When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he was writing to a group of believers whom he had never met or preached to, so he spelled out the gospel to them. It is his evangelistic book. In the opening three chapters, he describes humanity in the raw, religious humanity and refined people but concludes that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Then he explains God’s answer to our predicament, which is all about Christ and Him crucified.
Again, he summarises his argument with ‘the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ The cross is so central to his explanation of the gospel that the later chapters explain its impact on Israel, the Gentiles, the future, on governments and on Christians.
Years earlier, when writing to the church in Corinth, Paul explained his homiletic. He gives us an insight into his motivation for preaching. He allows us to glimpse into the mechanism and workings of his mind when he is proclaiming the gospel. It is not only autobiographical it is inspirational and instructional for all Christian preachers. Paul is not our Saviour, but he is a pattern-believer, and in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:2 he is a teacher to all preachers of the word.
Paul’s message is all about Christ and Him crucified. He is determined not to move far from the cross. In pastoral passages, Paul dealt with numerous issues which impact consistent Christian living, but even those arguments have, as their foundation, Christ and Him crucified. If Jesus had not been ‘the propitiation for our sins, but not for ours only but for the sins of the world’ and if He had not risen from the dead then our faith would be in vain and our message powerless.
The cross is the backdrop to all Scripture. The Old Testament anticipates it, and the New describes it and explains its significance. The Bible is all about the gospel, which is all about Jesus. As Christian preachers, we have the joy and responsibility of proclaiming this glorious message.
In this Corinthian passage, there are four encouragements based on four realities, which certainly reflect our experience.
First, there is an inherent weakness in the message of the cross, so this sends us to God for His blessing. (1 Cor. 1:25, 27 and 2:3)
The message that Jesus, hanging and suffering on a cross, is God’s remedy for our rebellion is hardly macho or sophisticated. The hidden work of Jesus is despised either as a stumbling block or foolishness. We don’t find it discussed on the evening news. Other issues and priorities grab the attention of the masses who, in a self-centered way, are set on pleasure, treasure, and leisure. A man who lived and died 20 centuries ago hardly seems relevant to the aims, ideas, and preoccupations of today. Our gospel is not glitzy or glamorous and people have become familiar with ‘the end of the story’ anyway.
At the Keswick Convention in England in the year 2000, John Stott expounded the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians. His outline for this passage was unforgettable. He spoke about the weakness of the evangel (ie. regarded as foolishness or a stumblingblock); the weakness of the evangelized (ie. not many noble or mighty), and the weakness of the evangelist (ie. his fear and lack of eloquence).
Aware of this, we go to the Lord and ask for His power and blessing on our proclamation. We go forth to scatter tiny gospel seeds, which seem so insignificant compared with the might of the media’s messages, but God by His Holy Spirit is committed to honor His Son and so takes His word and applies it to the hearts of hearers.
I admire the lone prophet Ezekiel and his vivid portrayal of truth. On one occasion God took him to a valley of dry bones. Death and decay were all around, with thousands of bones lying before, beside and behind him. When asked by the Lord, “Son of man, can these dry bones live?” he gave a diplomat’s answer: “You Lord know!” God told him to preach to the bones (have you ever known that feeling?), and as he did there was a movement, a rattling, as bone came together with bone. The foot bone joined to the ankle bone; the ankle bone to the leg bone, and so on. Soon Ezekiel was surrounded by an army of skeletons. He continued preaching so that the skeletons were covered by tissue, muscles, and flesh. It was a scary sight. Then God told him to speak to the wind, the breath, the spirit. As he did, the wind, the breath, the spirit breathed into the corpses and they became a living army.
The passage is prophetic about the nation of Israel, but there is a principle which applies to many situations: the word of God, plus the Spirit of God brings new life or new birth. We preach this ‘weak’ message and ask the Lord to take the gospel and use it to bring new birth to the listeners. In our powerlessness, we turn to God for His strength which is made perfect in our weakness. It is my experience that sometimes when I have felt least helped by the Lord in preaching I have later discovered that I was most helped. Our sufficiency is not of ourselves but of God who never allows His word to return to Him void. It will accomplish its purposes when it is prayed over and proclaimed faithfully.
Secondly, there is an inherent power in the message of the cross so this sends us to men and women for their salvation. (1 Cor. 1:17 & 24)
According to Romans 1:16, where Paul says ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes ….’ the gospel is not a philosophy to be discussed or an idea to be debated, but a power to be unleashed. Remember, this is the message that broke down and led to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, Martin Luther, John Newton, and a host of Northern Ireland terrorists, drug addicts, prostitutes and Taliban soldiers.
In sowing gospel seed, in preaching the gospel, one never knows who is listening and what will be its effect. The word that has transformed nations and communities, kings and peasants, has lost none of its ancient power.
Of course, there is an offense to our message. People do not like the truth that God is unapproachably holy, that humans are guilty, deserving hell, and unable to save themselves. Jay Adams wrote, ‘A Christian sermon is one that would cause you to be thrown out of a synagogue or mosque.’ Reading the Book of Acts we find that those early Christians experienced exactly that.
That is no reason for us to be offensive in our proclamation. We are not called to be Old Testament prophets denouncing the sins of the nations, but rather heralds of good news. Instead of wagging the finger at people, we are to point them to Jesus the Saviour. I smile at the title of one biography of evangelist D.L.Moody, ‘Love them in.’ The ancient dictum ‘Be kind, you do not know what battles people are fighting’ should not be forgotten. People are carrying sorrow, pain, shame and hurt. They bear intolerable burdens, have shattered dreams, disappointments, crushed hopes and terrors of spirit. We are able to point them to the Friend of Sinners. He is the One who knows and loves and cares.
