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The Cross:     Preaching Christ   by Charles McIlvaine

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  Preaching Christ  

Brethren, it is a long time since I addressed you in the form of a Charge. Various have been the causes; the chief of them, as you well know, having been connected with the state of my health. Addressing you again in that mode, and with exclusive reference to matters pertaining to our office as Ministers of Christ, realizing how near my time is to lay it down, I choose a subject with which a Bishop may well desire to close his ministry; which indeed all our work should be identified with, and which, I am thankful to say, has been obtaining, ever since mine began, a deeper and stronger possession of my mind, my affections, and my ministry -- I mean the work of preaching Christ, according to the Scriptures, and the example of the Apostles.

"Go preach the Gospel," were the words of our Lord to his Apostles, which conveyed to them and to us the whole weight and substance of the commission of his Ministers and Ambassadors. It was the unquestioning obedience of a simple and unhesitating faith to that one command, animated by an unquenchable love to its divine Author and to the souls he died to save, enlightened by the teaching and made mighty by the power of the Holy Spirit, that constituted all the vigor and efficacy of the ministry of the Apostles.

It was thus that their weapons of warfare became "mighty through God," and achieved those stupendous victories of the truth over "the spirit that rules in the children of disobedience," which the weaker faith and more timid obedience of the Church in later days have so poorly imitated. And, as in the beginning, so also in all times of the Christian dispensation, it has pleased God that sinners shall be brought "into captivity to the obedience of Christ" and made partakers of his salvation, by the obedience of his ministers to that one original charge and command -- "preach the Gospel." Faith by hearing; Gospel faith, by hearing Gospel truth; and such hearing, by the preaching of the word of God, is His standing rule according to which He bestows His Spirit for the conviction, conversion, and sanctification of men.

But it is manifest from the Scriptures that the Apostles identified the Gospel with Christ; so that, in their view and practice, to preach the Gospel was neither more nor less than to preach Christ. The record which, in a few words, describes their ministry is that, "daily in the temple and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ." Paul to the Romans defines the whole Gospel by saying that it is "concerning Jesus Christ." (Rom. 1:3). The employment of his two years' imprisonment at Rome was all comprehended in "teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus." And his whole ministry was given unto him, he testifies, that he "might preach the unsearchable riches of Christ." As he could say, "For me to live is Christ;" so for him to preach was Christ. To him Christ and the Gospel were one.

But we must here note the chief feature in their preaching of Christ. They omitted nothing pertaining to him; but there was one thing on which, more than anything else, they very particularly and emphatically dwelled. They took great pains to set forth the Lord Jesus in all that he was and is, in person and office, as once on earth and now in heaven, his preexistent glory with the Father, his incarnation and humiliation in our nature, his death, resurrection, and intercession; all his love, all his promises, all his commandments; so that there was no part of the whole counsel of God "concerning His Son Jesus Christ," which they kept back.

But manifestly there was one event in his history, one work amid all his works, which stood in their view as the great event and work, around which they gathered the force of their testimony, as its central light and power -- to which they made all that went before it look forward for consummation, and all that succeeded look back as to its foundation, and on the faithful declaration of which, with its immediate connections, they very especially rested the faithfulness of their work as preachers of the Gospel.

No doubt you anticipate me. Such passages of the Apostles arise to your minds, as, "we preach Christ crucified;" "I determined not to know anything among you (while declaring unto you the testimony of God) save Jesus Christ and him crucified;" "God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ;" "For the preaching of the cross is to those who perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved it is the power of God." They preached Christ -- but as Christ crucified.

They said continually, like John the Baptist, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," but it was the "Lamb slain" -- Christ in his death -- bearing "our sins in his own body on the tree," that they pointed to. They rejoiced in everything pertaining to their Lord, from his birth at Bethlehem to his present glory at the Father's right hand; but the one thing in which they rejoiced so supremely, that everything else was lost in comparison, was his cross. Of the two sacraments ordained of Christ for his Church, that which alone goes with the believer to be renewed and repeated all along the way of his earthly life, has for its great object to "show the Lords death until he come."

It was a great lesson which the Lord thus taught us as to how we must preach him. His Apostles therefore became in speech, what that sacrament is in symbol; constantly showing the Lord's death as the sinner's life. Thus, when they spoke of the Christian's race for "the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" - and when they exhorted us while in that contest to be always "looking unto Jesus" -- the special aspect in which they presented him, was as enduring the cross.

