A number of years ago in my city, I heard about a pastor planning his church’s Christmas Eve service. He’d asked an assistant pastor to deliver the message with one stipulation: don’t say anything about the blood. The assistant protested but the pastor wouldn’t budge. He knew that in Atlanta nominal Christians come to holiday services like Black Friday shoppers hitting the mall. He didn’t want to do anything to drive these visitors away. The cross, he concluded, could wait.
As I heard this sad story, 2 Timothy 4:3–4 came to mind: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
The time Paul predicted has arrived.
A Temptation to Avoid
I’m a pastor. I know the temptation to want people to visit and stick. I long for every visitor to fall in love with Jesus, the Bible, and the church! I don’t aim to drive anyone away. However, the moment we jettison the cross to attract visitors we’ve made a shipwreck of our ministry and are unworthy to preach the Bible resting on our pulpit.
Easter is around the corner. I’m writing to encourage you to preach the cross.
The late Anglican theologian, J. I. Packer, famously and repeatedly wrote, “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” It’s easier than you might think to preach half-truths. On Christmas you may say many accurate things about Jesus. You might unpack the mystery of the incarnation, the glory of Christ’s humiliation, and the majesty of the King in a manger. Similarly, on Easter you may give a defense of the resurrection and inspire your audience with truths about the possibility of new life. But if on Christmas you fail to explain why Jesus came (to give his life as a ransom for many), and if on Easter you fail to explain what Jesus accomplished (atonement through his death and resurrection), then you’ve failed to give your listeners the only message that brings forgiveness and life. You’ve preached a half-truth while allowing your listeners to think it’s the whole truth.
In a few days, you’ll have many unbelievers sitting before you. This may be their only visit to a church all year long. You may see it as a golden opportunity to upend their cynical and maybe even bitter views of the local church. Perhaps you’d like them to catch an upbeat, positive, culturally-relevant, socially-conscious vision of the church. Maybe all they’ve known is what the church is against and you’re eager to show them what the church is for. For all these reasons, a pastor can be tempted to soften the hard edges of the gospel by downplaying the depth of our sin and the scandal of a crucified Messiah. Such a pastor might say, “For the sake of the kingdom’s advancement, I need to postpone the truth about their sin, God’s wrath, and Christ’s atoning blood.”
Please, don’t let this be you.
Such a line of thinking ignores the basic job description of the preacher. You are not here to make Christianity attractive to the masses. It’s your responsibility to make the gospel clear to everyone who has ears to hear. A doctor who refuses to tell his patient that he’s sick is guilty of malpractice, and a pastor who neglects to deliver the bad news of sin and judgment is scratching itching ears.
Truths to Be Captured By
Of course, we can preach the bad news in unkind and ugly ways. It’s possible to preach the gospel in an ungodly, judgmental, frustrated, and even angry tone. Picture the fire and brimstone preacher with a scowl on his face, his foot stomping on the ground and his fist pounding on a sweaty Bible in his hand. I’m not encouraging anyone to be like that! Be sober and winsome. Model in your words and tone both the seriousness of sin and the utter joy of grace. In other words, if our unbelieving guests are offended on Easter Sunday, let the gospel do the offending and not your presentation.
If your preaching about resurrection life doesn’t include the truth that the wages of sin is death, it’s not Christian preaching. Therefore, before you preach on Easter Sunday, let these three truths capture your heart.
- Christ can’t be proclaimed unless the cross is preached. Consider how the four evangelists spill the most ink talking about the passion of Christ. Remember how Paul decided to know nothing except “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Realize without the message of the cross no one will move from death to life.
- It’s our pastoral duty to plant gospel seeds but only God gives new life (1 Corinthians 3:5–6). Die to the thought that the church is built off your charisma, savvy, or humor. If anyone is saved during your service and if anyone returns for another service, the glory goes to God. Your church is not yours at all, it is Christ’s church, he is the head. He is the one at work. You honor Christ the most by speaking clearly of his work—all his work. We plant gospel seeds; God gives the growth as he sees fit.
- God’s love and his cross can’t be separated. How much did God love the church? Enough to purchase us with his own blood (Acts 20:28). You can be sure the Lord who spent so much for us will never stop working in and through us. He shares his love by sending out preachers who share his cross. God will use the church to proclaim his glory to the nations and our neighborhoods by proclaiming Christ crucified. “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
As I write these words, a brother of mine in Algeria is pastoring a church underground because the government has shut down church buildings. His church is scattered, huddling throughout the city in small groups—not because of the pandemic but because of persecution. As hard as this season in their life is, these Christians are acutely aware that Christ suffered far more and that his suffering was for their salvation.
My friend doesn’t have the freedom to stand behind a pulpit and preach this message. We do. Let’s not neglect our duty by preaching about the empty tomb and neglecting the cross that put him there. It’s Easter, so preach Christ crucified!