Failing to Preach Christ

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

"Many are the failures, many the egregious failures, in preaching Christ." This is how Charles McIlvaine begins chapter two in his book Preaching Christ. I had misunderstood it for years. It was not until my first full-time pastoral ministry at a church in Northern California where our music minister was kindly yet frustratedly bawling me out for not preaching Christ. I never understood what it was he was talking about. Was he out for just some feeling? Did he confuse some mystically warm fuzzy with the name of Jesus? Or was there something genuinely missing from my sermons?

I concluded that I would receive this brother as from the Lord. That put me on to studying what it was I was missing in my theology that would cause me to miss Jesus Christ as the center of every text and every sermon. That's when I 'stumbled' upon Graeme Goldworthy's book Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. That one book showed me the error of my ways.

In the weeks and months that followed, I stumbled and fell and straggled along in learning what I was missing and how to add it there. I came to discover that it was not just in mentioning his name, or in somehow forcing the crucifixion into my message. These were just easy means of absolving my conscience from the deep pain it felt by not giving Jesus Christ to the sheep He had entrusted to me. Preaching Christ is more than just talking about Him or talking around Him.

McIlvaine offers several failures he identified when it came to preaching Christ. Perhaps these failures will spark a pang of conscience in another pastor or preacher reading this blog. If Paul's passion was to preach Christ and Him crucified, why is that not the main passion today? Why is there no book called The Crucified-Driven Life or The Gospel-Driven Ministry? That's no knock on Rick Warren. God has used him mightily to lead thousands to Christ. But the thing that drove the Apostles' ministry was Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Jesus Christ is there, to be sure. But "never as the root and foundation out of which our whole ministry proceeds" (p. 8).

"Our ministry is all darkness, emptiness, and powerlessness; all condemnation to us, all delusion to those who hear us, all dishonour to the grace of god, whatever the breath of man may say of it, except as it is pervaded, illumined, filled with the testimony of Christ as the once sacrifice for sin, crucified and slain, now the glorified and ever-living Intercessor for all that come unto God by him" (p. 9).

Today, we'll consider failure number one.

1. Religious Truth is Not Enough

Preaching religious truths in a sermon is not preaching Christ. That's what I have been far too guilty of. And if we are not careful, this is the very road which exegesis and expository preaching carries us down. We can get so wrapped up in exegetical details and finer points of theology that in presenting what is a God-ordained and inspired truth, we miss its root in the gospel of Christ, and thereby miss communicating it as directly flowing out of and back into the gospel of Christ. This is defective preaching. McIlvaine says,

"The defect will be, not in the presence of what should not be there, but in the absence of that which is necessary to give all the truth delivered the character of 'truth as it is in Jesus.' Such absence, when nevertheless all is true, may be more destructive to the gospel character of the preaching than even the introduction of some positive error" (p. 9).

Our preaching may do a lot for people. It may get them excited about ministry. It may be a very blood-earnest sermon. It may affect their emotions and deeply impress them, stirring strong and even godly emotions within them. But as the author says,

"Yet the preaching may wholly fail in giving any such distinct answer to that question as will turn the attention of the inquirer to Christ as all his refuge. You may say a great deal about and around the gospel, and never preach the gospel...If deep impressions are made, and serious inquiries excited, does it follow that Christ is preached?" (p. 10).

We can preach all about eschatology, pneumatology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and all the other parts of systematic theology, but does it follow that if we preach these things we have preached the gospel?

"Such topics unquestionably belong most legtimately to our ministry; they are important parts of the truth given us to enforce; but they are entirely subordinate and preliminary" (p. 10).

McIlvaine continues with words that struck my heart to the core. He must have been spying on my preaching from heaven!

"You may spend all your time in such work - not omitting to sprinkle your discourses with the oft-repeated name of Christ and with much gospel language; and just because there is no pervading exhibition of Christ, in his work of justification by his righteousness, and of sanctification by his Spirit, given so pointedly and plainly that whosoever will may understand, you may never attain to the honour, in the sight of God, of teaching and preaching Jesus Christ" (p. 11).

For the minister of music at my first church, and for those who were frustrated in the background, they are hearers who had, "learned Christ as his lesson of heart and life, of hope and peace..." They knew of nothing more so precious to their souls than Jesus Christ. And they wanted to be lead back to Him time and again. They wanted to see,

"Jesus on the cross of sacrifice, and on the throne of intercession, Jesus in his invitations and promises, Jesus in his grace to help, his righteousness to justify, and his power to sanctify..." (p. 11).

Now listen to my final words carefully. First, if this describes you, as I found it did me, we have both failed in preaching Christ. Thinking back on all those sermons that have been wasted because Christ was not at the root of it all just makes me emotionally miserable. Second, if this describes you, the same root which was lacking in our sermons is available to us now! That's the point of the gospel of Christ! But third, if this describes you, think seriously upon whether or not you should break from preaching for a short while so that your soul can feast upon Him who should be the essence of every sermon. Preaching Christ as we ought can't change overnight. And it can't change in a week.

I would submit in closing that what must change is not so much our sermons as much as our hearts! If our sermons are overflows from our heart, and if Christ is missing from our sermons, then He is missing from our hearts. That is why such a break would be needed: to refocus thoughts and meditations and satisfaction and happiness on that which first saved us. If we are to repent and return to the first things, as Jesus told the Ephesian church, perhaps that would be best worked on outside the weekly demands of preaching which, for me personally, only continued to sap my energies which I wanted to focus on Christ.

Think on these things...

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