The Centrality of the Cross
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The Centrality of the Cross

Without a continual focus on the cross of Christ, the church cannot claim to have a Gospel-oriented strategy. The cross alone answers the important question of how a holy and just God can allow sinful men to enter His presence in heaven. As Alistair Begg explains, Christ’s atonement establishes the gravity of sin, shows us our need for grace, and declares opportunity for faith. It is the power of God to those who believe.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 2

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23002

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you take your Bible and turn to 1 Corinthians and to chapter 1. I’d like to return to the verses that were read last evening as a call to worship and to read in your hearing verses 22–24:

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Let’s just ask God’s blessing on our study:

Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me thyself within thy Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.[1]

For Christ’s sake. Amen.

Last evening, we sought to establish unequivocally that the Bible makes it very, very plain that at the very heart of all Christian theology and biblical proclamation is the message of the cross. Indeed, any attempt to proclaim the gospel while leaving the cross out of that proclamation is actually to offer to men and women a placebo rather than the very medicine which they require. Individuals who are on the receiving end of that kind of instruction will feel for a wee while that it is doing them some good, but if they have any genuine longing after truth, then they will immediately become disgruntled with it. Because to do that—namely, to offer various religious sentiments while at the same time leaving out what is central to it—is neither to confront the essential problem which men and women face nor is it to provide the solution which the Bible offers.

There is little doubt that there is a direct link between usefulness in the service of God and an emphasis on the central theme of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

How can God pardon sinners without encouraging sin? How can God simultaneously show justice in punishment but mercy in pardoning? How can he turn his enemies into his friends and bind them to him in eternal love? How can he admit men and women into heaven without spoiling heaven’s holiness? Now, the answer to all of these questions is, quite simply, “On account of the cross.” And as foolish as it seems to those who are perishing, here the apostle tells us, in this wonderful opening chapter or two of 1 Corinthians, that for those who are being saved by it, it becomes apparent that it is the very power of God.

To preach the cross is to explain its necessity, its meaning, and its consequences in such a way that two things may happen: one, that God’s people may find themselves constantly glorying in it, and secondly, that unconverted sinners may be humbled by it and brought to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is axiomatic to all that I’m going to say this afternoon: that to preach the cross is to explain its necessity, meaning, and consequences, for the express purpose that believers will glory in it and unbelievers will be humbled by it and brought to faith.

Indeed, one of the benefits of these couple of days together on this most central subject is to enable us to ask the question, “How central is the cross in my life; in my preaching, if I have the privilege of doing so; in our worship within our congregations; and in our witness as we seek to live in society?” There is little doubt that there is a direct link between usefulness in the service of God and an emphasis on the central theme of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you read Christian biography at all—and especially if you like, as I do, to read the stories of preachers of the past—I think you will conclude along with me that it is right to see a correlation between a man’s conviction concerning the preaching of the cross and that man’s usefulness in the cause of Jesus Christ.

The Preaching of the Cross and Usefulness in Ministry

I have three illustrations in my mind, two of which I want to share with you now, and one I’m going to save for the end. All of them come from my homeland. First of all, from the city of Glasgow. Glasgow was the second city of the British Empire, if you’ve read your history at all. It was strategic in the world of trade, and I’m very grateful for the privilege of having been born there and growing up there. I’m also glad to have grown up in a city which had as its motto, “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word and by the praising of God’s name.” And I was born, as it were, within the framework of that city and underneath the orb of that banner.

I also had the privilege from my earliest days—not recognizing it to be a privilege when I was a small boy, but seeing it in hindsight—of sitting under the proclamation of the Word of God by all kinds of people whom God had raised up to exercise very effective ministries. And one of the places that I would be taken as a small boy was to St George’s Tron Parish Church, which is, of course, the location of the ministry of Eric Alexander, and prior to him, a man by the name of George B. Duncan, and prior to him, a man by the name of Tom Allan. I was born just about the end of Tom Allan’s ministry, and nevertheless, the impact of his ministry extended for a good number of years.

And therefore, it was intriguing for me to read a little of his own biographical data and to discover that he had already entered into theological studies when he was called away at the onset of the Second World War. And I quote him now. He says,

I was posted to France as an intelligence officer. And on Easter Day I heard an American GI sing the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” And on that day Christ laid hold of my life. I came back, without any background, to resume my interrupted studies for the ministry. It was liberal, modernistic, and yet I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the reality of Jesus Christ.

