Preaching of the Cross
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Preaching of the Cross

1 Corinthians 15:3  (ID: 2174)

John Stott once wrote that what dominated Christ’s mind was not the living of His life but the giving of His life. This timeless truth is one that churches today still need to hear and learn. In this message from 1 Corinthians, Alistair Begg challenges us to see the Gospel’s unique claims about Christ’s identity. Jesus, the Bible tells us, was not merely a great teacher or moral example; He was the sacrificial Lamb that made atonement for sin on our behalf.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 2

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23002

The Basics of Pastoral Ministry, Volume 3

Preaching God’s Word Selected Scriptures Series ID: 28403

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let me invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to 1 Corinthians and the fifteenth chapter. It is an immense privilege to be part of these events in these days. I find myself in esteemed company and rejoice in the fellowship that is mine with these various men and women throughout these days, and I’m very grateful. I might have liked someone else to go first, if I was very honest, but I wasn’t given an option, and so here I am.

First Corinthians chapter 15, and I want just to turn our attention to the third verse:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.”

James Denney, the Scottish theologian, in what has been one of the classic books of the late twentieth century, [The Death of Christ], writes as follows:

[The] death [of Jesus] is in some sense the centre and consummation of His work. It is because of it that His risen life is the hope which it is to sinful men; and it needs no apology, therefore, if one who thinks that it has less than its proper place in preaching and … theology endeavours to bring out as simply as possible its place and meaning in the New Testament.[1]

Now, I’m glad that he wrote in that way for a number of reasons. First of all, because it is my responsibility, as you would note from your program, to bring out the place of the cross in the unfolding of the biblical record. And there is a unique challenge in doing what I’ve been asked to do, especially in going first, because it is distinctly possible to intrude on every other address that is about to be given in the course of the next day and a half. And indeed, it is particularly difficult to ensure that one doesn’t. And so, you will have to be the judge of how well I do.

But at least I want you to know that there will be a number of occasions—hopefully, quite a number of occasions this evening—when you will have a distinct sense of the thought that I have raised being incomplete. That there will be, if you like, a pregnant pause which will last at least until tomorrow morning. And that is purposeful, because they haven’t asked me to cover the totality of it, just to address this one central dimension. And the plan is that, as in a Venn diagram, if you remember them from your mathematical days, what we have here is not so much a series of concentric circles but a group of circles that are interlocked with one another, all in relationship to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. So there will be things that I address simply in passing, and they will leave you with a sense of incompletion. That is purposeful.

How am I going to tackle this? Well, let me tell you so that you know where I’m heading, and you’ll be able to tell whether we’re getting there or not. I determined that we’ll ask of our subject this evening three straightforward questions. The first question: Why is it necessary to address the issue of the centrality of the cross? The second question: What is the plain and obvious emphasis of Scripture on this matter? And the third question, to which we will probably give a very small amount of time: How then should we live in light of the centrality of the cross?

Challenges to the Centrality of the Cross

First of all, then, why is it necessary to address the issue of the centrality of the cross? Can we not simply assume its central place and move quickly on to the matter of its meaning? And to that we have to answer, sadly and emphatically, no. When Denney wrote, some [ninety-five] years ago, he was addressing the issue of the cross and identifying the fact that then it had less than its proper place in preaching and theology. And if that was true in [1902] in Scotland, loved ones, it is certainly true in the continental United States. Why is that? Well, we could spend a long time suggesting various reasons, and any attempt to give a cogent answer must inevitably be selective rather than exhaustive. Why does the cross, as it were, in the minds of people and in the proclamation of ministers and in the expressions of the faithful, find itself fighting for a central place?

Well, one of the reasons is on account of the rejection of the cross by other religions. In the pluralistic and syncretistic environment in which we live, Christianity stands alone on a number of fronts, and not least of all in this most central aspect of the cross. And in our day, as various people suggest that perhaps we have been a little too bold and forceful in some matters and we might be more endearing to other religions if we were to soften around the edges, it is well worth recognizing that other religions are very, very clear, even if some within the realm of Christendom are tempted to theological vagueness.

