A Defense of Christ-Centered Exposition: A Friendly Response to Eric Hankins (Part 1)

I am wholeheartedly committed to the Christ-centered exposition of the entire Bible, primarily because of biblical reasons (see below). But, as a pastor, I also have practical reasons for preaching an explicitly Christ-centered message every week. I remember preaching a message from Proverbs on the use of the tongue (in a gospel-centered way but not as explicit as it should have been), and a lost man approached me at the end to thank me and to assure me that he would do better in the way he talked to his wife. So, he marched off towards Hell being nicer to his wife. I don’t want to preach in a way that produces Pharisees!

Because I think Christ-centered exposition is the best model both biblically and practically I was a bit disheartened to see the recent post by Eric Hankins called “Jason Allen and The Gospel Project.” Much could be said in critique of this post though I have no doubt about Eric’s sincere concern.  It was quite a feat to jump from Calvinism to Jason Allen to Christ-centered exposition to The Gospel Project (TGP). Also, this potential critique of TGP lives up to every other critique so far levied against TGP because it doesn’t deal with the primary source (I will offer a future post dealing with TGP).

My main concern in this post is the critique of Christ-centered exposition. Far above any concern about Calvinism or non-Calvinism should be a concern that we interpret and preach the Bible rightly. The discussion that Eric raises is an important one. Too many SBC preachers misunderstand and misuse OT texts. I have heard too many sermons from the Prophetic books on the New Temple that devolve into a pitch to spend millions of dollars on building a new auditorium!  I am concerned, as Eric is, that pastors rip texts out of their contexts in order to insert the preacher’s own theological pre-commitments – or to insert his own agenda. This is not just a problem for reformed or Christocentric preachers, it’s a danger for any preacher. I’ve heard non-Calvinists preachers say that dead doesn’t mean dead in Ephesians 2. So, the issue of interpretation and exposition is a very important one, and I am glad Eric, a pastor I consider to be my friend, raised it.

However, while I appreciate him raising the discussion, I would differ with his conclusions. Eric states that Christ-centered exposition is all the “rage” among reformed preachers. Actually, it should be the rage among all Christian preachers. After all, Paul said that it is “Him we proclaim” (Col 1:28).  Let me flesh this out in three posts.

  • Christ-centered interpretation was the method of Jesus and the Apostles

Christ-centered homiletics may not honor the “tried and true” hermeneutic that recent exegetes (Eric mentions Walter Kaiser Jr., a man from whom I have learned a lot and for whom I have great respect) have honed for us after millennia of church life and biblical interpretation, but it does honor a far more important hermeneutic, that of Jesus and the Apostles.

It is quite clear that Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Bible as all about Jesus. In Luke 24, Jesus says that each division of the OT (Law, Prophets, and Psalms) was about him. In fact, Jesus rebukes the 2 disciples on the way to Emmaus for not seeing this in the OT. “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26). They took a Bible study class on the road, and reflected on it by saying, “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was…explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Jesus tells the 11 that the OT is about the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah, and then the Great Commission out of that (Luke 24:44-49). Jesus’ explanation of the OT in Luke 24 no doubt laid the foundation for how the NT authors read the OT.

In John 5, Jesus tells his opponents that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46). These men were experts in the OT and probably had much of it memorized, and yet they didn’t read it rightly because they didn’t see that it was all about Messiah Jesus.

What made Saul, a man learned in the OT, go from being a persecutor of the church to its greatest theologian and missionary? He met Jesus and that revolutionized how he read the OT. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all of God’s promises are yes in Jesus. He says in 2 Timothy 3:15 that the purpose of the Holy Scriptures, specifically the OT in that context, is to make one wise for salvation through faith in Jesus. So, the point of Leviticus, Numbers, Proverbs, Esther, and more is to bring you to saving faith in Jesus. In Luke 16:19-31, Father Abraham tells the rich man in Hades that Moses and the Prophets are enough to lead to saving repentance that avoids the wrath to come!

Jesus and Paul tell us to read and preach the Word in this way. Paul says of his preaching and ministry that he determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). We see this fleshed out in his epistles where he grounds gender roles, marriage, forgiveness, giving, etc. in the gospel. Each sermon of the Apostles in the Book of Acts is a Christ-centered proclamation of the OT. As Dennis Johnson argues in his book “Him We Proclaim,” the Book of Hebrews is a Christian sermon. This sermon masterfully shows how Jesus is the fulfillment of OT promises, institutions, types, etc. There were shadows and hints in the OT, and now we know them fully in Christ.