And as he talks about the challenges of being involved in what was essentially a mission ministry in this great city of Glasgow at that time in the ’40s and early ’50s, he tells of how “I was driven to two discoveries which transformed my ministry. The first was that the preaching of the cross is central. I discovered the meaning of the doctrine of the atonement. And secondly, I discovered the authority of the Word of God.” And so it is no surprise to me that God honored and owned the ministry of Tom Allan, because when he preached, he preached the cross of Christ, and he did so in confidence that the Spirit of God would do what the Spirit’s role is to do when the Lord Jesus Christ is brought before the minds of men and women.

Now, you have a similar story by moving some forty-five miles to the east of Scotland and to the city of Edinburgh, and to the congregation that was pastored by a man who was called Alexander Whyte. Some of you will have his books on your shelves. He was a famous preacher in his day, not only in Scotland but beyond there, and he was known as being almost something of a monomaniac. Because people said of Alexander Whyte, “All that he ever does is he talks about the cross and he talks about salvation.” And at the turn of the century, with the rise of German theological thought and the infiltration of that into the minds of men and women, Alexander Whyte became aware of the fact that his emphasis on the cross of Christ was increasingly unpopular. And he found himself being tempted to muffle in his preaching the central note of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He was taking vacation in the Highlands of Scotland, and he records how he could almost remember the spot where, when he was out walking, he felt as though the voice of God spoke with clarity to his conscience. And again, I quote him:

[The voice declared]: “No! Go on, and flinch not! Go back and boldly finish the work that has been given you to do. Speak out and fear not. Make them, at any cost, to see themselves in God’s holy law as in a glass [or in a mirror]. Do … that, for no one else [would] do it. No one else [would] so risk his life and his reputation … to do it. And you have not much of either left to risk. Go home and spend what is left of your life in your appointed task of showing My people their sin and their need of My Salvation.”[2]

And it absolutely galvanized into action Alexander Whyte in the closing years of his ministry.

If you have visited in the UK at all, you will perhaps have gone to see the grave of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. And you will have stood there in awesome wonder as you look at the words from the hymn “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” which are there on his tombstone. As Spurgeon requested, the stanza would read,

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.[3]

Now, the emphasis of these men is not unique. The reason I mention them is because they illustrate to us the fact that the recurring emphasis of the faithful will be the emphasis of that which the Bible gives us. And so it is that they were simply doing what Paul was doing in Corinth: declaring “the message of the cross … foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved … the power of God.”[4]

The city of Corinth was a strategic city. You can read of Paul arriving there from Athens, recorded by Dr. Luke for us in Acts chapter 18. And if you take time to rehearse the story, you will begin to put together what is a very striking picture. Corinth was a significant city, and it was a decadent city. Its population gave, by virtue of the very name of the city, a verb to the world which was an expression of licentiousness and immorality. The people in Corinth seemed to spend all of their time in the wanton indulgence of their senses, searching out every avenue down which they might travel to discover the good life. They were at a strategic point in the world; that narrow neck of land—that isthmus—was a center of trading. They didn’t have the Olympic Games, but they had the Isthmian Games. They didn’t have quite what Athens had, but they had significant stuff. There was architecture, and there was art, and it was impressive. It wasn’t dissimilar to a twentieth-century city here in the North American context, such as Chicago itself.

And into that vast metropolis walks this converted little Jewish man. And because we know our Bible so well, there’s something of the immediacy and striking dimension of it that we’re tempted to overlook. But can you imagine walking into a city that was as daunting then as it would be to walk into the city of Chicago, without having any knowledge of a single person who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, and saying to yourself, “What am I going to do now?”

