What does it mean to preach Christ?
‘We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
Last month we asked the question, ‘What shall we preach?’. The New Testament’s answer is that we should ‘preach Christ’. We considered some objections to this assertion, but finished by pointing out the consequence of proclaiming the Saviour – namely, to diffuse ‘the fragrance of his knowledge’ among men and offer a ‘sweet savour of Christ’ to God (2 Corinthians 2:14-15).
But what exactly does it mean to ‘preach Christ’? The New Testament writers used the term freely, as if it needed no definition. But in our own days of theological confusion we would be wise to clarify its meaning.
That is the purpose of this article and the next.
Telling good news
Last month I pointed out that three main Greek words are translated ‘preach’ in our English New Testament. The first of these means to ‘tell good news (or evangelise)’. The second means to ‘herald’ or proclaim; and the third means to ‘tell thoroughly’.
In this article we consider the first of these words. It shows us that to preach Christ is to tell people the good news concerning him.
What is this good news? Let the angel reply. ‘Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you tidings of great joy … for there is born to you … a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11).
We preach Christ, therefore, when we present him as the one who ‘will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Let us be clear – the Christmas story is for every day and all the year!
But wait. Who says we need to be ‘saved’? And what are the ‘sins’ we must be saved from? Evidently, to preach Christ we must also provide answers to these questions. Sin must be defined, its origin explained. We must make clear what are the effects and consequences of sin, both in time and in eternity.
If we minimise sin we devalue salvation, for it is from sin that Christ saves. He did not come to save his people from aimlessness, poverty or political adversity. He did not even come to civilise men – he came to save them.
In short, the good news of Jesus Christ is a message of deliverance. He ‘gave himself for our sins that he might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (Galatians 1:4).
Jesus himself announced that his mission was ‘To preach deliverance to the captives…’ (Luke 4:18). In preaching Christ, therefore, we must make it clear that all people are in captivity to sin and need to be delivered from its awful bondage.
Romans 6:17 puts it like this: ‘God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine [i.e., the gospel] to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness’.
This underlines the radical nature of conversion to Christ – God has ‘delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love’ (Colossians 1:13).
Needless to say, such a conversion will result in a profound transformation. In preaching Christ we should expect to see lives changed, as souls are delivered from the power of darkness and made servants of righteousness.
We shall also call on those who already profess Christ to live righteously and serve as loyal subjects of Christ their King.
Diagnose and treat
However, we must never preach sin as a stand-alone subject – diagnosing corruption, applying the law, warning of judgement, and leaving people in suspense. That is not preaching Christ.
Rather, we must follow the apostle in Romans 3:23-24. He first states: ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. But he does not leave it there. Without a pause he adds: ‘being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’.
If I am sick and visit my doctor I do not expect him to diagnose my illness and send me home; not even if he says, ‘Come back next week and I will prescribe a cure’. I could be dead by then!
No – diagnosis and remedy must both be supplied in a single session (though the balance between the two may well vary from one sermon to another). Without an accurate diagnosis the disease will run its course and destroy its victim. But diagnosis without treatment can be just as fatal.
This applies equally whether we preach to non-believers or those who profess to believe. In Romans 1-3, admittedly, Paul is addressing the unsaved, whether Gentile or Jew. But the writer to the Hebrews uses just the same methodology in exhorting Christians. Let us see how he does it.
Warning and comfort
In Hebrews 6:1-8 we find one of the most serious warnings in the New Testament against apostasy or falling away. This is addressed to professing believers, not those outside the church.
But the writer does not leave the Damocletian sword hanging over their heads. He stirs them by his warning but immediately pours in comfort: ‘but, beloved’, he says, ‘we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner’ (Hebrews 6:9).
Whether preaching to the saved or the unsaved, the deep offensiveness of sin to God must be emphasised. But the bad news about sin and its consequences must always be accompanied by the good news concerning Christ – ‘who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works’ (Titus 2:14).
In preaching the good news concerning Christ we must also preach repentance. This is much neglected in our day, when many ‘believe’ in Christ without any experience or understanding of repentance.
Jesus commanded that ‘repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24:47). He himself preached ‘The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel’.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter’s call was for men to ‘repent and … be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins’ (Acts 2:38), while Paul told the Athenians that God ‘commands all men everywhere to repent’ and went on to proclaim the resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:18,31).
Repentance is ‘a change of mind’ and a ‘change of purpose’ (two different Greek words are used). It is not just being sorry for sin but turning from sin as a way of life.
If I am caught speeding by a police camera, I might well be sorry. But what is the long-term effect? I could get a map showing all the speed cameras in Britain, and take care not to be caught again.
Alternatively, I could change my driving habits so as to observe the speed limit whether there are cameras present or not. Only the latter pictures the life-change that is repentance.
The throne gift of Christ
But as with sin, repentance must not be preached apart from Christ. Why not? Because repentance is his throne-gift! Peter declares, ‘Him God has exalted to his right hand, to be a Prince and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31). To preach repentance, then, we must declare that Christ is risen and exalted to God’s right hand.
Again, when Peter defended his visit to the Gentile Cornelius, his critics ‘became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life”‘ (Acts 11:18).
Even as we call on men to repent, therefore, it is essential that we point them to Christ alone as the source of repentance. Repentance and faith are alike the gifts of God.
The power and wisdom of God
It is because Jesus Christ is the source of all we need for salvation – repentance and faith – and because he dispenses these things from his ‘glorious high throne’, that Paul can ‘preach Christ crucified’ as ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
Christ is the power of God because he bestows salvation in sovereign grace. He is the wisdom of God because God has wisely chosen that there should be ‘no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
This is good news, for we could never save ourselves from sin and the judgement it deserves.
In the next article we shall continue to enquire what it means to ‘preach Christ’.