As the title indicates, the author is concerned with centering preaching in Christ. In the foreword to the second edition, he makes a two-part clarification on “Christ-centered”: first as “standing for…God’s redemptive work, which finds its culminating expression in Christ’s person and work,” and second as disclosing “an aspect of God’s redeeming nature (evident in the text) that is ultimately understood, fulfilled, and/or accomplished in Christ.” The author’s vehicle for presenting such a Christ-centered message is “expository preaching”, which he defines as “a message whose structure and thought are derived from a biblical text, that covers the scope of the text, and that explains the features and context of the text in order to disclose the enduring principles for faithful thinking, living, and worship intended by the Spirit, who inspired the text” (31). On whether or not we would subscribe to either definition totally, a little more later.
Regardless, this general emphasis is a welcome turn from the “how-to” sermons we might catch on television and a refreshing focus on what we know to be the center of salvation. Chapell promotes a sermon that rests fully on the authority and power of God’s Word and that finds its center in Christ. Christ-Centered Preaching boldly launches from this Scripture-rooted, Christ-centered base into how to preach a sermon, beginning to end.
In that vein, Christ-Centered Preaching is a volume worthy of its wide acclaim. There is more than enough meat in this work for pastors of any generation to chew on and digest. Even if only for the occasional look again at the central craft of the parish pastor, it warrants shelf space. For a thorough plow through rethinking sermon writing altogether, it’s incredibly worthwhile. Whether intended that way or not, it does serve well as a textbook, covering the principles of expository preaching (chs.1-4), exploring the preparation of expository sermons (chs. 5-9), and reviewing the author’s theology of Christ-centered messages (chs.10-11).
The author discourses on grand subjects like “Biblical focus for preaching” and speaks winsomely to Lutheran ears with words like these: “Scripture determines what expositors preach because they unfold what it says. The meaning of the passage is the message of the sermon” (32). But primarily Chapell presents very practical insights on almost every aspect of the sermon, written or preached; from microphones and hand motions, to outlining and illustrations. A few examples:
- In chapter 7, “The Pattern of Illustration,” he carries a full discussion about how and why to illustrate in the sermon. Of particular interest was the sub-point in which he discussed “raining key terms”. This is the concept of making sure that the key words of the sermon’s main point or sub-point are peppered throughout the illustration so that the audience has a “verbal trail” that reminds of where they’ve been in the exposition as they sink into the illustration (197).
- Or consider the author’s wise comments in chapter 10 under “A Biblical Theology for Preaching.” There, discussing the trouble of properly recognizing Christ-centeredness in Old Testament texts, he emphasizes contextual attention in addition to exegetical digging when he says, “Accurate expositors use both a magnifying glass and a fish-eye lens, knowing that a magnifying glass can unravel mysteries in a raindrop but can fail to expose a storm gathering on the horizon” (275).
All of that is to say that the author has a fresh way of making us think through things we’ve all been doing week by week in sermon preparation. There is much to be gleaned from Christ-Centered Preaching, both practically and theoretically. WELS pastors of all ages would be well-served here.
That is not to say that the reader should take his eye off the doctrinal radar. Most of us will probably nod in agreement with 90% of what Chapell encourages. However, Chapell is a Presbyterian and his book reflects his theology. Characteristically, the attentive reader will find many more references to God’s glory than the Lutheran pastor would normally make. There are more than a few mentions of the “means of grace” including prayers, Scripture reading, and church attendance. Notably absent are the sacraments.
To this reviewer’s mind, one ironical bit of evidence trumps the rest. An integral aspect of Chapell’s preaching encouragements is the FCF or “Fallen Condition Focus”. He asserts that a sermon cannot really have purpose without this item (48-50, et al.). We might equate it to the “specific malady” of the text. Yet, we ought to note some differences. Chapell identifies the FCF as, “the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him” (50). In part, we would agree. When we read God’s Word, we share in the sinfulness of the original audience, often in the very specific ways they experienced it. But throughout the book Chapell emphasizes this FCF most often as the solution to a perceived lack, a condition that can be righted by application of grace, and not necessarily as sin. At one point he says, “[Scripture] tells us how we must seek Christ, who alone is our Savior and source of strength, to be and do what God wants” (277). To this reader’s mind, here stands the ironic miss: the goal seems to be to enable the preacher properly to tell the audience how to be and do by inclusion of redemptive notes, sometimes even to the exclusion of naming Jesus Christ. Chapell says it, “The goal of the preacher is…to show how each text manifests God’s grace in order to prepare and enable his people to embrace the hope provided by Christ” (279).
As evidence, one might look to the appendix which includes a full sermon as expository example. In it one does not find much law in its first use to condemn the sinner, nor the gospel applied as a salve to the specific law. There is much of law in its third use, however, educating believers about how to better be God’s people and glorify him. And so, this reader does not think it too harsh to say that, ironically (or not so much given the Calvinistic backdrop), in a book on Christ-centered preaching, Christ becomes less central than God intended and, at worst, a bit of deus ex machina: God’s people have painted themselves into a corner, but not to worry, redemption will help them to be and show what God intended.
Notwithstanding that somewhat seminal question, Christ-Centered Preaching still offers a great deal for the Lutheran pastor to assess and absorb. Given that our own seminary considers it a help in the training of future pastors, pastors in the field might consider giving it at least a once-over. The writer is thought-provoking, practical, and perceptive about how to put a sermon together and deliver it, if not always as Lutheran as God is. Still, a worthy work, a good read. Block out a spot on the homiletics shelf and pick it up.
Christ-Centered Preaching is a widely acclaimed volume on preaching and has been a textbook for homiletics in many seminaries, most recently including our own. Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary employs Chapell’s volume as the main textbook of the middler homiletics course. Its author, Dr. Bryan Chapell, is Senior Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois. He has previously served as pastor at a number of churches and at Covenant Seminary in a variety of roles, most notably President and Chancellor. He is author of a number of award-winning books in addition to this volume.
Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, by Bryan Chapell, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005. 400 pages.