And so it is that he walks in. He hooks up with a kindly couple called Priscilla and Aquila. They have an affinity with one another because of their background in tentmaking, and so he begins to make a dollar or two during the week by making tents, and then when it comes to the Sabbath, he goes into the synagogue, and he reasons in the synagogue, trying to persuade the Jews and the gentiles concerning the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he keeps that up for some time. Then a couple of his buddies come down from Macedonia. They bring some cash, which allows him to go full time. So he quits with the tents, and he goes full time in this reasoning about the Lord Jesus Christ. He preaches the cross. They get really ticked off with him in the synagogue, and they throw him out. They abuse him verbally and physically, and so he moves next door to the house of Titius Justus, and he sets up his operation there. And he’s no sooner begun to do that than the head of the synagogue from next door, a chap by the name of Crispus, brings his wife and family over and starts coming to his services. And as a result of coming to his services, the head of the synagogue is converted, and all of his family. It’s a wonderful story!

And in the midst of all of that, God speaks to him in a vision by night, and he says to him a number of things. “Number one,” he says, “I don’t want you to be afraid. Number two, I don’t want you to be silent. Number three, I want you to know that I am with you. And number four, I want you to know that I have many people in this city.”[5] And so Paul stays there for a year and a half, doing the very same thing over and over and over again: on every opportunity, preaching the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, let me just say a word to all prospective church planters. Whatever else contemporary wisdom may tell us about strategies for planting the church, understand this: there is no planting of the church without the proclaiming of the cross. And it doesn’t matter where we are, and it doesn’t matter what generation we’re in; that will never change. And slick methodology will never be able to fill the gap left by the absence of biblical theology.

And the amazing, unfolding truth is simply this: that as the apostle declares with boldness and humility the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and its saving significance, while men and women regard it as foolish and weak and impoverished, men and women’s lives are being transformed by it as they discover that it is the very power of God, as you see in verse 25: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”[6]

And that was axiomatic in the thinking of Paul. It was his deep conviction in relationship to all that he did—and indeed, without such a conviction, why in the world would anybody ever do what he did? Why would you ever start doing this? Why would you ever have only one string to your bow, as it were, and the one string is the proclaiming of a message which men and women in the contemporary culture regard as total foolishness and an expression of absolute weakness? Why would you ever proclaim that message? Because you must! Because there is no other message. Because it is the very power of God unto salvation.

Now, it is on account of this deep-seated conviction that Paul proceeds as he does. And in order that his readers might be reminded of truths with which they would be able to find an immediate point of identification, he illustrates for them in two regards. And I want just you to notice them at the end of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2.

“Listen,” he says. “Remember how I declared to you this essential truth: that God’s weakness is stronger than man’s strength, that God’s foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom.” Number one, he says, “Think about it in terms of personnel.” “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.”[7] Now, what he’s asking them to reflect upon is this: “Were you a bright bunch? Were you an influential bunch? Were you the masters of political machination? Were you possessed of significant clout?” He said, “Okay, I’ve given you long enough to think about that, and the answer to all of the above is, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ No,” he says, “when you think about what you were, you realize that God was choosing lowly things and things that are despised to nullify the things that are—that God was choosing what was apparently poverty stricken and foolish in order to establish the power and might of the wisdom of the cross.”[8]

And as he would have looked out on the group that had began to gather at the house of Titius [Justus], there would have been Mr. and Mrs. Levi and their spotty-faced little family, their gangly teenaged son with zits, and Paul would’ve looked out and said to himself, “Do I really believe that we’re gonna turn the world upside down with this motley crew?” That is exactly how I feel when I look out on my own congregation. You say, “Well, that’s not very nice.” I’m not trying to be nice. I’m trying to be honest. And they look at me and say, “Can this skinny little nitwit really do anything that is of significance or worth?” And they’re forced to conclude, “Absolutely not.”

So we all look at one another, and we look at the concluding verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 1, and we say, “That’s right, Paul. That does make the point very clearly. We’re not particularly influential, we’re not particularly noble, we’re not particularly astute. And therefore, if God is going to show himself strong, and do so through us, it is going to be in such a way that we understand that the power comes from somewhere else.” That’s what he’s saying later on when he says, “We have this treasure in old clay pots so that the transcendent power might be seen to belong to God and not to us.”[9]

That is why, as an aside, I find it so frustrating to be on the constant receiving end of initiatives from people who want to reverse the principle of the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 1, and to tell me, “You don’t understand, Pastor; it’s only as we are mighty, it’s only as we are powerful, it’s only as we are influential, it is only on the strength of that that we’re gonna be able to save the world.” Well, of course, we are not supposed to be saving the world, and we’re certainly not supposed to be saving America. What we’re supposed to be doing is declaring the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

He said, “Let me illustrate it, first of all, by reminding you of the personnel: a sad absence of political muscle, apparently very little clout, and this is the group that God has chosen to use.” You think about this building, in the heart of the city here, amongst all these millions of people—Asian people, African people, empty people. And you worship here on the Lord’s Day, and you say to yourself, “Are we really going to make a difference?” Struck by our own ineffectiveness, it turns us away. It’s supposed to.

