Years ago, I brought a group of high school students to a Christian conference in California. The first night, hundreds of high schoolers packed into the gymnasium to worship God and hear a message from the guest preacher. The preacher took the stage and gave a compelling sermon about how much we should love people. While the content was true and good, I walked out that night with a funny feeling about the sermon. Something was not right. Then, I realized the problem: the preacher made no mention of Jesus.
Is a sermon really a sermon without Jesus? More specifically, is a sermon ever complete without the preaching of the Gospel? I do not believe so. Every sermon should find its resolution in the Gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to pay the penalty of our sins so that all who believe in him may receive forgiveness. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the defining belief that distinguishes a Christian message from every other religious or self-help talk. A sermon without the Gospel is incomplete.
All Scripture is Fulfilled in Jesus
To understand why the Gospel should be in every sermon, we must look back to the first Easter. On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, Luke records that two disciples walked the seven-mile road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. While they talked about the breaking news of Jesus’ resurrection, trying to make sense of it all, a man joined them. It was Jesus, but they did not recognize him. Jesus acted like he did not know what happened, so the disciples explained everything they knew to him. Eventually, Jesus interjected by pointing out that this man they spoke of was obviously the Messiah. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” Luke writes, “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV).
We cannot miss the significance of this: Jesus explained not how the New Testament (yet to be written) speaks about him, he explained how the writings in the Old Testament all point forward to himself. In other words, the Old Testament is only fulfilled and fully understood in light of Jesus. The Gospel is the key to understanding the Old Testament.
Upon hearing this, the disciples realized that this man they were speaking with was none other than Jesus, himself! But before they could say another word, Jesus disappeared from their sight. In amazement, they ran back to Jerusalem to tell everyone about what happened. While they were telling the story to the other disciples back in Jerusalem, Jesus appeared in the room. “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45, emphasis added). Once again, Jesus explained how the Old Testament was fulfilled through him, and upon this realization, we read that the disciples minds were opened to a fuller understanding of Scripture.
We must also note that the book of Luke isn’t the only place we see this idea. In the book of John, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40, emphasis added). Again, Jesus tells us that the Old Testament bears witness to him. Therefore, according to Jesus, the Gospel is the key to unlock a fuller understanding of the Bible.
How does this relate to preaching? If the purpose of a sermon is to open a passage of Scripture and faithfully preach the text to your audience, and the best way to interpret Scripture is through the Gospel—as Jesus said—then to preach a passage of Scripture without the Gospel is a failure to faithfully interpret Scripture.
This is why pastor and author Tim Keller writes, “You can’t properly preach any text—putting it into its rightful place in the whole Bible—unless you show how its themes find their fulfillment in the person of Christ.”1 Christ is the key to proper interpretation. Old Testament scholar Graeme Goldsworthy says this about interpreting the Old Testament: “We do not start at Genesis 1 and work our way forward until we discover where it is all leading. Rather we first come to Christ, and he directs us to study the Old Testament in the light of the gospel. The gospel will interpret the Old Testament by showing us its goal and meaning.”2
For example, the Gospel shows that God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to provide a different sacrifice in the final moment, was not some cruel test. It was a foreshadowing of how God would one day sacrifice his son Jesus in our place (Gen 22:1-9). The Gospel shows that the Passover (the angel of death passing over the homes of the Israelite people in Egypt that covered their doorpost with a lamb’s blood, and killing the first born son of all the Egyptians) was not a one-time miracle. It was a symbol of how God would one day pass over exacting judgment on his people, because of the blood of the Lamb, Jesus, shed for us. To preach passages like these without explaining the Gospel connection misses the entire point.
The Old Testament points forward to the cross, and the New Testament points back to the cross. Therefore, in order to faithfully preach the Word of God, we must always look through the lens of the Gospel.
The Gospel Was the Primary Theme of the Sermons of the Early Church.
The Gospel clearly played the starring role in the preaching of the early church. In the book of Acts, we see Christianity spread like wildfire from a group of 120 followers of Jesus to thousands of devoted followers. How did this young movement spread? It spread through preaching. What was the resounding message of these sermons? In short: the Gospel. This is obvious by simply reading through any mention of preaching in the book of Acts.
The first sermon recorded in Acts is on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, a crowd gathered, and Peter seized the opportunity to preach the Gospel (Acts 2:36-38). This was just the beginning. Although not exhaustive, consider the following list of examples:
- Peter and John get interrogated by religious leaders who were, “greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2, emphasis added).
- After the apostles were released from prison with a beating and a warning never to preach about Jesus again, we read this: “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:42, emphasis added).
- “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (Acts 8:5, emphasis added).
- “Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans” (Acts 8:25, emphasis added).
- Paul is converted to Christianity, “And immediately he proclaimed Jesusin the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20, emphasis added).
- Peter declared, “And he [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the peopleand to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42, emphasis added).
- “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20, emphasis added).
- “Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe’” (Acts 15:7, emphasis added).
