“Preach the Word (i.e. Christ; John 1:1-2, 14); be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage– with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Paul, Second Letter to Timothy, 4:2-3
I write to you out of an observation of the great majority of today’s preaching from the pulpit and the pen. The pulpit may be bulky and made of solid oak, or a glass podium, or even a simple music stand… it doesn’t matter. From whatever pulpit… by whatever popular teacher or author… in whatever form… something is most definitely wrong with today’s “Christian” preaching.
In addition to bad hermeneutics and those who preach for monetary gain, there is a compromising of our faith being displayed in the sermons of many respected preachers and a capitulation to the surrounding culture.
I am writing to you from what I believe is coming out of the last few years of my life–out of an immense shift in my understanding of the centrality and supremacy of Christ. I believe this observation is born out of what I have dubbed my “renewed” Christology.
For me, it was a revolution of the heart. And this revolution has set into motion a great undoing for an even greater relearning. It has caused many curtains of culture to be lifted from my eyes. This light, I believe, is available to all that desire it. To those who knock, the door will be opened. To those that seek, they shall find (Matt. 7:7).
Let the heart of this examination be known to you who read. And together, let us seek the centrality and supremacy of Christ… especially in our preaching.
The Christian Life is Principles?
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Paul, Letter to the Colossians, 2:8
According to most preaching today, a person could easily make the judgment that Jesus did not come to give us his life, but to give us principles to live by. Yes, it is fair to say that Christ is not the end of popular preaching today. It could easily be deduced from your nearest pulpit that Christ was a mighty philosopher who has given us morals, values, and principles to follow that we might find happiness on earth. It is often presented that if we will learn the right formula all will be well with the soul.
Let us at least be clear about this one thing, this is not the message of Christ or the first apostles.
During the last hours of Christ’s life, he prayed, “My prayer is not for them (i.e. 11 disciples) alone. I pray also for those (i.e. you and I) who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.” Jesus, The Gospel of John, 17:20-23
The apostle Paul wrote, “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” Paul, Letter to the Colossians, 1:27-29
When the Gospel of Jesus is reduced down to forgiveness of sin and going to heaven when you die… we miss the true message of the whole Gospel of Christ. When we talk about knowing Christ today and all we think of is Jesus dying for our sins, we fall short of the complete good news of God. We must move on and grow up into the fullness of Christ in us! We must commit to rereading Scripture with this as the primary concern of all of the apostles of Jesus. They understood that the message in all of Scripture was that God has given us his life through Christ Jesus his Son.
Therefore, the Gospel message is to preach that God has paid our sin debt in order that his life can reign in us. The only concern of the first Christians was to preach that the person of Jesus was the gift, not heaven. The Christian life is not a destination, it is a journey. It is not about principles, it is about a Person.
I am fully aware that today we have philosophers and motivational speakers sitting in the prophet’s chair. Clearly, these men preach human wisdom and use the Bible to polish their self-centered messages in order that they might label them “biblical.” It is very disturbing to see the multitudes that are being deceived by these men.
However, I would like to particularly focus my attention on those who preach principles while at the same time mixing Christian language in the message. They preach Christ, but through learning steps and principles… instead of learning of his Person. They do not present the message I have stated above. They speak of living Jesus’ life without first knowing his being. They see only the benefits of following Christ. They do not embrace his Person as the life force within them that will carry out his commands.
If we are honest with ourselves, much of the so-called “Christ-centered” preaching that we hear today is presented in expounding on principles taken from Christ’s life… instead of it simply being Christ’s life in us. It is an attempt to use Christ to achieve our ends, instead of knowing Christ to reach his own.
Yes, if we are honest… most Christians believe that Christianity is about following some guidelines (which translates into a particular way to eat, dress, live, love, vote, etc.)… and we never embrace the full Person of Jesus. Therefore, we attempt to sustain life by principles, fail to receive life from the Person, and we never see Christ come to full expression in our earthly lives.
Is this not evident by the bestselling books today? If you will look closely at a few of the most recent popular books you will notice that Christ is not central and supreme. In some cases, Christ is completely absent from the message. These books present Christianity as principle-filled instead of Person-filled (i.e. Christ-centered). The authors, as well-intentioned as they may be, are trading the Person of Christ for principles to live by. (Some have even denied Christ’s supremacy.) On top of that, these principles are presented in a very self-centered and hedonistic theology.
Life comes out of Christ, never out of principles.
