RPM, Volume 13, Number 28, July 10 to July 16, 2011

The Power of the Cross in the Preaching of the Word:
1 Corinthians 1:17-18




By Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.,

Chancellor/CEO Elect; Interim President,
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte North Carolina;
Director, the Chaplain Ministries Institute



This message was prepared for the National Conference on Preaching. God did not allow me to be there due to an unforeseen illness in which He has taught me about the power of the cross personally. The leader of that conference asked if he could "preach" this message in my place, which he did, and as I understand it, did with unction from on high. Thus I am able to say, "This message was delivered at the National Conference on Preaching as the keynote address." The keynote preacher was reassigned by the Lord however! And so praise be to Christ Jesus, the Lord of the Church! He who calls also sends! May I add, to paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians, "One writes and another preaches, but it is God who gets the glory!"

Introduction to the Conference

It is my joy to prepare this message for the National Conference on Preaching. I have looked forward to this time with prayerful anticipation and with a sense of humility and honor in being able to bring this address to you on this most important matter in preaching: the power of the Cross of Jesus Christ. Now, of course, I am learning that message in a new way as I am "grounded," powerless before the presence of an illness that while not life threatening, never the less, is stealing my energy and preventing me from being with you. "Grounded" by my doctor and given a medical sabbatical by our board, I thus speak to you through the voice of my good friend Dr. Michael Duduit. I owe him much for allowing me to write for Preaching Journal and Preaching.com and for participating in previous conferences. I do apologize for this absence and for taxing Michael with this chore. Yet he magnanimously offered to use my manuscript for the address and for that I am deeply appreciative. I did have something on my heart about the critical Scriptural topic before our conference, and I desire, with the love of Jesus, to impart some word from His Word to the minds and hearts of my colleagues in the Gospel of grace. We can recall that Robert Murray M'Cheyne, that great young minister of 19th century Dundee, Scotland, often fell ill and had to have one of his elders read his messages to the congregation at St. Peter's. It has been said that there was greater power in that providence of God than if their young pastor were there himself. I can console myself, therefore, in both the giftedness of Michael Duduit, who preaches today, the precedent of God in the life and ministry of M'Cheyne, who preached through others in days past, and more importantly, the glorious providence of a kind and omnipotent Father God who delivers His Word according to His will to His preachers in every season of our lives.

Thank you, therefore, for your kind forbearance. And now, we move with reverence and expectation to the message from God.

Introduction to the Reading

The message of the power of the Cross was preached by St. Paul to a congregation very much embroiled in the practical meaning and effects of power. Power and its irresistible influence were thick in the air at Corinth. Power-plays, if you will, were being instigated in Corinth by divisive parties following, at once, Paul, Peter, Apollos, and even one, we are told, that sought to trump them all, the "Christ party." False teachers attempting to supplant the foundational preaching of the Apostle also sought their own power. The corruption of the flesh was displayed in all of its sullied concerns over "power" and no doubt mixed with the thus heightened by the power-hungry culture of this mighty, crossroads city church. These "powers," not unfamiliar to every pastor here in his own ministry, were ones that Paul resisted in 1 Corinthians. Indeed, the forces at work in Corinth could be described as the very spirit of a power from a lower, base origin that each and every one of us must face and which is so often contesting for prominence in the pulpits as well as the pews of our churches. The response of the Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians, is not only a theme for our conference, but can become the noble theme of our lives and vocations which triumphs, in Christ, for His glory and our good. Thus, I invite you to give attention to the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God found in 1 Corinthians 1:17-18: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1.17-18 ESV). Let us pray.
"Our heavenly Father, ‘By your agony and bloody sweat, by your cross and passion; by your precious death and burial; by your glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Spirit…deliver us' from the corrupting nature of our old ways, that we may, through the power of the Holy Spirit, not only hear these words of Yours, but inject them, bringing life and delivering us from the devil into the marvelous redemptive purposes of Jesus in the world. O Christ, may I preach as if never to preach again and as a dying man to dying men. In Jesus' name. Amen.

"A Word from Another World"

What is the source of your power in preaching? What is the object? What is the controlling motivation in not only your preaching, but in your living? These are questions that I rarely, to my own shame, get to wrestle with. I am usually too busy in the ministry to think about the ministry. Therein, of course, lies the danger. I can get it wrong.

I once heard a pastor of a very large church, well known to most here but who shall remain anonymous, admit, on a Sunday night when the cameras and radio microphones were off, that as he looked back on his ministry, he had realized that so much of it was done "in the flesh." His transparency that night troubled many who had idolized the man. His transparency that night convicted me.

