This sounds heretical in gospel-centered circles: We might preach about the cross too much. Or, put another way, not every gospel-centered sermon must be a cross-centered sermon.
Before you stone me, let me explain.
You’re here because you care how the whole Bible points to one thing: the person and work of Jesus Christ. You probably center your conversations with other believers on the gospel. You encourage your pastor (or perhaps you are a pastor) to preach sermons with Jesus as the point, the center and the end.
But what does a gospel-centered sermon look like? Does it mean that we tie everything to the cross? I think I’m seeing a trend within the gospel-centered community where “gospel-centered” means only “cross-centered.” I hope we can move beyond that.
The gospel is more than propitiation so can gospel-centered sermons be “empty-tomb-centered”? Can they be “victory-over-death-centered”?
Don’t get me wrong – I love the cross. It’s monumentally important. It’s one of the key pieces of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it’s not the whole gospel. Gospel-centrality means more than just the cross and if our gospel-centered sermons only ever discuss the cross then they don’t explore all of the gospel. Our sermons should explore the many facets of the gospel:
An Empty Tomb
The gospel is about victory. If Jesus only died for our sins we’d be in rough shape:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
1 Cor 15:14-19 ESV
No, Jesus didn’t only die for our sins. He rose for them.
He rose from the dead in victory over our final enemy (1 Cor 15:26) for our sins. In his famous “Christus Victor,” Gustaf Aluen wrote:
The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage; sin, death, and the devil.
What does this mean? Our gospel-centered sermons don’t need to always focus on propitiation. They can focus on the life and liberation Jesus bought for us.
Hermeneutic Principle: When we read a passage about God freeing the oppressed – demonically, politically, culturally, etc – they are shadows of Jesus’ greater victory and our gospel-centered connection should be to that theme.
Further Reading: Christus Victor: Jesus died to free us from bondage.
I’m seeing a trend within the gospel-centered community where “gospel-centered” means only “cross-centered.”
The New Heaven and Earth
The gospel is also about restoration. What is the end goal of God’s redemptive work in Jesus?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,b and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Rev 21:1-5 (ESV)
What does this mean? As an extension of God’s victory, our gospel-centered sermons can focus on the renewal of all things that God is accomplishing in Jesus.
Hermeneutic Principle: When we come to a passage where God is renewing something – people, institutions, relationships – our gospel-centered connection should be to Christ’s work of restoration.
Further Reading: Redemptive-Historical Messages Beyond the Old Testament
Adoption and Marriage
Adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification.
– J.I. Packer, Knowing God
God doesn’t forgive us and raise us just to leave us alone. (This misperception, by the way is why western culture thinks of heaven as a boring, eternal retirement home.) The highest end of the gospel is relationship with God. Our relationship with God is one of Father-child individually and Bridegroom-bride corporately.
Here’s the end of the story, the end for which God created and redeemed the world:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
What does this mean? Our gospel-centered sermons can focus on how Jesus changes our relationship with God. The whole Bible is full of God intervening in human history and changing our relationship with him.
Hermeneutic Principle: When we read a passage about God reconciling sinners to himself we need to tie it to Jesus’ relationally redemptive work.
Further Reading: Do you love the gospel or the God revealed by the gospel?
Forgiveness at a Cost
We can’t ignore the cross though. Propitiation, God punishing Christ on our behalf so that we might escape unscathed, is the primary reason Jesus came to die.
The gospel is, first, about redemption.
What does this mean? Yes, we must preach cross-centered sermons. Just don’t think that every gospel-centered sermon must be a cross-centered sermon.
Further Reading: What is penal substitution?
Our gospel-centered sermons don’t always have to be “cross-centered.” They can be:
- “Empty-tomb-centered” and focus on the life and liberation Jesus bought for us.
- “New Heavens & New Earth-centered” and focus on the renewal of all things that God is accomplishing in Jesus.
- “Adoption-centered or Bridegroom-centered” and focus on the way Jesus changes our relationship with God.
What other themes and ideas should we point to in our Christ-centered sermons?
Further Reading: Your Gospel Is Too Small