We are not supposed to be saving the world, and we’re certainly not supposed to be saving America. What we’re supposed to be doing is declaring the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, the second point of illustration is in this matter of preaching. You say, “Well, I’m glad you reached that, because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.” I understand that. “When I came to you, brothers, I did[n’t] come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony [of] God.”[10] It’s very striking that he was actually preaching at all; that’s the first thing to notice. Why is it striking? Well, there was essentially amongst the consumers of his day an interest in two things. One fairly significant group were interested in signs and wonders, and another fairly strong group were interested in superior wisdom and eloquence. And there wasn’t actually a group that was interested in the preaching of the cross. So he looks out in the environment, and he says, “Now, let me understand this: there’s a group that is very interested in signs and wonders. There’s another group that would like me to engage in oratory. I’m not gonna do either of those.”

I don’t know what the church growth people would say to him. “Paul, I’m not sure you understand how to plant a church in Corinth. You’ve got to start where the people are. They want a little sign, a little wonder, a little bit here, a little bit there—and you’ve been known to do that in your past, Paul. Why don’t you just step up and give the customers what they want?” You see, you cannot have a market-driven theology and a biblically driven theology. You gotta choose between one or two, and the one will actually preclude the other. And so he preaches.

You can imagine him being picked up, as it were, at the arrival point in the city of Corinth—this is the way my imagination works, if you’ll forgive me. The chap comes out to meet him, and he says, “Hello, Paul. Do you have any baggage with you?”

And Paul said, “Well, no, actually, I didn’t check anything at all. I left a couple of pieces behind, though.”

“What did you leave behind?”

“Well, I left behind eloquence and sophistry. I decided that I wouldn’t bring them. I know they’re very appealing here in Corinth, but I deliberately left them behind. I know that people like that kind of thing; I know they’re impressed with orations, and I know that they like that sort of dramatic and flowery language. But I have determined that I won’t bring them with me at all.”

At least in Britain—in Scotland, maybe particularly—there was a time where that kind of flowery oration was very much in demand, and people liked the kind of Polonius nonsense, of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, you know:

My liege and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day … day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste both night, day, and time.
[And] since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief; your noble son is mad.
Mad call I it, for to define true madness,
What is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?

And the Queen breaks in and she says, “[Polonius,] more matter, [and] less art.”[11]

And Paul says, “I’m not gonna do that kind of stuff.” You can’t show yourself to be clever and Christ to be great simultaneously. “And if I come in and impress you with my background,” he says, “if I dredge up all that has been part and parcel of my experience, if I come, as it were, wearing my credentials and my badges and my pins and my degrees and my encouragements, I will denude the cross of Christ of the very power that it contains.”

It doesn’t need dressed up. The cross of Christ needs no help. You don’t have to be a special kind of person to placard the cross of Christ for the minds of contemporary men and women. And so he says, “No, I left most of my baggage behind. I left it there before I arrived.”

And so Mr. Benjamin goes back to his house, having dropped the apostle Paul off, and his wife, Mrs. Benjamin, says to him, “Well, did you get him?”

“Yeah, I got him.”

“Well, what’s he like?”

“Well, he’s not very tall. And as soon as he starts talking, he uses really long sentences, and he hardly finishes his sentences. And when I shook his hand, it was sort of shaky and clammy. And as I walked away from him, he looked like he kinda shakes or trembles or something.”

“Oh,” says Mrs. Benjamin, “I don’t know that he’s gonna be able to do anything in Corinth at all. Weakness? Fear? And much trembling?[12] Oh, we better not call him as our minister. We were hoping for something dramatic. We were hoping for some wonderful sign. We were hoping that he would be eloquent and superior in his wisdom.”

