Founders Journal · Winter 2000 · pp. 17-22
The Cross: The Primary Content of Preaching
(This sermon was preached at the 1998 Southern Baptist Founders Conference in Birmingham, Alabama)
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Those of us who are pastors should know something of the weight of responsibility that has been placed upon our shoulders as we have responded to God’s call to minister to a lost world. Passages such as the words spoken to Ezekiel, when the Lord said to him that He was going to require the blood of men at his hand, should surely make us tremble. We may not know the full meaning or implication of those words. Nevertheless, the very thought that the eternal God should require at our hands an accounting for the souls of men makes us tremble.
This sense of responsibility should be heightened even further when we realize that no church can rise higher than its pulpit. The spiritual well-being of the people that darken the doors of our churches week after week is tied up with the spirituality that will come, not only from our private lives, but also as we stand before them to proclaim God’s Word in all its fullness. Surely that ought to convince us of the weight of responsibility that God has placed upon us.
Pastors are called primarily to be preachers. Consequently, whatever it is that we might be losing faith in, let us make sure that we do not lose faith in preaching. Regardless of the world’s opinion of preaching, pastors must be fully persuaded that it is the most important and the most urgent need of the world until our Savior returns.
And the primary content of that preaching is the cross of Jesus Christ. Just as the death of Jesus is central to the message of the Bible, so it must be the center-piece of our expositions of the Bible.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5, humanly speaking, is part of the apostle Paul’s slight detour in the midst of his handling the problem of division in the Corinthian church. But, of course, Scripture is divinely inspired. The Holy Spirit deliberately ensured that the apostle Paul took this backward step to reflect upon the general thrust of his ministry in Corinth for our instruction. In these verses, for instance, we see the primary content of Paul’s preaching in Corinth. In his own words, he says, “I have resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” If we are to be imitators of this great apostle then we too should be distinguished in our preaching by the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. We are called to be proclaimers, not of a method, but a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. This has been the distinguishing feature of the Christian pulpit across the ages.
The Cross in the Gospels
“What has Jesus done that He should become the center of our attention?” We answer, “He died for us.” Granted, there are many other things that the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us. As you make your way through the Gospels you see the Lord Jesus Christ in His birth, His upbringing, His preaching, His feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead, and so on. But if you are sensitive to the narratives of the Gospel writers as they proceed, you cannot miss the fact that as the Lord Jesus Christ approaches the cross there is the slowing down of the narration. We are made to realize that we have finally arrived at that which is the most important of all. The narratives slow down from years into months, from months into weeks, and then to days, hours and minutes. Why? God would have us pause and take in every single event as our Lord Jesus Christ gets to the cross and dies.
As it is in the Gospel narratives, so should it be with our preaching. It must be very clear to any person who takes time to sit under our ministry that we are a people that preach Christ in His person and when we come to His work the emphasis is on His death. Thus it was with the apostle Paul, as he testified to the Corinthians. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Again and again Paul speaks of the preaching of the gospel as a preaching of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:17, 18, 2:7, etc.).
It is striking that, despite the miraculous nature of the Lord’s birth and the wonders He performed, Paul should choose His shameful death as the center and summary of his preaching. We need to take special note of this because the cross is being emphasized less and less in the ministries of many who still consider themselves to be preachers of the gospel.
Today’s preaching seems to be revolving around the Jesus who is able to heal your body, because He healed so many other bodies as he walked upon the face of the earth; a Jesus who can insure that there is money in your pocket by virtue of the fact that He fed so many people when He was here on earth. Where is this certain note of a crucified Savior? How many ministries today can say with Paul, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1.) For preaching to be biblical it must center on the cross and where this emphasis has been lost it must be recovered.
The Doctrinal Interpretation of the Cross
You may be saying to yourself, “So what if I do not have Paul’s emphasis? Why should that become a big deal?” That question is best answered after answering another question, namely, “What exactly was Paul saying about the cross?” It is crucial that Paul’s understanding of the cross should be our understanding of the cross, as well. God’s proclamation of it, as found in His Word, should be our proclamation. Otherwise, we may be repeating the same religious clichés but meaning something totally different from the apostles. Every pastor would claim to be a preacher of the cross, but what exactly is being preached about it?
We need to begin here, because in Paul’s day to say that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified a few months or years ago was not news to anybody. Everyone knew all about that. That is why the unsuspecting disciples could say to Jesus on the road to Emmaus, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18). It was a well-known historical fact. However, whatever Paul was saying about the cross must have been more than a mere mentioning of the event because his message was offensive to his Jewish hearers (Galatians 5:11). The offense must have been caused by Paul’s doctrinal understanding of that historical event when Jesus of Nazareth hung upon the cross and died. What did Paul see in the cross?
To Paul the death of the Lord Jesus Christ was an atoning sacrifice. The cross of Christ was the substance prefigured in all Old Testament offerings and sacrifices that took place in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. The high priest, on the Day of Atonement, sprinkled the blood of a slain bull upon the altar for his sin. Then he took a goat and offered it for the sins of the people and proceeded to release the scapegoat into the desert having placed the sins of Israel on its head. With all this done in fear and trembling, he would announce to the people of God that their sins had been atoned for and they could now go with the blessed shalom of God. That was the shadow. What transpired when the man Christ Jesus hung upon the cross was the reality–the eternal reality that truly satisfied the thrice-holy God.
As the book of Hebrews puts it, if what was happening throughout the Old Testament pages was sufficient to procure the favor of God, it would not have been necessary for those sacrifices to be repeated over and over again. Their repetition proves that they were not effectual in themselves. They were pointing forward to the one great sacrifice of God’s own Son. Therefore, when the Lord Jesus Christ went to the cross, He was the one, sufficient, sacrificial, substitutionary atonement for our sins.
