It All Leads Straight to the Cross
In seminary, a friend of mine would often challenge me on my insistence that whatever portion of Scripture we preach, we ought to get our hearers to the cross. Whether we are preaching glorious cross-centered texts like Galatians 2:20-3:1 or Romans 5:6-11 or whether we are preaching any given part of the Sermon on the Mount, the minster must get his hearers to the cross for pardon and power. On one occasion, my friend responded by suggesting that we don't have to do so because "Jesus didn't do so." He said, "Jesus preached lots of things without mentioning His atoning work on the cross." So how should one respond to such a claim? I would suggest that a biblical-theological approach to reading the Scriptures contains the answer to such a faulty understanding of the message of Scripture.
Jesus taught that all the Scriptures were about His death and resurrection (Luke 24:25-27, 44-46). The Apostle Peter explained that the whole of the Old Testament was about the sufferings of Christ and the glories that followed (i.e. His death and resurrection; 1 Peter 1:10-12). The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). This was no mere hyperbole. It was "redemptive-historical synecdoche." The Apostle was intimating that everything that God had revealed needed to be understood in light of Jesus' redeeming work on the cross and in the resurrection. In every one of Paul's epistles he first tells believers what Christ has done for them--by virtue of His death and resurrection--and then he gives applications or warnings. Even when he enters into the applicatory sections of the epistles, the apostle often returns to what Christ has done for his people. Ephesians 5:22-33 is the example par excellence of this principle. The writer of Hebrews never gives one of his severe warnings against apostasy without first telling his hearers what Christ has done for them and then following them with another reminder what they have in Christ.
The reason why the New Testament epistles operate in the manner in which they do, as over against the way that the Gospel narratives operate, is that the Gospels are giving us the history of Christ and His saving work while the epistles are giving us the divine interpretation of that history. Geerhardus Vos put it so well when he said: "The relation between Jesus and the Apostolate is in general that between the fact to be interpreted and the subsequent interpretation of the fact." This means that we must understand all that Jesus teaches in light of what He was doing. He had set His face to go to Jerusalem. By virtue of the incarnation and His death on the cross, Jesus is the Gospel. Everything that proceeded from His lips during his earthly ministry on the way to the cross must be read in light of what He would accomplish at the cross. This helps us better understand the difference in approach between the Sermon on the Mount, for example, and the letter to the Romans. Reflecting on the way in which liberal theologians constantly sought to pit the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount against the teaching of Paul in Romans (i.e. to pit Jesus against Paul), Vos wrote:
It is not so much what people find in the Sermon on the Mount, it is what they congratulate themselves for not finding there, that renders them thus enamored of its excellence. It is because they dislike the story of the helplessness of man, of man’s utter condemnation in the sight of God, and the insistence upon the necessity of the cross…All such forget that both Jesus and the Evangelists expressly relate the Sermon on the Mount to the disciples, and consequently place back of what is described in it the process of becoming a disciple, the whole rich relationship of saving approach and responsive faith, of calling and repentance and pardon and acceptance and the following of Jesus, all that makes the men and women of the Gospels such disciples and Jesus such a Lord and Savior as this and other records of His teaching imply. It is therefore folly to suggest that no specific doctrine of salvation is here. It is present as a living doctrine in the Person of Jesus.
Vos continued to unpack the idea that the doctrine of salvation was "present as a living doctrine in the Person of Jesus" when he wrote:
We are apt to forget that in the days of our Lord’s flesh there was no need for the explicit teaching about the Christ found in the Epistles of the New Testament. At that time He, the real Christ, walked among men and exhibited in His intercourse with sinners, more impressively than any abstract doctrine could have done, the principles and the process of salvation. If we have but eyes to see, we shall find our Savior in the out-door scenes of the Gospels, no less than in the walls of the school of the Epistle to the Romans. And we shall find Him too in the Sermon on the Mount. For this discourse throughout presupposes that the disciples, here instructed, became associated with Jesus as sinner needing salvation, and that their whole life in continuance is lived on the basis of grace.1
Reflecting on the same subject, J. Gresham Machen observed:
Without the cross the Sermon on the Mount would be an intolerable burden; with the cross it becomes the guide to a way of life. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus held up an unattainable ideal, he has revealed the depths of human guilt, he has made demands far too lofty for human strength. But thank God, he has revealed guilt only to wash it away, and with his demands he has given strength to fulfill them. It is a sadly superficial view of the sermon on the mount which substitutes it for the story of the cross. A deeper understanding of it leads straight to Calvary.2
Finally, Vos again explained the significance of learning to apply this principle in preaching when he said:
Whatever topic you preach on and whatever text you choose, there ought not to be in your whole repertoire a single sermon in which from beginning to end you do not convey to your hearers the impression that what you want to impart to them, you do not think it possible to impart to them in any other way than as a correlate and consequence of the eternal salvation of their souls through the blood of Christ, because in your own conviction that alone is the remedy which you can honestly offer to a sinful world.3
This was the constant example of the Apostles. May it also be, by God's grace, the example of ministers around the world today and until the Savior comes again to consummate that salvation He provided through the cross.
1. Gerrhardus Vos, Grace and Glory pp. 39-40
2. J. Gresham Machen The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust) pp. 196-974.
3. An excerpt from Geerhardus Vos “The Gracious Provision,” in Grace and Glory.