Now, we can, again, only deal with this briefly. For example, Islam rejects wholeheartedly the notion of a sin-bearing Savior. According to the Qur’an, each man or woman shall reap the fruit of his or her own deeds. And there is therefore no need for a cross. And therefore, to the mind of the Muslim, it is entirely inappropriate that a major prophet of God—and such they regard Christ to have been—should come to such an “ignominious end.”[2] And that is why it is a wonderful opportunity to talk with Muslims concerning the nature of the cross. For what they have as a symbol are scales, and they have no answer to the deep-seated sense of guilt and denigration which is part and parcel of their experience.

What is true of Islam is true of the Hindu mind as well. It accepts the historicity of Christ’s death, but it flat-out rejects that it has any saving significance.[3] Gandhi, who was essentially the founder of modern India, was attracted to Christianity while he practiced law for a while in South Africa. Indeed, if you read his biography, you will find that there was a significant period of his life in which he was drawn to a fairly devout and continued consideration of the matter of Christianity. But this was his conclusion: “I could accept [a] Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept.”[4] So in other words, “I’m able to stand back,” says Gandhi, “and feel a measure of sentimentality about what was going on there, but as to the notion of it being vicarious and atoning, my heart and mind would not accept it.” He says “could not”; he really should have said “would not.” That was in 1894.

What of the modern mind, the worldview of man that leaves God on the periphery of things? Well expressed by the professor Sir Alfred Ayer, Oxford University, when he says this: “Christianity is in my mind the worst of all the religions, because it rests on the allied doctrines of original sin and vicarious atonement, which are intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.”[5]And here we gather on a Friday evening, in one of the great cities of the world. And as we seek to affirm the centrality of the cross, we do so in this kind of worldview environment.

Secondly, it is a challenge because of the marginalization of the cross by liberal scholarship. Now, again, this is familiar territory; we’re not going to take a long time with this. Most of us are familiar with it. The contemporary notions to which I refer is the idea that, for example, Jesus was the great ethicist—that the essence of Christianity is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount. Or that the essential elements of Christianity have to do with liberation theology—that what we have in Christ is an emancipator, but certainly not a Savior. In the kind of teaching which fails to define the incarnation by its relationship to the atonement but speaks only of the incarnation of Christ with a kind of theology which begins and ends with peace on earth and brotherly love but which affords absolutely no place, let alone a central place, to the fact that Christ died for our sins. And many young men who are going in in these days to the discovery and study of theology find that, coming out of a background in which they have been convicted of and convinced by the truth of the centrality of the cross, are bombarded not simply by the pluralism of worldviews which are beyond them but by the liberalization and marginalization of essential truths of the gospel.

Now, there’s a sense in which this is no surprise to us at all. We do well not to take a great deal of time with it. So let me spend a little longer on what is the most tragic dimension of it all, and that is this: the confusion in modern evangelicalism in relationship to this issue. We’re not surprised by the antipathetic nature of world religions. We have grown accustomed to the marginalizing of essential elements of theology from those who reject the authenticity and sufficiency of Scripture. But what we’re unprepared for—and in many cases, unalert to—is the fact that within the framework of conservative Christianity, we have still yet to fight for the centrality of the cross.

Let me explain to you what I mean. And you’re sensible people; you need to judge for yourselves whether my observation is accurate. In other words, it is possible—I don’t want to say it is likely, I want simply to say it is possible—it is possible to be in an evangelical church and not hear the cross preached. Now, I don’t mean that we don’t see the cross carried on little chains around ladies’ necks or stamped and embossed on gaily colored Bible coverings and carriers—strange little things that people walk around with. I’m not suggesting… Incidentally, if I’d been carrying my Bible tonight in one of those little disguises, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity of recommending to a couple of complete strangers a good church to attend here in Chicago this coming Sunday. It was the very fact that they were able to identify that this was a Bible that I was carrying. Would to God that some of us would carry our Bibles with a little more boldness! But that’s just an aside. Probably should have left it alone, but I’ve said it now. Yeah. So I’m not suggesting that in not hearing it preached we don’t hear it referred to. But hearing it referred to is not the same as hearing it preached.

