Christ-Centered Preaching, Redeeming the Expository Sermon by Bryan Chapell
When Bryan Chapell wrote Christ-Centered Preaching he was president and professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He now pastors Grace Presbyterian church in Peoria, Illinois. Apart from the last two chapters, this volume is a relatively standard, and excellent, manual on homiletics. It resembles the classic Biblical Preaching written by Haddon Robinson and covers much of the same material and more. Chapell recognizes that there is no one right style of preaching, but he is convinced of the importance of expository preaching (pp. 15-16, 30-33), as opposed to topical, moralistic and therapeutic preaching that has become increasingly common (p. 19). Chapell believes that expository preaching is committed to proclaiming the actual revelation of God (pp. 30-31, 46, 59, 75-77). In structuring such sermons the author addresses all the important elements of the message: introduction, proposition, outline, conclusion, content, application, and illustrations. Much practical instruction is given in all of these areas and more (note 12 appendices covering related issues). Chapell encourages motivation by grace, not greed or guilt (p. 218). All of this is well-done so that the novice preacher will develop excellent patterns for his preaching ministry, and the experienced pastor will be reminded of important aspects.
Chapell, however, adds two elements that he believes are fundamental to a biblical sermon not found in most homiletical guides. The first is what he calls the Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) (pp. 48 ff.). Every text has a FCF, writes Chapell which the preacher must discover and present in every sermon. “All scripture has a FCF so that it can expose God’s redemptive purposes for His people in order to magnify His glory” (p. 14). The FCF is the underlying reason the Holy Spirit inspired any given text in order to expose what fallen aspect of the human condition needs to be properly recognized and honored. The FCF exposes the necessity of a divine solution to the human dilemma and necessarily makes God the hero of the text as He displays His redemptive provision for His people” (p. 14). For the most part I appreciate Chapell’s FCF causing the preacher (as well as the general student of Scripture) to discern the “why” behind revelation. The Bible is more than stories and propositions and wise sayings. It is a book about God and how He has chosen to deal with mankind, its great problem of sin, and its fallen nature. I would hesitate to fully endorse the FCF premise, however, for a number of reasons: Does every single text really have an FCF? I question this unless one broadens the concept so much as to even include genealogies and ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law. Secondly, I believe that other themes exist such as the revelation of the person of the Triune God. This leads to a third, and more important, concern which is that the FCF can become man-centered. If the purpose of every text of Scripture is to reveal man’s fallenness and need for redemption, the Bible is now reduced to one issue: redemption (p. 271). This is of course exactly where Chapell is taking his reader. But as important as redemption is, are the Scriptures really all about man and his need? I believe God’s Word actually has a bigger purpose and message: to reveal and glorify God. Under this umbrella falls everything else including FCF and redemption. But FCF is not the main focus of Scripture, I would argue that God is. God is certainly glorified through His redemption of humanity, but He is also glorified in numerous other ways.
The second unique element in Chapell’s Christ-centered preaching system is that he believes Christ must be found and preached from every text of Scripture (p. 274). This is the element, accompanied by Redemptive-Historical or Christocentric hermeneutics, that has set this preaching system apart from normal expository preaching and has drawn much attention as well as concern. Expository preaching, using literal–grammatical–historical hermeneutics, seeks to uncover the authorial intent behind any text (see p. 75). It then takes the meaning of the passage and makes application for modern hearers. Expository preaching lets the biblical authors speak for themselves revealing whatever truth the Holy Spirit intended. Christ-centered preaching by contrast, while agreeing fundamentally (and most of Chapell’s book lays this out well), insists on finding Christ and redemption in every text. Based on Luke 24:27 and a few other verses, Chapell believes every verse of Scripture points to Christ and thus “true biblical preaching must center on the cross of Jesus Christ” (p. 271). The problem with this approach is how to infuse Christ into a passage when He is not there (p. 275). Chapell admits this is problematic: “How one gets redemptive truth out of a text and into a sermon can stretch both exegetical and preaching skills” (p. 280). Those promoting this concept, such as Chapell, fall back on two methological tools: typology and context. Others, such as Dennis Johnson (see my review of Johnson’s Him We Proclaim) rely heavily on typology, the idea that, while Christ may not be spoken of in every text, He can be found typologically in every passage. This method tends toward allegory and Chapell rightly cautions concerning its misuse (pp. 281-282). Chapell leans more heavily on the second tool of context (p. 282). “Preachers should not pretend that every text specifically mentions Jesus” (p. 284) but if the preacher zooms out far enough somehow Jesus can be found as the subject of the passage and thus preached. If one discovers how a text functions redemptively, one will find Christ in the passage (p. 303). There are many dangers here: it reduces God’s overall purpose to man’s redemption instead of God’s glory; it draws all attention to Christ and in the process reduces the personhood of the rest of the Trinity, minimizes every other topic and theme found in Scripture; and it drives a wrecking ball through authorial intent by reinterpreting Scripture through the lens of a theological system instead of letting the Bible speak for itself. These are serious concerns. The difficulty of this method of preaching is demonstrated inadvertently by Chapell himself when he provides a sample sermon, apparently to show the reader how to preach Christ-centered redemption sermons. The sermon is on 2 Timothy 4:1-5 and strangely it is an expository sermon that is wrapped around God’s judgment for sin. The FCF is only in the introduction (“most of us struggle to speak up with clarity and conviction when God calls us to proclaim His truth despite our knowledge that God will judge sin”), Christ and redemption are only mentioned incidentally, as is grace, we are called to fulfill our duty to evangelize (p. 388), thus the motivation given is more duty than grace. This sermon is no different from a standard expository sermon and yet is given as an example of how to preach in a “Christ-centered” way (Appendix 12, pp. 376-386).
Chapell is concerned about sermons which motivate by guilt or greed, or teach that our obedience is a repayment to God or a condition for His love (pp. 14, 312, 315). And he is concerned that too many sermons preach imperatives, while ignoring indicatives (pp. 326-327). Additionally he is bothered that preaching is reduced to moralism, self-help and behavior modification (pp. 15-16, 30-33). All of these concerns are valid, but all are solved through true expository preaching which reveals the authorial intent and applies it to life. The Christ-centered approach, while sounding good at first, too easily reads into the text what the preacher wants to find. Instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to say what He wanted to say, the preacher tends to infuse his own theological rubric into the text.
For more on the Christocentric hermeneutics behind Christ-centered preaching see my article titled Redemptive – Historical Hermeneutics (TOTT volume 24 #4).
Christ-Centered Preaching, Redeeming the Expository Sermon (2nd Edition) by Bryan Chapell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994, 2005) 400 pp., hard $29.99.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel