The Ground of Preaching

The Cross of Christ

Ockenga Lectures on Preaching | South Hamilton, Massachusetts


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Let me begin by reviewing yesterday’s message. Preaching, I said, was the heralding of good news by a person or messenger sent by God. The good news is that God reigns, and he reigns to reveal his glory. His glory is revealed most fully in the glad submission of his creation, and someday, the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord, echoing and reverberating in the glad submission of a redeemed people, a ransomed church from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

Perhaps the nub of the good news was that there is no final conflict between God’s goal to be glorified and man’s goal to be satisfied. The goal of preaching is both of those because they are united in the response of faith and worship. The goal of preaching is the glory of God reflected in the glad submission of his people.

Two Massive Obstacles

Now, there are two massive obstacles standing in the way of achieving this goal. One is the pride of man, and another is the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is his unwavering zeal for the exaltation of his name or his glory. The pride of man is his unwavering zeal for the exaltation of his own glory. I hope it doesn’t surprise you that what in God is righteousness, in man is sin.

This is the very point of Genesis 3. Sin came into the world through a tempter, and the essence of that temptation was: “You will be like God.” The imitation of God on this point is the essence of evil. Our parents fell for it. In them, we have all fallen for it. Now, it is part of our nature. Therefore, every one of us, by nature, takes the image of God in us, which is intended to mirror and reflect his glory, we turn with it with our backs to the light of his glory and we fall in love with the shadow of the image of God that we cast upon the earth and try desperately to convince ourselves, by modern technology, sexual exploits, athletic prowess, counter-culture hairdos, that this shadow on the ground in front of us is glorious and satisfying. As our pride pours contempt upon the glory of God, so his righteousness must pour wrath upon the pride of man.

Some verses from Isaiah show this, “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low. The pride of man shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. For, how should my name be profaned; my glory I will not give to another. The eyes of the haughty are humbled, and the holy God shows himself holy in righteousness.”

Destruction is decreed, overflowing in righteousness. The goal of preaching is the glory of God manifested and reflected in the glad submission of his creation. This has two big obstacles standing in the way: the pride of man and the righteousness of God. Our pride will not delight in his glory, and his righteousness will not suffer his glory to be shamed and held in contempt.

The Work of the Cross

Where is there any hope for preaching? Where is there any hope for the validity of the message that God intends to reign in the gladness of his people? Can the pride of man ever be broken? Can the righteousness of God ever relent in its opposition to those who hold his glory in contempt? Is there a basis for the validity of preaching and the humility of preaching? There is, and it is the cross of Christ. I want to look to a key text in just a moment, but first, let me try to outline how I see the cross beginning to overcome these obstacles.

The cross overcomes the objective, external obstacle of God’s righteous opposition to human pride. That’s the first work of the cross. It overcomes an obstacle in God, namely, his righteousness, and it also overcomes, subjectively, an obstacle in me, namely, my pride. In doing so, the cross becomes the ground of the objective validity of preaching and the ground of the subjective humility of preaching. That’s what I want to unfold in two stages.

The Cross and the Validity of Preaching

First of all, the cross is the ground of the validity of preaching. The most fundamental problem in the task of preaching is how a preacher can proclaim hope to sinners in view of the unimpeachable righteousness of God. That is the fundamental problem of how you can hold out and proclaim hope to sinners in view of the unimpeachable righteousness of God. Now, of course, the people of our day, nor the people of any day, have ever thought this is the problem. They do not believe this is the main problem in the world or in preaching.

I remember listening to a tape by R.C. Sproul called “The Misplaced Locust of Amazement.” Isn’t it a ponderous title for a sermon? But it was a great sermon. Let me outline it for you. It was on Luke 13:1–5, where Jesus gets word that Pilate has mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices — he’s killed them. They come to Jesus, just amazed that this horrible thing would happen, and Jesus responds in his typically unsentimental words. Jesus is the most unsentimental man that lived, as far as I can tell.

In the most unsentimental words like these, Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered thus? I tell you no, but unless you repent, you will perish likewise” (Luke 13:2–3). In other words, Jesus says, “Are you amazed that a few Galileans were killed by Pilate? What you ought to be amazed at is that you haven’t been killed yet. And that you will be killed one day if you don’t change.”

Now, Sproul, in a very powerful way, pointed out this age-old difference between the way natural man sees the problem of relating to God, and the way the Bible sees the problem of relating to God. Man-centered humans are amazed — just amazed — that God should withhold life and joy from them. The God-centered Bible is amazed — just staggered — that God would withhold judgment from sinners. What you have to realize here when you start to preach is that the fundamental problems you will be grappling with, people won’t even know are problems.

