Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: “Show me thy glory!”[1]


Perhaps there was a time in history where the term “Theocentric preaching,” was considered redundant, since all preaching was about the majesty, glory and saving work of God. Today however, sermons have shifted from a theocentric viewpoint to an anthropocentric viewpoint. Before we explore the implications of this shift, it is important to define what the terms theocentric and anthropocentric mean in preaching. James Merrill Anderson defines these terms in his Doctor in Ministry thesis entitled The Priority and Practice of Theocentric Preaching:

Anthropocentric describes a presentation that features man or woman as the focal point. It is evident hermeneutically by a concentration on the reactions, lessons and examples of biblical characters. This in turn is reflected homiletically in sermons that are man-centered in orientation, not just in application.

Theocentric refers to the interpretive approach to Scripture that focuses on God. It recognizes that God is the central figure of revelation and his redemptive work is the most significant activity recorded in the Bible.[2]


In an article entitled Reclaiming God-Centered Preaching, Darryl Dash, pastor of Richview Baptist Church in Toronto, Canada, distinguishes three types of anthropocentric approaches for preaching today.[3] First, there is therapeutic preaching. In this preaching style, the pastor “focuses on people’s felt needs such as how to build relationships, handle stress, manage money, raise children, and resolve conflics.”[4] According to Dash, this approach can lead to self-help and narcissism. People who preach the Bible therapeutically usually stretch the meaning of the passage to make it about how to massage the human soul. Dash quotes Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk’s comments about this model of preaching saying that this approach reminds one of “the image of Jesus calling Lazarus from the grave;” however, instead of focusing the sermon on God’s power, “[M]ost preaching is about how to cope with a life wrapped in grave clothing that is never removed.”[5] Dash also quotes Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission to point out five characteristics of therapeutic preaching that are opposed to God’s original plan for the individual:

First, it does not call me to love God and my neighbor, but instead only to love myself. Second, it does not call me to God’s mission but rather calls God to my mission. Third, it does not call me to be part of the church to serve God’s mission, but intead uses the church to make me a better person. Fourth, it does not call me to use my spiritual gift(s) to build up the church but rather to actualize my full potential. Fifth, it takes pride, which Augustine called the mother of all sins, and repackages it as self-esteem, the maidservant of all virtue.[6]

The second anthropocentric approach is moralistic preaching. This approach, according to Dash, “emphasizes life application and take-home action steps.”[7] The appeal of this approach is the idea that sermons must be practical and offer life applications to the hearers. John Piper, one of the greatest advocates of theocentric preaching in America, says that, pastors should not avoid the common things of life such as, “family, job, leisure, friendships; or the crises of our days – AIDS, divorce, addictions, depression, abuses, poverty, [or] hunger[.]”[8] However, when addressing these issues, pastors should take them primarily up to God and not to the people alone. Dash puts it this way, “[O]ur listeners need a vision of God and his gospel that changes every part of their lives, not just more tasks to be completed. To-do lists don’t change souls.”[9] As the name of this approach already says, moralistic preaching creates moralism or pride (for those who succeed in following the rules) or defeatism (for those who do not succeed). For Dash, moralism is passed on basically through two types of sermons, the “how-to” sermons and the “biographical” sermons.[10] Every time preachers “offer characters as examples to emulate” using them as “moral examples” to be followed, they are doing a disfavor to the Gospel. Preaching on Esther, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, explains the reason preachers should not use any character (biblical or non-biblical) as an example. He says:

An example - even a great example - can only crush you. It’s crushing because it’s an inaccessible standard… If you see Esther as an example and say, “Be like Esther!” it will crush you. You will never live up to it. But if you see Jesus as your Savior - not as an example of doing something for others but as a Savior doing it for you, and you know that you’re that valuable to him and you know that your future is secure - that changes your identity.[11]

Bryan Chapell, author of Christ-Centered Preaching, writes about the dangers of the “be” messages. He lists three different “be’s” that preachers make use of in their sermons. The first “deadly be” message, according to Chapell, is the “Be like” messages. This kind of message is close to what Dash defines as a biographical message. For Chapell, in these messages “pastors urge congregants to be like…Moses, Gideon, David, Daniel, or Peter in the face of some trial, temptation, or challenge.”[12] Even using Jesus as a model should be avoided if the preacher is not willing to remind his listeners about Jesus’ high standards and the difficulty of reaching them.

