Choosing to preach Christ
The gospel is unconvincing apart from the Spirit’s power.by Jonathan Emerson-Pierce
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.—1 Corinthians 2:2-4
On occasion, we preachers sense a “holy nudge.” The Holy Spirit gives a gentle reminder to proclaim that the Creator was once crucified on a Roman cross. This is the kind of claim that can draw many seasoned objections. In preparation, we may choose to cite various experts from philosophy and the sciences. No “plausible words of wisdom” exist for a preacher to take listeners from popular notions of God to God having once been hung on a Roman cross. For some, the Creator may be conceived of as far too transcendent and “other” to be incarnated. For others, God may be equated with nature or more like a Zeus who once presided over Mt. Olympus. Theological diversity was just as common in the first century as it is today.
Paul’s perspective is especially telling: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Clearly, Paul implies that comprehension of the Cross is “spiritually discerned” (2:14), a kind of revelation, much as Jesus himself taught concerning the kingdom (Matthew 13:11). Thus, however excellent the rhetoric may be, non-Christians largely remain unpersuaded of either Christ or his kingdom apart from the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:5).
Good rhetoric has its place. Careful and logical appeal can only strengthen a sermon’s effectiveness. And Paul would have agreed, if his writings are any testimony (see also his speeches in Acts 17:16-31; 22:1-16). Therefore, Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 seems to have been that preaching must be Christ centered and Spirit empowered if it is to be effective.
Golgotha is dreadfully real: as real as suffering, as real as hard work and sacrifice, as real as failure, as real as persecution.—V.A. Kraft
Still, the challenge to preach Christ effectively is considerable. In the church’s earliest centuries, the greatest challenge was to explain how the Incarnation was possible. The limitations of traditional thought-forms (substance metaphysics) made this difficult. However, the influence of quantum physics has changed the modern landscape. The new physics demonstrate how such is likely, given that everything in the universe appears interconnected. Even understanding how God sustains the universe (Colossians 1:17) has become possible.
Nonetheless, today there are other challenges to preaching Christ. Lately, many authors have written about the similarities between Christian teachings and those of more ancient religions. Generally, these publications are anti-Christian. Their intent is to show how Christian teaching has merely plagiarized others. This much is clear and needs explaining: In both East and West, a number of religions had some form of the Divine Child, some form of Savior-God and some form of the Cross within their belief systems.
But the strength of this argument is not what it seems. Early Christians well knew and were not troubled by the religious similarities, and the same should be true of us. For even Scripture teaches that God has not left the world without witness (Romans 1:19). Indeed, if one traces theological development in Scripture, it is clear that revelation never took place in a vacuum. For Paul and other early Christians, Christ’s story was different because, unlike the stories of pagan Saviour-Gods, it was genuinely real.
I should as soon attempt to raise flowers if there were no atmosphere or produce fruit if there were neither light nor heat as to convert men and women if I did not believe there was a Holy Spirit.—Henry Ward Beecher
Even so, Paul tells us that apart from the Spirit’s power the gospel remained largely unconvincing. In the case of Paul, when he encountered many of the earliest Christians he remained unmoved (Acts 8:1; 9:1-2). As far as we know, he never seems to have put much confidence in the testimony of anyone, including Peter or John (Galatians 2:6). Rather, like others we read about in the New Testament, Paul’s experience led him to understand faith as primarily a gift (Ephesians 2:8-10), if not a personal revelation of Christ himself (Acts 9:3-18; Gal.1:11-12; see also John 20).
Over the years, I have enjoyed the privilege of leading non-Christians to faith. Along the way, I have shared my perceptions about God as understood through philosophy and science. Sometimes, it has proven helpful. Yet I never witnessed a single lasting conversion that was not decisively brought about by the convicting and convincing work of the Spirit (John 16:8).
Perhaps that’s because Jesus Christ is God’s decisive revelation for the world. Education and rhetoric have their place. But apart from Christ-centered preaching, there is not the life-giving message of God’s love. And apart from the Spirit, the message of Christ is without impact. Not surprisingly, then, Christ said that the primary reason the Spirit was given was in support of those who would proclaim him (Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:20-23; Acts 1:8, 2:1-47). Thus, every preacher is called upon to choose for herself or himself.
Jonathan Emerson-Pierce is a D.Min candidate at Drew Theological School in Madison, N.J. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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