In my recent days of affliction of the body, I have been granted the blessing of meditation. The body having succumb to some complex medical issues of neurological misfires creating a slowing of the heart has also, as sort of a severe grace, slowed my stride. The imposed decelerating has allowed for a more focused view of Scripture, less utilitarian (that is always looking at the Word as the ‘thing" I must prepare as quickly as possible for the next preaching assignment) and now more contemplative. I say that this is a severe grace because without this illness I am enduring I doubt I would have slowed down. If I had not slowed down, I would have missed this most critical message of God to the preacher in 1 Corinthians. I say this to you so that you too may pause with me in this conference, using it as your own sort of "sabbatical" from the pastoral ministry to be refreshed, revived and renewed for the pulpit and the parish, yet without, I would pray, the neurological misfires! What, then, is here for the pastor who pauses to listen with a receptive soul to the Holy Spirit?

In the lesson read, Paul stretched forward from the presenting issues of power plays in the embattled congregation to lift up the "known and unknown" power that was the power of the Gospel he had delivered to them and the power that could deliver them from themselves: the power of the cross. And in focusing on this paradoxical power, the Holy Spirit has granted us not only divine insight into the mind of St. Paul, but into the very mind of God for our ministries. Paul turned to the "Word from another world," as Robert L. Reymond has called it, to solve the problems in this world. In fact, there is no other way. That is the lesson.

Because God has revealed His plan for preaching so clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, we who preach are bound by the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word.

There are four undeniable demands on the preacher of the Gospel drawn from this sacred Word about the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word.

The first undeniable demand that we must receive from this text is this:

The power of the cross is our God-given message for preaching (17)

Paul entered the emergency room of Corinth's crisis with not only a description of the problem, a rife party spirit that was splitting the church, but also with the diagnoses and treatment for the congregational wound as the heaven-sent physician of the soul. In verse 17, Paul made the necessary move for the healing of the wound when he declared, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."

It is to be understood that Paul is not here in any way diminishing the command of Jesus in the Great Commission to go and baptize. Indeed, he gives the caveat to this argument by admitting that he had baptized some, only a few. No, the force of his words is that Christ set him apart, not as a pastor, but as an evangelist. Thus, he came to that great metropolis with a single-minded focus and a single-minded message: the power of the cross is the Gospel that saves and the Gospel that transforms. There was no other message.

Years ago when a young oilman and entrepreneur from Midland, Texas, with an Ivy League education and a powerful political family name, decided to run for governor. His simple compelling story resonated with Texans and the voters ousted the then-thought unconquerable folk legend, Governor Ann Richardson, to elect George W. Bush. Later when Democratic officials were preparing to go up against Governor Bush, who was set to run for president for the GOP, Richardson was said to have remarked, "Do not underestimate George W. Bush. I have never met a candidate who stayed on point like him."

Paul stayed on point. And no one should have underestimated him in that ability! The point was, of course, that the power of the cross is the God-given message he was entrusted with for preaching. And thus it is so for each of us.

To stay on point—this point— as a preacher in this age is not an easy task. There are many voices which would call for you to replace the simple message that Jesus Christ defeated Satan, shed His blood to save the souls of all who would ever call upon Him, and satisfied the divine law of God violated by man in Eden through his atoning death on Calvary's cross with an alternative message. There is the message of universal love, universalism, the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God apart from Christ, and (surprisingly popular) within evangelical circles, a message that doing work for the poor is our fundamental calling. This was "old liberalism's" core value in times past. As positive and humane as some of those contemporary messages might be, as fashionable as they may be, they are, in fact, ancillary messages to the message of the cross. This is so with the case of mercy ministry. There are also heretical messages that defy the power of the cross in the case of universalism. "Love wins" is not a phrase that should describe a twenty-first century intellectual and existential struggle with the doctrine of Hell but a focused phrase that describes what happened on that God-forsaken hill outside of a city called holy. For there the Son of God endured our Hell, suffered for our sins, and in an upside down, paradoxical event, God killed the power of sin with the power of the cross.

This message is how we grow churches in Christ. This message is how we also achieve vocational satisfaction as preachers, for we were "made" to preach the cross. Lift up Jesus Christ and His vicarious suffering and his substitutionary atonement on that filthy Roman tree and you will discover the joy of preaching again. For that is our message. That is, better put, God's message for us to preach.

The great poet-preacher of St. Paul's Cathedral preached about this message of the cross in his final sermon, in 1631, entitled "Death's Duel." There John Donne rekindled in us of the wonder, oh the absolute glory, of this message to mankind. Listen to the very cadence of transcendent glory ascending from miracle to miracle until he announces the highest of all glories in the cross:

That God, this Lord, the Lord of life, could die, is a strange contemplation; that, the Red Sea could be dry [Exodus 14:21], that the sun could stand still {Joshua 10:12}, that an oven could be seven times heated and not burn {Daniel 3:19}, that lions could be hungry and not bite [Daniel 6:22], is strange, miraculously strange, but super-miraculous that God could die; but that God would [my emphasis] die is an exaltation of that. 1

Do you climb those steps of exaltation of the cross in your preaching? Perhaps you should see the duel of death and life that Donne saw in his own life? Perhaps you might look upon the congregation before you as Spurgeon is said to have dreamed of it, as souls hanging in the balance before him as he delivered the sacred message? Then, when we know that there is no hope but in God's plan of salvation, the Cross of Christ, will we preach with such soaring, Godward voices!

