Christ Alone – the Absolute Center of Our Faith
Studies of sermon topics and titles reveal that the vast majority of messages given within the churches of Christendom, perhaps up to 80%, are centered on the needs and desires of human beings, rather than on Jesus Christ. 80%!
The task of preaching and teaching the real, authentic gospel of Jesus Christ boils down to preaching Christ. The purpose of Christ-centered, authentic Christian teaching, preaching, ministry or church is not to preach the Bible, but to preach Christ. Of course, properly interpreted and understood, the Bible is all about Jesus Christ—he is not only the divine author but he is the subject and theme of the biblical message, and he is the goal and purpose of the Bible.
But, it is possible to preach and study the Bible and completely miss its Christ-centered perspective. People and churches can say that they are “Bible believers” and “Bible students” and “Bible-centered” and that they “preach and teach the Bible” while missing the point of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And there are many ways in which this is done —here are three common ways that Christ-less religion fails to keep a Christ-centered focus:
1) Many “Christian” sermons, books, articles and messages are all about rules, laws and morals. These messages encourage people to be more honest and more patient and more humble, kind and generous—and some threaten them if they fail to measure up.
There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to be good, but unless Christ is preached as the very Source of being good, and unless he is preached as the One and Only way in which perfect morality has been achieved then all this talk about being good eventually turns into legalism. The pursuit of good can turn our focus away from Jesus so that he is, in effect, taken off the throne, and laws and rules are enthroned in his place. Idolatry is the word the Bible uses to describe the end result, when Jesus is taken off the throne and replaced by something else.
It’s been rightly said that messages exhorting people to be good and do more and work harder and build more character are somewhat like standing on the banks of a river shouting, “Swim! Swim!” at a person who is drowning because they don’t know how to swim. Unless and until Christ lives in us, unless and until we have surrendered our lives to him, unless and until we have rejected the futility of trying to make ourselves better by doing religious rituals and performances and obeying religious rules, then religion will eventually drown us in its regulations and demands.
2) Many “Christian” sermons, books, articles and messages preach Christ as if he were simply a new-and-improved version of Moses. Such an emphasis believes that Jesus replaced the laws of the old covenant with laws of the new covenant. According to this perspective, the new covenant continues to explain, as did the old, that our relationship with God is based on law. But the profound change from the old covenant to the new, from Moses to Jesus, is a shift from centering on the Mosaic laws and regulations to a focus on Jesus. Laws and specific regulations and commandments are not the center of Christian faith—Jesus is the center of Christian faith.
3) How-to “Christian” sermons, books, articles and messages are another subtle departure from Christ-centered faith. Visit either a brick-and-mortar or an online Christian bookstore and you will notice the incredible concentration of how-to and self-help books. You will see titles like:
• How to be a better husband, wife or parent.
• How to evangelize people.
• How to ensure your church will grow (that is, gain more members).
• How to lose weight—with a Christian diet.
• How to be a Christian Little League coach.
• How to be a Christian musician.
• How to pray.
• How to study the Bible.
• How to be a success.
• How to get and keep a good job.
• How to overcome anything from anger and drug addictions to pride and lust.
I’m not saying that such themes are not helpful. Many, if not most, can be helpful. However, they often become replacements for Christ. Without Jesus Christ at the center many of these themes become just another pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps message.
For example, a runaway best-selling book a few years ago advised Christians to have a purpose-driven life. Nothing wrong with a purpose-driven life, but if we’re primarily centered on Jesus Christ, the real emphasis belongs with a Christ-centered life! If we are living a Christ-centered life, we will have a purpose-driven life. But the reverse is not necessarily true—it’s possible to live a purpose-driven life that is not Christ-centered.
1 John 1:1-4 offers three ways in which Jesus is absolutely central and essential to our faith:
1) In verses one and two we read that Jesus is the Word of life, and that when he appeared, he proclaimed eternal life. So to summarize this essential—Jesus is central to life.
God in Jesus became flesh and revealed eternal life to us. Jesus, the God-man, not only revealed life to us, he invited us to receive it. Jesus is the life. Jesus is the life-giver. Jesus gives eternal life—life of the age to come.
The kingdom of heaven is not based on being good—it is not based on how-to books or self-help projects whereby we overcome flaws and faults so that we become more pleasing to God and earn our place in his eternal kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is based in and on Jesus—the crucified and risen Lord of our lives.
The kingdom of heaven is centered in and on the grace and love of God, revealed to us in the teachings and person of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven means God loves us so much that he will stop at nothing in rescuing and redeeming us from the mess we have made of our lives. It is Christ crucified that enables us to accept the invitation into God’s eternal kingdom—not the effort we extend overcoming our faults.
