When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he reminded them, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This statement establishes the centrality of the cross in preaching, over against the showiness and vanity that’s so often displayed in “lofty speech or wisdom” (v. 1).
Most Christians assume that the cross is a matter “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). And so, while we are not surprised when nonbelievers reject the cross and we’ve grown accustomed to Christians marginalizing other essentials of doctrine, many are unprepared to face the fact that within the framework of evangelical Christianity itself, some are abandoning the cross’s centrality.
It’s possible to be in an evangelical church and not hear the cross preached. Someone gives a “talk” that is essentially an appeal to the felt needs of the men and women who are present, and then, just when no one is expecting it, the pastor adds a little conclusion that has absolutely no connection to anything that has come before it: “If any of you are here tonight and have never considered the cross of Jesus Christ, you might like to check it out.” If you asked that preacher, he would probably tell you that he believes in the centrality of the cross. But if he believes it’s central, then he should make it central in his preaching!
We need to strive to maintain the cross’s place at the heart of the Christian faith, as the key to our life, doctrine, worship, ministry, evangelism, and practice. But how will we know when this is actually happening in our life and ministry?
1. We Repent of Christian Snobbery
When the wonder of the cross of Jesus Christ grips our lives, it rules out all snobbery. There is nothing as horrible as a Christian snob—and there is plenty of snobbery within evangelicalism from which we need to repent!
We’re often too quick to forget that “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:28–29). We forget that Christ’s power is “made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Christ didn’t come to pat the well-to-do on the back but to raise up those who have come to recognize just how needy they are.
Christ didn’t come to pat the well-to-do on the back but to raise up those who have come to recognize just how needy they are.
In this respect, American evangelicalism is in great need of repentance. When the centrality of the cross grips our lives, it should lead us to declare along with Isaac Watts,
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 His blood.1
2. We Give Ourselves Away
When the cross of Christ grips our lives and stirs our hearts, the only thing we can do is give ourselves away. The only thing we can do is give up our small ambitions.
When the cross of Christ grips our lives and stirs our hearts, the only thing we can do is give ourselves away.
C. T. Studd played cricket for England. His father was a very wealthy man, and he had all the benefits of an Oxbridge education. He had the world at his feet. Then he heard someone preaching the cross, and he went home and wrote this in his journal: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.”2 He spent the rest of his life laboring in the mission field.
The cross leads us to give ourselves away in our service to Christ.
3. We Speak with Our Mouths
When the cross of Jesus Christ gets hold of our lives, it unties our tongues. John Stott once said, “Nothing shuts the mouth, seals the lips, and ties the tongue like the secret poverty of our own spiritual experience.”3 Before we are transformed by God’s grace, we will say nothing of everlasting value, because we have nothing godly or biblical to say. But when the cross of Christ grips our lives, as it gripped the life of Peter and John, we will say, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Oh, how we ought to long to go to Starbucks, or wherever else, and just find one soul there to tell about the cross! Do you feel that desire? When is the last time that you engaged an unbeliever in a substantive, meaningful conversation concerning the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ? When the cross grips a life, you can’t help but share what it has done to you.
4. We Are Humbled
When we bow before the wonder of the cross of Christ—when, in a moment, the shadow of the cross casts itself across our paths—we find ourselves with Peter in the boat, flat upon our faces, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). All that is represented in the cross is the greatest solution to human pride. When we consider the cross, we cannot help but wrestle with the reason Jesus was hanged on that tree. And only when we’ve come to terms with our Savior’s sacrifice can we view ourselves rightly before a holy God. Yes, we are created in God’s image and set apart from the rest of creation, but our only boast is in the Lord and not in our own merits.
The cross is central to Christianity. Yet if we allow other things to take the central place, then what the Bible says is central will inevitably become peripheral. We must therefore fight to keep the cross in its proper place in our lives and in our preaching. It is not an abstract element of theology. No, “it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
This article is adapted from the sermon “Preaching of the Cross” by Alistair Begg.
1 Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (1707).
2 Norman P. Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 145.
3 John Stott, Evangelism: Why and How (Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity, 1962), 29.