I have heard a lot of sermons in my life. A lot. Whether it’s on a Sunday morning or in a classroom at Moody Bible Institute (I haven’t yet taken preaching courses at RTS though I did take a systematics course with Kevin DeYoung which was practically a sermon every week). My theological heritage is Presbyterianism. We in the Presbyterian tribe prize rich theological study. The number of available multi-volume Presbyterian systematic theologies seems to double every year. I don’t complain about that, I myself enjoy theological discourse and education. As a result, I have a love for rich preaching which also characterizes a lot of Presbyterian pulpit ministries. Yet, it was a few years ago that I found myself put off by a lot of the preaching I was hearing. This preaching, which itself was not expository, was interacting with the Bible in a very odd way.
I would leave these sermons hearing a lot of good biblical ethics but not a lot of Jesus. That may seem like an odd disjunction to make but this comes from the way I’ve often heard preachers interact with the text. That is, they utilize the biblical text as merely a means by which to teach biblical ethic and not as a means by which to encounter the living God. Let me be clear, the Bible puts forth ethical commands but that isn’t the only thing going on.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism notices this as it reads in question 3:
Q: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
This ethic-heavy preaching clearly takes note of the second half of the answer which is that the Bible is concerned to communicate "what duty God requires of man". However, prior to that is the simple fact that we encounter God in the Scriptures (Psalm 103:20, Luke 24:27, Rom 10:17, 2 Tim 3:16, Heb 1:1-2). This is the “what man is to believe concerning God” portion of the catechism's answer.
The catechism cites five passages for this point one of which is John 5:39 which reads, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me”. That is a radical statement for Jesus to make. He is saying that the Scriptures are about himself. Now it is obvious to readers of the Gospels that Jesus lays out ethical commands. The Sermon on the Mount makes this clear. Yet if we are to read the Bible as merely a vehicle for ethic delivery we are missing out. As D.A. Carson writes in The Gagging of God, “Scripture’s purpose is not simply to fill our head with facts, but to bring us to the living God”. This has a huge impact on preaching!
If we view preaching as merely a means by which to deliver ethical teaching, we are missing out on half of what the WSC says Scripture is to do. The people in the pews miss out on so much that Scripture has to offer them. Good expository preaching introduces people to the person of Jesus Christ who beckons them, “come to me” (Matt 11:28). When our chief aim in preaching is to introduce people to the person of Jesus, his ethical lordship will necessarily follow. I think that is why the Westminster divines chose to order the answer to this catechism question in this way. They had “what duty God requires of man” follow “what man is to believe concerning God” because that’s how it works.
It was this thinking that led many of the titans in expository preaching to refer to the task of preaching as Christ-centered. Bryan Chappel wrote of the practice of preaching by saying, "Preaching is a redemptive act in which Christ himself ministers to his people, by his Spirit opening and transforming their hearts with the truth that same Spirit inspired in the pages of Scripture". Paul himself even viewed his preaching ministry as chiefly the ministry of Jesus Christ for whom Paul was a means by which he could minister (Eph 2:17). That should be our main desire in preaching... that people would encounter the person of Jesus Christ. In so doing, we go with the grain of what Scripture's purpose is (as WSC Q3 says) and we're in the company of Paul himself as Christ-centered Gospel communicators.