Now, I have a second chance at this, so I’ll leave most of it to tomorrow and try and define what I mean by “hearing it preached.” But the rehearsing of clichés that have evangelical buzzwords in them and the sounding out of evangelical mantras dare not be equated with giving to the cross the place that the Scriptures give it—namely, a central place in life, and doctrine, and worship, and ministry, and evangelism, and practice. The central emphasis of the cross declares its necessity, establishes its meaning—namely, that it is substitutionary, that it is propitiatory, that it is efficacious, etc., and these are in the talks that follow; that’s a pregnant pause—and also in a seeking to do that that does not shy away from its offense.

You see, when we redefine the essence of the human predicament—and we are doing this, loved ones—when we redefine the essence of the human predicament in terms of a lack of self-esteem, in modern psychological terms, then we will inevitably find people being offered a couch rather than brought to a cross, being introduced to a psychologist rather than being confronted by a Savior.

Hearing the Bible referred to is not the same as hearing it preached.

When the battle is redefined in political terms, and that is made central, then what the Bible says is central becomes inevitably peripheral. And if evangelicalism has been good about one thing in the last fifty years, it has surely been good about this—namely, taking what is central and making it peripheral, and thereby allowing what is peripheral to take the central place. And we could discuss this well and late into the night, with many, many illustrations.

The trivialization of the cross amongst those of us who ought to know better is observable in many different ways. For example, have you been in attendance upon a worship service where someone has given a “talk” that has essentially been an appeal to the felt needs of men and women present, has been a sort of jumbled concoction of self-help theory and well-meaning clichés, has offered to people the opportunity to fulfill their dreams, to meet head-on their aspirations, and to develop their affections? And then, either out of a sense of conscience, and just when no one is expecting it, the minister adds this little coda at the end. It goes something like, “And if any of you are here tonight and have never considered the cross of Jesus Christ, you might like to check it out.” There’s absolutely no connection to anything that has gone before. It’s trotted out in the most trivialized and sorry way. If you talk to that individual, he’ll probably tell you that he believes in the centrality of the cross. Then if he believes it, he should make it central in his preaching!

Why is it necessary to establish this at the very outset? Because of the challenge that we face out there in our contemporary culture; within the framework of those who embrace Christendom in marginalized, liberal circles; but perhaps most challenging of all, in some of our smug, self-satisfied congregations, where as long as we hear the right kind of phrases routinely trotted out, we assume that we’re actually on track and that the cross is central in all that we’re doing.

You see, the cross confronts sin and humbles the proud. How then can you possibly preach to a congregation and constantly tell them that they’re such a wonderful group of people, and “we want you to go out as happy as you possibly can, and God does not want you to leave disappointed or disgruntled”? I was worshipping in Southern California in the summertime, and in the course of what was essentially the David Letterman show with a theological twist, the pastor, who’s a dear soul, stood up at the end and assured all of us that God did not want any of us to go away feeling any other way at all except just fantastic.

Well, you see, we have a very difficult time bringing contemporary men and women to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ and telling them that the most obvious response should be to grab for their car keys and go out feeling fantastic. We say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, and we seek to heal the condition of our people lightly,[6] and all the time believe that the cross is central in our preaching and theology.