To Paul, it was not a mere man that died on the cross but the immortal Son of the living God. Therefore, that one death was a sufficient payment for a million, million worlds if such needed to be redeemed. This infinite Being took upon himself human nature because He was paying the price in place, not of angels, but of human beings. Consequently, as we look at that cross we are seeing Him, Who from all eternity was God, is God and will always be God. Yet, we are also looking at One who is man at the same time so that he might be punished in our place.
This is what Paul saw on the day that Christ died. He allowed the full beams of the Old Testament Scriptures to shine on that event. Thus, he could speak about the cross and its fruit in such glowing terms as, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was not just telling people about a Jesus who had died. No! He was speaking about a blessed exchange. The righteous One has taken our place. The wrath of God that ought to have sunk us deeper than the grave, into the depth of hell itself, was poured out upon God’s own Son until He cried “It is finished!” and died. We who deserve that wrath, because we have sinned against God times without number, can now be clothed with His righteousness and be looked upon by God with the splendor of the second Person of the blessed Holy Trinity. Amazing!
This is what gripped Paul and made him go into the various cities of Asia Minor with only one message–the message of the cross, the message that Jesus has indeed died, the Son of God has borne the full brunt of the wrath of God for us. I ask, has this gripped you, too? Has it gripped you to the point where you are fully satisfied to spend the rest of your days playing upon the one-string banjo of Christ and Him crucified?
This truth of the cross utterly overwhelmed Paul even at the personal level. To the Galatians he spoke of “Christ who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). He understood the atonement to be particular. To Paul, Jesus did not go to the cross to die for some nameless mass of humanity. He was basically saying, “I was on His mind as He hung there. His love went out to me and He died for me.” Because of that great assurance upon his soul, Paul was willing to sacrifice anything for the cause of Christ. The apostle’s love was but a feeble reflection of the great love portrayed by the Son of God for him when He went from the infinitely high station of divinity to take upon Himself, not only the humiliation of humanity, but the wrath of God to its very dregs. Again I ask, has this gripped you as well?
The Abiding Relevance of the Cross
Let us now go back to the question that was asked earlier on. So what if I do not have Paul’s emphasis? Why should that become a big deal? Why should we abandon our calling and live for only one message in a world that is ever-changing? If the headlines of our newspapers have been changing over the years, why shouldn’t the headlines of our pulpits do the same? Is it not the height of irrelevance that in today’s computer age people should come to church and still find us preaching the same old message of Christ and Him crucified that has been preached for about two thousand years?
The answer to all this is that while there is a God in heaven with Whom we have to do, nothing can be more relevant and urgent than this message of Christ and Him crucified. There is a great and infinite Being who has created the entire universe and continues to govern its every detail. He has made humanity as moral creatures and before Him each one of us will have to one day stand to give an account. On that great day He will allot to each one of us our eternal existence. If His word be true–and it is!–our eternal inheritance will either be in a place of excruciating agony or indescribable bliss forever. The whole of humanity is heading toward this eternal destiny. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, slave or free, white or black. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances of your life might be. There is an appointment that each one of us has around the corner.
God, though not exposed to our natural human eyes, has revealed Himself so sufficiently that, if you stop to think and meditate, you will be moved to tremble. He has revealed himself as a holy Being and One Whose very nature detests sin. He has revealed Himself as a righteous Judge who must punish sin. He has given signal demonstrations of this already across history, but these are nothing compared to what lies ahead for humanity. It is because of such a God that we dare not overlook the cross. We should join Paul in declaring, “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:11, 20.)
The cross is God’s idea of dealing with this vital need that we all have to be reconciled to God before we meet Him on the awful throne of judgment. It is not human ingenuity which has figured out a way of getting around the wrath of God. It is God’s own wisdom that has come up with this one way by which sinners can be pardoned.
Through the cross those who are going headlong toward hell can have their destination utterly changed. Who are you, O preacher, to question divine wisdom!
If your congregation was asked to summarize the general thrust of your sermons, would they say that you have taught them the height and depth and breadth and length both of the content and the implications of that great historic act when the Son of God took frail flesh and died? Does it pulsate in you? Does the cross thrill you? Have you been there at the foot of the cross? Is there, in your experience, a time when you were heavy laden because of your sins and nothing in the entire world could lift it from your shoulders? Did you, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, fall at the foot of the cross and see the burden on your back roll away into the blessed sepulcher? Like him, did you leap into the air with three shouts of joy, knowing that here at last God had answered the million-dollar question on your heart? “How can I, born and raised a sinner, ever enter into the blessed heaven where the thrice-holy God reigns upon his glorious throne?” Has the cross fully satisfied that question?
It is when the cross has spoken peace to your screaming conscience that it becomes a lifelong passion. It is the person who sees the Son of God bleeding, crying, dying for him who can say, “There go I but for the free, matchless and sovereign grace of my Creator.” Only if you have had such a view of the cross can you say,
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin–not in part but the whole–
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it not more,
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, oh my soul!
If Christ’s death overwhelms you this way, then my plea is that you never graduate from that experiential knowledge and love of the cross. To do so is to hand in your resignation from the pulpit because you will become useless after that. Oh, let those who have no souls to save consider the preaching of the cross as foolishness, irrelevant, and outdated. But while you and I stand before souls–precious souls that must either get to heaven or perish forever–we must do what Paul did. We must lift up the cross so clearly that all who sit before us will, by the grace of God, see in it their only hope of salvation. May our hearts be filled with the love of the cross until we can say with Charles Wesley,
Happy, if with my latest breath
I might but gasp his name;
Preach him to all and cry in death,
Behold! Behold the lamb!