Should We ‘Make a Beeline to the Cross’?
A Caution for Gospel-Centered Preaching
The death of Christ, two thousand years before you existed, purchased the presence of Christ in you today. Proclaiming Christ means making gloriously clear and beautiful all the implications of the blood-bought reality of Christ in you now.
Texts that deal with how to experience this living Christ, and how to be transformed by him in the specific attitudes and behaviors of life, are in the Bible not to send us on a beeline to the cross. The cross is in the Bible to send us on a beeline to dig deep into those texts and discover the wonders of blood-bought, obedient life in Christ. That does not happen by treating those texts quickly and superficially before we leave them in the name of preaching Christ crucified.
I am offering an alternative to those who think “preaching Christ” means giving a nod to the subject matter of the text and then moving to the real concern by ending every sermon with a rehearsal of what Christ did on the cross. I don’t think that is what “preaching Christ” means in the week in, week out work of the preacher among the gathered people of God. I say this for several reasons.
What Did Christ Do?
First, there are secondary reasons: (1) That kind of preaching tends to dull the expectations of the people with a predictable homiletical path. (2) It tends to treat the actual words and phrases and logic of the text as having minor significance by giving the impression they need not be treated with care and depth, but only as preparations for the Christ-crucified crescendo. (3) It tends to train people in bad habits of how to read their Bibles, by diminishing the rigor and earnestness with which they meditate on the very words of Scripture. (4) It tends to weaken the seriousness of biblical imperatives on how to live the Christian life by inserting the substitutionary atonement at critical moments when the emphasis should be falling on the urgency of obedience.
“The cross sends us on a beeline into texts to discover the wonders of blood-bought, obedient life in Christ.”
But here’s the primary reason for my concern with this way of understanding “preach Christ.” I said above that I am trying to offer an alternative to a way of “preaching Christ” that treats the details of the text superficially and then moves to the real concern by ending with a rehearsal of what Christ did on the cross. But I ask, What did Christ do on the cross in regard to the reality of this particular sermon text? Take 1 Peter 4:7–9, for example:
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.
What did Christ do on the cross with regard to the reality of this text? Did he die for sinners so that this text about self-control and sober-mindedness and love and hospitality and grumbling would be in the Bible simply to remind us that he died for sinners? Or did he die for sinners precisely to make this text, in all its amazing specificity, possible for redeemed people? Did he die for us so that when we come to this text we would dig deeply into the details of this kind of blood-bought life, and how to live it? When Peter says that Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24), did he mean, “Glory in the might of the cross, and the method of God through the cross, to empower Christians to do what biblical texts call them to do”?
Beeline to the Cross?
When we preach 1 Peter 4:7–9, should our mindset be: Make some general comments about the details, and then “make a beeline to the cross”? That phrase comes from a quote attributed (by hundreds of people) to Charles Spurgeon: “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” To my knowledge, no one has cited the place Spurgeon said this, and those who know Spurgeon best don’t seem to be able to show he said it. But the quote has been used to cultivate a kind of preaching that I am discouraging.
Of course, the quotation itself need not be misleading, any more than Paul is misleading when he says he knows nothing but Christ crucified. But the quotation certainly may mislead preachers. So, back to my question: As we read and preach 1 Peter 4:7–9, should our mindset be to give some general comments, and then make a beeline to a rehearsal of the death and resurrection of Jesus, with a grand crescendo that Christ died for our sins? Is that what preaching “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) means when we are preaching 1 Peter 4:7–9?
Turning the Aim of the Cross Upside Down
I don’t think so. In fact, I think that mindset turns the cross and the realities revealed in Scripture upside down. What did Christ do on the cross with regard to the reality of this text? He purchased the Christian life described and commanded in this text. Let me say that again: When Christ died for us on the cross, he obtained for us the glory of Christ-permeated obedience to 1 Peter 4:7–9. The realities revealed and demanded in this text do not exist for the sake of the cross. The cross exists for the sake of these realities!
“To preach Christ crucified is not to make every sermon climax with a rehearsal of the atonement.”
