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A Passion for Grace-full Preaching (Part 2): Bryan Chapell

Every sermon should reflect how the whole Bible unfolds a grace that culminates in Christ.
A Passion for Grace-full Preaching (Part 2): Bryan Chapell

Don't miss Part 1 of our interview with Bryan Chapell, published here.

Matt Woodley, PreachingToday.com: Tell us how your emphasis on the centrality of grace impacts the application of your sermons.

Bryan Chapell: I see so many people in our era who only understand Christ-centered preaching as merely an interpretive scheme. Popular talk centers on "Preaching Christ from every verse," or "Preaching Christ from all of the Bible."

It's ungracious not to say what to do. But it's also ungracious to say what to do and not to say why or how.

I want to make clear that we don't preach Christ from all the Scripture just as some sort of magic symbol or a wand of acrobatic interpretation of our text. Rather, we are showing how all of the Bible unfolds a grace that culminates in Christ. When we see the grace that God intends, love for him becomes our primary motivation. And that's the point that preaching becomes more than interpretation. That becomes application according to the heart.

So, the last question of our application process is the How question. How can I do what you, pastor, are telling me to do? Particularly if I've struggled with a sin or a behavior or a difficulty or a personality trait for years, how can I possibly hope to change? Grace unfolded from all the Scriptures is providing the How answers as well as the Why answers I mentioned before.

This is the way it works. If I were to ask a believer, "Why do you sin?" (After all, the Bible says you're no longer a slave to sin: "Sin has no more dominion over you," Romans 6. You already know what to do. You already have power not to do it.) The answer fundamentally is because you love it.

Because in the moment of our sin, even though we love Jesus and we love following the Lord, in that moment we loved the sin more than the Savior. And the truth of that statement is in the reality that if the sin did not attract us it would have absolutely no power over us. Absolutely none if it did not attract us. So if the thing that gives sin the power is our love for it, then the next question has to be, "What will displace love for sin?" The answer has to be a greater love. That greater love is created by understanding the grace of God in all the Scriptures:

That his love is greater than my sin.
That his love was before my love for him.
That his love was operating in a redemptive way from the beginning of time all the way to this very moment that I draw breath.

When we have perceived how great his love for me is, then what the Bible says is true: we will love him because he first loved us. Because we love him we will want to walk with him and follow the commands of God.

In that reality, the Why? question and the How? Question are answered by the same biblical truth—the grace of God. Why we serve God is out of love for him, instilled by the grace of God or stimulated by the grace of God. And how we serve God is by having a surpassing love for Christ that exceeds our love for sin. And that surpassing love is also created by understanding how great is the grace of God toward us in Christ.

Let's make this concrete. Say you're preaching on anger—how would you balance practical application with talking about grace?

I talk about grace in relation to the last two questions of application—the Why and the How. But the first two questions of application are important too—what to do and where to do it. And what to do can certainly be not only the imperatives of Scripture but the practical means of fulfilling those imperatives. So when the book of Proverbs says "Don't put your foot on the path of the wicked," that's just plain, practical advice. Don't get yourself close to trouble because it's going to suck you in.

So I can say to somebody who's struggling with anger—"Listen, if you know that approaching your teenager when he's already yelling at you is going to make you yell back, then stay away till he cools down and you cool down."

That's very practical.

Yes, that's practical. It's still saying what to do. Sometimes people are afraid that if you give imperatives that somehow you'll become a legalist. But the reality is that it's actually ungracious not to give the commands of Scripture. They are meant to keep us safe and reflect the care of God. It's ungracious not to say what to do. But it's also ungracious to say what to do and not to say why or how.

Where we often sell things short is that we just expect people to have the right motivation. But the thing that almost everybody struggles with is the empowerment—"How do we do what you're telling me to do? I mean I've heard you from the pulpit for so many years and I still struggle with it. How do I do that?" So the practical instructions are going to be helpful. We're human. So, we need to give people the What answers and the Where answers, but we can't stop until we've given the Why and the How.

In your book Christ-Centered Preaching, you write:

"You must know grace to preach it. No matter how great you skill or accolades, you are unlikely to lead others closer to God if your heart does not reflect the continuing work of the Savior in your life."

So how do preachers—often performance-oriented, judged by how good our sermons are, or concerned with how many people are listening to them—live this way?

That's a great question. I'd encourage preachers to remember that they need the means of grace as much as the people to whom they're preaching. The means of grace—as I understand them—are the Christian disciplines of the Word, prayer, and the fellowship of the church.

Now the difference is this. Many preachers, just like many people, view the means of grace as the means to grace. That is, we think here's what we have to do—reading the Word and praying long enough and having a good enough relationship with people in the church, etc. We seem to do these things in order to pay God off so that he'll be kind to us. Whereas what actually is intended by the means of grace is that we are feasting upon the grace that God has already provided. We are not earning grace by practicing the disciplines of grace. Rather, we are simply opening ourselves to feast upon the nutrients that have already been provided.

Marathon runners open their mouths to complete the race. They don't open their mouths to manufacture oxygen, but to take in the oxygen that's already there. But so many Christians, even preachers, approach the means of grace as some sort of manufacturing of God's grace to us. It's bread, not barter. Those disciplines of grace are bread, not barter. They are feeding me. They are not a way that I'm bartering for God's approval or acceptance. And when we see things that way I just say, well, I'm just as human as anybody else, and I need the means of grace in order to stay fresh in God's grace. And these are means that God has provided graciously to keep me alive to his Spirit.

I'm going to add one more that people don't often think of. One more way to stay fresh as a pastor is to recognize that when I preach the Word I am not simply speaking about Jesus. I am actually presenting Christ to his people. What the Reformers recognized to be the miracle of the redemptive event of preaching is that when I speak the Word of God, Christ is yet present ministering to his people. It's not just my performance. It's not just me doing well or poorly. So long as I am faithful to the truth of God's Word, then Christ is yet present ministering to his people. Through all my weakness, through all my sin or even disapproval of the people, if I am being faithful to the truth, then Christ himself is ministering to his people and is present in my behalf as well as in their behalf.

That takes a lot of pressure off the average preacher.

Yes. All of us preachers, because we're human, evaluate how our sermons by how we feel. And yet the old line of Augustine says, "Where the Bible speaks, God speaks."

That means if I am saying what the Word says, God is yet present ministering his incarnate word to his people.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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