People call me all the time—on a monthly basis, sometimes on a weekly basis—and they say, “We have such and such a church, it’s at such and such a place, it has this, and it has that, and it has the next thing, and it’s, frankly, we believe, just going to be the most significant church that America has seen for some time. Can you recommend anybody for the place?” And I give them names, and they say, “Never heard of him.” And I say, “So what?” And they say, “Oh, that matters. Not a big enough name.” They might as well shut their church down. They haven’t even understood it.

The weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. The foolishness of God is greater than man’s wisdom. “I came to you,” he says, “in weakness and [in] fear, and with much trembling. [And] my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but [there was actually] a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.”[13] Is it right, here, to see a direct correlation between the posture of his dependence and the powerfulness of his delivery?

It was in Alexander Whyte’s church that the story emerged—it’s a true story, which has become increasingly apocryphal as a result of accretions over the years—of a young man who, in having the opportunity to preach in Alexander Whyte’s pulpit, was so enamored with the prospect of what he was going to do that he could hardly wait to get up the stairs into the pulpit and let everybody see how good he was, and how excited they were going to be that although the most famous preacher in the land was gone on his holidays, here came this young guy, and he would show them how it’s done! And so, in the pulpit there at Free St George’s, we’re told that he came out of the door, and he bounded up the steps, and he bounced into the pulpit, and he put down his Bible, and he looked at the group with a fairly jocular air, and he proceeded into the service and thence into his preaching.

He wasn’t three or four minutes into his preaching when he couldn’t get any spit in his mouth, if you’ll pardon me; it was a problem with him drying up. He couldn’t remember his notes, he couldn’t follow a thing, and everybody knew that he was having a horrible time, and eventually, he dribbled to a grinding halt—brought the service to a conclusion and went back down the stairs on the other side. But when he went down the stairs this time, he went down with his chin in his chest, and he wasn’t looking at anybody, and he was holding his Bible tight, and he was making a beeline for the exit. And an elderly gentleman at the back turned to his friend, and he said to him, “If that young chap had gone up the way he went down, he would have come down the way he went up.”

Some of you are here as young men anticipating ministry. There’s one thing that will finish all of us, and it is pride. It’s the greatest snare. “This is the man to whom I will look, says the Lord, he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at my word.”[14] And every so often in the course of our days, the Lord, recognizing the rising impetus for pride in each of our lives, just knocks us down a couple of perches. And it hurts, but it’s very important. Incidentally, that’s why every pastor needs a wife, if for no other reason than to keep him humble. And three teenage children, I’ve found, are also very helpful.

Preaching the Cross to the Unbeliever

Now, in saying all of that, we notice this: if we’re going to do what the Bible says to do, then we need to follow the apostolic example, as is provided for us here, and we need to obey the apostolic precept, which is to preach the Word of God. We began by suggesting that the preaching of the cross was vital both for the sake of the unbeliever and for the believer. Having said that, let me draw my remarks to a close by illustrating for us a number of ways in which it is vital both in preaching to the unbelieving mind and to the believing mind.

Why is it so imperative that we preach the cross to the unbeliever? Well, this again is selective; it’s not exhaustive. But let us at least say this: because it establishes the gravity of sin. It establishes the gravity of sin. And this we must do if we’re going to be biblical. And nowhere is the truth about sin seen more clearly than at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. That it took the death of God’s Son to put it away shows how horrible and abhorrent sin must be. And one of the reasons that men and women in our congregations have a trivial perspective on sin is not because we do not talk about sin or sins but because we do not preach the cross. Because it is in the cross that sin’s gravity is made clear. Because men and women then say, “Oh, that is what happened on account of sin. That is why the sky turned black in the noonday hour. That is why he cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’[15] That is why the curtain was torn from top to bottom.” That’s right!

One of the reasons that men and women in our congregations have a trivial perspective on sin is not because we do not talk about sin or sins but because we do not preach the cross.

The soul that sins will die.[16] Men and women are perishing. Do you like that word? Perishing! Oh, we know that we are diminishing in our physical attributes and capabilities. We understand that. Men and women recognize that. They see it in one another as they walk the streets. But what men and women do not understand is that we’re dead in our trespasses and sins and that we are perishing before the awesomeness of Almighty God. Sin’s gravity is displayed at the cross.