The Plain and Obvious Emphasis of the Bible

Now, some of you may say, “Well, I think that’s a little hard. I think it’s a little off.” That’s okay. We can talk about that. In fact, I’m prepared to dialogue on that. What I’m not really prepared to move on is what I’m now about to do. Because my second question is, “What is the plain and obvious emphasis of the Bible in this issue?” And here we can speak with absolute confidence and forcefulness.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians, as we read, he determines that this is of primary importance: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Now, I do hope you have your Bibles, because I want you to turn up your Bibles to make sure that what I’m saying is actually in the Bible—and may the Lord forgive all of you who came to a Bible conference without a Bible. And may you buy a Bible before tomorrow.

Now, we have to be selective; we can’t be exhaustive. And let’s begin in Luke chapter 24. You know the story in Luke chapter 24? It follows upon the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The fellows are going down the road totally disappointed and disgruntled as a result of the fact that, as far as they can tell, salvation history has ended in the cul-de-sac of a Palestinian tomb. And as they’re walking, alongside comes Christ himself, they’re “kept from recognizing him,”[7] and in the course of discussion, we read in the twenty-sixth verse—in fact, verse 25,

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

If you look forward to verse 44, he said to them, now in his further appearance to the disciples,

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so [that] they could understand the [Scripture. And] he told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”

Now, if there is one sermon that any of us might have enjoyed listening to, it surely must be this one. To have had the privilege of standing there, or sitting down, and listening to Christ himself expounding the theme “Christ in all the Scriptures.” To have Christ himself take these disciples through the Bible and to point out the absolute essential dimensions of the cross as it appeared—through the Passover, the serpent in the wilderness, and so many different places.

Where did he go? Did he remind them of his words from the cross, that three of them came from the Psalms? Did he turn them back to Psalm 22, as he rehearsed his statement “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[8] Did he remind them of the Sixty-Ninth Psalm in the statement “I am thirsty”[9] and unfold that for them? Did he turn them to the Thirty-First Psalm and explain how it was and why it was that he chose to use those words to say, “Into [your] hands I commend my spirit”?[10] And do you think that he went all the way through the Prophets and didn’t turn to Isaiah chapter 53 and drive home once and for all into the minds of these yet unconvinced and uninitiated dear souls the absolute central place of his dying, of his suffering, and of his cross? He reminded them that he was simply doing again what he had done to them, for them, when he had been with them. “This is what I told you when I was still with you.” But they weren’t real quick on the pickup.

Turn to Mark’s Gospel and to chapter 8. Jesus says, “This is what I was telling you when I was still with you.” And their minds would’ve gone back. Mark 8:31, following the feeding of the four thousand that’s recorded here: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, [the] chief priests and [the] teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this.” And then look at this: “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” If we might say so, reverently, Christ himself could not get it through the minds of these disciples that his death was central to the whole issue.

He comes back to it in 9:31, saying the same thing: “He was teaching his disciples. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’” Notice, again: “But they did not understand what he meant and [they] were afraid to [even] ask him about it.”

Mark 10:32: “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.” That’ll preach, won’t it? Especially two words beginning with a, you know. All you preachers should write that down: “astonished disciples and afraid individuals.” It’s a good start. And “again he took the Twelve aside and [he] told them what was going to happen.”

“Guys, I’m gonna tell you this again. It’s the third time now. We’re going up to Jerusalem.”

“Yes, Lord, we got that point.”

“Yeah, but listen. The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death, will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. And three days later he will rise.”

Why was it that the disciples, even after the empty tomb, could not believe what the women were telling them? They told the ladies, “You know, you’re crazy,” on resurrection morning. Why was this? Because Jesus always spoke about his death and his resurrection in conjunction with each other. And since they had closed their minds to the dreadful prospect of his death, there had been no place in the computer of their thinking for the reality of his resurrection. For the two things were interwoven. They could not think about the possibility of this cruel end, and having shunned from that, they had no place for the prospect of a resurrection.

