Why We Preach Christ Crucified

On the subject of preaching, the apostle Paul says the proof of true preaching is that it centers on Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2). Interestingly, Paul is not merely content to say we must preach Christ, but that we must preach a Christ who is crucified. Many preachers do the former; doing the latter is more difficult. Indeed, it is possible to preach about Jesus—even to say many wonderfully true things about Jesus—but preaching the fullness of his person and work requires talking about his cross. True preaching offers a Jesus who did not just live for us, but who died for us too. It deals honestly with the consequences of sin, including the wrath and curse of God which was laid on our Savior at the cross.

Therefore, according to the biblical principle and pattern, real Christ-centered preaching is cross-centered preaching. And why is this kind of preaching so critical? We could give at least three answers to that question: it humbles, it comforts, and it sanctifies sinners. Let us take a look at each of those in turn.

Preaching the Cross Humbles Sinners

Paul says the concept of the cross is offensive to both the Jewish and Gentile audiences of his day: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22–23). It is still offensive to us today because, left to our sinful nature, we are offended at the thought of a salvation we do not earn. Preaching the cross offends our prideful sensibilities because it shines a light on Jesus, not us. But until our pride is killed we cannot live. God delights in cross-centered preaching because it lays us low just as it lifts him high.

Another humbling aspect of preaching the cross is that it, by definition, requires that we address our sin. There would be no need for a crucified savior were it not for the fact that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). There is no denying our weaknesses, transgressions, or infractions of God’s holy law when the reality of the cross is presented. Preaching the cross will mean confronting sin head-on, and no one likes that. This is why some churches have thrown out the concept of sin altogether. Decades ago, Richard Niebuhr recognized with this pithy aphorism the message of the liberal church as being: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” But, if we are being honest, it is not just theological liberals who diminish the seriousness of sin. None of us likes hearing sin preached against when it is our sin in the crosshairs. Revealing sin, however, is a mercy from God; for until I see my sin for what it truly is, I will never see my Savior for who he truly is.

Preaching the Cross Comforts Sinners

This leads to the second point. While preaching the cross can make us terribly uncomfortable, paradoxically it also comforts us tremendously. Why? For the earnest believer, it is at the cross that God’s love is best seen. Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It is as if Jesus was saying to us, “If you want to know what love is, look to the cross.” The apostle John, who was there when Jesus made this stunning statement, seemed to get the lesson. In his First Epistle he teaches us: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).

For a person stuck in their sin and in rebellion to God, the cross can only offend. But the humbled sinner looks to the cross and discovers God’s grace and mercy, even for the least deserving of wretches. When Christ crucified is preached, it means the doctrines of reconciliation and peace with God are preached. It means the forgiveness of sins is preached. It means that everlasting life is preached. It means, truly, good news is proclaimed. I want that. I need that. I need to preach and to hear preached Christ and him crucified. The redeemed do not see the cross as a burden, but a blessing. Or, in the words of a forgotten hymn by the father of Scottish hymnody, Horatius Bonar, the cross is a shade, spring, rest, and home. Here is just the final stanza:

For burdened ones a resting place
Beside that Cross I see;
I here cast off my weariness—
No rest like this for me!1

The cross a resting place—really? Is it not a killing machine? Not for the Christian. It is only those saved by it that can be comforted by it.

Preaching the Cross Sanctifies Sinners

Those who sit under faithful Christ-centered, cross-centered preaching will make another discovery: it actually changes them. The biblical word for godly change is sanctification, and it is something guaranteed for believers in the gospel. Learning about the crucified Lord of glory is one of the greatest catalysts for such transformation. We could put it this way: looking to Christ will enable us to start looking like Christ. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). When preaching is cruciform (cross-shaped), our lives will start to be cruciform too. We will become conformed more and more to the image of our Savior—not high and mighty, but gentle and lowly. We will begin to evidence the graces we have experienced: we will be loving, merciful, forgiving, and all those other virtues that make a crucified Christ so lovely in the eyes of the faithful.