These words by Packer in Knowing God, I think, are par excellence in relationship to this. Listen to the description that he was enabled to give:

On the cross Jesus lost all the good that he [had] had before: all sense of his Father’s presence and love, all sense of physical, mental and spiritual well-being, all enjoyment of God and of created things, all ease and solace of friendship, were taken from him, and in their place was nothing but loneliness, pain, a killing sense of human malice and callousness, and a horror of great spiritual darkness.

The physical pain … was yet only a small part of the story; Jesus’ chief sufferings were mental and spiritual, and what was packed into less than four hundred minutes was an eternity of agony—agony such that [every] minute was itself an eternity, as mental sufferers know that individual minutes can be.[17]

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?[18]

Why is it that men and women can play fast and loose with the notion of sin? Because of an absence of the preaching of the cross.

It displays the gravity of sin. Secondly, it declares the necessity of grace. The necessity of grace. Because it says, “Your predicament is so grave that you’re unable to do a thing about it for yourself.” And it is the cross which sets forth the riches of God’s grace in pardoning sin. It is the cross which tells us that although we are “by nature objects of [his] wrath,”[19] in Ephesians 2, we have been made friends on account of his perfect propitiation.

It is the cross which makes sense of the enigmatic encounter described by Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee’s a big shot, wearing all the right gear, standing in the right places, doing all the right things, saying all the right prayers. And he understands that he’s very thankful that he’s not like other men, and certainly not like the poor tax collector who’s down beside him. Meanwhile, the tax collector would not even lift his eyes up into heaven, but he said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus said, “Now, guys, let me give you a little test here: Which man went down to his house justified? The one who prayed, ‘Lord, be propitious to me.’”[20] That’s exactly what he said.

Now, when this truth burns itself into a heart and a mind, it will change the manner and the content of our preaching. And this, you see, loved ones—and I don’t have time to stop on this—this is why this notion of a methodology being in itself okay because of its stated objective breaks down. Let me quote to you, in order to be succinct, and let me give you Stott, who I think is very succinct on this. He says in his book The Cross,

Either we preach that human beings are rebels against God, under his … judgment and … lost, and that Christ crucified who bore their sin and curse is the only available Savior.

He says we either do that,

or we emphasize human potential and human ability, with Christ brought in only to boost them, and with no necessity for the cross except to exhibit God’s love and [to] inspire us to greater endeavor.[21]

And you see, it takes spiritual discernment to know exactly what it is we’re listening to. That’s why it is imperative that you know your Bibles, and that you know theology, and that you understand that doctrine is of essential importance, so that when you listen to somebody talking about the cross, you don’t simply say, “Oh, he must be a good man, because he mentioned the cross.” The question is, did he say that in the cross was the expression of God’s grace which was absolutely essential, because man by his nature is dead and lost and unable to do anything about it, or was he simply saying that the cross gives us a little boost along the journey of our human potential? To say the latter is to be popular; to say the former is to be faithful. And faithfulness is the only way to go—and especially when Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.”[22] It’s a great tyranny to want to be well spoken of by everybody.

Well, why preach the cross to the unbeliever? Because it declares the gravity of sin, it establishes the absolute necessity of grace, and thirdly, it declares the opportunity of faith. It declares the opportunity of faith. Remember on the day of Pentecost, when Peter preaches, and he declares the fact of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, what is the response of men and women? They say, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”[23] That’s what happens when you preach the cross.

Why is it that people, by and large, in our congregations are not responding in that way at the end of sermons? Well, one of the reasons is because there’s hardly any evangelistic preaching is done. You take seminaries: they put out books on expository preaching fifteen chapters long, and you look for a chapter on evangelistic preaching, there is no evangelistic preaching in it. Now, that in itself says something. So, one, there’s no evangelistic preaching, or there’s not a lot of it. And when there is evangelistic preaching, it tends to appeal to people’s felt needs. So, “Do you feel a little lonely?” No. “Do you feel a little joyless?” No. “Do you feel a little impoverished?” No. “Oh, well, goodness gracious, I’m really at a loose end, then, because all my points of application are directly related to you feeling joyless and impoverished, etc.” So people walk out, they say, “I don’t know what that was all about, but I’m glad it’s over.”