- When Paul was in Athens, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18, emphasis added).
- The final sentence in the book of Acts says, “He [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31, emphasis added).
Upon examining this list, I think we can agree that there is a common theme. Every mention of preaching is related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And there are even more examples with the same theme that are not on this list. The early church grew rapidly by preaching one thing: the Gospel.
If Acts is not convincing enough, this theme of preaching the Gospel is also evident in the writings of Paul. To the Roman church he writes, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Rom 1:15). To the church in Corinth he says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2). Again in 1 Corinthians 9:16, he emphasizes, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” To the Colossians he wrote, “Him [Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col 1:28-29). Paul was clearly focused on preaching one thing: the Gospel.
If the foundation of the church was built upon the preaching the Gospel, should we not continue what the Apostles began? To neglect preaching the Gospel is to neglect the foundation of our faith. To neglect preaching the Gospel is to forget what Jesus, the Apostles, and countless other followers of Christ bled and died for. To think that we somehow have a message more creative, beneficial, or important to our audience than the Gospel is insane. Like the example set in the early church, we ought to continue a heritage of preaching the Gospel with great boldness.
Preaching the Gospel Avoids Works Righteousness
A major benefit of preaching centered on the Gospel is avoiding the constant trap of works righteousness slipping into our sermons. When a pastor preaches without the Gospel, they appear to communicate that we are saved through our own good behavior. Do better. Try harder. Stop sinning. This is a common message in many churches today. A sermon without the Gospel places the burden of salvation firmly upon the shoulders of the audience—as if their worth is based upon their own ability to live more righteously.
Brian Chapell said it this way: “When the focus of a sermon becomes a moralistic ‘Don’t smoke or chew or go with those who do’ (or even a more sophisticated ‘Renew your heart by doing what God commands’), listeners will most likely assume that they can secure or renew their relationship with God through proper behaviors.”3 In a critique of some of the preaching he heard, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “The Church has been trying to preach morality and ethics without the Gospel as a basis; it has been preaching morality without godliness; and it simply does not work. It never has done, and it never will. And the result is that the Church, having abandoned her real task, has left humanity more or less to its own devices.”4
A sermon without the Gospel at the center places the means of salvation upon ourselves to work harder. It is a hopeless endeavor. Apart from the power and grace of Jesus Christ, none of us can work our way to Heaven. We are saved by faith in Jesus, not human effort (Eph 2:8-9). Works righteousness says, “Do more to be saved.” The Gospel says, “There is nothing you can do to be saved; Jesus has already done everything for you.” Although a pastor may agree with this, he fails to communicate this truth when he falls into the trap of preaching morality apart from the Gospel.
Please do not misunderstand. The Bible teaches morality; therefore, we should preach morality. The problem is only when morality is not tied to the Gospel. We are saved for good works, not because of them. Moral living is the overflow of a Gospel-filled life. This is why preaching morality apart from the Gospel is not faithful preaching.
Would Preaching the Gospel Every Sermon Get Boring?
Some may object that preaching the Gospel in every sermon would get boring. This is usually based on a simple misunderstanding. Preaching the Gospel in every sermon does not mean that we only preach about the same topic every week. Preaching the Gospel in every sermon means that we show how the Gospel influences the central theme of whatever passage of Scripture we preach.
For example, consider the pastor mentioned earlier preaching to hundreds of high school students in a crowded gymnasium. He talked about loving others, but failed to mention Jesus. If we are preaching about loving others, the Gospel provides the motive: Jesus loved us enough to die for us, and commanded us to love others. We don’t love others simply because it is the right thing to do, it feels good, or we will be punished if we do not. We don’t love others because it will earn ourselves a greater position in the afterlife. We love because Jesus loved us (1 John 4:19). It is the Gospel that separates the message of Christianity from the message of any other religion or motivational speaker.
The Gospel applies to every area of our lives and every area of Scripture. Its application is too broad to be boring. This is why upon the death of the great preacher Charles Spurgeon, one man could summarize his preaching this way: “His subject was always one—Christ; but it was Christ afresh from his view of him in God’s written Word. Ever the same sun, but the sunshine is fresh every day.”5 Faithful Gospel preaching should never run dry.
Preaching the Gospel in every sermon is far more than something we tack on to the end of a sermon with an altar call; It is the very foundation of Christian belief. The Gospel is the key to interpreting Scripture. The Gospel is the central theme of the apostles’ preaching. The Gospel saves us from the trap of works righteousness. The Gospel applies to every area of our lives and will never get boring. No sermon is complete until the Gospel has been preached.
In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “Of all I would wish to say this is the sum; my brethren, PREACH CHRIST, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme.”6 Every sermon should resolve in the Gospel.5
1 Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), Kindle edition, location 298.
2 David Murray, Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2013), 15.
3 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), Kindle edition, location 6441.
4 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching & Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 45.
5 Tom Nettles, Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (Greanies House, Christian Focus, 2013), Kindle edition, location 199.
6 Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1954), 79.