Chapell’s second “be” message is the “be good” message. Here, the focus is on behavior rather than biographies. This falls into the category Dash calls as moralistic preaching. The problem with “be good” messages is the false assumption they may cause in listeners. Chapell says, “listeners will most likely assume that they can secure their relationship with God through proper behaviors.”[13] For Chapell, these messages in the long run destroy “all Christian distinctives” because they undermine “the work of God in sanctification.”

Chapell’s third and last type of “be” message is the “be disciplined” message. These are those sermons “that exhort believers to improve their relationship with God by more diligent use of the means of grace.”[14] Chapell summarizes the idea behind the “be disciplined” messages by saying, “[S]uch messages are not merely advocating moral behavior, but are typically encouraging believers more regularly, sincerely, lengthily, or methodically to practice those disciplines that allegedly will lift them to higher planes of divine approval (or, if left undone, will reap divine displeasure).”[15] Even though Chapell recognizes the presence of “be” messages in the Bible, he affirms that these messages are always in a “redemptive context.”

The third anthropocentric approach is the allegorical. This, according to Dash, is the most common human-centered type of preaching. Three common passages in the Bible are widely used allegorically by many preachers: Jesus calming the storm, David and Goliath, and the miracle of the wine at the wedding in Cana. Dash says, “[E]lements of the stories – storms, giants, and wine – are taken out of the historical context and made to stand for something else in the listener’s life.”[16] Paul Scott Wilson, in his book God Sense Reading the Bible for Preaching, also recognizes the dangers of misused allegory in preaching but reminds his readers of its potential benefits. He says:

Allegory can find what meanings it wants in a text and remove possible agreement on what a text means. This danger is compounded since allegory also seems to dispose of history and threatens the authority of Scripture as a record of God’s self-revelation in and through historical events. However, allegory is far more pervasive in the Bible and in the history of biblical interpretation than we are prone to think, and its negative influence cannot be guarded against by simply banning its use… Weed it out of the flower bed and it appears in the vegetable garden; dissuade a student of using it in exegesis and it appears in a sermon.[17]

Wilson recognizes that it is the preacher’s task to differentiate bad allegories from good ones: “To deny the role of allegory in interpretative history or its continuing various forms today is futile; rather we must clarify what distinguishes bad from good.”[18] For Wilson, resistance to talk about allegory shows not only fear, but a lack of understanding of what constitutes a good allegory.

Allegories like the “be” messages are also found in the Bible. Wilson points out four different uses of allegories made by Jesus Christ. First, Jesus used allegories when he said something that appeared to “have another sense.”[19] Examples can be found in Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-9, the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37, the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13:6-9, and others. Secondly, Jesus used allegory every time he quoted Scripture in order to “give it a meaning fulfilled in his time.” This use of allegory explains to the listeners that “these words about the ancient prophet’s life in fact also correspond one-to-one with something happening today.”[20] An example is Jesus’ reading of the scroll of Isaiah with the pronunciation that the text was fulfilled in the hearing of his audience. The third use of allegory is found whenever Jesus interprets his own words allegorically, “explaining what he says so as to indicate plainly the ‘other’ sense he has in mind.”[21] Jesus’ interpretation of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:36-43 is an example. The fourth use of allegory by Jesus, according to Wilson, is a combination of the previous two approaches. As an example, Wilson uses Matthew 21:42, where Jesus uses a phrase from Psalm 118:22-23, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”, to clarify his story of the evil tenants. The conclusion is that “the tenants stand for the religious authorities, the stone stands for Christ, and his becoming the cornerstone stands for the church.”[22] Furthermore, Wilson also finds allegory in Paul’s writings as well as in John’s Revelation. For Wilson, Paul uses allegory to interpret the prophets and John’s Revelation is an extended allegory.[23]

Thus, even though he recognizes the existence of good allegory in preaching, Wilson is aware of the problem of misusing it in preaching. He tells of the experience of David E. Reid when he visited a church where the preacher allegorized the passage in Genesis 24:63-64:

The preacher explained that Isaac symbolized Christ; Rebekah, the church; and the camel, whose physical characteristics would be the focus of his message, represented the grace of God. Then he delivered a seven-point exposition based on an allegorical interpretation as classic as any I’ve ever heard.

The camel’s nose, he said, can detect water from far away and lead its rider to drink. The spiritual lesson, he added, is that God’s grace can lead us to spiritual water. He similarly interpreted and applied six more of the camel’s characteristics, none of which was mentioned in the text.[24]

The bottom line for Wilson is that “[A]llegory cannot be employed as an interpretative method that denies the literal-historical sense.”[25]

Anthropocentric preaching is an attempt to make preaching relevant to the congregation; however, it does not do justice to Scripture. Theocentric sermons, on the other hand, are scripturally based and in harmony with God’s character and desire for preaching.


