We’re called to live in a manner worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1). However, our calling and holiness is by God’s grace not by our works (Ephesians 2:8,9). We can’t make ourselves holy; only God can - something he’s already done in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:9; Hebrews 2:11; 10:14).
While we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us, as our substitute (Romans 5:8). He took our record of sin upon himself and cancelled it on the cross (Colossians 2:13-14). We are completely forgiven (Colossians 3:13). However, that’s not all that Jesus did. He not only cancelled our debt of sin; he enriched us in his righteousness (Romans 5:19). By living a perfect life for us, in our place, Jesus established a righteous record for us, one that we receive not by works but rather by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone.
This means that we are, in one definitive sense, already holy and righteous in the sight of God. The sermon’s primary purpose is therefore not to make us into something we’re not. Its purpose is to declare the good news of Jesus Christ, thereby equipping us to embrace and express what we already are: new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul calls this living "in line" with the gospel and "in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 2:14; 5:25).
Second, they’re wrong because they misrepresent and misuse the law of God. When the sermon fixates on our moral transformation over and against Christ’s substitution, the center of the sermon shifts from Christ to us. And when the center of the sermon shifts from Christ to us, the ultimate focus of the pulpit moves from what Jesus has done to what we must do. This asks the law of God to do something in the lives of God’s children for which it was never intended: make them holy before God.
The law was not given to make us holy before God (Galatians 2:15,16). In fact, the Apostle Paul says that “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). Actually, the opposite is true. God gave us his law that we might see ourselves as sinners without any hope of salvation except in God’s sovereign mercy (Galatians 3:19-29). It was given to drive us to Christ, not back to ourselves.
You-centered preaching is moralistic preaching characterized by “Do more! Try harder! Be better!” thinking. This is not good news. It’s bad news. Very bad news. In fact, a steady diet of it will produce despair.
In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul described the result of his efforts to do more, try harder, and be better. He admitted, "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." Ultimately, he concluded that these efforts to produce personal holiness by his works were a dead end. Rhetorically, he asked, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” The answer was singular: Jesus being for him what he could not be for himself. "Thanks be to God,” he rejoiced, "who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Simply telling people what to do, even from a pulpit, does not empower them to do it. Our deeper problem is the obstinance of our hearts, not the ignorance of our minds. What will change our hearts? One thing, and one thing alone: the Spirit of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. More on that in a second.
Third, they’re wrong because they’ll either puff you up or beat you up. The irony of you-centered preaching is that it won’t make you live up to God’s standard. Ultimately, it’s much more likely to make you give up.
When the message heard on Sunday becomes ultimately about us, not Jesus, we tend to swing between two poles, delusion or depression. We’ll fixate on our own moral performance and improvement, looking to it as a barometer of our spiritual status. When we’re doing well, at least by our own self-serving standards of wellness, we’ll tend to get puffed up and delusional about ourselves. We’ll think that we’re better than we actually are, and tend to look down on others not performing as well as us. When we know we’re doing poorly, we’ll tend to beat ourselves up and get depressed. After all, it’s up to us, right? Our performance is decisive. The sermon said so!
Jesus at the Center
However, when Jesus Christ is at the center of a sermon, something wonderful happens. You hear and focus on the good news that Jesus was already for you what you could never be for yourself: perfect. You hear that Jesus died for your sins and lived for your righteousness. You’re reminded that you're not merely a pardoned criminal. Now, you’re a beloved child of God. You’re already as loved and accepted as you’ll ever be because of his works for you, not your works for him.
And then a curious thing happens: people who first know that they’re loved by God then love him in return (I John 4:19). Standing in awe of God’s mercy toward them, they respond in repentance (Romans 2:4). This brings them back to the law of God, but not as means to earn God’s favor. Rather, they’re free to obey in love, not fear (John 14:15; 1 John 4:18). This is the kind of obedience that God desires and cultivates within us, obedience from a heart with Christ more and more at the center.