Book Review: Christ-Centered Preaching by Chapell


Reading Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching really provoked me to farther thought as to why I preach the way I preach, and why I say what I say when I preach. To be perfectly honest, many of these thoughts came into my mind because of questions I had in regards to the reasoning behind Chapell’s goal of a “reclamation and rescue”[1] of the expository sermon and his seeming lack of Biblical backing to this “reclamation” and “rescue”.

Right off the bat, Chapell makes his views on preaching very clear, in regards to its relationship with God and man, “Ultimately, preaching accomplishes its spiritual purposes not because of the skills or the wisdom of a preacher but because of the power of the Scripture proclaimed (1 Cor. 2:4-5)”. And I would agree with him there, and I appreciate him putting this statement along with others at the beginning of the book. He goes on to say, “The text governs the preacher. Expository preachers do not expect others to honor their opinions. Such ministers adhere to Scripture’s truths and expect their listeners to heed the same.” But as he continues to speak on preaching it seems he drifts away from these first strongly Biblical thoughts and begins to introduce principles for expository preaching that I feel do not come from a Biblical basis, but rather come from man’s own ideas and opinions which caused me to evaluate how I preach, and the reasons behind the way I preach.

The downhill trend in Chapell’s book seems to begin when he introduces Aristotle’s classic rhetorical distinctions: logos, pathos, and ethos. I have no problem with this, but he seems to try to back up the Bible with Aristotle[2], or actually vice versa, in that he introduces Aristotle’s thoughts before even going into what he feels the Bible has to say about speaking the word and the components therein. When Aristotle thoughts on a subject come before the Bible’s in a person’s argument, I quickly began to wonder as to the validity of that argument (Psa 94:11) “The LORD knows man’s thoughts; they are meaningless” (HCSB).

Another interesting subject is the acronym that I assume Chapell coined, the “Fallen Condition Focus (FCF)”[3] is defined as, “the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.” He then goes on to say that God Himself has assured us that, “all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus”. In some ways I understand where Chapell is going here, because the thought is true (we are all fallen creatures and God wrote to us, as fallen creatures), but he puts this “FCF” of his too high in his own thoughts; almost as though he feels he has discovered the the key to preaching. The absence of Scriptural backing on this statement that God has told us that all Scripture uses this “FCF” principal is concerning. I really don’t think anyone will ever find the acronym “FCF” in Scripture no matter how hard they try (therefore God did NOT say it). There was no reason for Chapell to pull a rabbit out of a hat on this one; he could have used Scripture to back his claim, but he wanted to use his cool acronym instead. A bad choice in my mind.

Chapell then goes on to give examples of how, “The more specific the statement of the FCF early in the sermon, the more powerful and poignant the message will be. An FCF of ‘not being faithful to God’ is not nearly as riveting as ‘How can I maintain my integrity when my boss has none?”. He continues, “Specificity tends to breed interest and power by demonstrating that Scripture speaks to the real concerns of individual lives.”[4] I have a couple of problems with these statements. First of all, he is really going extra-Biblical here. These are his own opinions, and opinions that any Communications 101 professor could give you. He has strayed from the original principle that the Bible governs what the expository preacher says. The true expository preacher does not say what he wants and then make the text match his own preconceived ideas. To be honest, his example of a well formed FCF statement breeds man-centeredness. A focus on me, rather than trying to see myself as God sees me and being concerned about what God thinks rather than my own struggle to keep my integrity when other people make it difficult. It also breeds pride, in comparing myself with the world and making a statement that I am better than my boss, for he has no integrity whatsoever. When in fact, the Word of God would have us on our knees begging God for mercy and not comparing ourselves with those around us (or should we be like the Pharisee?). Also, while he says being specific breeds interest and power in our hearers, I would say that if these FCF statements are given as the point of a passage they will severely limit the scope of application in the hearts of our hearers. In many ways, I don’t see a difference between these FCF statements and the “applications” many give in sermons – but while there is one intended meaning, I would argue that there are many applications – not limited to this one FCF statement that the supposed “expository preacher” is supposed to come up with. Chapell feels it essential to “determine” the FCF in order to properly understand a passage and correctly form a sermon – he even goes so far as to say, “If we do not determine an FCF of a text, we do not really know what the passage is about”, but I beg to differ. For why is it so often the case (not always, there are also instances where a general application was given to all, ex. “Repent!”) that the crowds preached to in the New Testament, or even individuals for that matter, asked the preachers, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (cf. Acts 2:37)? If the preacher had given them application already, there would be no reason to ask that question. No, first the crowds were, “cut to the heart” (cf. Acts 2:37) and then application was provided by the preacher – it’s almost as though the preacher withheld the application, knowing that those who were called would seek out the needed application and pursue it on their own through the direction of the Spirit who was opening their eyes to see the truth. If Chapell wants to be Biblical in his writing, why does he feel it necessary to primarily use non-Biblical examples? Does he think Scripture insufficient?

In Chapell’s “Application” section (while I still do not see a strong line between his idea of FCF and application) he states, “Paul refuses to leave biblical truth in the stratosphere of theological abstraction. He earths his message in the concerns of the people he addresses. Preaching that is true to the pattern of Scripture should do the same.”[5] I agree whole-heartedly with this statement, but, I would differ as to the the implications of it. Chapell uses this thought to prove that preachers need to create applications out of thin air, or at least, logically create them. But if it is true that Paul already made application, then should we really make new ones? If Paul already digested the truth for his people, then how should that cause us as preachers to to re-digest the truth? Why should a preacher make up an application if the application has already been made by Scripture? Chapell’s train of thought here isn’t really all that logical here in my mind and does not prove his point.

