Preaching the Gospel

Integrating the Elements that Transform Us

Kenton C. Anderson

The preaching of the gospel is neither a fad nor the key to membership in a particular preachinggospelmovement. When we communicate the Bible according to its intent, we are serving the purposes of a God who is actively reconciling his creation to himself by the gospel. When we serve the gospel according to its elemental interests, we will engage people, instruct people, convict people, and inspire people. Biblical preaching is gospel preaching. Gospel preaching is integrative preaching.

The Scripture is clear in its insistence that we preach the gospel. There is no preaching that is not gospel preaching – at least from the perspective of the Scriptures. Every sermon has in some way at its core the announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ – or ought to have, if we have read our Bible straight.

Jesus said “the gospel will be preached” (Ma. 24:14), “the gospel is preached,” (Ma. 26:13), and that “the gospel must be preached” (Mk. 13:10). “I am compelled to preach,” Paul says. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1Co. 9:16). The fundamental nature of our calling is that we “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mk. 16:15). As contemporary preachers, we understand our responsibility to continue in this gospel train.

“The gospel” has enjoyed a conceptual renaissance in recent years. We hear of gospel churches, gospel conferences, and gospel coalitions. We have begun to think of gospel as a verb, such that preaching becomes a kind of “gospelling.” This development is welcome as is any movement that reminds us of our core commitment to the very things that Jesus was committed on the cross. The danger is that “gospel preaching” becomes commodified and marginalized as yet another form of preaching, offered alongside and in differentiation from all the other brands of preaching.

We are familiar, for example, with the unfortunate dichotomy we have seen as “evangelistic preaching” has been distinguished from “expository preaching.” Evangelistic preachers, out of concern for the lost, have been allowed a certain latitude when it comes to exposition of the text of Scripture. Expository preachers, have been forgiven for something less than evangelistic fervor when dealing with texts that do not seem to have the gospel at their core. Evangelistic preachers feel a certain freedom from some of the technical challenges experienced by expository preachers, who are less concerned with persuasion than they are with precision. Expositors are driven to press the intent of a specific text. Evangelists are driven to press the gospel on a specific audience. The Bible never intended this distinction.

Expository preachers cannot do justice to their texts until their exegesis finds its inherent connection with the gospel. The gospel as the driving impulse of the heart of God is at the root of every text in Scripture. Any exegesis of a text that does not find its centre in the gospel is too shallow to be preached. At the same time, evangelistic preachers do not do justice to the gospel until they root their call within an exposition of the Scriptures. Evangelism that is based in emotive appeals and apologetic rationalisms that do not take their root from Scripture will be too hollow to convince and will lack the power of the Spirit which has been promised through the Word.

Of course the answer to the question of exposition and evangelism is to integrate the two. Integration is a way of bringing together otherwise polarized emphases in a manner that does not compromise or diminish either. The contention of this paper is that the gospel is the key to this necessary integration.

Preachers are not archeologists. This is to say that preachers do not excavate the text for the purpose of antiquated discovery. Preachers engage in deep exposition because they understand that it is in careful exposure of the Word of God that we come to understand the will and way of God. “The gospel” is a shorthand way of expressing God’s intent for the Bible as a whole. We dig into the scriptures so that we can know the God who loves us, who speaks to us, and who has provided salvation for us.

Preachers are likewise also not auctioneers. Preachers are not fast-talking hawkers of unnecessary merchandise. Preachers offer the Word of God because we have been created for it. The gospel expresses the reconciliation of the Creator with his creation. It is good news because it offers the truth that completes us, the text that defines us, and the trust that fulfills us.

Gospel preaching does not stand aside other forms of preaching. It is not a distinctive brand on offer to the preacher alongside doctrinal preaching, narrative preaching, expository preaching, or even evangelistic preaching. Gospel preaching is preaching as preaching has nothing to offer but the gospel.


The Elements of Gospel Preaching 

Great preaching integrates the various concerns of the gospel, which can be short-handed by use of four succinct concepts. The gospel engages. The gospel instructs. The gospel convicts. The gospel inspires. Gospel preaching is integrative preaching as it brings together each of these elements into a comprehensive whole. When we integrate the gospel through the instrument of Scripture, such that our preaching is fully engaging, instructive, convicting and inspiring we will find that our preaching is evangelistic and that it is expository every time, no matter what our audience and no matter what our text.

How then is the gospel expressed through these four elemental concerns and how can we reflect this gospel through our preaching?