Don’t let people dictate your agenda in preaching. The Bible must dictate the fundamental issues to be dealt with, and the most fundamental is how can you preach hope to sinners in view of a holy and righteous God. The fundamental problem of preaching, whether man-centered humans agree or like it, is how to preach hope to sinners.

The Most Important Passage of Scripture

Now, the solution and the ground of validity in this preaching is the cross. I direct your attention now to Romans 3:23–26. I believe this is probably the most important passage of Scripture in the Bible on all counts.

Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” which I take to mean, from Romans 1:23, that all of us have exchanged the glory of God for lesser things. We do not delight in the glory of God. We delight in frogs, which today would be motorcycles or videos or computers or anything other than God. Romans 3:24 goes on saying that those having fallen short and heaping scorn upon the glory of God in that way, “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation through faith by his blood,” there’s the cross, “for the demonstration of his righteousness on account of passing over sins done beforehand,” there’s the fundamental problem the text is dealing with, namely, how could God ever have passed over sin, “in the forbearance of God, for a demonstration of his righteousness in the present time, in order that he might be both just and the one who justifies, the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Overcome by the Cross

Now, what this amazing passage says is that the fundamental problem of preaching has been overcome by the cross. Without the cross, the righteousness of God would demonstrate itself only in the condemnation of sinners. There is a way for God to demonstrate and uphold his righteousness apart from the cross, namely, hell. Without the cross, there could be no valid preaching, because there could be no hope for sinners. God’s righteousness could not be upheld in forgiving sinners without the cross.

It took the infinitely costly death of the Son to repair the dishonor that my sin has brought upon the glory of God. Therefore, when I hear contemporary prophets of self-esteem use the cross as a testimony and witness to my worth, I seethe. You hear it everywhere. “Look what God was willing to pay for you. You are, therefore, of infinite worth.” Now, I have to guard my language here. Let me just choose a bland word: bad. That’s a bad skewing of the cross of Christ because the biblical perspective is that the cross is a witness to the glory of God in his righteousness.

The way a sinner should look at the cross is to say, “It took that to repair the glory of God that I have wounded by my wicked pride. Oh, how wretched I must be if it took the death of the Son to repair the glory of God upon which I have heaped so much contempt with my life of godless pride.”

We have turned everything on its head today. Evangelicals in America today seem to have stood the universe on its head, including the cross, and I hope that what you see in all this is that God achieved in the cross a warrant and a ground for preaching and that preaching to sinners can now be valid. You can hold out hope that the goal of preaching will come true, namely, the glory of God incredibly in the gladness of sinners. Yesterday, I said that these two things, the wonder of the gospel, is that God’s zeal to be glorified and my longing to be satisfied in my life are not in final conflict. Today, I hope you see how that can be.

The Foundation of Preaching

What’s the ground of the validity of such a claim that they find harmony in the universe and not contradiction? Without the cross, there would be an irreconcilable contradiction in preaching, namely, that God should be glorified and that sinners should be satisfied. It cannot be without the cross vindicating both the glory of God and opening a way for the forgiveness and life of sinners. The cross is the absolute foundation of everything you will ever say.

The best verse to paraphrase that overwhelming statement is Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all, will he not with him freely give us all things?” Homiletically, that simply means if the cross is what it is, everything you preach is rooted in the cross. Every offer you give to marriages and children and parents and workers comes from the cross. Therefore, it’s not an overstatement when Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:2: “I resolve not to know anything but Christ Jesus and him crucified.”

The Cross and the Humility of Preaching

Point number two, the cross is the ground of the humility of preaching. The cross is the ground of the humility of preaching in that it is the power of God whereby the pride of my heart is crucified. It’s the power of God whereby the pride of my heart is crucified.

I’ve just been so impressed by this recently because I’ve been preaching through 1 Corinthians 1–3 the last six or seven weeks. Frankly, it has had a very profound effect on my own heart because these texts are for preachers. What I’ve learned is this: The cross is not only a past event of substitution, it is also a present experience of execution. It’s the execution of my self-reliance, the execution of my love affair with the praise of men, and the execution of my self-determination and self-exultation. Paul said, “Far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ, by whom the world was crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

The Obstacle in Corinth

Now, the point where Paul makes this crucifying power come to bear with most force is on the preacher in these chapters. He doesn’t turn it first on his congregation. He turns it first on himself, and I doubt that there’s any more important passage of Scripture on preaching than 1 Corinthians 1. The great obstacle to the aims of preaching in Corinth were pride — boasting. They were so infatuated with oratorical skill, with intellectual prowess, and with philosophical airs that they could not receive the word of the cross. It was a stumbling block and an offense to them. They lined up behind their favorite teachers and said, “I’m of Paul. I’m of Apollos.”

