Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

A podcast listener from Malaysia named Sun Yen, writes in: “Hello Pastor John! My home church hardly preaches about the cross in sermons, usually only during Easter or Christmas. I have approached my pastors and asked why that is (with gentleness, tact, and respect). They point to Hebrews 6:1–3, stating that we need to move on from the cross to other more mature teachings in the Bible. Is that the right view of the gospel? Thank you Pastor John!”

When I was growing up the church I was preached to and taught in a way that may perhaps be the kind of ministry this church in Malaysia is reacting against. This church in Malaysia is saying that we need to move beyond the cross to more mature teachings in the Bible. And, in a sense, that is what I would have said about my church that I grew up in. Now it is not a helpful way to say it. I am not helpful. I will come back to that, but I am just trying to figure out what is in the minds of this church’s leadership when they talk this way to Sun Yen.

It would have been misleading for me to talk like that, but something needed to change. I knew something was amiss. We did need to move on. We did somehow need to go beyond what was being said Sunday after Sunday, because almost every Sunday it seemed that we circled around to the most simple, basic, repetitive gospel invitation to unbelievers to be saved. And everybody started putting on their coats and everybody knew it was coming and we hardly ever got, “beyond” it. It never felt as though the depth and breadth and height of the biblical books were even being looked at, let alone penetrated.

So I can imagine that a church, this church in Malaysia, perhaps, would react against that by saying, “We need to get beyond the cross.” And what they might mean is, “We need to stop being so superficial and repetitive and narrow in presenting the gospel to unbelievers at the expense of feeding believers on the riches of biblical truth.”

But the way to describe what is needed here is not to say that we move on from the cross. What is needed is to take all of Scripture into account and teach in fullness and depth all that it really is and show our people how the cross of Jesus is profoundly the ground and the goal of all those teachings. In other words, we don’t need to leave the cross behind. We need to show how Scriptures are leading to the cross and how all the blessings of the New Testament and the blessings of life in Christ and the blessings of the age to come — all of them — flow from the cross. And we show why we will forever be celebrating the grace of God which is most supremely revealed in the cross. We are always going to be singing the song of the Lamb, the slain Lamb forever and ever.

But we do need to answer the question from the church pastors about Hebrews 6:1–3, because it looks like they have got something going for their words there, right? Here is what it says: “Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, the eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”

Now what does he mean by leaving behind the elementary doctrine of Christ? And there are a couple of clues here that anybody can see if they just look close enough, so we’ll do a Look at the Book here. The first clue is the phrase, “not laying again a foundation.” In other words, what this author is opposed to is continually building foundations when we ought to be building on foundations. He says, “One day you lay a foundation. You dig it up and you lay it the next day, and you dig it up and you lay it the next day.” That is not what foundations are for. Foundations are for buildings. So put the foundation into place and then let it stretch up into a beautiful building where the people can roam around in the house of God’s Word and see all the glories being upheld by the foundation. So I think that is the first clue that he doesn’t mean that you forget, for goodness’ sake, that Christ died, but that you don’t keep treating it nearly in a foundational way as though there is nothing else to talk about on top of it leading out of it.

And here is another clue: It says that he will not lay again a foundation of faith toward God. My goodness. So I want to know: Does the church in Malaysia leave behind faith toward God? I mean, good grief. Faith toward God is the sum of the Christian life: beginning, middle, and end. We are going to be trusting God every moment of our lives. There is no leaving behind. So, again, I think that points to the fact that the author of Hebrews didn’t mean “leave behind” in the sense of “Don’t talk about it anymore,” but rather, “Stop digging things up and laying foundations over and over again, treating them in a superficial, repetitive, elementary way, but rather get on with what foundations are for. Build on them.”

Even the word “foundation” as a metaphor becomes inadequate. I think the Bible knows that, which is probably why the Bible sometimes juxtaposes both organic analogies like roots and growth and foundations and building, because foundations really are separate from buildings, but roots and branches aren’t separate. They are all one growing piece. And so the implication is that, when you properly lay a foundation, it is like a root. It grows up into something big and glorious and beautiful.

So when Sun Yen’s pastors say, “We need to move on from the cross to other, more mature teachings in the Bible,” perhaps what Sun Yen should suggest is that they consider the implications of Romans 8:32, which says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all [that is, the cross], how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” And the point of that verse is that all things — everything we have in the Christian life, everything that is promised to us in the future — is rooted in or based on or growing out of, “God did not spare his own Son.” Therefore, this truth can never be left behind, because it is always the ever present purchase price and sustaining power of every blessing that we have.

So the cross was the goal of redemptive history, because the cross is the place where the glory of the grace of God was most supremely expressed. And we will be praising the glory of God’s grace supremely expressed in the cross forever and ever. Therefore in one sense the cross is both the ground or basis and the goal of all things. But it is absolutely crucial that all the Bible be preached. It is not simplistic. It is not limited. It is not narrow to say that we should be focused on the cross. So I pray that Sun Yen’s church will discover that all of the riches of Scripture are not diminished by focusing on the cross.

There is a way to be cross-centered, cross-rooted, cross-exalting without being cross-exclusive.