Now, when we go through the Gospels—and that’s as much as we’ll do in this—what characterized the last month of the Lord Jesus’ life was a deliberate attempt to teach his disciples about his death. And when you read the Gospels, it becomes perfectly clear that the death of Christ, the cross of Christ, and its significance is given a disproportionate amount of time in each of these Gospel records. It is quite clear that the author in each case had no intention of simply writing a biography of the Lord Jesus, but everything in the Gospels is arranged to lead up to the climax of the cross itself.

That’s why when, for example, you read in John’s Gospel, you have at the very earliest stages this notion of his hour not yet coming—even in the Cana of Galilee event. His mother comes to him and says, you know, “We’re out of the wine that is necessary for keeping the feast and the celebration going,” and Jesus turns to his mother, and he says, “Mother, my hour has not yet come”[11]—an enigmatic statement in that moment. Which then continues to be the unfolding focus of the Gospel of John, till finally we have Christ saying, “Father, I have come to this hour, and I am here for this hour, and I understand perfectly.”[12]

And in a moment in time, the expression of the great covenant of redemption from all of eternity, when the Father and the Son and the Spirit have it determined in the framework of their mutuality and coequality how this amazing plan of redemption will unfold in the experience of history. And that’s why when we read these Gospel records, we find ourselves again and again and again being brought to this central emphasis.

Stott, who is so good at these little two-liners, puts it this way: “What dominated [Christ’s] mind was not the living [of his life] but the giving of his life.”[13] And that, you see, is why all this emphasis on the incarnation which is disengaged from the atonement, which gives to the incarnation its significance, is a serious and mistaken side street.

Everything in the Gospels is arranged to lead up to the climax of the cross itself.

Now, what am I doing? I’m simply doing what I’ve been asked to do. What is the place of the cross? What is the central place of the cross? Well, it’s central. When you go into the Acts of the Apostles, what do you find? The apostles hit the streets. And what are they talking about? “You crucified this Jesus, and God has raised him from the dead.”[14] And as you go through the Acts of the Apostles, there are some fourteen occasions that I managed to count where the cross is directly and expressly preached. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the unfolding and developing theology and expressions of it by these men on the streets of the developing world except for their emphasis on the centrality of the cross. That’s why we read in our opening statement as worship began, “We preach Christ crucified,”[15] Paul says to the Corinthians.

When he writes to the Galatians, he reminds them of what happened in the founding of the church in the Galatian valley. “Before your very eyes,” he says, “Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.”[16] And the word which is used there is the word for placarded. “It is placarded,” he says, in the same way as you drive from O’Hare Airport and into the center of the city, and you’re confronted by these huge signs calling out all kinds of things to do and places to go and things to purchase. It is all placarded there that all might see. That’s the very word which Paul uses. He says, “Now, when I came to Galatia, I placarded the message of the crucified Christ for all to see.” The tense, incidentally, is a perfect passive participle, which speaks to the abiding significance of a once-for-all sacrifice. It was central in the planting of the church in Galatia, it was absolutely crucial for these wandering Galatian folks to be brought again to this central emphasis, and it remains the abidingly significant factor at the heart of all genuine biblical Christianity.

When you come to the Epistles, the cross is central. First Peter, he mentions it all the time. When you get to the book of Hebrews, what is it about? You can’t understand Hebrews apart from the central place of the cross—the most Old Testament of the New Testament books. Hebrews 9:26, without turning it up: “But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Why has he appeared? Why has he appeared in time? Not just to show us what love is. Not simply to be a good man and live as an example. Not simply to encourage our interest in egalitarian concerns. “He has appeared”—incarnation—“once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

And when you get to the book of the Revelation, what do you find? It is by the blood of the Lamb that the great multitude is saved. Revelation 7:10: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