“Apollos is more eloquent than Paul, and we have the better teacher.” Or, “I’m of Cephas, which means Cephas was really one of the first twelve, and we were baptized by Cephas.” In other words, pride finds expression vicariously in identifying with a superior person. If you’re not so hot, just get yourself a hot hero and brag about it and put other people down, who have another hero, for example, a favorite faculty member. I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos. I belong to Cephas.

The obstacle to the aims of preaching in Corinth was pride, boasting, jealousy, and strife. Now, the goal of preaching is stated by Paul here in 1 Corinthians 1:29, saying that “no human being might boast in the presence of God.” Or positively, two verses later, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). In other words, “I’m not going to deny to you the tremendously fulfilling pleasure of boasting in greatness and exulting in excellence. No, you were made for that, just don’t do it in man, not in yourself, nor in your teachers. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” We were made to boast. We were made to exult in God, not in man.

You’re cutting your own hedonistic throat if you settle to boast in man, even though it might give you a temporary lift if you can show your teacher superior to another teacher. In the end, that person will just peter out on you and only God will remain. Glut your desire to boast by boasting in the Lord.

Now, Paul’s aims in these chapters are the aims of Christian preaching then: the glory of God in the glad-hearted boast of his people. He wants God to get the credit, not Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, and the way he wants him to get it is in boasting — exulting.

Don’t Settle on a Ball Team

What happened in Minneapolis at the victory of the Twins in the World Series? I didn’t watch any of it. When Swedes, to the tune of fifty-six thousand or so, raise the decibel count in the Metrodome and lift their hands, they are boasting and exulting. If you had told them, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that.” They would have said, “If I don’t do that, I will pop, I will explode,” because they were so moved by what was happening down there on that field. Such things so utterly insignificant as a ball game, and Paul says, “I’m not going to deny you that. You were made to do that.” That’s what life is all about. Don’t settle on a ball team though.

The Cross Emptied of Its Power

Paul’s main point, now, is that the word of the cross — this is 1 Corinthians 1:18 — is the power of God to break the pride of the preacher and the congregation and bring us to glad reliance upon Christ.

If you want to turn to these chapters, I’m going to wind things up here by looking at a few verses. I’m going to start with 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied.” The Greek stops there. Be emptied.

Now, my question is this: Why would the cross be emptied if Paul had come with oratorical flourishes and philosophical displays of wisdom? Why would the cross be emptied had he come that way? It would have been emptied because he would have been cultivating in the people the very thing the cross was designed to destroy, namely, boasting in man. The cross is full when it is killing pride. The cross is emptied when the word of the cross is somehow being distorted to cultivate pride, which it is everywhere in America today. “Look how much worth you are if he was willing to pay this diamond to get you back.” The cross is emptied of its power to destroy all that elevates itself against God.

Consider the same thing in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5: “I came to you brethren. When I came, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom.” In other words, “I avoided ostentation and flourishes of intellect.” Why did I do that? What was the ground of my efforts to hide myself? What was the ground of the humility I labored to live in? Verse 2 gives the ground clause, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” That’s the ground of why he came in weakness and without ostentation of rhetoric, oratory, or intellect, or philosophy.

I think what he means in verse 2 is this: I have set my mind to be so saturated with the death of Christ that there is about me the aroma of death — death to my self-reliance, death to my love of praise, and death to my self-exultation and self-determination. There’s an aroma of death so that people might see the life of Christ, so that the power that becomes operative here is the power of God and not me. Verse 5 gives the climax of his argument in those five verses. Why do I come this way? Why have I labored to let the cross have this humiliating effect in my life? That your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. In other words, that God might be honored in the trust of his people, not the preacher, and that’s the goal of preaching.

The Cross Holds Up God and Holds Down Pride

I conclude that the cross of Christ not only provides the ground for the validity of preaching. That is, it makes it valid that we can herald the good news that a holy and righteous God can and will be glorified precisely in the joy, the gladness, and the satisfaction of sinners. There would be no validity for such a proclamation of good news without the cross.

Secondly, my last point was, the cross is not merely a past event of substitution but a present experience of execution — the execution of my self-reliance, the execution of my love affair with the applause of the congregation, and the execution of my self-exultation and self-determination in my life. The cross holds up the glory of God in preaching, and it holds down the pride of man in the preacher. The cross is the foundation both of our doctrine and of our demeanor. Paul goes so far as to say, “Unless the preacher is crucified, the message is nullified.” We are what we say, or what we say will have no validity.