Not only is Jesus central to life, but,
2) In verse three we read that Jesus is absolutely central and essential to our fellowship. Fellowship has become, in many religious circles, a word that takes on an extra-biblical meaning. People are encouraged, by religious authorities, to fellowship in, at and after brick-and mortar-church services at a specific time and place, as if that’s the only time and way in which people might fellowship.
Further, some are told that they can and should fellowship by going to church activities and church programs, so that they can physically be with people who frequent the same physical real estate on Sunday morning. But the conversation at such times can be anything but what is defined as fellowship here in 1 John 1:3. Fellowship at church-sponsored services and activities can include gossip and chatter about anything but spiritual topics over cookies and coffee.
But fellowship in and with the Father and his Son is far more than warm, fuzzy moments with people who happen to agree with our religious and doctrinal viewpoints, and who happen to frequent the same physical location on Sunday morning. John, in talking about fellowship, is talking about the common denominator that we as Christians share. The common denominator is not our church building, it’s not our church denomination, nor is it our church programs, bake sales, picnics or outreach activities. The common denominator in and of our faith is Jesus Christ alone.
If we are truly in Christ, we can and indeed we must speak of Christ at all times and in all places. If we have received and accepted Christ, he has given us membership in the universal body of Christ that defies human organization and structure, and as a result we will, by definition of who Jesus is, fellowship with those who do not attend our brick-and-mortar church, or indeed, any brick-and-mortar church. As Jesus lives his risen life in us we will extend friendship with those who do not even profess to be a Christian, as it is defined within the world of Christendom.
Many in Christendom believe that evangelism is what they do when they follow programs and procedures that, in one way or another, are intended to get more people to attend their brick-and-mortar church. And the programs and procedures and protocols of evangelism include talking about the four spiritual laws, or encouraging the “unsaved” (there’s a churchy word I just can’t stand, because of all the un-Christ-like stuff it normally communicates) to say The Sinner’s Prayer or to start following and observing more religious ceremonies and rituals. Many evangelistic programs encourage members of a specific church or denomination to grow and swell their own ranks by engaging in what amounts to clever salesmanship and spiritual multi-level schemes.
Jesus didn’t confine his fellowship/evangelism to well-thought-out programs and “church growth” schemes. Jesus didn’t try to close the deal with those who didn’t follow him by holding the feet of those he “evangelized” over the supposed eternal torment of the blazing coals of hell fire. Jesus walked and talked and lived among those who needed him. He wasn’t using them to fill up the parking lot at the mega-church he pastored. While Jesus did plant the seed of the kingdom of God, he did not give seminars about “growing” the kingdom.
In addition to Jesus being absolutely central and essential to our fellowship,
3) Jesus is central to our joy. In 1 John 1:4, John says that he is writing these things so that our joy may be more complete.
Isn’t it strange that religious people, and I include a huge cross-section of what passes for Christianity today, are some of the most uptight, humor-less, judgmental kill-joys in the world at large? If you hang out with many people who describe themselves as Christians, or if you frequent their gatherings and meetings, you would never suspect these people to be people of joy. Many people take their religion, their customs and their doctrines very seriously. They do not suffer fools gladly.
Many religious people see little in life to smile about. Their religion is serious business, because it is all based on their ability to please and appease God. And I agree—that’s serious business—it’s seriously destined to fail.
If that’s what I believed, then I wouldn’t have much to smile or laugh about either. But the fact is, Jesus brings joy into our lives. He brings a blessed assurance and a peace of mind that passes all understanding and overwhelms all of our stress and anxiety. Jesus offers us rest and peace and security, knowing that he has accomplished all that is necessary for our salvation.
There are many people who see God only as a harsh and stern God who cannot wait to penalize them. They are convinced that God is waiting around every corner of their lives with a big club. They believe, because of what they have been told by religious authorities, that God will send them to hell to be eternally tortured if they don’t measure up to the religious standards that are expected and enforced in their lives. There’s no joy in that kind of relationship, is there?
Read your Bible carefully, and you will discover God as present at banquet tables and dinners. You will discover God as the host of grand celebrations—with food and feasting, and yes, jokes and stories and laughter—joy unspeakable. Joy characterizes life in Christ. Joy characterizes the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is central to our joy.
Always keep Jesus Christ uppermost in your study, your thinking and your prayers. Focus on him. Maintain a spotlight on the person of Jesus. He is the common denominator of our faith. He is the foundation and cornerstone of all that we believe. He is our center. He is our hope and our life.