Are you staying on point in your message? Are you preaching with passion? Do you know the power of the cross in the passage before you? Are your sermons coming increasingly in cadence with the beat of the nails into the flesh of the Son of God? Is there glory in your messages? Then the cross will be there.

We who preach are bound by the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word; and there is a second undeniable demand revealed to us in this passage:

The power of the cross is our Christ-controlled means in preaching (17)

When Paul preached, "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" he was addressing the problems of division in the church with the force of the Cross—not the ordinance, baptism, which flows from the cross (and I do not deny the power of the cross communicated to the soul through the sacraments, but the Word preached, rather than the Word portrayed, is here the focus for Paul). Paul was saying that there was only one way to heal the fractions of the church and that was through the power of the cross. Why is that? It is because the preaching of the cross is the supernatural means that achieves supernatural goals in the church. How do we grow a church? How do we counsel? How do we bring revitalization to our churches? How may we expect revival to come to our churches? It will not be through any other means but the one given to Paul and given to you: preaching the power of the Cross.

I want to look at only one of the goals that we have as pastors. We each have people who, especially in this generation, are hurting and in need of healing. It may be relationship wounds, or wounds of abuse, or wounds from other Christians, all too often; but we have a remedy. That remedy is the preaching of the power of the cross. To say that a broken man or woman is healed by looking to God dying for the sins of those He created, on the instrument of execution used by a pagan power for hard-core criminals, does not seem right. But then again does it seem logical to think that the ancient people of God could be healed by simply looking up at a brazen serpent on a pole? At the cross, the logic of man—eloquence so loved by the Greeks, philosophy so loved by the Gentiles, and signs and wonders so sought by the Jews (all preferences represented in the parties at Corinth)— is undone by what looks like the foolishness of God. If we look at the cross of Christ from man's point of view we indeed get what one well-known media mogul called "foolishness and weakness." God dying for His people by being stapled to an old rugged cross on a dung hill by His own creation rather than defeating enemies the way human kings ordinarily defeat enemies—by obliterating them—seems preposterous. But it is the Christ-controlled means of preaching that brings abundant life and eternal life. Paul calls this the "Gospel of God" in Romans 1:1. What do you call it? Oh that we would each call it the only message that can save, transform and build up the Church! For it is. Is it that for you, though? Is it your Christ-controlled means for bringing everlasting life, abundant life and cultural transformation to that little piece of the Kingdom of God entrusted to you? I would not go further in this message, as a pastor, without recommitting my self to God and His covenant of grace and that mediation for that covenant, the cross of Christ!

Now, here is a third undeniable demands of the centrality of the cross if our preaching:

To ignore the power of the cross is an eternally-fatal mistake of preaching (18)

Look again at verse 18: "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." For those who refuse to receive the grace of this message of the cross, this message seems ridiculous. The unregenerate man or woman who is going about their own way cannot, without the intercession of the Spirit of God, discern the meaning of the cross. Such poor people cannot understand, without the power of the Spirit, grasp the reality that they are sinners in the sight of God justly deserving His displeasure, unable to save themselves from the judgment to come with their good works, and unable to give remedy for the sin nature which is at work within them. Thus, they see no need for a Savior to die on a cross for them. But for those who will be saved, which includes—does it not—those who curse Christ today but who will, by the grace of God, preach Christ tomorrow, they must have the message of the cross!

Some years ago Dorothy Sayers, mystery writer, literary critic, and Oxford scholar who was a member of the famous Inklings, with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams wrote a searing reprimand against clergy in her Church of England. Sayers' concern was that the clergy had become so concerned about not offending anyone with stories of blood, and crosses, and atonement, that they were actually misleading the people and thus leading the people in the pews in front of them right into Hell. I have read few writers who spoke more plainly about the situation that the Church faced in the mid Twentieth century and, we must admit, that the Church faces now:

Let us, in heaven's name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended…surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ. 2
To adapt men to Christ is to preach in the power of the cross. What is that message? The Gospel of the cross is that Christ lived the life we could never live and died the death that should have been ours. We are saved from judgment by Almighty God through only one way: transferring our trust from self or religion or anything else to the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us through the sacrificial act of blood atonement at Golgotha. Without the cross of Christ in your preaching you cannot expect souls to be saved, lives to be transformed and to march with the triumphant processional of the Kingdom of God through history. You must preach Christ and Him crucified to be "in that number." You must preach man's sin and Christ's salvation. You must preach a Hell to be shunned and a heaven to be gained through the grace of God in Christ on that cursed tree! For a man in the pew to ignore this message of the cross is to miss heaven. For the preacher in the pulpit to ignore this message of the cross is to miss your calling! If Jesus Christ saved you, and then called you to the ministry of the Gospel, then Christ called you, like St. Paul, to preach the cross of Jesus. For only in that "old, old story" is there hope for the sinner and growth for the saint.

