By John Tucker

Last month Carey hosted a conference on preaching for the Chinese Christian community. It was a rich conversation about the five essential ingredients of preaching that transforms: the word of Scripture, the listener, the world, the preacher, and Jesus – the living word. I had the privilege of presenting on the fifth and final ingredient. We started with this statement: “If we [those who preach] are not determined that in every sermon Christ is to be preached … we should resign our commission forthwith and seek some other vocation.”[1] Do you agree?

At Carey we have a saying: “The written word is our basis. The Living Word is our focus.” I believe that the Bible is to be the basis of every sermon and that Jesus is to be the focus of every sermon. He is to be the centre, or the destination, of every message we preach. Why? Think about the essential ingredients of any sermon.


1. The nature of Scripture

I remember once attending a lecture at another theological college. The professor asked his audience to take their Bibles, find the page between Malachi and Matthew, and rip it out. His point was that the Bible is not 66 separate books, or even two separate books. It is one book, written by one divine Author, which tells the one consistent, unfolding story of God and his redemptive activity in the world, a story that points to Jesus and is ultimately all about Jesus. The implication is that you can’t really understand any part of the story, you can’t really explain the meaning of any biblical text, without reference to him.

That was what Jesus, himself, claimed in his interaction with the religious leaders. He said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39-40). On the road to Emmaus Luke says, that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). Jesus clearly saw himself as the fulfilment of the Old Testament writings (Luke 24:44-45), the focus of all Scripture from beginning to end.

I think Tim Keller is, therefore, spot on: “In order to understand and explain any text of the Bible,” he says, “you must put it into its context, which includes fitting it into the canonical context: the message of the Bible as a whole…. To show how a text fits into its whole canonical context, then, is to show how it points to Christ and gospel salvation, the big idea of the whole Bible. Every time you expound a Bible text, you are not finished unless you demonstrate how it shows us that we cannot save ourselves and that only Jesus can.”[2]


2. The needs of listeners

A few years ago, I attended a pastors’ conference, and a senior minister said to the delegates: “The gospel is for unbelievers. It’s for evangelism. But preaching on Sunday mornings, preaching to believers, that needs to go way beyond the milk of the gospel to the meat of how we should live.” In other words, believers don’t need to keep hearing the gospel. What do you think?

Certainly, in our preaching we need to emphasise application. Absolutely. However, appeals to moral behaviour apart from the gospel – apart from Christ – don’t really change people, do they? Rick Lawrence, editor of Group Magazine, says about youth ministry in the States: “Up until now most of us have been like overworked pruners in a fast-growing orchard. We scurry around trying to cut off the bad fruit we see around us. We do teaching series on sex, on money, on music and movies, on relationships.… The truth is, as kids come to know Jesus more deeply and begin to abide in him as the “root” of their life, their fruit will change.”

In other words, the truth is we’re not only justified by grace, we’re sanctified by grace. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us that it’s as we contemplate the glory of God in the person of Christ, that we’re transformed into his likeness. The same gospel that introduces people into the family of God is the power that transforms them as children of God. We need to hear it again and again. We’re constantly tempted to relapse into reliance on ourselves. We never outgrow the need to hear the good news of what God has done for us in Christ.

If in our preaching we just draw out of a text what we need to do without also highlighting what God in Christ has done – how that text points to the gospel – our preaching will just breed either self-condemning despair or self-righteous pharisaism. Preaching, to use Lucy Lind Hogan’s phrase, is “naming grace.”[3]


3. The influence of culture

Every society is shaped by a series of foundational cultural narratives. These narratives, or worldviews, are virtually invisible to most of us, but they’re profoundly influential.

That’s why Paul says in his letter to Christians, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). That’s why he says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). The only way to free our listeners from the patterns of this world is to show them Christ.

As Keller says, “We are social-cultural beings, and our inner-heart motivations are profoundly shaped by the human communities in which we are embedded. In the course of expounding a biblical text the Christian preacher should compare and contrast the Scripture’s message with the foundational beliefs of the culture, which are usually invisible to people inside it … To reach people gospel preachers must challenge the culture’s story at points of confrontation and finally retell the culture’s story, as it were, revealing how its deepest aspirations for good can be fulfilled only in Christ.”[4]


4. The practice of preachers

Throughout history the church has consistently seen preaching as “a manifestation of the incarnate word, from the written word, by the spoken word.” Take a look at this painting by Matthias Grunewald.

It’s his rendering of the crucifixion in the centrepiece of the Isenheim altarpiece. What stands out to you? There’s the tortured Christ on the cross. On his right, Mary Magdalene kneels in prayer while the beloved disciple cradles Jesus’ mother, Mary. On Jesus’ left, stands John the Baptist with his extended, oversized, finger pointing to the Lord, directing the viewer’s gaze away from himself to Jesus. Near the hand in Latin are the words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

The apostle Paul also adamantly insisted that the theme of his preaching ministry was always and only Jesus Christ. To the Corinthians he wrote that, “as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God … I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2.2). And in his great mission statement to the Colossians he declared (Colossians 1:28): “We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” Paul and his fellow apostles clearly preached about lots of issues besides Christ – like how to behave in our families, in our churches, in society – but they always connected those instructions to what God had done in Christ. The Christian life for them was the living out of the implications of the gospel. Preaching meant preaching Christ.

It was the same for the early church fathers and for the Reformers. Martin Luther, for example, used to describe Scripture as “the cradle in which we will find the baby.” So, the nature of the text, the needs of our listeners, the power of culture, the practice of preachers – all demand that preaching biblically means pointing to Christ.


5. The goal of the Spirit

But there’s one more reason why the Living Word is, at some level, to be the focus of every sermon. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is the primary agent in any sermon. The Spirit is the one who breathed the Scriptures into being. The Spirit is the one who illuminates the listener. The Spirit is the one who convicts the world. The Spirit is the one who anoints the preacher. And what is the Spirit’s great goal? On the night before his death Jesus said, “When the Counsellor comes … the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26). And again: “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you” (John 16:13-15).

The primary role of the Spirit is to shine the spotlight on the Son, to glorify Jesus. The implication, then, is that “Our sermons must be Christ-centred … or the Spirit’s power will have nothing to do with them.… Where preachers are intent on glorifying Christ, the Spirit is there with all his aid.”[5] This is what our churches need: preaching that is based in the written word and focused on the Living Word. May this, then, be our prayer:

“Grant, O Lord,

that from the written word,

and by our spoken word,

men and women may catch a vision of the Incarnate Word,

through the power of the Spirit.”[6]


[1] James S. Stewart, Heralds of God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1946), 61.

[2] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 47-48

[3] Lucy Lind Hogan, Graceful Speech: An Invitation to Preaching (Louisville: WJKP, 2006), 12.

[4] Keller, Preaching, 19-20.

[5] Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Sermon Preparation and Delivery (Nashville: B & H, 2007), 67.

[6] Donald Coggan, New Day for Preaching: The Sacrament of the Word (London: SPCK, 1996), 47.