How crucicentric and conversionistic should an expository sermon be, especially around the holidays when churches welcome more guests into their pews than any other time of the year? In view of Paul’s command to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5), are we expository preachers guilty of a dereliction of duty if, in our attempt to honor a biblical text’s authorial intention, our sermon doesn’t speak explicitly of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and call for sinners to be saved? Is there a way for us to be both dutiful as evangelists and faithful as expositors while preaching our Christmas sermons?
Even if we remove the holidays from our discussion, being evangelistic and expository in the same sermon still poses quite the challenge. We would therefore do well to think hard about what we mean when we use the words “evangelistic preaching” and Christ’s place in our holiday sermons.
The Gospel and Explicit/Implicit Evangelism
To evangelize is to share the good news. It is, as N. T. Niles described, one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. But what precisely is this good news, this staff of life?
To change Niles’ metaphor, we might compare the gospel to an apple. At the core of the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Surrounding this core, like the flesh and skin of an apple, are two related truths. First, God did not abandon the human race when Adam and Eve left Eden. He even walked among us in the person of Jesus. He is Immanuel—God with us. That’s good news! Second, God is committed to restoring what was broken in Eden. Jesus died and rose again to set right what Adam and Eve set wrong. He is our redeemer. That, too, is incredibly good news! The annunciation of God’s good news should be more than a canned recitation of core facts, for this announcement is shaped specifically for a target audience at a specific time—be it a holiday or not.
Our evangelism through preaching can take on two forms: explicit or implicit.[i] Explicit evangelistic preaching is what springs immediately to mind when we think about preaching evangelistically. The target audience is spiritually lost. The text gets at the core of the gospel. The tone of the sermon is invitational. Implicit evangelistic preaching, on the other hand, identifies the gospel to the extent that it’s imbedded in a text and attempts to unpack the text in view of that gospel.
This is how the Puritans conceived of all preaching. They viewed all Scripture as bearing witness to Christ. As long as a sermon expounded a text fairly, they believed that it would necessarily testify of Christ and therefore be evangelistic to some extent. Spurgeon was a theological and homiletical heir to the Puritans. Preachers can follow his lead while avoiding his missteps by expounding every biblical text faithfully, speaking of Christ and his salvific work only to the degree that the text warrants. In those cases where the traces of either are faint, the service, if not the sermon, can still call for faith.
Christ’s Place in Our Holiday Preaching
Contributors to Scott Gibson and Matt Kim’s Homiletics and Hermeneutics identify four hermeneutical philosophies that undergird evangelical preachers’ theologies of preaching. They are Christocentric (redemptive-historic), Christiconic, theocentric, and law-gospel. These four theories can be defined like this:
-Christocentric preaching prioritizes the explicit naming of Jesus within every sermon and tends to be both crucicentric and conversionistic.
-Christiconic preaching upholds textual fidelity, authorial intent, and growth in Christlikeness as the desired end of every sermon.
-Theocentric preaching focuses on the trinitarian person of God, naming Jesus only to the extent the faithful presentation of a text warrants.
-Law-gospel preaching addresses trouble on the vertical and horizontal axes of life and the grace that is available—ultimately through Christ—to address these troubles.
-(Full disclosure: My personal hermeneutical philosophy falls somewhere between the theocentric and Christiconic. Moreover, it is cruci-informed and conversionistically sensitive. What I mean is that in my preaching I strive to expound what a text says, how it says it, and why, within its historical context, while not forgetting that my hearers live on this side of Calvary. In my preparation I may not plan to include the core of the gospel in my sermon, but the Spirit’s prompting after I’m in the pulpit may lead me to do otherwise.)
What does all of this mean, practically speaking, for holiday preaching that aspires to be both expository and evangelistic specifically? Common sense tells us that certain texts are more appropriate than others during the holidays. Even the most infrequent of visitors sense something’s amiss when the Christmas sermon is the next installment in a series from the Book of Judges. I believe it was Haddon Robinson who said that while all Scripture is profitable, it’s not equally profitable at all times. Wise preachers plan their holiday preaching accordingly. They look for texts that are most amenable to addressing their hearers’ needs, hurts, and interests in view of those special Sundays, and they help to plan the entire worship experience so that Jesus is intentionally lifted high.
The nativity texts to which we naturally turn at Christmas are inherently Christocentric and sometimes speak of his salvific mission (Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11). Easter sermon texts are obviously both Christocentric and crucicentric. These are easily and rightfully applied conversionistically. But as we move further away from such texts, looking especially to Old Testament passages for types, foreshadowings, and prophecies of Jesus, we routinely discover the authorial intent behind those texts wasn’t crucicentric nor conversionistic on a personal level. Genesis 22, for example, illustrates beautifully how God himself provides the sacrifice he requires. But according to Abraham Kuruvilla’s theological commentary for preachers on Genesis, the New Testament doesn’t refer to this text nor does it bear any indication of typology. Rather, Genesis 22 speaks to the faith and behavior of Abraham, a man who believed God, holding him forth as an example to all believers.
Apart from Christmas and Easter, on secular holidays like Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, it’s nearly impossible to preach a sermon related to these events that is both expository and evangelistic and drawn from a single passage of Scripture. For this reason, the expository preacher might do well to consider a more topical approach to the sermon around those special Sundays.
For two years I taught a seminary course on evangelistic preaching. One day in class a preacher-in-training disagreed sharply with my claim that preaching an explicit evangelistic sermon every week would cause murmuring in the church. He didn’t see the wisdom in expository preaching that presents the evangel in proportion to the day’s text or seeks to address all of life through the filter of the gospel. He believed every sermon had to present clearly some variation on the Romans Road to Salvation.
A couple of years later he was visiting in town and left a message on my home’s answering machine. He had been pastoring a country church since our last meeting, and he wanted to apologize for his earlier outburst. He had learned from experience that a limited and explicit evangelistic sermon every Sunday left his people feeling underfed and dissatisfied.
Rare is the text that says everything we want it to say evangelistically. Rarer still are those texts to which we’re most likely to turn around the holidays to say everything we need to say in order to present the core of the gospel. We do well to trust that the Spirit can use every text, properly expounded, to accomplish his purposes.
Where the gospel is loud, our sermons should shout. Where the gospel is faint, our sermons should whisper. Where the gospel is all but mute, we should look for other places in the worship service to give it voice.
[i] Craig A. Loscalzo, Evangelistic Preaching that Connects: Guidance in Shaping Fresh and Appealing Sermons (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), was an inspiration for many of the thoughts here.
Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.