Inside the pulpit in London where I learned to preach was a little inscription meant only for the preacher as he stepped up to his task: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Those words from John 12:21 made clear what I was there to do. Yet, simple as the message was, it was not shallow. It reflected the deepest wells of Christian thought.
For Jesus Christ is the truth and glory of God; in him the grace and life and wisdom of God is found. He is the revealing Word sent forth by the Father, and the One to whom the Spirit of truth testifies. Indeed, God breathes out the Scriptures through the Spirit precisely so that through the word of Christ we might be made “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). That is why the law finds its fulfillment in him (Romans 10:4), and why the prophets, the apostles, and all the Scriptures testify about him (Luke 24:27, 44–47; John 5:39–40, 46).
For the preacher, the application is straightforward: if the desire of the Father, the work of the Spirit, and the purpose of Scripture is to herald Jesus, so must the faithful preacher. If the Son’s great and eternal goal is to win for himself a bride, then his heralds must woo for him. They are like Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24, commissioned to find a bride for his master’s son.
Preaching That Avoids Christ
Of course, a good deal of preaching doesn’t even try to preach Christ. Alternative messages or saviors are promoted, unbiblical “Christs” are proclaimed, or preaching is simply confused with lecturing, moralizing, entertaining, or grandstanding.
Even those who are most serious about Scripture can fail here. As Jesus said to the Jewish leaders, “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). Just so, we too can treat Scripture as an end in itself and preaching as a simple matter of making our people experts in Scripture. We can preach in a way that looks impeccably biblical but produces only proud scribes, not humbled worshipers of Christ.
Three Remedies for Preachers
For many of us preachers, though, we know we should preach Christ. We want to do so. Yet we struggle. Why? Let me suggest three remedies to three mistakes we can make.
1. Preach Christ, not an abstraction.
The gravitational pull of sin down and away from faith in Christ means that our default mode is to put substitutes in the place of Christ, to have other objects of worship. One of the subtlest ways preachers do this is by replacing the specific, actual person of Jesus Christ with an abstraction. Any abstraction can do it, but the more theological it is, the harder it can be to spot how it stands in the place of Christ and masks his absence. “The gospel,” “grace,” or “the Bible”: all can be treated as if they were saviors or gods in themselves.
Even “the cross” can be treated as an abstraction and stand as a substitute for Jesus. In fact, the cross is probably the place where the danger is subtlest. Preachers seeking to “preach Christ” can easily take it to mean nothing more than the need to rehearse the atonement in every sermon. But in so doing, the atonement itself can be presented as an impersonal machine for a “salvation” that has little clearly to do with treasuring Christ.
To preach Christ involves preaching all the doctrines that set him forth. Yet no doctrine should be abstracted from him and made ultimate. Christ himself is, in person, the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He alone is the one to put forth as the glory and delight of the saints.
2. Proclaim the reality, not a mere concept.
“Preaching Christ from all of Scripture” has become a staple theme for evangelical books and conferences. In many ways, that is a good thing, but there is a danger that preaching Christ can become a mere hermeneutical game in which we work out how to “get to” him as the endpoint of the sermon. Christ becomes the preacher’s brilliant solution to the textual puzzle. In other words, Christ is presented as the right answer, but not held out as the one to be adored.
With this mistake, it is not so much that Christ is replaced by some other truth; rather, he is treated as a dead specimen to be sliced and diced for our analysis. This, of course, appeals to our pride. For if Scripture is not mightily divine, living and active, but a dead artifact to be dissected for concepts, then we can stand over it as masters of the text. We need never face the discomfort of being confronted by it. But preaching then becomes a mere memorial to Christ, a tombstone.
Yet when Paul wrote of his imploring as an ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), he clearly saw a role greater than that of a schoolteacher revising theological grammar. Before the eyes of his people, Jesus Christ was placarded so that they might come to him, set their affections on him, and so trust him.
3. Show, don’t tell.
If people are to cherish and treasure Christ, they cannot merely be told that he is good, true, and beautiful. They must be shown so that they taste and see. Yet showing is a much more challenging proposition for the preacher: such a sermon cannot be aimlessly trotted out; nor can it come from a preacher who is not himself enjoying and adoring Christ.
For those reasons, we preachers all too easily settle for telling. The sort of rhetorical questions you often hear from the pulpit (“Isn’t that a wonderful truth?” “Isn’t Christ glorious?”) are a classic giveaway. They sound pious, but instead of showing how Christ is glorious and wonderful, they leave the people to do the work of discovering for themselves.
Showing is not just a challenge for the sermon itself. Showing involves the man. For while an ungodly preacher may speak of Christ — and do so with eloquence — what people will sense is his ego or lovelessness or bitterness of spirit. And these they may then map onto the Christ he proclaims. The ambassador cannot be divorced from his message.
If preachers are to set forth Christ faithfully in the full colors of his glory, we must, like him, delight in God and love the sinners we address. Without even meaning to, the preacher will smell of whatever he truly glories in. Also without meaning to, the people will read Christ’s character off his. For good or ill, then, the heart of the preacher is itself a sermon.
Who is sufficient for these things? Not one of us in ourselves. But this is just what throws us onto him. Then we will decrease, and he will increase. And then, when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself (John 12:32).
Sirs, they want to see Jesus.