The apostle Paul instructed the church in Ephesus that the means by which we help each other grow up in every way in Christlikeness is by speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). What is the truth? In verse 21, Paul says “the truth is in Jesus.” In other words, if we are going to grow people up into Christlikeness in every way, we need to learn how to speak the truths of Jesus Christ into everything.
I call this gospel fluency.
I believe God wants his people to become gospel fluent. He wants them to be able to translate the world around them and the world inside of them through the lens of the gospel–the truths of God revealed in the person and work of Jesus. Gospel-fluent people think, feel, and perceive everything in light of what has been accomplished in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The gospel becomes their native tongue because through it they were born again. It is by the gospel that they find themselves growing up into Christ. And they are convinced that the gospel will keep them to the end and perfect them into the true image of Christ one day.
As they believe this and grow in fluency, they also learn how to speak the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to the everyday stuff of life–into work and money, sex and relationships, marriage and parenting, rest and work. And as they grow in gospel fluency, they not only grow up into maturity themselves, but also help others to grow up as well. Fluency requires immersion. People must be immersed in a gospel community where gospel conversations happen daily and gospel preaching happens regularly.
Those of us who preach have a very important part to play in developing gospel fluency in God’s people. We are called to model being gospel fluent in our everyday lives, but we are also called to equip the church in gospel fluency through our teaching and preaching ministry. So, how do we do that?
Always Preach the Gospel
We do it by preaching the gospel in every sermon, from every text, to everything.
Stop and consider the last 3–4 sermons you’ve preached. Did you talk about Jesus? Was he the answer to the question, the solution to the problem, the fulfillment to the longing? I have heard many well-prepared, creatively illustrated sermons never get to Jesus. I have watched preachers make the weight of the text land on us and our efforts and abilities, failing to lead people to Jesus as their true and ultimate hope. People leave these meetings weighed down by sin and guilt, aware of their inadequacies and failures or filled with self-assured optimism, supported by pride-filled self-talk. Either way, they don’t leave worshipping and depending upon Jesus.
Jesus said he was the fulfillment of the Scriptures (Luke 24:44–45). They all point to him in some way. He also challenged the teachers of the law saying, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). If we are going to develop a gospel-fluent community, we must lead people to Jesus in and through our preaching every single time.
It Starts in Your Heart
However, we won’t do this if our hearts aren’t first captured by him.
That’s where it begins. It starts in your heart. You talk about what you love most. Jesus said it’s out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. What do you love most? What do you treasure most? It will show up in your preaching. Try recruiting some people to reflect to you what they believe you love most from how and what you preach.
Several years ago, I was accused of manipulating the congregation in my preaching. The man bringing the accusation told me he could time my message and know when I was going to get passionate or tearful. He thought it was a technique I used to move people. I asked him to reconsider not the time of the message but what I was saying at that time. He said I always got most passionate and tearful when I was talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection. I told him that wasn’t manipulation. It was genuine affection. I couldn’t help it. I am deeply affected by Jesus and I can’t hide it. It comes out because I really do love him and still can hardly believe what he did for me on the cross.
You most talk about what you love most. And . . . you love what you talk about.
A few years into my marriage I noticed that my love had grown cold for my wife. I had lost some of the passion that was there when I first pursued her. I was reminded of the Scripture that admonishes me to rejoice in the wife of my youth. As I did, I started telling her and others why I love her so much. Something happened. The more I expressed out loud why I loved her, the more in love with her I became. That is because by nature we are a confessional people. We don’t just confess what we believe, we begin to believe what we confess.
If Jesus is not overflowing from your heart to your mouth in your preaching, start confessing out loud on a daily basis why he is so worthy of your worship and affections. If you have God’s Spirit, you will find that the Spirit will fill your confession with faith and love, leading to a greater passion for Jesus. That passion will naturally and supernaturally flow in and through your preaching as well.
Passion in the Preparation
However, it’s not just passion alone. We also need preparation.
I don’t have time to write a course on gospel-centered preaching that leads to gospel-fluent people, but I will provide a brief overview of my process (for extensive study consider Tim Keller’s book on preaching; Edmond Clowney’s many works; and Sidney Greidanus’ Preaching Christ from the Old Testament).
Most Bible study techniques and preaching walk through a text answering the questions: (1) What does this text say (observation)? (2) What does it mean (interpretation)? And (3) What do we do (application)? If this is all we do, however, we will lead people to themselves and not to Jesus.
I add a few more questions to my preparation:
Why don’t we do what this text leads us to? By doing this I want to reveal our brokenness and sin, leading us to awareness of our need for Jesus. I want to get to the heart of our problem.
How did or does Jesus do what we don’t? Here I intend to show how Jesus is the better (better son, spouse, worker, friend, etc.) and Jesus does better (better obedience, submission, serving, love, power, etc.) for us.
How does who Jesus is and what Jesus does affect us internally (change of heart) and externally (change of behavior)? This is where I specifically apply the truths of the Gospel to our sin, failures, inadequacies, and present situations, leading to our ongoing sanctification.
Through this process, I want to preach the “cut” and the “balm” of the gospel. I want to preach in such a way that we are cut to the heart (aware of our deep need for Jesus) and eager to receive the balm of the good news of forgiveness, healing and Spirit-filled empowerment.
Good News to Me
It’s important to note that if I don’t personally believe and experience the cut and the balm myself, I will lack the urgency and the conviction to bring it with passion to others. The gospel has to be good news to me if I am going to preach it as the good news for others. So, I often ask myself: Does this sound like really good news? And, how can I preach it so it sounds like good news to my congregation and to the person new to Jesus?
If it doesn’t sound like good news to you it’s likely not yet gripped your heart or you’re missing Jesus in your message.
I don’t believe preaching alone will create a gospel-fluent people, but I do believe preaching is one of the necessary elements for equipping God’s people to learn to speak the truths of Jesus into the everyday stuff of life. If they don’t regularly hear good news and see how all of life is change by the truths of Jesus, they will never be able to speak those truths to their coworkers, friends, and family.
Preachers, preach the good news from every text, every sermon, to everything. But before you do, preach it to yourself first so that your heart overflows with good news for others.
Jeff Vanderstelt is the visionary leader for Saturate, the Soma Family of Churches and a teaching pastor at Doxa Church in Bellevue, Washington. He travels around the world training and equipping the church in the gospel and missional living and is the author of Saturate, Gospel Fluency, and Making Space (coming February 2018). He and his wife, Jayne, have three children. Connect with Jeff at his website, JeffVanderstelt.com, or on Twitter (@JeffVanderstelt).