If you had one sermon to preach, what would it be? For me, the answer is easy: I'd preach Christ! No matter the congregation, no matter the specific needs, no matter the tenor or the tone; in the end, as the preacher, we must preach Christ and Him crucified. If we fail to do that, no matter our eloquence, erudition, and demeanor our pulpit ministry will be a failure.
But good preaching, even of Christ, doesn't happen by chance. It takes work, planning, and dedication. Good preaching must come in phases. We must prioritize. Martyn D. Lloyd-Jones summarizes these phases into two main sections: the kerygma, the message of salvation for humanity as perfectly wrought by Jesus and the didache, the message that edifies those who have believed Jesus as their personal Saviour. 1 At the center, as always, must be Christ and Him crucified.
Jesus always preached to the primary needs of people before He took the step of rebuking the stiff-necked Pharisees and Sadducees. Having been touched with the people's deep need of salvation, Christ preached the message of the kingdom of God (Mark 6:34; Luke 9:11). Ellen White describes the response: "The people listened to the words of mercy flowing so freely from the lips of the Son of God. They heard the gracious words, so simple and so plain that they were as the balm of Gilead to their souls."2 She said, "There should not a sermon be given unless a portion of that discourse is to especially make plain the way that sinners may come to Christ and be saved."3 She warns that many preachers have misconstrued the real way that leads to salvation: "When the free gift of Christ's righteousness is not presented, the dis courses are dry and Spiritless; the sheep and the lambs are not fed."4 Indeed, without Christ, truth about the law, the Sabbath, and prophecy bring a person little profit. If you fail to lift up Christ and the Cross, you have not brought salvation to your congregation.
It is axiomatic that most of the listeners to our sermons are overburdened by diverse problems and that many attend church with hopes of getting divine help. However, in stead of providing them with what they need, "we [too often] carry some inadequate homily about textual matters or ecclesiastical etiquette before a congregation of people who are battling with loneliness and fear, worrying about jobs and education, trying to hold on to crumbling marriages, and facing death." We do not stop here. "We stand before degenerate people and offer them pious platitudes about religious symbolism and the history of the faith." Thus, "it is no wonder the church in our day often seems to lack power. When the gospel is not heard from the pulpit, there is nothing to unify the hearts of people. They go away confused and forlorn as they came."5 Time and again, in every discourse, on every occasion in one way or another, the preacher must exalt the Cross and what Christ has accomplished for each one of us there, not only as the answer to our most heartfelt needs, but also as the source of strength to bring our people through whatever crisis they are facing.
Christ should be the foundation of every sermon preached, no matter the topic, for what topic can have any lasting meaning or importance apart from Christ?6 If we are to make Christ central in our preaching, we have to make His saving grace the motivating factor for whatever we ask the congregation to do. Whether obedience to the law, faithfulness in tithing, adherence to health principles, love of our neighbors and enemies, whatever we must make the Cross, and Christ's love for us manifested there, the basis of all that we seek to get our congregation to do. Anything apart from that will sooner or later flounder.
Especially in evangelistic crusades, every thing should be laid on the structure of the Cross and God's forgiveness. Doctrines should be presented only in the light of the saving grace of our Lord. They should never be preached in a manner that makes them seem independent of the gospel. Apart from the Cross, they can't be properly understood. Imagine teaching the Sabbath, the judgment, or the law apart from the saving grace of Christ? It should be understood, from the first night of any series of meetings, that the preacher is a Christian preacher and that, more than anything else, he is there to preach Christ and Him crucified. Thus, if we want to evangelize the world, we have to make those who come to our meetings believe in Christ before they believe in anything else we teach, because nothing we teach is of any lasting value apart from Him.
As Adventists, we must be especially careful of legalism, which has been, and in some cases still continues to be, a problem for a church that rightly upholds the perpetuity of God's law. Legalism is never from the Lord. The cure, again, is to uplift Christ and the Cross: nothing will drive legalism from the heart faster than the great truths, so powerfully expressed in the writings of Paul, that surety and hope of salvation can not come by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
"Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit" (Romans 8:1). "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ... for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2:16). These are truths that must be proclaimed in every sermon.
We may preach eloquent and erudite messages but, like the offering of Cain, they may be empty. "The offering of Cain was an offense to God because it was a Christless offering. The burden of our message is not only the commandments of God but the faith of Jesus."7
In short, the Holy Spirit does not give life to any message that is not the good news about the saving grace of our Lord. The Holy Spirit is not part of any preaching that isn't gospel oriented. If what is preached is truly the gospel, it will be at tended by divine power. It was only when the apostles lifted up Jesus as the Saviour of men, crucified for their sins, that the Holy Spirit witnessed to their message. Thus, before delivering our sermons, we have to weigh them in the balances of the gospel to see whether they contain some thing of endurance and permanence, something that will feed the flock or allow them to leave hungrier for truth than when they first came.
As Adventists, we have a great message to give the world, a message of hope, of power, of promise. But we must always make the Cross of Christ the center of all that we believe, because in Him alone rests the hope, power, and promise that makes this message what it is.
1. Martyn D. Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1971), 61, 62.
2. Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 149.
3. Ibid., 188.
4. Ibid., 186.
5. Killinger, Fundamentals of Preaching (Fortress Press, 1985), 164.
6. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 158.
7. Ibid., 162.