Christ and the Apostles are the ones who interpret and preach the OT as a Christ-centered text.

Read Part 2 

Part 3 to follow… 

Comments 0

  1. Thanks for posting a thoughtful response to Hankins. I look forward to reading part 2 and 3. I agree with you that much could be said in critique of his post. I was disheartened myself, but was not surprised by his post.

  2. “I remember preaching a message from Proverbs on the use of the tongue (in a gospel-centered way but not as explicit as it should have been), and a lost man approached me at the end to thank me and to assure me that he would do better in the way he talked to his wife. So, he marched off towards Hell being nicer to his wife. I don’t want to preach in a way that produces Pharisees!”

    This seems to be a rather cynical and narrow reaction. While it is indeed important for preachers to examine whether they communicated the Gospel in the most effective way, we also need to rejoice when we see the Holy Spirit working in the lost in whatever way the Spirit deems fit. Some plant, some water, some fertilize, some harvest.

    I don’t see that the only options are Pharisee-production or Penitent conversion. Why not see that the Spirit may be moving in the man’s life in areas where the Spirit desired to work? He at least listened to you, was motivated to speak to you, was motivated to express something very specific to you about how the message touched him.

    Sometimes people express only a portion of what is happening in their heart. I see hope in that situation and pray that further inroads will be made by the Spirit and possibly by your ministry of preaching to him.

  3. David,

    What you write is certainly possible and would certainly be a good thing – but what if the hearer goes away thinking that his new found kind talk to his wife merits him before God? If so, as is said in Matt. 23, he is now twice as much a child of hell! And all the preacher has done is bring more condemnation for him.

    What I think you are missing here is that Jon is saying the man missed the point of the text (which the Spirit works in concert with the Word of God, meaning the meaning of the text and not outside of). So, it doesnt help for the preacher to preach a sermon that causes contrition but not real change, he wasnt saying the option is pharisee production or conversion, the issue here is meaning of the text. And the Spirit works in conjunction with the true meaning of the text.

  4. Jon,

    Thanks for taking the time to interact with my post and for your kind spirit. A good friend of ours said you were much nicer to me than I deserve!!!

    I look forward to your other posts as well, but I will say here that I agree with all that you say about preaching. Indeed, I believe this a deeply important discussion, and working out as precisely as possible the nature and practice of Christ-centered preaching is crucial.

  5. I was in Dr. Heisler’s Preaching OT Narrative class at SEBTS and we talked a lot about these issues. I actually presented Kaiser’s view in my presentation. (Also this is Dr. York’s position since he was brought into the discussion for his views on the day of atonement and limited atonement) The issue is author’s intent. Of course with Scripture we have two authors, the Holy Spirit and the human author. The question here is what is the human author’s intent in what he wrote. Secondly, we have to deal with biblical theology and canon. In a portion of Scripture such as the debated David and Goliath text, yes, the writer of 1 Samuel had a meaning and message he was communicating to Israel. There is a local exegetical meaning. But then you have to zoom out the lens and look at the canon. At that point is where you see Jesus. Pleas correct me if I’m wrong here.

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  8. I have gotten lots of help from Dr Kaiser. Of course, he has been concerned for the abuses of eisogesis in preaching the OT, something conservatives would condemn in liberals. He has written on the various ways the NT makes use of the OT. I think his call for honesty and commitment to the text [“Stay with the text.”] in no way rules out Christian preaching of the OT. The intended meaning often included looking to the future filling up of what the text says.

    Also, Sidney Greidanus [referenced by Kaiser] has some very helpful guidelines for Preaching Christ from the OT, in a book by that title. He calls for preaching the text in its context but following the trajectory of the text [not limited to NT quotes or definite allusions] in biblical theology to see how that textual truth is ultimately worked out in the fuller message about Christ. Greidanus shows how typology, done rightly, is a way to preach these OT/Christian texts.

    One of my old profs, Dale Ralph Davis [very committed to the intended meaning of the OT text], also referenced by Kaiser, had a real knack for doing this.

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