Is Gospel-Centered Preaching Too “Slippery”?

Every so often you will hear Gospel-centered preachers and authors accused of being "slippery," trying to have it both ways, or perhaps always looking for a third way. I want to look briefly at this charge because I believe that it will actually help us to understand the Gospel itself better.

The indictment of "slipperiness" tends to arise when a person says something that challenges a group of people and, in the process of this challenge, seems to sound like a representative of a rival group. For example, if I am speaking to individuals who are particularly rationalistic in their outlook, I may take some time to emphasize the importance of one's affections and emotions. The accusation then comes, “You’re too touchy-feely.” The surprise on the part of the rationalistic listeners is over the fact that when they formerly observed my interactions with their rivals, the more emotional types, I had emphasized the importance of seeking knowledge, engaging the mind, and the like. Now of course this is a fictional example, but it raises the question, “Is there some sort of dishonesty here?” Am I trying to have my cake and eat it too? Do we, Gospel-centered types, just enjoy being contrarians?

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Gospel cuts through and against every culture, and what’s going on in the above scenario is a prime example of this reality. If I am rightly preaching the Gospel, then I have to let it address the idols of whatever culture to which I may be speaking. 

If speaking to an educated, intellectually minded group of city dwellers, I will need to make room for the Gospel to address the idols of their culture. In this case it may be a core belief that humanity by their reason can define and measure all reality, and thus anything that stands outside of the grasp of reason is ipso facto illegitimate. If we hold to this belief, the logical outcome would be the dismissal of the Divine and the exaltation of the rational observer. However, my point in touching on the potential overconfidence of human reason is not to downplay the importance of reason or to encourage irrationality, of course not – that would be contrary to the scriptures (1 Pet. 1:13). Rather, in addressing their idol I hope to uncover its false assumption, and to reveal that Christ on the cross, which they may presume foolish, is actually the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18-31).

Similarly, without belaboring the point, if speaking to individuals who are known to be somewhat overly-emotional, I will need to let the Gospel address the idols of their culture, and in the process I may be accused of being too heady, overly concerned with human wisdom, or worse. But the hope in attempting to uncover their false gods, which may involve an overdependence on feeling and emotion in measuring Christian growth, is that they would learn to ground their subjective experiences of the Christian life in the objective position they have received from God through Christ. Or, as Jonathan Edwards put it, "Gracious affections arise from the mind's being enlightened, richly and spiritually to understand or apprehend divine things" (Religious Affections, pt. 3). In other words, godly affections are the result of, not in opposition to, the knowledge of the Gospel. 

It must be understood, then, that the goal of the Gospel-centered preacher is never to be "slippery," instead it is to declare the Gospel in such a way that all other potential false saviors are removed from an individual's heart so as to make room for Christ, who refuses to share a throne with others. If this is to happen in our own lives then we must be willing to be made uncomfortable, and we must recognize the preacher's responsibility in addressing our idols.

The takeaway is that we must never give complete allegiance to any particular worldview or culture. Instead, every culture needs to be submitted to and evaluated in light of the Gospel: this includes our families, relational networks, political affiliations, and even our evangelical, Gospel-centered circles that we may find ourselves in. Only Christ is deserving of our complete allegiance. So, next time a preacher seems “slippery,” or sounds like your rival, it may very well be that he is speaking something that is contrary to the truth; we must always "test the spirits" and listen discerningly (1 John 4:1-6). But, it might also be that he is simply trying to run off the idols that are consistently attempting to take up residence in your heart. 

Stephen Um is the pastor and church planter of Citylife Boston, and the Associate Training Director for Asia and Australia for CTC. This blog was first posted at The Center for Gospel Culture, a site that features sermons, blogs and articles emphasizing the centrality of the gospel for all of life.