The Gospel Engages

There is a sense that attraction and engagement might somehow be beneath the aims of gospel preaching. In fact, these things are core to it. The gospel is by its nature, attractive. Good news always is. The sense that this is ‘news’ is to notice that the gospel intends communication to an audience primed for its reception. All public communicators recognize the need to gather listeners. What is often poorly appreciated is the gospel’s natural affinity for the task.

There is a striking anecdote offered within Eric Metaxas’ powerful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1939, Bonhoeffer spent a few weeks in New York City, escaping however briefly his potential and eventual arrest in Nazi Germany. During that period, Bonhoeffer made the following comment in his journal. “Tomorrow is Sunday. I wonder if I shall hear a sermon?”[1]

The sarcasm, intended by his comment stemmed from Bonhoeffer’s disappointment in the preaching he had been hearing from the churches that he visited. One Sunday he attended Riverside Church, the famous edifice built for Harry Emerson Fosdick by John D. Rockefeller. Fosdick, well known for his “life situational preaching” believed that preaching needed to speak to the need of the listener from the listener’s perspective. No doubt Bonhoeffer would not have challenged Fosdick for this concern. But in the pursuit of the listener’s ear and interest, Bonhoeffer believed that Fosdick lost the gospel. Metaxas writes,

The text for the sermon was from James, but not from the James of the New Testament. It was from the American philosopher William James, whose works Bonhoeffer had studied nine years earlier. The usually exceedingly gracious and tolerant Bonhoeffer had been aching for something of God, but he had come to the wrong place. In his diary, he wrote, “Quite unbearable.” The empty preaching set him off, and he poured out his disgust to his diary:

The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, and indifference. Do people not known that one can get on as well, even better, without “religion”?[2]

On a subsequent Sunday, Bonhoeffer’s concern was assuaged by a fine gospel sermon preached by a “Dr. McComb” who held out the word of God at a Presbyterian church that had been reviled as “fundamentalist” by Fosdick and his crowd.

The anecdote raises the question of the nature of the gospel. The gospel is good news. It is the announcement of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom made accessible through the provision of Jesus Christ at the cross. It is good and it is news, and as news it speaks to the need of listeners who are lost without Christ and who require a message of deliverance.

In that sense, the listener matters. The gospel speaks to people. It addresses human need and offers hope to listeners who are otherwise without it. It is as such an answer to the listener’s question and a direction response to the listeners’ need in life.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was not wrong in his concern to preach a message that would be perceived as relevant by his listeners. He certainly did not fail to draw a crowd by this method. Where Fosdick failed, was in his sense that he could engage people without the offer of the gospel.  No doubt he could, in that it doesn’t take the gospel just to draw a crowd. But Fosdick’s failure was that having drawn his crowd he had nothing powerful to offer. He failed to see the gospel as the anecdote, the indispensible piece necessary to the need of those he preached to. Instead, he was dismissive of the gospel, deriding its preaching as a form of rustic fundamentalism. Preaching that failed to offer the hope of the gospel was less impressive to Bonhoeffer. Having felt the urgency of evil, Bonhoeffer knew that people needed something more than popular psychology.

Today culture is generally dis-engaged by the preaching that we do. We seem to have failed to make much of an impression either by emotion or by our erudition. This is due in some measure to a general hardening of the heart in our moment in history. But it also may be to some degree, because we have neglected to value the listener the way the gospel does. If we can see the listener through gospel eyes, we will love them. They will recognize our love and be attracted by it.


The Gospel Instructs

The gospel is a body of knowledge. The gospel captures a course of thought that defines the destiny and deliverance of all of humankind. It is a precise line of thought that must be understood and appropriated for its result to be achieved. Romans 10:10 says that it is as we believe with our heart and confess with our mouth, that we are saved. Belief requires intellectual substance, which forms the content of our mental affirmation. Confession requires articulation, which in turn requires understanding.

In short, one cannot appropriate the gospel without instruction as to its nature. To preach the gospel is to catechize in the theological content of the Scriptures. It is to speak truthfully and informatively, delineating the intellectual intent of the Word of God. Listeners must grow to appreciate the requirement of God’s holiness, the consequence of pride, and the opportunity of salvation. Doctrine matters because we could get this wrong and the consequences of this failure to read the Scripture right we would not want to contemplate.

This then, is to agree with Bryan Chapell,[3] Graham Goldsworthy,[4] and Sidney Greidanus[5] who argue for the Christ-Centeredness of preaching. If our instruction does not offer something that the Jewish rabbi could not say, then our preaching is not Christian. We preach Christ, crucified, buried, risen, and coming again, and we find Christ in prospect or in retrospect across the entirety of Scripture.

