Beware Gluten-Free Preaching

Article by

Guest Contributor

Gluten-free food is an exploding sector of the grocery industry. It now accounts for more than $10 billion in annual sales in the United States, largely built on ensuring there is no flour in a product.

For some, gluten-free food protects them from health complications related to Celiac disease (though Mayo Clinic estimates less than 2 million Americans actually have the disease). For others, gluten-free food is simply part of healthy eating. You can find all sorts of gluten-free products: pasta, bread, beer, cakes, and even Girl Scout Cookies.

Helpful as it may be, whether it’s disease or just diets, to find gluten-free, the opposite is true with preaching. Charles Spurgeon, the storied nineteenth-century British pastor (and personality), known for his quips about Christ-centered preaching, said this:

The motto of all true servants of God must be, “We preach Christ; and him crucified.” A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.

In Christian preaching, it’s not gluten that is dangerous, but gluten-free. For Spurgeon, just as it would be absurd to make bread without flour, it is unthinkable to preach a sermon without Christ.

The gluten of the gospel must be kneaded into every Christian sermon, despite the many ways pastors are drawn to preach gluten-free today. Here are three of them to beware. If we bypass Christ in any of these aspects of the sermon, we are removing the gluten of the gospel from our text.

1) Gluten-Free Exposition

First, there is the danger of gluten-free exposition that bypasses Christ as it explains the meaning of the biblical text. Often this occurs in sermons on the Old Testament that faithfully exegete the text in its immediate, restricted context but fail to see the messianic markers or situate it in its larger Christ-conscious context. But it also happens far too often in New Testament preaching when the sermon mentions Jesus, or appeals to his example, without connecting its meaning to his gracious work for us in his life, death, and resurrection.

The key to gluten-filled exposition is to culminate the message in the person and work of Jesus. This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to find Christ where he isn’t in the text. Instead, it means showing our people the connection points to Jesus that the Spirit has laid in every section of the Scriptures, if we have eyes to see them. It means helping our churches see that the Bible as a whole first speaks a word about Christ before it becomes a word about us. Gluten-free exposition leads to malnourished Christians. Instead, we want to feed our people with Jesus from every text.

2) Gluten-Free Illustration

Second is the danger of gluten-free illustration. Gluten-free illustration loses sight of Christ as it seeks to illuminate the meaning of the biblical text. When a sermon illustration takes the eyes of the audience off of the glory of Christ, rather than working toward increasing their focus on him, it is diminishing the gluten of the gospel in the sermon. How often do our sermon illustrations cloud the connections to Christ in the passage, rather than clarify it?

The key to gluten-filled illustration is to ensure that the point of the juicy anecdote we’re so eager to tell goes toward Christ rather than away from him. Christ-centered illustrations captivate the audience in order to show them some aspect of God’s sovereignty, our sin, Christ’s redemption, or his eternal consummation. It’s moving people to Jesus, rather than merely entertaining. What good is gluten-filled exposition if your sermon illustrations bypass the cross on the way to application? Gluten-free illustrations lead to starving soldiers. Instead, we must illustrate Christ from every text.

3) Gluten-Free Application

Third is the danger of gluten-free application. Gluten-free application mutes or bypasses Christ as it applies the meaning of the biblical text to the hearers. Christ-less application comes in many varieties: self help, life tips, moralism, and more. In every case, the preacher highlights what the text means for the audience without touching on what it means in relation to Jesus. It envisions biblical principles for Christians without helping them see them through the lens of the gospel.

The key to gluten-filled application is to show your people how the passage applies not only to their own lives, but also to Jesus. It highlights the Christ-centered, kingdom-focused, Spirit-driven way that the text is calling them to live. Unless our preaching applies the passage in light of our faith-union with the victorious Christ, it removes the gluten of the gospel from the sermon.

Feed the People True Bread

Spurgeon also spoke elsewhere about the dangers of gluten-free preaching:

Leave Christ out of the preaching and you shall do nothing. Only advertise it all over London, Mr. Baker, that you are making bread without flour; put it in every paper, “Bread without flour” and you may soon shut up your shop, for your customers will hurry off to other tradesmen. . . . A sermon without Christ as its beginning, middle, and end is a mistake in conception and a crime in execution.

Doubtless, the gluten-free aisles in our grocery stores today would have confounded Spurgeon, who had no category for bread without flour. But he would be even more scandalized at the gluten-free preaching in our pulpits. There is no true preaching without Christ.

“Man does not live by bread alone,” said the Savior, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). To truly feed our starving people, we must ensure that the gluten of the gospel comes to bear on every aspect of the sermon.

(@pbethancourt) is executive vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and assistant professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a husband and father of four.