Before exploring the implications of theocentric preaching, one must ask, what is theocentric preaching? The Bible is a God-centered book, thus, its interpretation must also focus in God. Anderson advocates theocentric preaching because “God is the source and center of Scripture.”[26] Chapell says that “Scripture as a whole is God’s revelation of his redeeming activity in Jesus Christ.”[27] Haddon W. Robinson states, “God reveals Himself in the Scriptures. The Bible, therefore, isn’t a textbook about ethics or a manual on how to solve problems. The Bible is a book about God.”[28] Piper says that “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the beginning, middle, and end in the ministry of preaching.”[29] Combining all these concepts of Scripture and the role of God in preaching, Dash defines theocentric preaching as “the proclamation, from Scripture, of who God is, what he wills, and what he has done and continues to do. It recounts the divine drama of creation and re-creation, which finds its center in Jesus Christ, as the true story of the world.”[30]

Thus, the main reason that preachers must preach theocentric sermons is because the Bible is God-centered. Sydney Greidanus, professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Calvin Theological Seminary says that “the major clue we receive regarding God’s purpose in the canon as a whole as well as in its individual passages is that God intends to tell us about himself: his person, his actions, his will, etc.”[31] Colin S. Smith in an essay entitled Keeping Christ Central in Preaching, says:

[C]hrist is the focus of the whole of the Bible. He is the center point of the big story. He is there at the creation… The Fall shows us our need of him… God’s blessing to Abraham was the inauguration of the line from which Christ came… The Exodus was a redemption of God’s people pointing forward to our deliverance by Christ… The offices of prophet, priest, and king are all categories that help us to understand who Jesus is.[32]

Piper goes further by saying that the goal of preaching is the glory of God; the ground of preaching is the cross of Christ; and that the gift of preaching is the power of the Holy Spirit.[33] This approach alludes to Paul’s words in Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

In a lecture at a pastor’s conference at Phoenix Seminary, Piper explains the reason God must be central to preaching. He says, “The main reason we make God supreme in preaching is because he is supreme in his own affections, he is supreme in his own purposes, his own designs, his own mind…the most God-centered person in the universe is God.”[34]

Piper quotes Jonathan Edwards on the matter of God’s sovereignty as the reason for theocentric preaching, as saying, “The great end of God’s works which is so variously expressed in Scriptures is indeed but one, and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called the glory of God.”[35] Thus, theocentric preaching is the only true preaching because not only is the Bible theocentric, but also because God is centered in Himself.

Theocentric preaching is Christocentric as Paul says in 1Corinthians 2:2 “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Chapell says, “Theocentric preaching inevitably becomes Christocentric not because the sermon always cites the name of Jesus or draws to mind some event from his earthly ministry, but because it demonstrates the reality of the human predicament that requires divine solution.”[36] Anderson puts it this way, “[B]ecause Christ is the eternal Logos, from the beginning with God, and himself truly God, a commitment to a theocentric focus in preaching will be manifested in Christocentric sermons.”[37] Thus, God’s redemptive plan in Christ will permeate the mind of the preacher, no matter whether he is preaching the Old Testament law or the New Testament grace; in any case, Christ must be at the center.

Robinson urges the preacher to constantly ask of the biblical text, “What is the vision of God in this passage?”[38] Therefore, the exegetical work for theocentric preaching must focus on God. But the vision of God for every passage is not the only question to be asked. Another question the preacher should ask when exploring the biblical text is “What does it reveal about God’s character, acts, grace, and will?”[39]

After seeking for God and his actions in the text, preachers need then to look at the human condition. Robinson states, “[T]his human factor is the condition that men and women today have in common with the characters in the Bible.”[40] Chapell outlines three steps for a Christ-centered exposition.

I. Identify the redemptive principles evident in the text.

A. Revealed aspects of the divine nature that provides redemption

B. Revealed aspects of human nature that requires redemption

II. Determine what application these redemptive principles wre to have in the lives of believers in the biblical context.