Christ-centered preaching leads to Christ-centered living. This is why we all need to hear Christ, not just the unconverted. The gospel brings us into the kingdom of God and sustains us there as well. Faith and repentance are not one-time acts—they are lifestyles. We must consistently turn from sin and turn to our Savior. By hearing of our sin and God’s grace on a weekly basis—not just in the preaching, but in the whole service—we come to learn an important lesson about who we are and what life is all about. A crucified Christ assures us that we do not need to present a picture of perfection to the world. We can be honest about our struggles since we know where to find hope and change. Christ-centered preaching creates a Christ-centered individual, and in the church, it paves the way for an authentic, maturing community.

Conclusion

As we have seen, preaching Christ crucified—that is, the totality of his redemptive work, particularly as it culminates on the cross—is absolutely essential for a life lived properly before the face of God. It is God’s gracious means of humbling us, decimating our pride and bringing us to our knees before the Almighty. Preaching Christ crucified is also God’s way of comforting his precious people, reminding them that there is nothing that can separate them from his love. Finally, it is the great catalyst God uses for change in the lives of believers, conforming us to the image of the Son who is “publicly portrayed as crucified” in the preached Word (Gal 3:1).

If this is the effect that preaching the cross has on God’s people, it is no wonder why Paul was so determined to make it the defining mark of his ministry: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). We should share Paul’s determination. If called to preach God’s Word, we do so recognizing that this Word must culminate in the proclamation of the finished work of Christ. Anything less is woefully inadequate: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). If we are not preachers, we can still support Paul’s vision for preaching by getting ourselves in churches that preach in this manner. After all, our spiritual lives depend on it.

Notes

  1. Horatius Bonar, “The Shadow of the Cross,” 1857.

©Jonathan Landry Cruse. All Rights Reserved.


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Posted by Jonathan Landry Cruse | Tuesday, April 30, 2024 | Categorized in Christian Life, Faith, Preaching the Word. Jonathan Landry Cruse. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jonathan Landry Cruse

Jonathan Landry Cruse pastors Community Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Kalamazoo, MI, where he lives with his wife and children. He also serves as an editor for Modern Reformation and is the author of several books, including What Happens When We Worship (RHB, 2020), The Character of Christ (Banner of Truth, 2023), and Church Membership (P&R, 2024).

2 comments

  1. I have seen churches that will only preach Jesus as love and avoid sin entirely. I have also seen churches that have sharply overcorrected from this to teach only sin. Drunkenness, contentiousness, ingratitude, discontent, etc., are all served up for the congregation like the main entree at a classy dinner. These sins, whether an individual congregant currently struggles with it or not, are shoved into his or her face as though they are drowning in them. Other congregations that don’t preach sin or are light on sin are exhibited as “those people that we don’t associate with”. But the hope and comfort of Christ crucified is never preached. Sanctification is seen as the work and responsibility of the Christian alone. There’s no talk of fleeing to Christ for help. That would be a sign of weakness and exposing the sin that does lie within us. “Why would I need to flee to Christ if I’m already saved?” thinks the hearer of these sermons. Our own personal sin is then shoved into a closet to hide and fester. We don’t want to associate with anyone going through a trial because how can we comfort anyone when we have no comfort ourselves? We don’t want to preach the gospel to anyone because we don’t know what it is. This congregation begins to die a slow painful death and they don’t even know it. They become isolated and ugly with each other. There’s no reaching out to those in need. There’s no love. There’s no hope. This is so incredibly sad, and the thing is, you can’t tell them this is going on because no one will believe you. My family and I are longing to find a church where all three of these points described in this article are preached together.

    • Hi Molly,

      Agreed. Preaching “the whole counsel of God” includes preaching the law (in its three uses, i.e., the pedagogical, the civil, and the normative) and the good news with all of its comfort for those who are in Christ. It shouldn’t be that hard but it has seemed to be difficult for the church to do both consistently.

      There are lots of congregations getting this right. There is a “Modern Reformation” happening but that movement has to swim against strong tides of antinomianism and nomism.

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