Over the past year or so of listening to many sermons, reading many articles and books, and listening to many podcasts, I’ve come to the conclusion that many others have already reached: a big problem exists in many churches. It is not a problem in just Baptist churches, but in churches of all denominations. The problem is that many sermons are man-centered rather than Christ-centered. It is not just sermons that leave Christ out altogether, but also sermons that may mention Christ but do not center on Christ. If we are to be followers of Christ, then all of our preaching and teaching should center on Him. If we do not center on Christ, then we are no more a Christian church.
Moralistic, therapeutic, deism
I heard one man describe this problem as moralistic, therapeutic, deism. By this he means:
- Moralistic: teaches good morals – how to be a good a person.
- Therapeutic: God/religion exists to improve our lives, to solve our problems, to make us feel better.
- Deism: God does not interfere in lives unless He is needed to solve a problem or give us something we want.
That is a very good summary of the content of many sermons and lessons heard in churches today. We will hear the stories about various characters in the Bible. We will be told the good and bad about those characters and what parts we should emulate to be good people and to have a happy, prosperous life. However, we won’t hear anything of Christ in these passages, or if we do, it will merely be passages where Christ said do this or don’t do that. There will be no mention how the passage relates to the redemption of mankind. If it is an Old Testament passage, there will be no mention of how it points to the coming Messiah. If it is a New Testament passage, there will be no mention of how Christ is the fulfillment of the promises or how Christ redeemed us or sanctifies us. The messages will be man-centered, moral lessons on how to be better, how to overcome your problems.
Every story whispers his name
I recently bought a children’s Bible storybook. The sole reason I bought it was because part of the title: Every Story Whispers His Name. That is so true yet sadly so forgotten in so many sermons. Most sermons today are delivered on the false premise that “every story is about how to have a better life.” Every story does whisper his name. The following quote is from the introduction of The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name:
Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean.
No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!
You see, the best thing about this Story is – it’s true.
There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.
It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle – the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see beautiful picture.
That is a great introduction to the Bible! If only every Bible college and seminary would teach that every story is not so much about the characters in it, but that every story whispers his name! Every sermon and lesson would be centered on Christ who is our strength, our nourishment, our wisdom, our everything. We don’t need so much to learn about the characters’ virtues and vices as we need to learn about Christ. In Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Moralistic preaching has at least two additional problems. If the preaching focuses on living better by altering behavior (doing more good things and fewer bad things), the preaching is not addressing the heart. As with raising children, I can set all kinds of great rules and require a certain behavior from my children, but they will only be conformed outwardly to the rules. Their hearts will remain unchanged and unconformed to Christ. A child with a rebellious heart is completely capable of keeping all the rules, and yet remain rebellious. Requiring conformity to the rules does not change a heart. Only Christ can change a heart. If the sermon does not center on Christ (and that means more than just tacking on a 1 minute gospel presentation on the end), then the heart is not being targeted.
The second problem with this man-centered, moralistic preaching is the outcome achieved is not really what is desired. The outcome is summed up nicely in the following quote from Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ From All The Scriptures:
Consequently, contrary to legalists’ expectations, attempts to motivate obedience through making God’s favor (and favors) contingent on human performance actually work against the law’s central objectives, love of God and neighbor, by encouraging self-trust, judgmental competition, and legalistic pride (on the one hand) or instilling self-condemnation, unrelenting guilt, and hopelessness (on the other).
Don’t let the word “legalist” trip you up on this great quote. There are two types of legalists: one who teaches you have to earn your way to Heaven and one who teaches God’s favor is earned through keeping the law. The quote is dealing with the second type of legalist – those who teach you can earn God’s favor (another word for favor is grace which many teach means “God’s riches at Christ’s expense”). If God’s favor is at Christ’s expense, then Christ earns/earned God’s favor for us. We cannot earn God’s grace.
The moralistic preaching that tries to compel people to earn God’s favor through obedience will result in either pride-filled people or guilt-ridden people. It does nothing to address the heart.
Why Christ-centered preaching
So why should preaching be all about him? Jesus said “learn of me.” When Christ was on the road to Emmaus with two disciples, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27). It wasn’t just some of the scriptures; it was all the scriptures. All does mean all, doesn’t it? Jesus told the legalists of his day, the Pharisees: “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” Jesus said the scriptures testify of him. Why don’t our sermons?
Paul said that he determined not to know anything among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Does that mean Paul’s sermons only consisted of telling them that Christ died on the cross? No, because Paul also said he declared unto them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Paul preached Christ from all the scriptures. He didn’t just preach moral lessons.
If we are going to grow as Christians, we need to learn of Christ. If we are just going to learn moral lessons, we should stop saying we are Christians for even non-Christians can teach and learn moral lessons. Christ should be proclaimed in every sermon and in every lesson. Every story relates to him in some way. The Bible is not just our guidebook on how to have a happy, prosperous, successful life. The Bible is about Christ. Christ is our food. We cannot grow or live without him. No matter how great the moral lesson is, if Christ is not the center, it is not Christian.
Preach and teach Christ and him crucified. Every story whispers his name.