Christianity Today has an excellent article by Collin Hansen on Christ-centered sermons and concerns about them. It touches on so many things I’ve learned over the last 15 years or so (boy, do I sound old!) regarding grace and the law/gospel distinction, etc. As I read it, I said to myself, “This is what New Creation is about”. By “this”, I mean the fact that New Creation Church stands apart from many churches in that their preaching is thoroughly and unashamedly Christ-centered.
To me, New Creation is all about Christ-centeredness. Yes, there are other things unique about New Creation like its view of the Holy Communion or its view of confession of sins. Its belief that the 10 Commandments are no longer for the New Covenant Christian is quite unique too (though as I will argue in a future post, many Christians believe in it). But in my opinion, if one is to understand what attracts so many people to New Creation (besides a very charismatic preacher), it is the fact that the messages are Christ-centered as defined in the article. I say “as defined in the article” because every pastor will claim to be Christ-centered, but by “Christ-centered” we’re not just talking about a sermon that mentions Christ in it. Rather, we’re talking about a way of biblical interpretation, preaching and understanding Christianity which sees the indicative of the gospel of what Christ has done for us as more important and dominant than the imperative of what we are to do for Christ. Christ-centered sermons tend to focus on what is DONE by Christ for us (i.e. the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death), rather than what we ought to DO for Him (moralizing).
For critics of New Creation, let it be known that this kind of emphasis on Christ and the gospel doesn’t just occur in New Creation! Read the Christianity Today article and its all there. Names like Tim Keller (who I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog), Ed Clowney, Graeme Goldsworthy, Bryan Chapell – these are all pretty well-known Reformed theologians/pastors who advocate preaching in a Christ-centered way very similar to what Pastor Prince does in New Creation. If you go to most churches and then go to New Creation and then recognize that New Creation’s message is very different from most other churches and you try to figure out why this is so, read Clowney’s Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture and Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics and Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching. Also check out Dennis E. Johnson’s Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures and Sidney Greidanus’s Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. (I understood what all the above people are saying through Michael Horton’s writings, which helped me understand grace years before I knew of Joseph Prince or New Creation Church). These books are all by Reformed Christians who more or less believe in what is also known as Redemptive-Historical preaching. A Redemptive-Historical, or Biblical Theological, approach to interpreting and preaching the Bible is a unique way of viewing the Bible where Christ is always the center. Each passage of Scriptures must be seen from where it is in the history of redemption. We can’t just pick any scripture and think it’s directly applicable to us – especially if it’s from the Old Testament / Old Covenant. Colin Hansen writes:
Chapell identifies three common problems with sermon application: closing charges to “be like,” “be good,” and “be disciplined.” While this problem pops up in sermons about Jesus, Old Testament character stories are also ripe for abuse. Clowney cites perhaps the most famous example of sub-Christian moralizing from the Old Testament: “We dare not preach David’s encounter with Goliath as an example of bravery to be emulated in our conflicts with the ‘giants’ that assault us. Such an approach trivializes the Old Testament revelation.” Such a sermon trivializes the Old Testament because it does not understand David as a “type” pointing toward the brave Son of God who endured the Cross and conquered the giant of sin and death in his Resurrection.
Yes, Christ is there even in the Old Testament through types and shadows and we shouldn’t miss it. Many preachers who only see moralistic exhortations and not Jesus in the Old Testament don’t preach much of the Old Testament, but the preacher who learns how to see Christ in the Old Testament loves to preach from there (see Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament and Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom). And that’s why Pastor Prince loves to preach from the Old Testament, for he sees Christ everywhere in the OT. While many preachers may take the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and apply it to Christians by saying they need to sacrifice their Isaacs (i.e. give up things in your life precious to you so as to please God and put Him first), everyone in New Creation has been moved by Pastor Prince using that passage to impress upon us how God Himself sacrificed his only Son Jesus Christ for us. That’s how every Scripture points to Christ. The message for the congregation is thus not “give up this for God” or “be better” or “do more” for God, but rather “God is so loving and gracious to you that He sacrificed His one and only Son Jesus for you”. It is not hard to see which message produces guilt and shame and which supports faith and encourages us in our walk with God. As Chapell was quoted in the article:
Messages that strike at the heart of faith rather than support it often have an identifying theme. They exhort believers to ‘be’ something in order to be loved by God. Whether this equation is stated or implied, inadvertent or intentional, overt or subtle, the result is the same: an undermining of biblical faith. Such damage is usually inflicted by preachers striving to be biblical and unaware of the harm they are causing because they see their ideas supported in the narrow slice of Scripture they are expounding. They can point to the five points for a better marriage in the text.
I don’t think you’ll hear many pastors overtly saying that you have to be something (or do something) in order to be loved by God. Most of the time, it’s something more subtle, inadvertent or implied. This occurs when sermon after sermon is all about what we ought to do for God or about principles we ought to follow. Such a constant emphasis on doing for God gives the impression to the audience that they have to ‘be’ something in order to be loved by Him. And this undermines biblical faith. After all, the message of the whole of the Bible isn’t about principles for how we can be better Christians or live happier lives. Sermons shouldn’t be like a motivational talk but they will be if we just preach from that “narrow slice of Scripture” and try to apply them to Christians without understanding the whole of the Bible and how every part points to Christ and His finished work.
Pastor Prince probably hasn’t heard of any of the above authors. That doesn’t matter. But to me he’s more or less putting into practice the Christ-centered preaching that the above authors advocate. I’m sure these authors will not agree with a lot of what Pastor Prince believes and preaches. But I’m very sure that they will love his Christ-centered sermons and recognize his approach to preaching Christ in all of Scripture as very similar to theirs. I believe too that this unique Christ-centered approach to preaching is the reason why many Christians who come to New Creation from other churches say that they have come to love Christ more and see more of His beauty than ever before. When we start to see from the story of Abraham sacrificing his one and only son Isaac not a despot demanding He be first in our lives but a loving Father sacrificing his one and only Son for us, we start to see more clearly the grace and love of our Father and start to fall in love with Jesus more and more.