When will men and women say, “Hey! What are we supposed to do?” What is the crossroads to which the Scriptures bring men and women? It is to the cross! And it is only then, in the preaching of the cross, that men and women understand these things, and suddenly the drama is placarded before their gaze, and the great ability that God by his Spirit gives to us in preaching is to turn people’s ears into eyes, so that in hearing they might see. And then they say,

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
And sealed my pardon with his blood.
Hallelujah, what a Savior![24]

“You see, I understand it now.”

Some of us don’t preach the cross because we’re not sure that we’re gonna preach it right. We’re frightened what people will say about us; it might sound Arminian when we do it, because we haven’t got all our terminology right. Just do it the way the Bible does it, trusting in the fact that Jesus said, “[And] when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself,”[25] in the awareness of the truth that God in sovereign love saves through a bona fide offer of Christ to all mankind—those for whom, specifically and effectively, Christ substituted himself upon the cross.

For those of you who have ears to hear, hear.

Preaching the Cross to Believers

Now, my time is gone. I said I’d say something about why it’s important to preach the cross to believers. I’ve gotta believe that that’s the case on a sweaty afternoon like this in Chicago. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing! So let me just give you a little outline; you can go home and do it as your homework. Why is it important to preach the cross to the believer? Again, this is selective; it’s not exhaustive.

Number one, because it is the cross that provides for us the compulsion that we need in evangelism. And I’m back again where I was last night; you would sense that that is something of my heart. Two Corinthians 5:14: “For Christ’s love” does what? It “compels us.” Why? “Because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” You see, it is when the cross is proclaimed to the believer that they understand what the compulsion is that drives them.

Have you read John Pollock’s biography of Billy Graham? You’ll know that sometime around 1952, the year I was born, Billy Graham was wrestling with what his future was going to be—whether he was going to go full scale into evangelism or not, what should he do? And there in the biography, it tells of how he walked around the trails near his home, he took his Bible with him, and he read everything that he could on the subject of evangelism. And this is what he said: “I thought about Christ’s death on the cross. Above all other motives as a spur to service and incentive to evangelism is the cross of Christ and its irrepressible compassion.”[26] That is true, loved ones—above everything else as a compulsion in evangelism and as a stir to us to reach men and women with the good news. Why are dear folks from my congregation—guys with degrees in civil engineering from Case Western Reserve University, guys who’ve been consultants with Arthur Andersen Corporation, men and women of high learning—why are they buried today in obscurity all across our world? Why have they done that? Because the cross has been stamped into the very core of their being, and they’re saying, “The love of Christ compels me.”

Pollock tells how Billy Graham went back to his house, singing to himself the words of an old song that many of us haven’t heard for a while:

Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one[s], [and] lift up the fallen,
[And] tell them of Jesus, the Mighty to save.[27]

You see, when will our congregations weep over the lost? When the pastor preaches the cross of Christ.

Also, it is the preaching of the cross which provides a necessary correction for believers—the Galatian problem, if you like. Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Without the preaching of the cross, believers revert all too easily to “faith plus works” as the ground of salvation. If you doubt that, just check it out. To trust in myself is part of my fallen humanity. When I take my eyes off the cross, I may give lip service to its efficacy while living all the time as if my salvation depended upon me. And when a man or a woman reverts to that Galatian stuff, then it will breed within their lives either despair or pride. It will breed despair because they know they cannot do what they feel they must, or it will breed pride because they, in some illusion, believe they’re actually doing what they’re not. So they become crazy people, either on the high or low end of a kind of manic tyranny.

What is it fixes that? The cross! Because we look away from ourselves. You look at yourself, how do you feel? Well, if you feel proud, you’re just neutralized. If you feel despair, you’re neutralized. So where are you gonna look? Look to the cross!

To trust in myself is part of my fallen humanity. When I take my eyes off the cross, I may give lip service to its efficacy while living all the time as if my salvation depended upon me.

Penultimately—that means second last—the preaching of the cross to the believer is essential because it forms their characters. How does a man or a woman grow in grace and in holiness and in love and in endurance? As a result of the cross.

And finally, it is the preaching of the cross which provides for the believer the basis of their confidence before Almighty God. We’re going through Hebrews at the moment in our congregation. We just last week got to Hebrews 10:19–25: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…” Doesn’t make us arrogant, doesn’t make us complacent, doesn’t make us superficial, doesn’t make us glib. It just makes us confident.