There is a fourth undeniable demand of this text in making the power of the cross the centerpiece of our preaching:

The power of the cross is the Church-wide mission through preaching (18)

This expository demand comes as we look at the passage in light of the rest of redemptive history. Listen again to verse 18: "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." There is not only a statement here to an erring congregation in one city and one age, there is a principle being laid out for the Church in every city and every age. Preaching the cross is the power of God. It is the standard message and means for advancing the kingdom of God and is how Almighty God is going to bring about a new heavens and a new earth. Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of the plan. The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is tied together by one single scarlet thread and that is the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The motif of the Cross—that the very thing, which seeks to destroy and undo God's plan, becomes the very thing which advances God's plan—is here given. It is the pattern of all that God is doing in the world in redemptive history then and now. Thus we must not abandon the centrality of Cross-preaching in our churches or we will lose our way. Bringing men and women and boys and girls to the cross of Christ is our mission. "But it doesn't sell well in the Islamic world," someone says. " We must re-construct the Gospel narrative and adapt it to them." "We must be careful with how we say this for postmodern man, for he is unable to receive of a unique Christ," says another. "Let us get around the cross, its explicitly claims of saving us from Hell, and focus on another aspect of Christianity for now." "NO," say the Scriptures. There is but one way: salvation from an eternal Hell through the blood of Jesus; through the stumbling block which is Jesus Christ; through the enigmatic, glorious and unimaginable scene where Christ dies for our sins and the earth trembles in revolt as the darkness descends. Nature itself cannot stand the mind-stretching scene of God Almighty on a cross bearing the condemnation of a world of lost sinners in shame. But this is God's work. Let the earth tremble and go black. Let us fall on our faces and cling to this cross. This is how the mission of the Church will go forward.

Last century Lesslie Newbigin stated that when a congregation ceases to be about missions that congregation ceases to be the Church. 3 We may rightfully add from this passage that when we stop preaching the power of the cross as our central message, we have shut down missions and ceased to be preachers of the Gospel.

"His Theology Became His Biography"

We have seen that because God has revealed His plan for preaching so clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, we who preach are bound by the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word. We have examined four undeniable demands on the preacher of the Gospel drawn from this sacred Word about the power of the cross in the preaching of the Word:

  • 1.The power of the cross is our God-given message for preaching (17)
  • 2.The power of the cross is our Christ-controlled means in preaching (17)
  • 3.To ignore the power of the cross is an eternally-fatal mistake of preaching (18)
  • 4.The power of the cross is the Church-wide mission through preaching (18)
Yet there is one more absolutely imperative word that must be spoken about this passage and about our work: if this message of the cross has not powerfully transformed you, through a sacred encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, where you have seen your sins on Christ on that cross, where you have known the power of Christ to transform your pain to praise and your trials to triumph, in your soul if not in this world, then you are of all men to be pitied. For how can you preach the power of the cross if you have not gone to the cross yourself? And how can you discover the redemptive word of Christ in all of the Scriptures if you have not seen your life in the passage you are to preach? For the Apostle Paul (you all know) all theology was personal. All doctrine was biographical. He could never get over what God had done in his own life. He could never get over the wonder of the Gospel that saved his own soul. His theology had become his biography.

I pray that even in my sickness I can bring my heart back to Christ again at Calvary. I pray that in this conference you can bring your life and therefore your preaching back to the Cross. For only there can our minds and hearts be divinely re-calibrated for a life of service to the Lord and inspired for a faithful Gospel witness to the power of the cross.

Oh how we need those kinds of preachers today. Won't you recommit your very being and your God-ordained ministry right now to preaching the cross, and know His power flowing through your life and into the lives of others? To do so will bring salvation to many and satisfaction to your soul. For you were called to do this very thing and no other message, no other means, no other mission can bring you the joy of service to the Master but to exalt Him as the crucified and risen Savior who died "on a hill far away." This is still the greatest story ever told and the greatest power ever known. Thank God for the message of the power of the cross.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Notes:

1. John Donne and Izaak Walton, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions ; and, Death's Duel, 1st ed., Vintage Spiritual Classics (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

2. Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004).

3. Leslie Newbigin and Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 154.

References

Donne, John, and Izaak Walton. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions ; and, Death's Duel. 1st ed. Vintage Spiritual Classics. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Sayers, Dorothy. Letters to a Diminished Church. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004.

Weston, Leslie Newbigin and Paul. Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.



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