III. In the light of common human characteristics or conditions contemporary believers share with the biblical believers, apply the redemptive principles to contemporary lives. [41]

James T. Dennison, professor of Church History and Biblical Theology at Northwest Theological Seminary in Lynnwood, Washington, outlines two simple steps to find the centrality of God in the text. First, find the immediate context of the text, and then its “redemptive-historical context.” [42] For Smith, the questions the preacher should ask about the biblical text are: “1) What does this tell me about the human condition? 2)What does this tell me about God and his provision for the human condition in Jesus Christ?”[43] This approach is close to what is called “trouble/grace school.” In Preaching and Homiletical Theory, Wilson says, “[T]he trouble/grace school seeks to devise a way to ensure that both the divine and human dimensions of the texts are identified.”[44] For Smith, these two dimensions are important because they show the need and relevance of the cross to a lost and yet hopeful people.


We live in difficult times for preaching. Gradually, many preachers have stopped focusing on the majesty of God and His redemptive work through Jesus Christ and have begun to focus on human needs and behaviors. This shift has led the church to legalism and anthropocentric preaching. It is pivotal for preachers today to rescue theocentric preaching. Preachers must pull Christians out of the selfish and individualistic mentality, and demonstrate a broader perspective of the Bible and God. Above all, preachers must create within each Christian a sense of belonging and total dependence on God. Chapell suggests that each preacher at the end of each sermon should ask if his or her sermon led people to walk in more dependency on God for the battles against the world, the flesh and the devil. Chapell concludes, “[W]hether people depart alone or in the Savior’s hand will mark the difference between futility and faith, legalism and true obedience, do-goodism and real godliness.”[45]

[1] John Piper, The supremacy of God in preaching (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1990), 9.

[2] James M. Anderson, The priority and practice of theocentric preaching (THEOLOGICAL RESEARCH EXCHANGE NETWORK SERIES ; 071-0001; 1997), 7.

[3] Darryl Dash, Reclaiming God-Centered Preaching, Theocentric Preaching.

[4] Darryl Dash, Reclaiming God-Centered Preaching, Theocentric Preaching, 2. http://www.theocentric preaching .com/.

[5] Dash, Reclaiming God-Centered Preaching.

[6] Dash, Theocentric Preaching. A Practical Seminar for Pastors, 4. http://www.theocentric preaching .com/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Piper, The supremacy of God in preaching 20.

[9] Dash, Reclaiming God-Centered Preaching, 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11]“Exemplars and Signposts,” Theocentric Preaching,

[12] Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1994), 281-282.

[13] Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / 282-283.

[14] Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / 283.

[15] Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / 283.

[16] Dash, Reclaiming God-Centered Preaching, 3.

[17] Paul S. Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 112.

[18] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 132.

[19] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 119.

[20] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 120.

[21] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 120.

[22] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 120.

[23] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 121.

[24] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 137.

[25] Wilson, God sense : reading the Bible for preaching 137.

[26] Anderson, The priority and practice of theocentric preaching 28.

[27] Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / 295.

[28] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical preaching : the development and delivery of expository (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001), 94.

[29] Piper, The supremacy of God in preaching 19.

[30] Dash, Theocentric Preaching. A Practical Seminar for Pastors, 12.

[31] Anderson, The priority and practice of theocentric preaching 29.

[32] D. A. Carson, Telling the truth : evangelizing postmoderns (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2000), 114.

[33] Piper, The supremacy of God in preaching 19.

[34] John Piper (speaker), The Centrality of God in Preaching, [audio MP3],

[35] John Piper (speaker), The Centrality of God in Preaching, [audio MP3].

[36] Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / 296.

[37] Anderson, The priority and practice of theocentric preaching 34.

[38] Robinson, Biblical preaching : the development and delivery of expository 94.

[39] Dash, Reclaiming God-Centered Preaching.

[40] Robinson, Biblical preaching : the development and delivery of expository 94-95.

[41] Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / 298.

[42] Anderson, The priority and practice of theocentric preaching 69.

[43] Carson, Telling the truth : evangelizing postmoderns 116.

[44] Paul S. Wilson, Preaching and homiletical theory (PREACHING AND ITS PARTNERS; St. Louis, Mo: Chalice Press, 2004), 98.

[45] Chapell, Christ-centered preaching : redeeming the expository sermon / 286.

Rodrigo Serrao

Note: Copy of this material is allowed and free, since the source is cited / A reprodução dos textos é permitida e gratuita, desde que citada a fonte.


Darryl said...

Great paper. I love the way you've pulled together the themes from various sources. Excellent work!

Rodrigo Serrao said...

Thank you Darryl. The material in your site was of great help for me to put this paper together.