This is the glory of the cross! The cross leads to this kind of life of love. Not the other way around. The cross bought this. Christ died for this — namely, that we, with all our sins forgiven, might enjoy the presence and power of the living Christ as he works in us blood-bought self-control and sober-mindedness and love and hospitality without grumbling. This is the miracle life — the glory of Christ-filled godliness that he died to bring about.
Therefore, the primary reason for rejecting preaching that makes “a beeline to the cross” (as we have described it) is that it diminishes the glory of the cross. It thinks it is doing just the opposite. It thinks the cross is more magnified by bringing the sermon to a crescendo every week with a celebration of substitutionary atonement. That is not the way to make much of the glories of the cross. By all means, make sure that the congregation knows the details of the greatest event in the history of the world — the death and resurrection of Jesus. But then spend most of your time preaching the glorious achievements of the cross, which fill the pages of Scripture.
And what we have seen is that every beneficial thing in the Bible — every blessing, every gift, every promise, every gracious warning, every helpful glimpse of God’s glory in every sermon — is blood-bought. It is owing to the cross — to Christ crucified. Every undeserved benefit, every grace, expressed in any text anywhere in the Bible (whether a revealed beauty or ugliness, warning or promise) is a blood-bought grace — including all those in the Old Testament (Romans 3:25; 2 Corinthians 1:20).
Beeline from the Cross
The beeline in the Bible is in the other direction. Christ died so that we would make a beeline from the cross to the resurrection to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the giving of Scripture to the blood-bought miracle of new birth to the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory, to the beauties of Christ-permeating, Christ-exalting self-control and sober-mindedness and love and hospitality without grumbling.
“Spend most of your time preaching the glorious achievements of the cross, which fill the pages of Scripture.”
This means that if you want to glorify the cross in your preaching, give a stunning exposition of the wonders of self-control, and the rare beauties and benefits of sober-mindedness, and the preciousness and painfulness of brotherly love, and the powerful graces at work in practical hospitality, and the world-shaking rarity of a person who never grumbles. And create a constant and joyful awareness in your people that every one of these — the seeing of every truth, the savoring of every glory, and the obedience to every command — is a Christ-exalting, blood-bought gift.
A good tree bears good fruit. Christ died so that his body — the church — would be the tree where this beautiful and luscious fruit grows. We will magnify the success of his sacrifice if we make a beeline in every text to the concrete, detailed, specific realities that the text is truly dealing with, and what they look like, and how they come to pass by the power of the Spirit unleashed by the blood of Jesus. Jesus did not die so that a Bible would be written with a thousand pages describing only Calvary. He went to Calvary so that a thousand glories would be described in the Bible for us to see and savor and show through a crucified life.
Christ Died So That We Might Enjoy God in All of Life
Let me try to say it another way. I wrote a book called God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself. Here is the key to what I am saying about preaching and the cross: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Forgiveness, imputed righteousness, escape from divine wrath, rescue from hell, resurrection of the body, eternal life — these are glorious achievements of Christ crucified. But they are not the main gift of God’s love — not the ultimate gift that Jesus bought with his blood. They are all means, not the end. The end is seeing God in all his beauty, and enjoying personal friendship with him, and being conformed to his likeness in every way that maximizes our enjoyment and reflection of his greatness. Christ died mainly for this.
“Every beneficial thing in the Bible — every blessing, every promise, every gracious warning — is blood-bought.”
All the Scriptures are written to advance this experience of God. Every revelation of his character and ways, every description of Christ, every word he spoke, every rebuke of our sin, every promise of his grace, every practical command to walk in love and holiness, every warning against unrighteousness — all of these are blood-bought means of walking in joyful fellowship with God. This is what Jesus died for.
Therefore, to preach Christ crucified, as Paul implied in 1 Corinthians 2:2 and Galatians 6:14, is not to turn every sermon into a message that climaxes with a rehearsal of the atonement. Rather, it is to treat seriously and carefully every word and every clause and every logical connection in the text in order to show how Christ — crucified, and risen, and present by the Spirit — empowers and shapes the new way of life described in the text.