When it comes to preaching the gospel (and hearing the gospel preached), it is important to keep these things in mind. All preaching – if it is true gospel preaching – ought to be Christ-centered. Yet, some Christians, and some preachers among them, propose that true gospel preaching ought to be Christ-centered in such a way that each and every sermon is about the doctrine of justification. While every sermon ought to be at least implicitly evangelistic, this view promotes the notion that every sermon ought to be explicitly evangelistic.
As we’ve noted, part of the gospel is the good news of justification, but to reduce the preaching ministry to preaching sermons only about justification by faith alone in Christ alone imposes a particular grid on Scripture, distorts the purposes of preaching, and does a disservice to God’s people. Yes, everyone needs to hear and be reminded about justification by faith alone (believers, as well as unbelievers); yet, while believers and unbelievers both need to hear about justification, there is more to “preaching the gospel.”
Consider how the Apostle Paul describes his preaching ministry to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:10-17):
10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.
As a pastor and preacher, Paul describes himself as a “wise master builder” (v 10) who, through his preaching, has laid the essential foundation of Jesus Christ (v 11). In the following verses, he proceeds to describe what it means to build upon that foundation – what we might call the ‘superstructure’ of his preaching ministry. This superstructure, which is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, may be comprised of either gold, silver, and precious stones or wood, hay, and straw.
But what does Paul mean by use of this imagery? In condemning the Pharisees, Jesus said, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7-8). Simply put, the gold, silver, and precious stones are the doctrines and commandments of God; the wood, hay, and straw are the precepts and traditions of men. Both may be built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, but only one will survive the fires of judgment on the day of Christ.
Concerning this superstructure, John Calvin writes:
“…by gold, silver, and precious stones, he means doctrine worthy of Christ, and of such a nature as to be a superstructure corresponding to such a foundation…by wood, hay, and straw is meant doctrine not answering to the foundation, such as is forged in men’s brain, and is thrust in upon us as though it were the oracles of God.” (John Calvin, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 3:12)
The Lord calls pastors to feed His people primarily through preaching the word (WSC 89). Through the preaching of the word, the faithful preacher lays the essential foundation of Jesus Christ and builds upon that foundation with the doctrines and commandments of God.
More than repentance from dead works and of faith toward God
The writer of Hebrews addresses this same issue (Hebrews 5:12-6:3):
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. 6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do, if God permits.
Commenting on Hebrews 6:1, Calvin writes:
“To his reproof he joins this exhortation, – that leaving first principles they were to proceed forward to the goal. For by ‘the word of beginning’ he understands the first rudiments, taught to the ignorant when received into the Church. Now, he bids them to leave these rudiments, not that the faithful are ever to forget them, but that they are not to remain in them; and this idea appears more clear from what follows, the comparison of a foundation; for in building a house we must never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it, would be ridiculous. For as the foundation is laid for the sake of what is built on it, he who is occupied in laying it and proceeds not to the superstruction, wearies himself with foolish and useless labor. In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements, for they propose to themselves no end, as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house. So then he would have our faith to be at first so founded as afterwards to rise upwards, until by daily progress it be at length completed.” (John Calvin, Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:1)
You see, when “the gospel” is defined simply in terms of justification by faith alone (“repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” – Hebrews 6:1) the household of faith is taught to lay the foundation, over and over again. Should we revisit and inspect the foundation? Of course! Is a proper understanding of (and reminders about) the foundation essential? Yes! But, as Calvin wisely observes, to always be engaged in laying the foundation and never proceeding to the rest of the building would be to engage in “foolish and useless labor.” Yet, this is precisely what happens when the preaching of the gospel is limited to the preaching of justification.
Yes, the good news of the gospel includes the doctrine of justification: it is one of the central aspects of the gospel. To limit our definition of the good news by saying that it is merely about justification, however, would be to reduce the grand plan of God, and the richness of a life that is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
One of Jesus’ favorite ways to describe “the gospel” was with the descriptor, “of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Luke 16:16). Isaiah’s messenger of good news – the one who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation – does not come, saying, “You’re justified!” He says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7). Implicit in the reign of God is, of course, justification – but the effective reach of God’s will through the kingdom of His beloved Son is about so much more than the justification of His people. It’s about His making all things new!