The hymn writer puts it perfectly:

Before the throne of God above,
I have a strong and perfect plea,
A great high priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me. …

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end [to] all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.[28]

That’s why

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. …

I love to tell story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.[29]

If when the gospel is preached in your hearing your heart is not stirred, you got a severe spiritual problem. Martin Luther said, “I feel as though Jesus died only yesterday.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Every time I hear the gospel preached, I feel almost that I would love to become a Christian all over again.”

And I told you there were three illustrations, and you think that I forgot my last one. Well, I didn’t, and here it is. From Tom Allan to Alexander Whyte, and finally, to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, his two volumes are lying in the table through there—the biography by Iain Murray, required reading for any young man going into ministry. Sell your shirt and buy the two volumes of Lloyd-Jones. Tell your father you’ll pay him back; do anything you can. Grab them, and read them. And in the course of reading them, you will discover a number of things about this man: that he was an outstanding preacher, that God brought him out of medicine and into pastoral ministry, that in his ministry in Bridgend, in Wales, there was a touch of revival upon it. He emphasized always, from the beginning of his preaching, the necessity of new birth.

But on one Sunday evening, a minister who was present in his congregation and listening to Lloyd-Jones preach went to him afterwards and challenged him, and said of Lloyd-Jones’s preaching, “The cross and the work of Christ had little place in his preaching.” Lloyd-Jones the next day went out to a secondhand bookstore. He went in there, and he bought two books: James Denney’s The Death of Christ and R. W. Dale’s The Atonement. He took them home, he went in his study, and he refused to come out. He didn’t come out for his lunch, he didn’t come out for his dinner, and his wife was so worried about him that she phoned her brother up to see if they shouldn’t call the doctor, because apparently Lloyd-Jones had taken leave of his senses. And then, eventually, very late in the evening, he emerged from his study, and “he claimed to have found ‘the real heart of the gospel and the key to the inner meaning of the Christian faith.’”[30] And the content of his preaching changed, and the impact of his preaching deepened. And the basic question, he said, was not Anselm’s question “Why did God become man?” but the essential question was “Why did Christ die?”

And so it was for him a crossroads—in the way, I trust, that these days will prove to be a crossroads for each of us, and that coming to the roads that meet and emerge from the cross, we may say with the hymn writer,

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness,
[And] a rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat,
And the [journey] of the day. …

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine
Than the sunshine of [your] face,
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain [nor] loss,
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross.[31]

Young men, especially: resolve today, whatever you do, to preach regularly—and, please God, with the unction of the Spirit of God upon our endeavors—the glory of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).

[2] W. Robertson Nicoll, Princes of the Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, [1921?]), 320.

[3] William Cowper, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” (1772).

[4] 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NIV 1984).

[5] Acts 18:9–10 (paraphrased).

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:25 (NIV 1984).

[7] 1 Corinthians 1:26 (NIV 1984).

[8] 1 Corinthians 1:27–29 (paraphrased).

[9] 2 Corinthians 4:7 (paraphrased).

[10] 1 Corinthians 2:1 (NIV 1984).

[11] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.

[12] See 1 Corinthians 2:3.

[13] 1 Corinthians 2:3–4 (NIV 1984).

[14] Isaiah 66:2 (paraphrased).

[15] Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984). See also Mark 15:34.

[16] See Ezekiel 18:4, 20.

[17] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 195.

[18] Isaac Watts, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?” (1707–9).

[19] Ephesians 2:3 (NIV 1984).

[20] Luke 18:10–14 (paraphrased).

[21] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th anniv. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 338.

[22] Luke 6:26 (NIV 1984).

[23] Acts 2:37 (KJV).

[24] Philip P. Bliss, “‘Man of Sorrows,’ What a Name” (1875).

[25] John 12:32 (NIV 1984).

[26] Billy Graham, quoted in John Pollock, Billy Graham: The Authorized Biography (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), 94.

[27] Fanny Crosby, “Rescue the Perishing” (1869), quoted in Pollock, 94–95.

[28] Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).

[29] A. Katherine Hankey, “I Love to Tell the Story” (1866).

[30] Stott, Cross of Christ, 15.

[31] Elizabeth C. Clephane, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” (1868).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.