By Mike Willis
In recent months, we have seen several articles which have called brethren back to Christ-centered preaching. Indeed, Christ should be the central focus of our preaching (1 Cor. 2:1-5). These articles generally charge that brethren have been guilty of preaching a church-centered or institution-centered message rather than a Christ-centered message.
We always are delighted to see men who are guilty of sin and error in their preaching correct their preaching to bring it back to the standard of right and wrong revealed in Gods word. If these brethren tell us that they have been guilty of preaching a message of salvation on the grounds of affiliation with some human institution and affiliation with a group of people, I will take their word for it. I am delighted that they have recently discovered that salvation is grounded in the blood of Christ and not in men.
However, they would be mistaken to use a broad brush to accuse their preaching breathren generally of being guilty of that which they admit occurred in their own preaching. Many of us cannot admit that we have been preaching that salvation is grounded in anything except the shed of blood of Jesus Christ. I understood that I was saved y the blood of Christ the day I was baptized and shortly after I was twelve years old and have preached salvation through the shed blood of Jesus Christ from the first day of my preaching. I understood at this early age that the church was people, not a building, and I never thought that any person in any local church saved me. All of the preaching which I have sat under emphasized that salvation is grounded in Christ Jesus. Therefore, I cannot plead guilty to not believing that the grounds of our salvation was the shed blood of Christ or having neglected emphasizing that in my preaching, nor have I heard such preaching from my brethren.
On several occasions, I have asked those who have charged that we have had an improper emphasis on the church (preaching the church instead of the Christ) to show me an example of the kind of preaching to which they object. So far, I have never received a photocopy of an article or a tape of a sermon that gives me an example of the kind of preaching which is elevating the church over the Christ. If an isolated incidence of misdirected preaching were found, I am confident that it would be the exception and not the rule, unless they produce many such examples (which should be easy to do to hear them talk). But, if these brethren say that they have been guilty of that sin, I am willing to take their word for it and express my thanksgiving that they have suddenly learned that they are saved by the blood of Christ. But, I keep asking myself, “What business does anyone who does not realize that salvation is grounded in the shed blood of Jesus have in preaching before he learns this fundamental fact?” Furthermore, I marvel that it has taken some of these men whose brilliance is so widely attested so many years to learn what I knew at twelve years old!
All of the Gospel Must be Related to Christ
We understand and must communicate as we preach on the various subjects revealed in the gospel that they are authorized and prescribed by God. Some have charged that we have been preaching baptism, condemnation of instrumental music in worship, the organization of the church, and other subjects without them being related to the Christ. Again, I ask for some examples so that I can see the kind of preaching which is being condemned. That should not be so hard to produce, since it is supposedly so widespread among us.
However, I cannot plead guilty to separating Christ from these subjects. I understood that I was baptized at twelve years old because Christ made baptism a condition for salvation by his blood. He said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). I was not baptized because it was something the local church determined that men should do as a condition before the church dispensed salvation. I never thought that we opposed instrumental music in worship because of lack of funds to purchase a piano, a preference of the local church, or cultural reasons. I understood that we did not use instrumental music in worship because the one Lawgiver, Jesus Christ, did not authorize its use (Jas. 4:12). I understood that the church was organized under elders and deacons because the word of God authorized it, not because we thought that worked better than the papal, episcopal, and presbyterian forms of church government. Was the little area in Groveton, Texas so unique that this congregation alone was taught that all of these things were related to Jesus Christ and his revealed word? I doubt that!
My conviction is that I was just like most others in the church. If you had asked anyone else in the church the question, “Were your sins washed away by the blood of Christ?” they would have answered the same as I did. If you had asked them why we opposed instrumental music in worship, they would have told you that God did not authorize it in the New Testament. The identifying marks of the Lord’s church were taught in relation to the Christ.
Trends Among Us
We would be naive were we not to observe ‘that one of the trends which is presently active among our liberal brethren is a departure from preaching the truth of the gospel on a variety of subjects under the guise of “Christ-centered” preaching.
C. Leonard Allen, writing in The Cruciform Church, charged that “‘the word of the cross’ has been significantly displaced in the history of the Churches of Christ” (113). The proofs that we have removed the cross from its central place in our preaching are: (a) our concentration of sermons on “What Must I Do To Be Saved?” (119); (b) replacing the gospel of grace with a gospel of duty, law, and perfect obedience preaching a legalistic message (122-123); (c) treating the Bible as if it were a law or blueprint (19,31); (d) eagerness to debate with our neighbors (19). Allen called for brethren to change their preaching to focus on the gospels rather than the epistles.