When Rutherford—that is, Samuel—was friendly with a Presbyterian minister by the name of Cousin, he enjoyed the company not only of Mr. Cousins but also of Mrs. Cousins. Her name was [Anne]. And she took from Rutherford’s memoirs and wrote a poem which went to some exaggerated length, as they often did in those days—I think some forty-six verses, which were turned into hymnody, with, I think, about six verses. And the hymnody is that which begins, “The sands of time are sinking,” and “the dawn of heaven breaks.” Some of you will know that. And the great emphasis of Rutherford’s sentiments were that “the Lamb is all the glory in Immanuel’s land.” And I’m struggling to bring it to recollection, but I think it goes like this:

The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze on glory
But on my King of grace;
Not at the crown he giveth,
But on his nail-pierced hand:
For the Lamb is all the glory
In Immanuel’s land.[17]

And you see, this is the staggering thing. For all of our horizontal late twentieth-century Christianity that marginalizes and trivializes and sentimentalizes the absolutely essential place of the cross, we’re going to spend eternity glorifying the Lamb who was slain. So I, for one, am very glad to be given the opportunity to rehearse familiar truth, lest we would be in any doubt.

Now, let me just say a word before I come to my last question. Interestingly, at least to me, everywhere in the New Testament, the cross is at the heart of Christian faith. And indeed, beyond that, when you think in terms of the cross, it speaks to the unity of the totality of the Bible itself. In some ways, you can think of your Bible as a book with the answers at the back. Every so often you get a book, and you say, “Well, what does that mean?” And then you turn to the back, and it has an explanation. It’s quite a good idea, but not a very good idea, because it gives the idea, somehow or another, the New Testament is simply a key to unlock things, and that is less than true.

Or you might like to think of your Bible like a detective novel, if you read detective novel stories—Agatha Christie or whatever it is, or if you read the Cadfael series by Ellis Peters that has come out of Shropshire, England—then you know that there are statements made, and little sentences and fragments in the early part of the book that you know probably mean something, but you’re not just exactly sure what they mean until that final great denouement where it all becomes clear and all the threads come together. But even that isn’t a brilliant way to think about the Bible, because it doesn’t do it adequately.

I can’t remember who it was, but someone, a good theologian, classically described it in terms of a two-act drama—a play that you go to see that has act 1 and act 2. Act 1 can stand alone, insofar as it contains information that is understandable within the context of the first act. Act 2 can stand alone in the same way, but in point of fact, they need one another desperately, and that’s why when the fellow said he would meet his wife at seven o’clock, and he never showed up until twenty past eight, and he finally came into the play under cover of darkness, and he sat down beside her, and they were already in the second half of the play, he annoyed his wife intensely by constantly saying, “What is this about?” And she says, “If you had only been here for the first act, you would understand what was going on.”

If you do not have a central place for the cross, every theological structure eventually crumbles into dust.

Now, you see, loved ones, when you read your Bible and you read of the Passover, and when you read of the sacrificial system, and you read of the Suffering Servant, and you read of the Calvary psalms, and you read right up to Malachi, you come to the book of Malachi, and you’re lookin’ down through the corridors of time, and you’re saying, “Where does this go? Who is this Prophet, Priest, and King? Who is this Suffering Servant? Where is this Paschal Lamb?” And then you read in the New Testament, and it all unfolds in the cross of Christ.

We lose our way around our Bibles when we take our eyes off Christ. And we lose our way around the Bible when we take our eyes off the cross.

Were you ever taught this by your Sunday school teacher? If not, you can write it down now; it’s very helpful. In the Old Testament, Christ is predicted. In the Gospels, Christ is revealed. In the Acts, Christ is preached. In the Epistles, Christ is explained. And in the book of Revelation, Christ is expected. You see, if you do not have a central place for the cross, every theological structure eventually crumbles into dust.

