After teaching preaching for almost a decade at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, some questions and objections appear every semester like clockwork when I begin to lecture on expository preaching and propose the following definition:
Expository preaching is preaching that takes a particular text of Scripture as its subject, proclaiming the truth of that text in light of its historical, epochal, and Christocentric, kingdom-focused canonical contexts, thereby exposing the meaning of the human and divine authors for the purpose of gospel-centered application.
Hands immediately began to go in the air with questions that presuppose preaching Christ in every sermon can only be done at the expense of credible exegesis and hermeneutics. Students begin to ask questions like: If we preach Christ in every text how can we avoid allegory? What if the text isn’t about Christ? What if the sermon is on a particular doctrine? What if the sermon is simply advocating a biblical moral principle? Will all of my sermons begin to sound the same if I preach Jesus every week?
Recently, I have been reading The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller again and feasting on his Christ-centered, gospel-saturated, missional-oriented, theological and practical writings. I came across a sermon he preached in 1801 to pastors at an annual meeting arguing that pastoral labors can only hope to find success if they meet with God’s approval. One of his central assertions is that all doctrine, ministry, and preaching must center on Christ and him crucified to have divine approval. In the sermon he responds to what evidently were common objections to his central assertion, and they are the same objections that I face every semester in my classroom. The writer of Ecclesiastes was certainly correct when he asserted, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9).
Below I have added headings with common objections to the notion we should preach Christ in every text, and I also provide Andrew Fuller’s answers from his sermon to pastors in 1801 below the headings. In fact, I think I will bring Fuller with me to class at the beginning of the next semester and simply read his answers to my students.
What if my sermon text is focused on a particular doctrinal truth, and the text says nothing of Christ?
The doctrine we teach must be that of Jesus Christ and him crucified. The person and work of Christ have ever been the cornerstone of the Christian fabric: take away his divinity and atonement, and all will go to ruins. This is the doctrine taught by the apostles, and which God, in all ages, has delighted to honor. It would be found, I believe, on inquiry, that in those times wherein this doctrine has been most cordially embraced the church has been the most prosperous, and almost every declension has been accompanied by a neglect of it.
It is one thing for a community to retain doctrines in its decrees and articles, and another for ministers to preach them with faith and love in their ordinary labors. Divine truth requires to be written, not merely with ink and paper, but by the Spirit of God, upon the fleshly tablets of the heart.
Christ crucified is the central point, in which all the lines in evangelical truth meet and are united. There is not a doctrine in the Scriptures but what bears an important relation to it. Would we understand the glory of the divine character and government? It is seen in perfection in the face of Jesus Christ. Would we learn the evil of sin, and our perishing condition as sinners? Each is manifested in his sufferings. All the blessings of grace and glory are given us in him, and for his sake.
What if my sermon text is focused on a moral truth and not on Christ?
Practical religion finds its most powerful motives in his dying love. That doctrine of which Christ is not the sum and substance is not the gospel; and that morality which has no relation to him, and which is not enforced on evangelical principles, is not Christian, but heathen.
If I preach and teach Christ from every text of Scripture won’t I be guilty of isogesis and have to import Christ in by way of fanciful allegory?
I do not mean to be the apologist for that fastidious disposition apparent in some hearers, who require that every sermon shall have Christ for its immediate scene, and denominate everything else legal preaching. His sacred name ought not to be unnaturally forced into our discourses, nor the Holy Scriptures turned into allegory for the sake of introducing it; but, in order to preach Christ, there is no need of this. If all Scripture doctrines and duties bear a relation to him, we have only to keep that relation in view, and to urge practical religion upon those principles. If I leave out Christ in the sermon and allege that the subject did not admit of his being introduced, I fear it will only prove that my thoughts have not been cast in an evangelical mold. I might as well say there is a village which has no road to the metropolis, as that there is a Scripture doctrine or duty which has no relation to the person and work of Christ.
If I preach Christ in every sermon text, will not every sermon begin to sound the same?
Neither can I justly allege that such a way of preaching would cramp the powers of my soul, and confine me to four or five points in divinity: we may give the utmost scope to our minds, and yet, like the apostle, determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. There is breadth, and the links, and depth, and height sufficient in his love to occupy our powers, even though they were 10,000 times larger than they are. In all our labors, brethren, in the church or in the world, in our native country or among the heathen, be this our principal theme.
(All quotes from the sermon: “God’s Approbation of our Labors Necessary to the Hope of Success,” Preached by Andrew Fuller at the Annual Meeting of the Bedford Union, May 6, 1801 in The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, The Banner of Truth Trust, 570-571)