In fact, the greatest act of kindness we can show anyone is to introduce them to Jesus; and the greatest act of tyranny is to know the gospel and not share it with men and women.
The power of the gospel is diminished when we preach prayerlessly or imagine that we are cleverer than the Lord Himself and relying on our own eloquence, presume to ‘improve’ the gospel by avoiding clearly explaining the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Our message is such that we can go to ‘the worst’ and share with them the love of Jesus. Isn’t this what Mary Slessor did when she lived amongst and preached to the cannibals of 19th century Africa. William Booth did the same in the East End of London a century ago, and David Wilkerson in New York in more recent years. There is a power to our message that should leave us fearless in our outreach and full of faith in our ministry to the most unlikely converts.
Thirdly, there is an inherent foolishness in the message of the cross, so this sends us to Scripture for our authority. (1 Cor. 1:18, 20, 21, 23)
After the 1954 Billy Graham, Harringay Crusade in London, preachers throughout the U.K. began to use his unforgettable words, “The Bible says …” It was a good line to use. Why should anyone listen to my thoughts; they have no more authority than anyone else’s. And we are well aware that too many ‘Christian’ preachers have proved themselves deeply flawed. But, being conscious of society’s reaction to the gospel, it is tempting to make it appear more palatable, sophisticated and politically correct. Who wants to preach an apparently ‘foolish’ message?
But surely we grieve the Spirit when we sugar-coat the gospel with an abundance of humor, anecdotes, and advice. Our authority and message are Scripture, so that our sermons stand or fall on whether they are expositions of Scripture and saturated with Christ.
There are many ways of faithfully preaching the word, but if we are to be taken seriously we must be people of ‘the Book’ whose message is “Thus says the Lord”. I seek to evangelistically expound Scripture to those who are biblically illiterate as well as others from a more Christian background. It is presumptuous to seek to draw attention to myself when we know that God will not share His glory with another and humbles those who seek to exalt themselves.
Bishop J.C.Ryle, whose commentaries on the four Gospels are themselves an illustration of how to preach, said, “Let others hold forth the terrors of hell and the joys of heaven. Let others drench their congregations with teachings about the sacraments and the Church. Give me the cross of Christ. This is the only lever which has ever turned the world upside down and made people forsake their sins. And if this will not, nothing will. A man may begin preaching with a perfect knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, but he will do little or no good among his hearers unless he knows something of the cross. Never was there a minister, who did much for the conversion of souls, who did not dwell much on Christ crucified. Luther, Rutherford, Whitefield, McCheyne were all most eminent preachers of the cross. This is the preaching that the Holy Spirit delights to bless. He loves to honor those who honor the cross.”
I have two vital tools in my personal evangelism, which I carry with me everywhere I go. The first is a wallet (billfold) in which are a variety of tracts, which I use as the key to either open or close the door of conversation with people. The second is a pocket Bible, which I seek to use as often as possible when witnessing. I love to turn to verses and passages and read them with the person with whom I am sharing the gospel. The Bible is my authority. If people want to dismiss my message as foolish, it is God whom they are deriding, and not only me.
Fourthly, there is an inherent wisdom in the message of the cross, so this sends us to any situation for people’s salvation. (1 Cor. 1: 20 & 21, 30)
There is nothing to be ashamed of in the gospel. There is nothing about which to be embarrassed. There is nothing to hide, disguise or sweep under the carpet. We have the most glorious message concerning the Lord God whom heaven and the heaven of heavens can not contain. It is He who brought all things into being through the word of His power.
Yet in seeing the rebellion of the very people He made, He still loved us. He revealed Himself to lost men and women. Then in the fullness of time, He was big enough to become small, clothing Himself in humanity as He came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.
And that He should consistently show compassion on those who didn’t deserve Him, and set His face toward Jerusalem to go to the place of crucifixion to die for those who have shaken their fists in God’s face, is wonderful. Jesus suffered for us, and those to whom we speak. That is awesome. So too is the fact that the One who is the Life, having given Himself over to death, conquered the conqueror death, and rose from the dead.
This Christ is now exalted and will one day return as Lord, King, Judge, Ruler. Every knee will bow before Him. He offers forgiveness and newness of life to all. He will give eternal life to everyone who repents and believes. Heaven is not a reward for doing good, but a gift purchased by Jesus and offered to us. This is such good news. It is the wisdom of God, and all who trust in Christ as Lord and Saviour find that He is their all in all.
That is what those early Corinthian Christians experienced. They had been sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, active homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers and swindlers and yet they found they were washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Our message is such that God’s wisdom will prevail and make the vilest clean if with winsome boldness we prayerfully proclaim it.
I love the story of D.L.Moody preaching to the Atheist’s Clubs of London. Speaking from Deut. 32:31, ‘Their rock is not as our Rock’ he preached and appealed until the vast majority of them stood to put their trust in Christ. It was the end of the Atheist’s Clubs of London (though now it is called the BBC!).
Wherever we can, whether in weddings or funerals, in schools, churches, the open air, on radio or television to atheists or the religious, let us make a bee-line to explaining that ‘the Lord has laid on Him, the iniquity of us all’. The pattern-preacher, Paul, set an example, which under God we will do well to follow.
Happy if with my latest breath
I may but gasp His name
Preach Him to all and cry in death
“Behold, behold the Lamb.”
Roger Carswell is an evangelist and author who lives in Leeds, United Kingdom.