“This is a great sermon,” said my friend as he handed me the CD. “You’ll enjoy it.” My friend knows me well: I’m a sermon junkie. I love to listen to great preaching. I immediately recognized the preacher’s name on the CD, a well-known minister within our movement who leads a strong, evangelistic church.
On my next car ride, I popped in the CD—a message from the Song of Songs. The sermon was clearly tied to the text and packed with great illustrations, appropriate humor, and practical advice for a marriage relationship. When the CD was over I thought, That was a great message. I’m sure it helped enrich a lot of marriages that week. But then, for whatever reason, a thought suddenly occurred to me.
Jesus was nowhere to be found in the sermon.
Jesus Deficit Disorder
I could not remember hearing Jesus mentioned even once. I thought I must be mistaken, so I listened to the message again. This time I was sure—no Jesus. God was mentioned . . . one time. While I would never argue that merely mentioning Jesus’ name makes a sermon Christian, I would say it’s not a bad place to start. Unfortunately, this sermon focused so much on our horizontal relationships that it completely left out our vertical one.
I wish this were a rare exception, but sadly, it’s all too common. After studying 200 contemporary evangelical sermons, David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary concluded that more than 80 percent were anthropocentric rather than theocentric—focused on human beings rather than focused on God.1 In a recent book entitled The Jesus Manifesto, the authors write, “We believe that the major disease of today’s church is JDD: Jesus Deficit Disorder. The person of Jesus . . . is being replaced by the language of ‘justice,’ ‘morality,’ ‘values,’ and ‘leadership principles.’”2
Of the 200 preachers Wells studied, I’m confident every single one would claim to be a biblical preacher. But as the sermon I listened to makes clear, a message can reference Scripture without referencing Christ. This misses the very point of Scripture.
The Biblical Case
If I could go back in time to one event in Jesus’ ministry, I might pick Luke 24. I would love to have been a fourth traveler on the Emmaus road. When the unwitting Cleopas and friend reveal their biblical ignorance, Jesus gives them a hermeneutics crash course. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Wow! Imagine the bulletin for that preaching service:
Today’s Preacher: Jesus.
Today’s Text: The Whole Bible
Today’s Topic: Himself
I wish I could have been there as Jesus made clear that “these are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). The simple fact is: the Bible was written to bear witness to Christ.
Jesus taught that all the stories and statutes, proverbs and prayers of the Old Testament somehow found their focus in him. Indeed, each section of Scripture points to him. Norman Geisler writes:
In the Law we find the foundation for Christ. In History we find the preparation for Christ. In Poetry we find the aspiration for Christ. In the Prophets we find the expectation of Christ. In the Gospels we find the manifestation of Christ. In Acts we find the propagation of Christ. In the Epistles we find the interpretation of Christ. In Revelation we find the consummation in Christ.3
So those of us committed to preaching Scripture must necessarily preach Christ. It is good to be a biblical preacher, but when we preachers say our purpose is to preach the Bible, we have not said enough. We are speaking of the means and not the end. Teaching a text is the means by which we teach Christ. We preach the Bible for the purpose of preaching Christ. Divine revelation is a gift from God, and as we explain the biblical wrappings, we must not overlook the package’s Christological contents.
The preacher’s job, then, is not simply to educate people about God’s written Word, but to unite them with the Living Word we meet in its pages. “We are to preach all the riches of Scripture. But unless the center holds, all the bits and pieces of our pulpit counseling, of our thundering at social sins, of our positive or negative thinking—all fly off into the Sunday morning air.”4 That center is Jesus Christ. He is the magnetic core of Scripture.
The Danger of “Be Good” Sermons
After listening to the Song of Songs sermon, I decided to evaluate my own preaching. While I think I’ve always at least mentioned Jesus in my sermons, I wondered if there were ways I had marginalized him in my preaching. Was I afflicted with Jesus Deficit Disorder? I began to realize I too have sometimes preached sermons with Jesus way too far in the background. See if you recognize these two kinds of “JDD” sermons.
The first is what Robert Asa calls “pulpit moralizing.” This kind of preaching sees its task as moralistic admonishment—that is, telling people how to be more patient, more persevering, more honest, more giving, more loving, more humble. We could label these as “be good” sermons.