This is what we must understand. If we desire to work out our salvation as we have been commanded… we must come to this: Christ is our salvation from beginning to end. Preaching worldly principles will clearly lead us to destruction. And preaching biblical principles that do not first come from knowing Jesus will stunt our spiritual growth.
This is why so many Christians are banging their heads up against the wall today. They are running from one pulpit to another, one book to another, and one emotion to another. They have not been taught how to grow up into Christ. It reminds me of a Credence Clearwater Revival song called, “Commotion.” There is a bunch of it going on, and seldom do we ever truly live. Let’s stop and rethink our Christology.
Trading Principles for a Person
A couple of years ago I was captivated by seeing Christ’s principles and teachings on the Sermon on the Mount in a new way. It was like I had never read them before or been taught its true meaning in all of my Christian upbringing. The Lord had opened my eyes to verses that we had ignored or watered-down for years.
I began to teach these things without fully understanding “Christ in you.” I believe that I had a brief understanding, but it was not yet articulated in my thought or life. It must have seemed impossible to my students, “How can we live this way?” I imagine this is exactly what Jesus’ audience was thinking when they heard it for the first time, “What is this man saying, ‘love my enemies’?… he is out of his mind!” No doubt, many thought he was crazy, even his own family (Mk. 3:20-21).
It didn’t take long for me to develop a renewed Christology. The Lord had been preparing the ground of my heart to receive a new revelation of his Son. It finally came upon reading Watchman Nee’s exposition of the book of Romans in his book, “The Normal Christian Life.” Nothing has been the same since. And I mean nothing.
I will not mince with words on such a critical issue. Living by principles will fail you. Your life is not found in following rules and guidelines and then waving to Jesus off to the side, saying, “Thanks for these wonderful principles my Lord! Now I can live a happy life and expect preferential treatment from the world.” Many of my readers may be thinking, “I would never say that.” Yet, we fail to see that we don’t have to say it. Our focus today and our faithfulness to these principle preachers have already condemned many of us tomorrow. We need to trade in principle-centered teachings for those that are first Christ-in-you-centered.
“But now that you know God– or rather are known by God– how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” Paul, Letter to the Galatians, 4:9
Can we truly live the abundant life Christ gives by simply being mindful that we might die in 30 days? Will inspiration last by holding on to some cliché or our trust in 12 steps? Will legalism and ascetics save the day? Seriously, how long does that work for you?
This may help the world make it through the day, but our hope is not in worldly wisdom and things of men… our hope is in the Person of Jesus Christ. Has not Christ given us himself to be everything that we need to motivate and inspire, to fill us with purpose and a mission? Hasn’t he made a way to fulfill the law by embracing his Person? From what I am hearing today, apparently not. And I sincerely believe this great distraction of God’s people is fueled by the devil.
“How far Satan will go even in bringing about a kind of devotion to Christ, and promote a mystical, physical “Christianity” with elements of moral elevation, and yet hide within that very thing something which is of himself and, being of himself, savors of that which was in him from that time when he himself was hurled out of heaven, that thing which would take from the Lord Jesus the absoluteness of His place in the Godhead.”T. Austin Sparks, The Centrality and Supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ, p.38
If you listen closely, much of modern-day preaching is an attempt to fill the void in people’s soul by taking the back door approach to living victoriously. In the end, it undermines the absolute centrality and supremacy of Christ. Instead of preaching the depths and riches of Christ, his principles are taught in its place (not entirely of course, just those principles that fit our accepted cultural and theological ideas). To add to that… mix some new age self-help heresy in there and you completely lose anything that comes close to resembling Christ.
Christ has made a way for us to come to him directly. We should not concern ourselves with the effect (his living), until we begin with the cause (his life). Beginning with Christ will in the end give us those things that we see in his principles. We must concern ourselves with the being, instead of the doing. The doing will come naturally after we have locked on to his Person and understand that knowing Christ in spirit and in truth is our only concern.
Principles Out of the Person
About a year ago, I met a man and discussed with him that there are churches that believe there comes a time to kill enemies, despite what Jesus has said. Being Christ-centered and understanding “Christ in you”… he was befuddled and could not comprehend that there were professing believers that actually believed this.
He was so consumed with “Christ in you” he did not see an unattainable principle, he understood that the Person of Christ in him would never even entertain the thought of violating a teaching of Jesus. The same Christ that loved his enemies in the first-century was the same Christ living in him today. Although his reaction proved him to be a bit cut off from the outside world, I will never forget his reaction of complete shock.
