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The prevailing necessity of the pulpit.
Preachers don’t declare a divine potentiality. They pronounce a divine fact.
Jared C. Wilson states in his exemplary book, The Gospel-Driven Church, that “the pulpit is the prow of the church. Where it goes, the church will go” (96). If this is true — and I wholeheartedly agree that it is — then it’s no wonder that the American Church is in the state that it’s in. You don’t have to go too far or look too hard to find vastly divergent messages in church auditoriums across the nation on any given Sunday. And I’m not even referring to churches of different denominations. If you were to a sampling of “evangelically-minded” assemblies, you’d likely be hard-pressed to sermon specimens that are the same.
Sure, there’s some Jesus in those pulpits, but he’s often dissimilar to the Jesus of the Gospels. There’s some grace in those pulpits, too, but it’s often enmeshed with so many prerequisites and provisos that it’s hard to remember what it means. There’s some truth in those pulpits, but it’s so disconnected from where we are that it’s hard to know why it matters. Instead of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), the modern sermon is a smattering of scriptural aphorisms and psycho-spiritual self-help, making Jesus less of a Savior and more of a guru. And it’s easy to see why. Determining to preach the otherworldly message of God’s gracious redemption of mankind week in and week out necessitates a resilience to the temptation to preach literally anything else. Because almost anything else is easier.
That might not seem true, but I assure you it is. Slapping “Jesus” onto the side of my therapeutic inspirational “TED talk” doesn’t require as much grit, fortitude, and reliance on the Spirit as faithfully expositing a text of Scripture according to God’s will and not my own. But sometimes “preaching Jesus” doesn’t “preach,” if you catch my drift. We’d rather hear about how we can better our life’s circumstances. We’d rather be told techniques than truth. That’s much more appealing. Such is the problem of the modern church: We’ve sought to attract folks to attend church by ensuring the message they’ll hear when they come to church is one with which they’ll resonate. And therein lies the problem: because what attracts a church attender is what keeps the church member. So writes Wilson:
What you win people with is what you win them to. The best motives in the world cannot sanctify unbiblical methods . . . If you win people to biblical principles but fail to win them to the biblical Christ, you will simply create religious people who lack the power to change. We create tidy unbelievers . . . the consumerism of the attractional church wins people not to the church but to consumerism. (25, 28, 33)
It’s easy to see, then, why the church is the way that it is: the pulpit and the church have been watered-down in symbiotic degrees. “The modern megachurch movement,” writes Michael Pohlman over on Some Pastors & Teachers, “has left American evangelicals doctrinally impoverished and generally confused on what constitutes the biblical gospel.” I think, as Pohlman iterates, that the pulpit has to be renovated before any sort of revival can catch fire. And to reclaim that fire, I think there needs to be a newfound devotion to preach simply and loudly the message of Christ crucified. And that takes some doggedness.
In the very first sermon I delivered at the church where I pastor after I entered that role, I opened by confessing that I was not a motivational speaker, self-help guru, or “life coach.” And if the congregants had come for messages tending towards those things, they were about to be sorely disappointed. Indeed, every time I step behind the pulpit to preach, it is my solemn, honest desire that all of my thoughts would tend toward a singular aim: to showcase the Savior. To answer the petition, “Sir, we want to see Jesus” (John 12:21). To undertake the ministry of the Word with the same passion and fervor which St. Paul executed his own (Rom. 1:8–17).
The apostle Paul never tired of preaching Christ. It never became “old hat” to him. He was never bored with bringing to bear the immeasurable richness and resonance of Christ’s grace (Eph. 2:8; 3:8; Col. 1:27; 2:2). He was happy singing this same old song. Everywhere he went, he proclaimed Christ crucified for the very worst of sinners — precisely because he knew himself to be the very worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Cor. 15:9–10). The boldness with which Paul preached the grace of the cross poured out of him because he knew that that was his only hope. That was the only reason he was in the position of an apostle in the first place. And, to be sure, that’s the only reason I’m in the position as a proclaimer of God’s glad tidings and under-shepherd of his church, too.
Such is why Jesus is my message. He remains the point around which all my sermons revolve. The central focus of all that I aim to do in the pulpit each Lord’s day is intimately tethered to the Lord’s work on the cross. And if perchance I don’t arrive at Christ, I have failed to lay before the churchgoers the one message they actually need to hear: the message of peace, pardon, deliverance, and redemption that flows from the Savior’s gaping side. As that great “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon once quipped, “The sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savor of Christ in it” (357). Indeed, such is why I pray that the Lord Jesus prevails as the diamond that shines in the heart of every sermon I am blessed to deliver, to echo a prayer of the Rev. Charles Bridges (234). Christ alone is the prevailing necessity of the pulpit.
In a rousing sermon entitled “The Power of Cross,” Rev. John Henry Jowett expounds upon that seminal opening chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which we are given, perhaps, the greatest stimulant to Christ-exalting preaching. He declares:
“But we preach Christ crucified,” proclaiming what appears to be His shame, glorying in what appears to be the hour of His collapse, emphasising the season of His appalling darkness, obtruding the bloody, unadorned, and undecked Cross on which He suffered His apparent defeat.
“We preach Christ crucified” — we do not whisper it; “we preach Christ crucified” — we do not whisper it in secret coteries; we do not timidly submit it for subdued discussion in the academic grove; we do not offer it to the hands of exclusive circles — we preach it, we stand out like the town-crier in the public way, and we proclaim it to the common and indiscriminate crowd.
“We preach Christ crucified,” says Paul, and we are not going to be diverted by the hunger for mere sensation; “we preach Christ crucified,” and we are not going to be disengaged from our high calling, and tempted to submit our Gospel as a piece of subtle and mincing controversy. We preach it boldly, definitely — “Christ, and Him crucified.” It was the only message for the apostolic day; it is the only Gospel for our own. (69–71)
Preaching the gospel is less about formulaic answers to life’s questions and more about pointing to the one true Solution. The only good news I can rightly declare is God’s good news. His message is vastly superior to any message I can come up with on my own. Therefore, as a preacher of the gospel, every time I step into the pulpit I am obliged to announce the fact of the gospel. I don’t declare a divine potentiality — something that maybe, possibly happened. No, I declare a fact. (You should definitely read Rev. Stephen Tyng’s lecture, “The Object of the Gospel,” pp. 214–29, in which he delves into this notion of the fact of the gospel.)
Preaching the gospel of Jesus being made sin in the sinner’s stead isn’t hypothetical — it’s a fact of history that has already occurred (1 Cor. 15:1–4; 2 Cor. 5:21). In that way, as a preacher, I function as a “beat reporter” of what God did to save mankind from their sins. May I be bold enough to “stand out like the town-crier” and proclaim this good news for every soul. And, too, may every pulpit resound with this resoundingly good news.
Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry: With an Inquiry into the Causes of Its Inefficiency (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1868).
J. H. Jowett, Apostolic Optimism: And Other Sermons (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).
Charles Spurgeon, Sermons Preached and Revised, Sixth Series (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1860).
Stephen Tyng, Lectures on the Law and the Gospel (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1849).
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).