The Gray family recently moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and found a frozen-custard shop we all loved (a rarity). Within a few weeks, we were making at least a weekly trip to the business. But one day our excited hearts sank as we saw an empty line and none of the usual lights.
Sure enough, the sign read “Temporarily closed. Out of custard.” Out of what? A company with “custard” in the name can’t just run out of custard! How long could such a shop remain in business?
This is a silly example, of course, but it points to a serious problem: many people show up in church only to find the sermon “out of order.” Worse, the church doesn’t have the decency to tell them it’s run out of gospel. Instead it mixes a new formula and sells it as Christianity.
Tell the Story
This troubling trend has become increasingly normative. It’s true that countless pastors have combatted a pattern of legalistic sermons that had become common in pulpits. There was a need for grace to be preached. But the congregation needs to know where that grace comes from.
I’ve heard messages that gave helpful historical context, parsed the Greek verbs correctly, explained the grammatical nuances, declared the meaning, illustrated vividly, applied with conviction, and even comforted the sorrowful by explaining that God is gracious and doesn’t punish his children according to what we deserve. And yet such sermons were missing the very thing that would make them worthwhile: the person and work of Christ.
Peter didn’t preach a sermon void of the gospel, and Paul doesn’t write an epistle without dousing the whole letter in the sweetness of the good news. For them, there really was no grace apart from the finished work of Christ. It must be the same for us. Congregants should come to expect not only that God’s gracious character will be preached, but also that God’s gracious accomplishment will be proclaimed. We must not assume people know that it cost Jesus everything for grace to be extended. As the black church often tells its preacher before the sermon, “Tell the story!”
Follow Four Steps
Here is a four-step process for turning any sermon into a Christocentric sermon.
1. Tell them who he is: God.
The writers of the Septuagint took the name for Yahweh and translated it kurios; the New Testament writers applied kurios almost exclusively to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is declared as God from beginning to end. If you’re preaching the Old Testament, show how Jesus exemplifies whatever divine character trait you’re highlighting there. If you’re in the Gospels, show how Jesus exemplifies a divine character trait shown in the Old Testament. Declare him to be who he is.
2. Tell them what he did: died.
This is where our preaching can be more specific. Remind the people of Jesus’s virgin conception. Tell of his perfect life and miracles. Declare the finished work of the cross. And lead your people to celebrate that their Savior is risen. He is alive and well with all authority and power, and he will one day return. Make it clear and explicit.
If you have an introduction, three points, and a conclusion, you are not done unless your conclusion is explicitly about the person and work of Christ.
If you have an introduction, three points, and a conclusion, you are not done unless your conclusion is explicitly about the person and work of Christ. I build a section about Christ into every sermon I preach to remind me that this is as significant—no, more significant—than any other point of my message.
3. Tell them why he did it: love.
John 3:16 makes it clear: love is the reason God did this. We live in a love-starved world where people are begging for someone to love them. The world is so depleted of love that for decades most inspirational leaders and teachers have just been telling people to love themselves.
We have the privilege and obligation as preachers to tell the world about a God who loves them more than they could ever love themselves. But this point can’t be divorced from point two. John writes, “And in this the love of God was made manifest, that he sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:8–9). In other words, Jesus believes in show and tell. He of course told us that he loved us, but he proved it on the cross.
4. Tell them what they receive in him: everything.
Danny Akin once said, “The depth and breadth of sin in its death and destruction is cosmic, personal, and social. And praise be to God, the cure of salvation in its reconciliation and restoration is cosmic, personal, and social.” This is what makes the work of Christ relevant—not the medium through which we promote him but the fact that Christ is the solution to our problems, the answer to our questions, the glue to our broken lives.
The job of the preacher is to proclaim him. It can be easy to assume our people will connect the dots, but it’s possible they won’t. If Paul said to the church at Corinth, “I knew nothing among you other than Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), may it never be said of our preaching that “we knew everything other than Christ and him crucified.”
As you preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), never forget to preach the Wonderful Counselor himself (Isa. 9:6) If we don’t consistently, passionately, and specifically preach him, we’ve done little more than act like a custard shop that is out of custard. Give the people what they want. But make sure to give them what they need. Anything else is simply out of order.