Among conservative evangelicals, there’s a longstanding friendly debate over whether all sermons should include a concise summary of the gospel message. I don’t mean a gospel-centered hermeneutic that connects every passage of Scripture to the person and work of Jesus (a different debate). Instead I’m talking about inserting in your sermon—hopefully in a natural way that connects to the rest of the message—a short (4-6 minutes) explanation of the main truths about who Jesus is and what he has done, along with an exhortation to repent and believe. While most conservative evangelical preachers do not follow this approach, perhaps the best-known proponent of including a gospel summary in (nearly) every sermon is Mark Dever. So, for a wonderful example of what I’m talking about, consider this sermon delivered by Dever in a seminary chapel (the gospel summary begins at 14:04).
I was persuaded of the wisdom of this approach about fifteen years ago. Having now followed it faithfully for over a decade, I can see many benefits of almost always including a concise gospel summary. Here are three reasons why you should adopt this approach as well:
One of the most surprising things I discovered early on as a pastor is how many non-Christians faithfully attend evangelical churches. I’m not talking primarily about ‘gospel hypocrites’, those who claim to be Christians but give no real evidence of being born again—though there are certainly many of those in our churches. I’m talking about people who make no pretentions about being Christians but come to church because their spouse drags them along, or because their parents require them to attend, or simply because they have nothing better to do on Sunday mornings. Most churches, especially in America, have a surprisingly high percentage of such folks.
What do these people most desperately need but to be confronted with the claims of Jesus and be called upon to repent and believe? Recently I baptized a young man who began attending our church purely because he was fond of a young woman in our congregation. But every week he heard a concise summary of the good news of who Jesus is and why he came to earth. After about six months of this, the gospel cracked open his heart and he was sincerely born again. Such is the potential benefit of regularly including a summary of the gospel message in your sermons.
I accidentally discovered this benefit. After following this approach for a few years, in informal conversations I’d hear my congregation begin to explain the gospel, and discovered that they used nearly identical terminology, phraseology, and logic to what I used in my weekly sermons. Eventually it dawned on me that they weren’t trying to impress or impersonate me, but they were explaining the gospel as I had trained them to do. I’d be willing to bet that if you asked any one of my faithful church members to tell you the gospel message, they’d say something quite similar to the summary I’ve proclaimed for years.
While conceivably this could lead to mindless, heartless repetition, in my experience it has far more commonly led to clarity and accuracy in sharing the gospel, traits many true Christians lack. Since I’ve included a summary of the gospel message in nearly every sermon I’ve preached, my people are equipped to communicate this same message with their children, friends, and colleagues.
If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again.
If this is true, and my experience has definitely confirmed it, then I must be very careful and intentional about what I emphasize in my preaching and teaching. If, for example, I either intentionally or unintentionally emphasize secular politics, my church will have a politics-centred vision of the Christian life. The same will happen if I emphasize ecumenicalism or sacramentalism or environmentalism or mysticism or separatism.
My church won’t remember everything I say, but they will remember what I repeatedly say. Therefore, as Christian preachers, let us be careful and intentional to emphasize that which is “of first importance… that Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). Let us commit to knowing “nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). And in our preaching, may we never boast in anything except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6:14). In my city, many different churches are known for many different things. There’s the separatist church, the political church, the entertainment church, the ‘cool’ church. By God’s grace, we are known as the church that proclaims the gospel. And that’s due in no small part to my commitment to include a summary of the gospel in nearly every sermon I preach.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there’s some unwritten divine law requiring Christian preachers to always include a gospel summary in every sermon. Most of the sermons that have had the greatest impact on my life did not include such a summary. And the temptation to rote ritualism, both for the preacher and the hearer, does exist and can be strong. However, I’d still argue for the wisdom, power, beauty, and efficacy of this approach.
If you’re not yet convinced, maybe just try including a brief summary of the gospel once a month in your sermons. I’d be willing to bet that in time you’ll start seeing the fruit I’ve mentioned above. You just might begin including a summary of the gospel in every sermon. And I imagine then you’ll never go back.