Living with the Cross at the Center

My final question is simply this: If, then, we do need to argue for the central place of the cross in light of what is going on around us and within us, and if the emphasis of the Bible is clearly to establish its centrality, how then should we live in light of the centrality of the cross? Or if you like, “So what?” Because some of you are probably saying that: “So what?” In fact, I hope you are! Because that is the very important thing that we must always do on the basis of a doctrine delineated. For that is what Paul does in the book of Romans: he gives us eight chapters of theology; he spends 9, 10, and 11 in a kind of parenthetical treatment; and then he starts with chapter 12, and he says, “Some of you are thinking, ‘So what?’ Let me tell you.” He does the same in the book of Ephesians: the doctrinal indicatives for three chapters, and then he starts chapter 4 and he says, “Okay, let’s move to the moral imperatives.” So lest we think that we’re simply here to have a little Bible study that simply leaves us at arm’s length with, “Yes, we’re very clear now about the centrality of the cross,” I don’t want any of us to get away just as easy as that.

So turn, finally, to Romans chapter 12 and to the familiar verses, 1 and 2: “I [beseech] you, [brethren], in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

What is God’s mercy? What is the apex of the mercy of God? Where has God’s mercy been manifested to us?

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span.


At Calvary.

Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
[And] pardon there was multiplied to me.[18]

So what? You see, in the Old Testament, you had a number of sacrifices, but there were two primary elements: one was a sacrifice for the remission of sin, which was propitiatory, and then there was another sacrifice which was offered in thanksgiving for the acceptance of the propitiatory sacrifice, and that second sacrifice was a dedicatory sacrifice. And Paul uses that very framework here in this opening verse of Romans 12. He says, “Therefore, in view of God’s mercy, whereby in his atoning death he has provided propitiation for our sins”—which brings us to the meaning, which is later with someone else—“I want you,” he says, “better than that, God demands of us, that our very lives would be sacrifices that are dedicatory sacrifices.”

In other words, the information is provided not simply that we might be better informed but that we might be made radically different. And it is only when our doctrine is seen in our deeds, when our belief transforms our behavior, when the dimension of this kind of truth stirs a heart, moves a mind, changes a life, redirects her career, transforms the morality of a single guy, changes the way a man does business, revolutionizes a family, that the world outside will begin to look and listen.

So here are, I think, four little practical PSs.

One: when the wonder of the cross of Jesus Christ grips a life, it rules out all my snobbery. There is nothing as horrible as a Christian snob. And there is a lot of snobbery in evangelicalism. And of that I, we, need to repent. I’m not gonna unpack it all. Why don’t you just hang your hat on the one that most hurts?

Intellectual snobbery. We’d have a hard time inviting Amos to some of our conferences, wouldn’t we?

“Amos, could you stand up and give us a little bit of your background?”

“Well, uh… Yeah, my name’s Amos, and, um… Uh… For some time I’ve been looking after fig trees.”

“Anything else?”

“Uh… no, not really. I’ve done a little bit of shepherding.”

“Amos, I don’t think you understand. We’re trying to put a brochure together, son. We’re trying to draw a crowd here.”

Okay, you get the point. There is a great need for sanctified scholarship, so don’t misunderstand me. I’m thankful that these guys are smart enough to write the books so that I can read them and then try and make them understandable to you.

Intellectual snobbery, social snobbery, theological snobbery, racial snobbery, financial snobbery. Evangelical Christianity in America is so horribly bourgeois.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to [your] blood.[19]

Naught have I gotten but what I received;
Grace hath bestowed it [ere] I have believed;
Boasting excluded, [and] pride I abase;
[’Cause] I’m only a sinner, saved by grace![20]

You see, when the centrality of the cross grips a life, it puts paid to this dreadful snobbery.

Secondly, when the cross of Christ grips a life and stirs a heart, the only thing we can do is give ourselves away. The only thing we can do is give up our small ambitions. C. T. Studd played cricket for England. His father was a very wealthy man. He had all the benefits of an Oxbridge education. He had the world at his feet. And he heard someone preaching on the cross, and he went home and he wrote in his journal, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I could ever make for him could ever be too great.”[21]

When the wonder of the cross of Jesus Christ grips a life, it rules out all my snobbery.