But this is also to agree with Abraham Kuruvilla, who in his book Privilege the Text, takes some issue with these writers.[6] Kuruvilla’s concern with “redemptive-historical” preachers like Chapell and the others is that in the attempt to make every text about the gospel, they can inadvertently short-change the legitimate moral intention of certain texts. The key concern of exegesis is not simply to find Jesus in any given text. It is to take the text seriously for its intended purpose – not only what the text is saying, Kuruvilla says, but what it is doing with what it is saying.

This is a helpful addition to Haddon Robinson’s subject/complement construction.[7] Robinson counsels preachers to identify “what the sermon is talking about” (the subject), along with “what the sermon is saying about what it is talking about” (the complement). We can offer any subject that we want, but until we add the complement, we cannot be preaching. We can talk about the love of God (a subject), but until we take a position on the love of God (the complement), we are not proclaiming. Preaching must press a position or an imperative to count as proclamation.

Kuruvilla’s concern is to add the active element.[8] Texts are always doing something. It is not sufficient just to say something about a subject. We need to activate the doing of something  – the same thing that the text is doing. The gospel is an active element. It is doing something. The instruction that we offer, then, is never static, presented like a museum piece safely under glass. Biblical instruction activates the things that God is doing by his Spirit through the living Word.

This is why instruction can never be isolated from the other gospel elements. If the preacher understands the task of preaching to be purely or merely educational, the sermon will be impoverished, disempowered for its natural intent. Instruction is always for the purpose of gospel transformation. It is the element that makes such transformation possible. As we are led to understand, we become able to believe, and it is through belief that the Spirit is activated in his work of transforming us at our core.


The Gospel Convicts

It is a difficult climate for preaching today. Historically, people have been open to a larger sense of reality – to the sense that there is a God and that there might be found a purpose for our living. Whether or not people dedicated themselves to this God, they were open to his existence, which at least offered an expansive sense of the possibility and opportunity of life.

This expansiveness of soul is not so evident today. People have become more cynical about the metaphysical. Given that God cannot be proven to a scientific certainty, people are content to live with shrunken expectations. Disappointed by the failed promise of religious authority and distrustful of the abuses they have encountered, people will believe only what is proven by their eyes and ears. Science has become the arbiter of what is true, and even then, can be doubted when its answers conflict with the authority offered by the human self. To such a person, preachers offer limited appeal.

Imagine then what might happen were such a person to encounter God. If God were somehow to make himself known to them, such that they could not avoid the consequence, imagine what that might mean for them. Of course this is exactly what gospel preaching intends.

Francis Schaeffer used to speak of “taking the roof off.”[9] By this he meant that we should work to take people to the end of their argument – to the place where their naturalistic assumptions could no longer sustain the happiness and peace of mind for which they craved. Schaeffer’s program was to help people to a rigid consistency in their argumentation. If God did not exist and if life were the product of random chance, then meaning was impossible. If there truly was no larger consequence and the self was the only useful arbiter of what was true and what was right, then life had no actual meaning. Under such an approach to life, we imprison ourselves under a heavy and oppressive “roof.”

Schaeffer’s teaching was so dark, his wife became concerned that people might become desperate. In fact, one young mentee did attempt suicide. Yet Schaeffer was unapologetic. “After walking in the mountains and crying before God, I would begin the same way with the next person who came. … In a fallen world, we must be willing to face the fact that, however lovingly we preach the Gospel, if a man rejects it, he will be miserable. It is dark out there.”[10]

The goal for Schaeffer, was to “take the roof off.” By this he meant that we lead people to the awareness that God was in fact “there” and that he loves, forgives, and offers hope. As we draw people into the presence of God, and experience the resultant conviction, our world expands, our constriction dissipates, and the roof is lifted from our limited awareness.

This is what gospel preaching does. Paul Scott Wilson says that preaching serves to engage “an encounter with God through the Word, more than information about God.”[11] To preach the gospel is to bring people to that kind of encounter, such that they have to come to terms with the presence of the living God. He is present through his Word and as we encounter God in the preaching of the gospel, we are convicted by his presence.


The Gospel Inspires

It is often thought that gospel is for people who don’t know Jesus and that once we are safely ‘in the fold’ we can move onto more or other areas of concern. But the gospel is for all of us. The gospel is not just a one-time life transaction without impact on the rest of our lives. Once we have responded in faith to the Christian message, we have to learn to practice the implications of this gospel. Learning to live the gospel is the challenge of our lives.