At the end of this chapter two Chapell makes a good point – something that I think should be taken to heart. When we preach we should be able to have an answer to this question: “why did you tell them that?”.[6] And this really has been the thrust of my thoughts in regards to Chapell’s book, for while he makes many claims to things we should include in our sermons, it really seems that he lacks on getting his ideas from Scripture. When I ask myself why I said something, shouldn’t I have an answer that finds its root in the Bible?

The next chapter is entitled, “The Priority of the Text” but pretty much at the very beginning Chapell continues in his “experiential” reasoning rather than taking lessons from “the Text”. He states, “Preachers will be regarded as out of touch and/or insensitive if they press forward with their sermon programs while ignoring a community’s employment dilemma, the death of a pillar in the church, a local disaster, a building program…or a host of similar matters of significance in the life of the church.”[7] I am just amazed that Chapell dares to put such a paragraph in a chapter talking about the “Priority of the Text”. There is no “Priority of the Text” in the line of thought that he is condoning. Rather it is “The Priority of Your Situation and Condition”. Not to say that there is no wisdom in what Chapell says, but I just can’t help but think about what Jesus had to say when confronted with this type of thinking in Luke 13:1-3.

Later in this chapter, in a section talking about tools that can be used to interpret a passage, Chapell states, “It is not wise habitually to run to commentaries as the first step of sermon preparation, lest your thoughts start running in a groove carved by one not in touch with what you need to address.”[8] Again, Chapell advocates a strange and seemingly man-centered doctrine here, that almost has the sound of some type of new age teaching. As one would say, “be in touch with yourself and with that which is around you”, he sounds as if a passage should mean different things to different people in different times and places and that by following the interpretation of someone not in your specific situation you would be misinterpreting the verse. Ironically he mixes his own advice with Spurgeon’s reason for not habitually turning to commentaries, a reason which differs immensely from Chapell’s own reasoning, “The commentators are good instructors but the author himself is far better”[9]. Spurgeon states a far better reason to not use commentaries as the first step in preparation for a sermon, one that truly does have the Text as its priority.

When Chapell speaks about the “Components of Exposition” it seems to me that he believes the main component is application, “In fact, the real meaning of a text remains hidden until we discern how its truths affect our lives. This means that full exposition cannot be limited to a presentation of biblical information. A preacher should frame every explanatory detail of a sermon so that its impact on the lives of listeners is evident.” He cites the first sentence I have quoted as coming from his own study of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Frame, and I will admit that I have not read either, but his take on the components of exposition seems neither Biblical nor logical. He goes on to say, “A true expository message…uses all its resources to move application.” This he states with a diagram in the same paragraph illustrating his thoughts about how these ideas of his form an “Exposition-Priority Message” But I would argue, that from the place he gives to application, his preaching module should in fact be called an “Application-Priority Message”! I understand his feeling that application is important, but I would question the level of importance that he gives it – over and above the revealed Word of God – to say that we must create application in order for the true meaning of the Text to be unveiled, to me, boarders on the heretical. What of God? And though I doubt that Chapell would disagree with me here (on page 26, “Ultimately, preaching accomplishes its spiritual purpose…because of the power of the Scripture proclaimed”), Scripture makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is our teacher and apart from His work, the Text will never be unveiled – it is only because of the work of the Spirit that I can understand the Truth (1Co 2:10a).

Overall, I appreciate Chapell’s efforts in his book, and while I had trouble agreeing with much of what he had to say, it was a very helpful book because it caused me to really think about why I do what I do in regards to preaching. He has many interesting points, and knowing that he is much more experienced and wiser than I am I must strive to consider all his advice and seek out the Biblical mandate for how I am to preach and pursue those things, by the grace of God, with all my might



[1] Brian Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, (Baker Academic, 2005), page 19

[2] Page 34

[3] Page 50

[4] Page 51

[5] Page 54

[6] Page 56

[7] Page 63

[8] Page 74

[9] Page 75

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3 Responses to Book Review: Christ-Centered Preaching by Chapell

  1. Danny Slavich says:

    Chapell’s book is a standard of Reformed preaching (at least, we use it at Southern, and he teaches at Covenant, a good school). I tend to disagree with you about him placing man-centeredness above Christ-centeredness.

    From what I can tell (and I haven’t read the book), it seems all the issues you are raising have to do with method (i.e., rhetorical devices, etc) and not content (i.e. Scripture, Truth, text). Application is the rubber meeting the road in any sermon and without it truth has no value. Surely, drawing application for a 21st century audience must look different than it would for those in the 1st century. The principle is the same, but specific application will differ. The Puritans were masters of application in fact and often spent most of their time doing this.

    As far as being “man-centered,” I think that being concerned about “man” is important. Calvin said that the study of religion consists of two parts: first, the knowledge of God and second, the knowledge of man. Man is fallen, so I think Chapell’s “FCF” has validity, because all truth is addressed to men, as fallen men .

    I’ll probably read the book for preaching class soon, so I’ll wait until then to have an actually informed opinion :) !

  2. Sungkhum says:

    I would agree to some extent, that many of the issues are about “method” is true – but he seems to feel that his “method” is the only method, that was part of the problem with the book. He opens the book acting as though he is going to focus on “content” but in fact is only pushing a “method” that he feels is correct, failing to produce Biblical backing of that “method”.

    He has some good things to say, but overall, if I didn’t have to read the book for a class I would have put it down and read something else.

    -Nathan

  3. Ben says:

    Christ-centered preaching is a 21st century oxymoron. The pulpit-to-the-pews worship-announcements-worship-message form needs to be retired … along with the retranslation of pastor as “CEO/Professor”.

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