Rubel Shelly’s book, The Second Incarnation, picks up where Allen left off to emphasize that the church is the second incarnation of Christ. Shelly stated that the church must lay aside its restoration theology to change the church to meet the needs of every succeeding generation (xii,xiv,3,17,71); there is no pattern for the church (6,31,36,65). He emphasized that we need to give a priority of the gospels over the epistles in our preaching (36); to accept that unity is not uniformity (60); quit calling for the denominations to become “just like us” (81); change the worship to fit the needs of this generation (131-132, 138,140); etc.
James S. Woodruff authored The Church in Transition which also decried the restoration plea charging that it created sectarianism (9,57,109,121,1 49), charged that brethren do not teach salvation by grace (19), stated that when we preach “the true church” we show that we do not understand the true message of the gospel (26), asserted that we have become critics of denominations rather than preachers of the good news (31), affirmed that we have over-emphasized baptism (33), maintained that we have ignored the Holy Spirit (49), etc. Woodruff wants us to quit preaching that the denominations are sinful, quit emphasizing the conditions for salvation, quit quoting so much Scripture in our sermons (49), and practice unity-indiversity (115,117).
Bill Love’s The Core Gospel also charges that brethren have forsaken the core message of the atonement by emphasizing the restoration plea (128) and the conditions for salvation (151,165,231), making the gospel something to obey (159). Love was turned off by “church versus church” preaching (196,206-207), emphasizing the conditions for salvation (201,248), preachers who exposed false teachers (203,326; of course Love himself is excepted when he writes a 318-page book to expose the false teaching of brethren who have departed from the core gospel), preaching on baptism (231), and restoration preaching (235).
Notice from these quotations, that the kind of preaching which is shunned is this: (a) that which emphasizes the Lord’s church in contrast to the denominations of men; (b) debating with one’s religious neighbors; (c) an emphasis on the necessity and action of water baptism; (d) an unscriptural condemnation of instrumental music in worship.
All of this loose preaching is marching under the banner of “Christ-centered preaching.” The use of such banners was no doubt borrowed from our political leaders who can pass a “deficit reduction” budget that increases the national debt, reduce our taxes while increasing that which is withheld from our checks, and affirm pro-choice while denying the unborn the right to ever make a choice. Under the name of “Christ-centered preaching,” the preaching of
Christ is condemned, ridiculed, and forsaken. Its banner is palatable but its message is deadly poison.
What Is Happening?
In observing who is making the criticisms that brethren have quit preaching Christ, one cannot avoid noticing that much of the writing of these reformers among us takes on the characteristics of our liberal brethren. Frequently, those among our own brethren who charge that we have quit preaching Christ seem to avoid writing on such things as the identifying marks of the Lord’s church, debating their convictions with those who oppose them, and exposing the errors of denominationalism. Non-distinctive articles which never contrast revealed and unrevealed religion is the standard diet.
Which is more logical to believe? (a) That we have some brethren who have been preaching the gospel for decades who suddenly realized that justification is grounded in the shed blood of Jesus Christ and that the church is the recipient of salvation instead of the dispenser of salvation; or (b) That the influence of this movement away from distinctive preaching is spilling over among us?
Church Versus Church Preaching
Much has been said about church versus church preaching, implying that such preaching detracts from Christ and exalts the church. I make no apologies for church versus church preaching. I understand this preaching to be a contrast between revealed and unrevealed religion. Jesus did this kind of preaching when he contrasted the traditions of the men with the revealed word of God (Matt. 15:1-14). If we are going to give priority to the gospels over the epistles in our preaching, surely this is one part of the gospels which needs to be preached. Jesus contrasted that which was “from heaven” from that which is “of men” (Matt. 21:25). If we are going to walk in his footsteps, we must do the same. Those who have reached the point in their preaching that they have forsaken “church versus church” preaching have simply quit contrasting revealed and unrevealed religion, quit calling men out of unrevealed religion, and become convinced that men can be saved believing and practicing anything religiously so long as they are good, honest and sincere. Preaching which contrasts revealed and unrevealed religion is “Christ-centered preaching.”
I do not stand opposed to Christ-centered preaching, correctly understood. We must keep Christ as the central focus of our preaching and preach every word which he has revealed to us. However, that which is marching under the banner of “Christ-centered preaching,” which was quoted above, is an insidious doctrine of the devil which must be opposed. Those who oppose the false doctrines of classical liberalism (that is marching under the banner of “Christ-centered preaching”) but are writing their articles about the need for “Christ-centered preaching” need to be aware of the mixed signals they are sending and formulate a way to express themselves without lending their support to this movement in liberalism. It is certainly possible to caution brethren about the need for balance in preaching, without getting out of balance and echoing the unbalanced criticisms by apostates of sound gospel preaching.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: No 19, p.2
October 7, 1993