Gospel preaching exists because we believe things can be better. We are wholly unsatisfied with the status quo and long to see a world that is more congruent with the will and way of God. This is why we preach. It is through our preaching that people are provoked by the gospel. If our preaching serves its purpose, people will be inspired to respond in fresh, previously unconsidered ways that will serve them better and which will be honoring to God.

“The gospel changes everything.” So says Timothy Keller. “The power of the gospel comes in two movements. It first says, “I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe,’ but then quickly follows with, ‘I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope.’” [12] Integrating these two assessments, affects our level of personal confidence, the way we approach our relationships and sexuality, how we approach race, culture, authority, guilt, and self-image. The gospel will inspire joy, not because we discount the weight of our sin, but because we know how heavy our sin really is and how much it cost for us to be forgiven. The gospel affects how we think about ourselves and inspires renewed ways of relating to everyone else. It affects everything.

Typically, preachers have thought in terms of sermon conclusions that offer “application” for truth. In other words, the preacher will work to explain a biblical concept before seeking the application that is appropriate to the intended meaning of the text. This has been a productive way of working texts and sermons, but falls somewhat short of the deeper implications of the preaching of the gospel.

Gospel preaching is inherently inspiring. There is no need to attach application as the back end of a two-stroke movement. The danger in that approach is that application becomes extraneous or secondary to the intent of the sermon. Such an understanding of the truth can satisfy listeners without their every having to have been changed by it. When people have been engaged by the gospel and instructed in its truth such that they are convicted by the presence of God, inspiration will not be an appendage. Change will be the natural by-product, inspired by the working of the spirit through the preaching of the gospel.


Gospel Integration

The best biblical preaching is gospel preaching. The best gospel preaching is integrative preaching.

This is to acknowledge that the gospel is at the core of the bible, so that we are able to see how every text we preach is serving gospel purposes. Whether we are in the book of Leviticus, understanding how God’s concern for holiness drives the need for an atoning savior, or in the book of Proverbs where we learn how a love of wisdom drives congruence with a reconciling God, the gospel finds its way through the sermon into the lives and loves of listeners.

When we understand how the gospel is integrated into all of Scripture, we can begin to understand how the gospel can integrate the entirety of our sermons. Instruction no longer trumps engagement, nor does inspiration obviate conviction. All the elements of the sermon pull together to serve the purposes of the gospel, which is calling creation back into relationship with the Creator through the work of Christ upon the cross.

The gospel is hot at the current moment. But perhaps we could see the gospel as more than just the current fad or a way of identifying oneself within a current movement. Perhaps we could see how the gospel is at the center of our calling and at the core of our preaching. Perhaps then, we might see the Kingdom come.

[1] Deitrich Bonhoeffer quoted in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2010), 339.

[2] Ibid, 333.

[3] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994).

[4] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

[5] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988).

[6] Abraham Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching, (Chicago: Moody, 2013), 239ff.

[7] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), 41.

[8] Kuruvilla, 48.

[9] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There, (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), 128.

[10] Ibid., 131.

[11] Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1995), 20.

[12] Keller, Timothy, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry In Your City, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 48.

4 thoughts on “Preaching the Gospel

  1. Thank you for an ‘integrated’ overview of what the gospel is about. I agree with much of what you say but I was somewhat disappointed that you didn’t address the issue of ‘what is the gospel?’ Preaching the gospel presumes you know what it is, but this is precisely what is missing. Could you explain please.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ronald. You might be correct in suggesting that the article lacks an explicit articulation of what was implied throughout the piece. So here is a brief, forthright expression: The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, paid the penalty sin required so that human beings upon expression of faith in Jesus, are forgiven of their sin and reconciled in relationship with their Creator for eternity.

    Apostle/Dr. Irene E Bell

  4. YOU WROTE – The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, paid the penalty sin required so that human beings upon expression of faith in Jesus, are forgiven of their sin and reconciled in relationship with their Creator for eternity.—HOW COME I never see Jesus preach about about the cross and salvation from sin….but only preached the Kingdom of God…like He really believed in a physical kingdom soon to be set up???? He never once sugggested someone let Him into their heart….of give their heart to Jesus. When his life was over …He had NONE as in ZERO converts…they all fled…so out of that reality you spin a modern gospel? John the baptist preaching a coming kingdom…Jesus preached a coming kingdom…and they murdered Him for being a threat to Judaism and a threat to Rome…Ceasar really did not care who lived in your heart or which Buddha’s stomach you rubbed. I think Ceasar cared if you claimed to be the replacement KING of a soon to be established Kingdom of which their wouldbe no end….. Maybe our gospel is so lame – that even tyrants and paranoid despots see us as no threat…….unlike the Gospel Jesus preached.

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