Thirdly, when the cross of Jesus Christ gets hold of my life, it unties my tongue. It unties my tongue. Again, Stott: nothing seals the lips and ties the tongue like the poverty of my own spiritual experience. Ultimately, I say nothing because I have nothing to say. But when the cross of Christ grips a life, as it gripped the life of Peter and John, they’ll take the hiding, they’ll take the imprisonment, they’ll take the talk, they’ll listen to the lecture, and they’ll walk right back out the door, and they will declare Jesus Christ and him crucified. And this is what they will say—and Luke records it in Acts 4:20: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Oh, I want to go to Starbucks, and just find one soul there, and tell them about the cross! Do you? When is the last time that you engaged an unbeliever in a substantive, meaningful conversation concerning the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ? Okay? Then don’t let’s say, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When the cross grips a life, it unties the tongue.

And lastly, when I bow before the wonder of the cross of Christ, when in a moment—and it often happens to me in worship, in the singing of a hymn, sometimes in the greeting of a friend, sometimes in seeing someone reach out to someone. I don’t know what I… It happens in the strangest ways. But every so often, the shadow of the cross casts itself across my path, and I find myself with Peter in the boat, flat down upon my face, saying, “Depart from me. ’Cause I’m a sinful man, O Lord.”[22]

“Amazing Grace” is all played out. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards finished it for everybody for all time. As soon as you take bagpipes and do that to a hymn, you’ve really done it a great disservice. So let me quote to you, in conclusion, words of the same hymn writer, but very unfamiliar words. Somewhat archaic words. But if you overlook the passage of time, then I think you’ll get the point.

Newton wrote like this, describing his own pilgrimage:

In evil long I took delight,
Unawed by shame or fear,
Till a new object struck my sight,
And stopped my wild career.

I saw One hanging on a tree,
In [agonizing] blood,
Who fixed his languid eyes on me,
As near his cross I stood.

[And] never to my latest breath,
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with his death,
Though not a word he spoke.

My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair,
I saw my sins his blood had [spilled],
And helped to nail him there.

Alas! I knew not what I did,
But now my tears are vain;
Where shall my trembling soul be hid?
For I the Lord have slain.

A second look he gave, which said,
“I freely all forgive;
This blood is for thy ransom paid;
I die, that thou may’st live.”

Thus, while his death my sin displays,
In all its blackest hue,
Such is the mystery of grace,
It seals my pardon too.

With pleasing grief and mournful joy
My spirit now is filled;
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by him I killed.[23]

And therein is the centrality of the cross.

Let us bow in a moment of prayer:

O make me understand it!
Help me to take it in!
What it meant [for] thee, the Holy One,
To bear away my sin.[24]


[1] James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 9.

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 40–41.

[3] Stott, 42.

[4] Gandhi: An Autobiography, quoted in Stott, 42.

[5] Alfred Ayer, The Guardian, August 30, 1979, quoted in Stott, 43. Paraphrased.

[6] See Jeremiah 6:14.

[7] Luke 24:16 (NIV 1984).

[8] Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984). See also Psalm 22:1.

[9] John 19:28 (NIV 1984). See also Psalm 69:3.

[10] Luke 23:46 (KJV). See also Psalm 31:5.

[11] John 2:3–4 (paraphrased).

[12] John 12:27 (paraphrased).

[13] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 32.

[14] Acts 4:10 (paraphrased).

[15] 1 Corinthians 1:23 (NIV 1984).

[16] Galatians 3:1 (NIV 1984).

[17] Anne R. Cousin, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” (1857). Lyrics lightly altered.

[18] William R. Newell, “At Calvary” (1895).

[19] Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (1707).

[20] James M. Gray, “Only a Sinner” (1905).

[21] Quoted in Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1946), 145. Paraphrased.

[22] Luke 5:8 (paraphrased).

[23] John Newton, “In Evil Long I Took Delight” (1779).

[24] Katherine A. M. Kelly, “Make Me Understand.”

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.