When the Person of Christ has not been embraced and when we have missed the full message of the Gospel which is “Christ in you”… then of course, many of Christ’s principles and teachings seem absolutely ridiculous and impossible to expect adherence. This is why teaching principles without the Person can never lead us to Christ in the way he has prepared.
Ultimately, we fail to apply principles because the nature of the matter is to accomplish these things by doing in our own strength, instead of knowing and being the Lord in his strength.
When we falsely believe that forgiveness of sin is all there is to Christ, we will inevitably fail to see the world rightly through the eyes of Christ, for we have not fully realized that life within us. We must enter into his life before he can use us to manage his affairs in the church and preach the pure Gospel of salvation to the world.
We have to decide which it will be. Will we attempt to live out his principles apart from first knowing his life? Can a popular book on principles give me the life in Christ I desire? Can a sermon that says, “Principles in you, the hope of glory” save? Can this save you?
Should we not seek to understand Paul’s words, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The later will deliver the life that is promised. The first will only sell books and gather around men a great following of religious people. Outwardly, the hype might appear as success and fulfillment, but the people who go home empty in heart know better. We simply must be willing to be honest with ourselves and the Lord.
At the end of the day… pop culture Christianity is a mirage in a desert wasteland. We must cross over Jordan to Christ in this life… if we ever wish to enjoy the fruit of the land in the next.
It is evident in whatever form of church you find yourself in. Something is missing in it all. Where there ought to be spiritual life, there is death. Over the last decade or so I have noticed the church drama has been building. Have you? Everyone is offering up their “new” and “innovative” ideas to blow life into the church.
Yet, it would seem that many have not noticed that Christ is absent. He stands outside knocking… he is softly saying, “I would like my church back.” He calls to us in the wilderness, “I am the river flowing from the throne of God.” We must dance in the river if we want to see his life flow from ours.
A Renewed Christology
It was all about Jesus when you were born again. If it had not been… you never would have been saved and regenerated by his Holy Spirit. It would appear that the great problem in the church today is this: Coming to Christ in salvation and then moving off of Christ to fulfill passions, purposes, ministries, and movements by substituting the person of Christ with principles.
The problem with our lives and our churches is not solved in discovering our inner potential through motivational books and sermons. In fact, these messages actually take us further away from dependence on Christ’s life in us. Apart from the Person of Christ, you have no potential.
Likewise, the church’s problems are not solvable by new emerging methods for our narcissistic ecclesiology. It is not answered in bigger buildings, louder music, and marketing degrees. It is not found in being “seeker friendly” or adopting a new program of discipleship. The answer to all of our problems is found in Christ alone. Nothing else will do.
“I myself am the way and the truth and the life.”
Jesus, The Gospel of John, 14:6
It is time for us to return back to our “first love” (Rev. 2:4) We came to Christ in the beginning and we realized the love of the Father, that our sins had been forgiven. Now, we must continue to pursue him in all things and grow up into our salvation (Phil. 2:12). We must move on past the elementary teachings of our faith (Heb. 6:1). We must commit ourselves to rediscovering the Christ of the Gospels. We must move toward revolution instead of vainly attempting to bring life through reformation.
Here it is straight: We cannot fully know Christ’s true principles until we have been captured by Christ’s true Person. Just as you cannot fly a plane while sitting in the terminal… you cannot know Christ by living out principles born from your own will and determination. True Christ principles come flowing from the life that is consumed with: “the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3)
I challenge you to listen to the words being taught by men today. Is Christ’s life the Gospel being preached? With all of the preaching and teaching today, you have to wonder… wonder why there is not a clear distinction between the natural faith of Christ vs. religion. If Christ was all that was being preached, I have to believe we would see a different church.
I am convinced that the Lord is setting a new stage for the churches in America. The stage is filled with suffering and heavy persecution. The right response in preparation is to put our hope and complete trust in the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. Let it be known that Christ is the main actor in this production. It is not the church. We are but mere stage hands. We must understand the implications of this if we are to persevere through what is to come.
Let us go to the Scriptures in search of the indwelling Person of Christ, not principles that we might mold into our corrupted theology of Jesus and the church. Let us pray like Jesus in the garden. “Lord, make us one in you. Prepare us for that Day that is coming. Come Lord Jesus, come!”
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus, The Gospel of John, 11:25