To be clear: Preachers should most certainly address moral issues from Scripture, but the problem with “pulpit moralizing” sermons is that they have no flavor of Christ. Here’s their basic message: “Be good because it’s good to be good, and it’s bad to be bad; so be good.” The preacher teaches a moral lesson, divorced from the larger context of the Christ story, and ends up preaching sermons that sound just as at home in a Muslim mosque or the local Rotary club as in the church. And, as William Willimon wryly reminds us, “When the church becomes Rotary, church will lose because Rotary serves lunch and meets at a convenient hour of the week!”5
Before we command “DO,” we must announce “DONE!” Only the work of Christ on the cross gives us the motivation to live morally: gratitude. Only the provision of Christ at Pentecost gives us the means to live morally: indwelling Spirit power. In fact, when the sermon calls for obedience without pointing to the power for obedience, Jay Kesler says it’s like shouting to a drowning person, “Swim! Swim!” We can tell our people what to do, but if they have no means to do it, it is futile.
Thus Wayne McDill warns us against filling our sermons with “we should,” “we ought,” and “we must.” He encourages us to sweep the “musty” odor from our preaching, by saying, “You can.”6 Because of what Christ has done for you, we say, “You can” be more patient. “You can” be more persevering. “You can” be more honest, giving, loving and humble . . . all because of Jesus. His death, resurrection, and indwelling Spirit make a moral life possible.
The Danger of “How-to” Sermons
While “be good” sermons can forget about Christ, so also can “how-to” sermons. Someone has commented that “how-to” sermons take a “mass counseling” approach. While pulpit moralizing takes a confrontative stance, the mass counseling preacher takes a therapeutic stance. His preaching offers practical advice on how to live a better life—handling anger, becoming a better parent, dealing with depression, managing your money. But here’s the upshot: Both suffer from “JDD.”
The “how-to” preacher offers “helpful hints for hurtful habits” drawn from biblical texts, but (like pulpit moralizing) these are pulled out of the shadow of the cross. If Jesus shows up anywhere in these sermons, it is, as someone put it, “as an itinerant therapist who went around helping people feel better about themselves.” Nowhere is the teaching set in the context of surrender to a Savior. The preacher himself becomes more therapist than evangelist, more professional counselor than prophetic voice.
This is not to say our preaching shouldn’t take up the practical, workaday issues like parenthood or money management or depression. Rather, they must be taken up further, all the way to the throne of Christ, and seen in the light of his scars and his crown. The great problems people face can only be met with a vision of a great Christ.
The gospel at its essence is not good advice but good news. It is the hope-filled announcement that God is real, people have value, life has meaning, sin and death are conquered, Christ is in control, and Heaven is waiting! Certainly many biblical texts offer practical principles for healthier (emotional, financial, vocational, relational) living, but they must be taught in their Christological context—that is, as realities of the Christ-life since they are found in the Christ-book. They are in the Bible to describe the life of a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, not simply the life of a well-adjusted individual.
A Host of Witnesses
A Christ-centered understanding of Scripture, then, helps us avoid pulpit moralizing on the one hand and mass counseling on the other. But Christ-centered preaching is not only the most faithful interpretation. It is also the most faithful pastoring. It is the only thing that ultimately “works” to help people. Only preaching Christ will truly engender faith. Only preaching Christ will usher God’s grace into people’s lives. Only preaching Christ can heal the hurts, soothe the sorrows, straighten the crooked, fix the broken, disentangle the sin from hardened hearts, and shoot adrenaline into world-weary souls.
The first church I served had the words of John 12:21 inscribed on the pulpit, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” So to close, may I simply call forth a host of witnesses to encourage you to keep Christ at the center of your sermons?
Once asked how he prepared his sermons, Charles Spurgeon replied, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.”
The apostle Paul said the same to the Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23); “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2); and again, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Martin Luther’s convictions were just as strong: “We preach first Christ and last Christ and always Christ.”
F. W. Robertson agreed, “The task of every preacher is to point to Jesus and get out of the way.”
Indeed, wrote James S. Stewart, “No preaching which fails to exalt Christ is worthy to be called Christian preaching.”
But my favorite witness might be the little boy in Sunday school. The teacher asked her first-grade class, “What is gray, has a bushy tail, climbs trees, and eats nuts?” After a long silence, one little boy finally raised his hand and said, “Well, teacher, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
That’s an old preacher joke, but I like that little boy for two reasons. Number one, he’s got enough common sense to recognize a squirrel when it’s described! Number two? I like that little boy because he still remembers something we preachers sometimes forget:
The church is the place where we always talk about Jesus.
1No God But God, Os Guinness and John Seel, eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 185.
2Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, The Jesus Manifesto (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), xvi.
3Norman Geisler, To Understand the Bible, Look for Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), 83.
4The Preacher and Preaching, Samuel Logan, ed. (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1986), 191.
5William Willimon, “Wanna Become an Alien?” Leadership Journal, Summer 1998, 24.
6Wayne McDill, The 12 Essential Skills of Great Preaching (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 255.
Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.