Preaching the Cross

Preaching the Cross
Mark Dever, J Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler Jr, CJ Mahaney, John MacArthur, John Piper, RC Sproul
Crossway, Wheaton, 2007, 176pp


It’s the Monday after another Sunday, and I’m sitting in my study thinking about how things went at church yesterday. Was anyone there? Yes, there was. Was Jesus honoured in the things we did? Yes, he was. Was the Bible taught clearly and faithfully? Yes, it was… or, at least, I hope it was.

But is that good enough? Is there more that we can do? Is there more that I can do? Surely there’s got to be a better way to lead God’s people than by teaching the Bible week in, week out. Surely there’s got to be a better way to grow God’s church.

Do you ever feel like this? Do you ever feel that teaching the Bible—preaching the cross (especially in the face of rampant consumerism, the desire for novelty, and shorter attention spans)—is weak and even outdated at times? Do you ever feel like you should be working on something else?

Well, if you’re anything like me, then may I recommend to you Preaching the Cross. Preaching the Cross is the result of four friends’ common passion for gospel preaching, and their concern that, without encouragement, the next generation of preachers could be led astray by the latest fashions or fads, and end up preaching sermons that are, in the words of one author, “Scripture-anaemic, superficially practical, therapeutic, man-centred, Godat- your-service, consumer-driven fireside chats” (p. 40). The book contains seven talks given at the 2006 ‘Together for the Gospel Conference’, and it is aimed at pastors and preachers.

Now I don’t know about you, but there are times where my impression of North American Christianity is that it’s a spiritual wasteland populated by self-help gurus and tele-evangelists. But upon reading this book, you’ll soon realize that, if that’s what you believe, you’re wrong, because its contents are nothing like that. The opening lines of the very first chapter set the tone for the rest of the book: Mark Dever, in speaking about what it means to be ‘A Real Minister’ says, “Churches today must be recovered. They must once again put the Word of God at the centre; and that happens most fundamentally through preaching.” (p. 17). As a result, a number of chapters address what our preaching should be like.

The second chapter by J Ligon Duncan III is all about why we need to preach Christ from the Old Testament. Now, in our circles, this is pretty much a given, and we do it because we believe that the Old Testament points to and is fulfilled in Christ. Duncan argues for the very same thing. But he also argues for preaching experientially and morally from the Old Testament, which is something some of us are less comfortable with—myself included. Is this something we could do more of—as long as we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and forget about the redemptive historical and christological focus of the Old Testament? Duncan says what we find in the Old Testament:

Is that language of experience that supplies to us the language and framework for Christian experience, even today. And that experience is wonderful and varied and deep and includes great anguish and desperation and pain from time to time, which stands in contrast to the shallow, superficial, slap-happy spirituality that pervades the evangelical culture today. (p. 63)

That’s worth thinking about, especially if you feel that he’s right in his critique of evangelical culture.

Speaking of culture, the third chapter by R Albert Mohler Jr addresses preaching with the culture in view. What I found particularly helpful was the way that the reality and the importance of culture was acknowledged while the Bible’s transcultural authority was simultaneously affirmed. I’ve always found the whole issue of culture—particularly to what extent I need to be engaging with the culture and contextualizing my ministry in the light of culture—a confusing one, especially when most of my ministry has been in cross-cultural settings. But Mohler, using Augustine’s ‘two cities’ as a model, argues for a Christian maintaining dual citizenship both to the world we live in and to heaven, but not equally. He advocates seeing culture as something missiologically important (as it allows human beings to relate to each other) but eternally insignificant, for the only purpose of culture is to show the glory of God through the preaching of the gospel.

In the other two chapters that focus on preaching, RC Sproul makes the case for putting the doctrine of justification by faith at the centre of what we preach. While he acknowledges the influence of the New Perspective on Paul, his main focus here is on how Roman Catholicism understands justification. (This chapter could come in handy as World Youth Day draws nearer.) In addition, John Piper gets right in your face in arguing not only for expository preaching, but expository exultation. He says that “Preaching is not simply teaching. Preaching is the heralding of a message permeated by the sense of God’s greatness and majesty and holiness” (p. 104).

Whereas the first two thirds of the book focus on preaching, the last two chapters address the preacher. In the sixth chapter, CJ Mahaney from Sovereign Grace ministries reminds us that “the fundamental qualification for pastoral ministry is godly character” and that “Neither skill, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, nor reputation, nor personality, nor apparent fruitfulness of public ministry will suffice” (p. 121). He doesn’t deny that a pastor has to be able to teach; it’s just that “the truth must be proclaimed and then applied, heard and then obeyed, preached and then practiced” (p. 120).

Now, how will you know what progress you’re making in this area? It won’t be through self-assessment, but through asking others to help you. For those of us who are married men, he suggests giving our wives a gift in the form of a question: “What are three areas of character in which you would most like to see me grow by the grace of God?” If you’re anything like me, even though the answers you get may be unpleasant (and lengthy!), these are exactly the sorts of things you need to hear and to be working on if you are going to take both your doctrine and your life seriously.

But not only do we need to be asking our spouses to hold us accountable, we also need to be asking our fellow pastors as well—for our sake, for theirs and for the sake of God’s people. Mahaney gives us the example of what they do at his church: there are regular meetings for the pastors and their spouses to encourage each other in godliness, as well as a threeday retreat each year with a special focus on marriage and parenting. I wonder if that’s something we should be doing at our church. Is that something that would be practical and helpful at yours? Again, it’s worth thinking about.

The final word is left to John MacArthur who has been preaching for over 40 years. I found what he says in his chapter ‘Why I Still Preach the Bible’ simple yet, at the same time, profound:

Early in my ministry I committed before the Lord to worry only about the depth of my work, and I would let him take care of the breadth of it… When pastors preach God’s message rather than one of their own invention, they demonstrate they are fully depending on God for results. It is his Word that is taught; it is his Spirit who works; it is his power that convicts and transforms. We simply convey the message faithfully, and when people respond, God receives all of the glory. (p. 158)

In the end, I hope, that’s what all of us who preach really want. And that’s why this is a great book to read: sometimes it’s easy to forget, in the midst, of our busyness and deadlines and attendance figures and budgets and planning and everything else, what we’re supposed to be on about.

This book may not be a great theological tome that will expand your horizons. It may not be a book that gives you a programme guaranteeing your church will be bursting at the seams. It doesn’t even really say much on how you’re supposed to preach. But it gets you back to basics. It refocuses your mind on what God wants you to be doing. It encourages you to keep preaching the cross Sunday after Sunday —and even on the Monday after the Sunday when you’re sitting in your study thinking about what to do next.

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