And I need not here say that their sense of the supreme importance in their ministry of the death of Christ was because they beheld therein the one only and the one all-sufficient sacrifice and propitiation, the vicarious atonement, for the sins of the whole world; that great work of God wherein he laid in Zion, for a sure foundation, the precious cornerstone, on which the sinner believing shall not be confounded. It is all contained in one verse -- "Christ has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God." (1 Peter 3:18). And again, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." (Galatians 3:13).

Thus, brethren, we have our lesson and example. In the way the Apostles preached the Gospel we must try to preach it. As they preached Christ, so must we. God forbid that we should glory in anything else as ministers of the word. Preachers of Christ, according to the mind of Christ -- ah, how all honors, all satisfaction in our work will perish but that! When our stewardship is to be accounted for, and we are just departing, and the veil, half drawn aside, discloses what we are to meet and what to be forever, how then shall we care for praise of learning or praise of speech or any vapors of men's applause! But then, to have "the testimony of our conscience that in simplicity and godly sincerity, -- not with enticing words of men's wisdom," we have made it our life-business and our heart-pleasure to "teach and preach Jesus Christ," as they did whom he gave to be our examples, having ourselves first learned his preciousness to our own souls; oh, what consolation and thankfulness with which to die.

Evidently then, my brethren, it is a most serious question to be always studying, how we may so proclaim the truth committed to us in Holy Scripture, that in the sense of the Apostles it may be said of us in our whole ministry that "we preach Christ crucified." To this we devote this address. It is a great question indeed. Many are the failures -- many the egregious failures. Sometimes it seems as if the preacher could preach just as he does if Christ and his work were a mere incidental in religion, a name, and little more -- answering now and then as a convenience to a sentence; introduced occasionally, because, under some texts, not easily avoided, but never as the root and foundation out of which our whole ministry proceeds. But what dreadful condemnation to be thus essentially defective at the very heart of the great work committed to us!

Nothing can in the least atone for its absence. You might as well attempt to turn night into day, by lighting a candle as a substitute for the sun. Our ministry is all darkness, emptiness, and impotence; all condemnation to us, all delusion to those who hear us, all dishonor to the grace of God, whatever the breath of man may say of it, except as it is pervaded, illumined, filled with the testimony of Christ as once the sacrifice for sin, crucified and slain; now the glorified and ever-living intercessor for all that come unto God by him.

There are many ways of approaching more or less to that attainment without ever reaching it. Some of the most common we will endeavor to state:

It is very possible to preach a great deal of important religious truth, and so that there shall be no admixture of important error in doctrine or precept -- yes, truth having an important relation to Christ and his office, and yet not to preach Christ. The defect will be not in the presence of what should not be there, but in the absence of what should be, of that which is necessary to give all the truth delivered, the character of "truth as in Jesus."

Such absence, when nevertheless all is true, may be more destructive to the Gospel character of the preaching, than even the introduction of some positive error: The preaching may be very earnest. It may contain much that is affecting and deeply impressive -- strong emotions may be stirred in the hearers. The earnest enquiry may be excited -- what must we do? And yet, the preaching may wholly fail in giving any such distinct answer to that question, as will turn the attention of the enquirer to Christ as all his refuge.

We may say a great deal about and around the Gospel and never preach the Gospel. Religious truths are not the Gospel, except in proportion as, like John the Baptist, they point to the Lamb of God. For example -- suppose you preach on the vanity of the world; the uncertainty of life; the awfulness of death unprepared for; the tremendous events of the judgment-day; the little profit of gaining the whole world and losing the soul; suppose you enlarge on the necessity and blessedness of a religious life, and the happiness of the saved. Does it follow that you have preached the Gospel, or any part of it? If deep impressions are made, and serious enquiries excited, does it follow that Christ is preached?

Such topics unquestionably belong most legitimately to our ministry; they are important parts of the truth given us to enforce; but they are entirely subordinate and preliminary. They are not the distinctive seed of the word from which God has ordained that newness of life shall spring. They are rather the plough and the harrow to open and stir the ground, that it may receive the seed of life.

You may spend all your time in such work -- not omitting to sprinkle your discourses with the often-repeated name of Christ and with much Gospel language; and just because there is no pervading exhibition of Christ, in his work of Justification by his righteousness and of Sanctification by his Spirit, given so pointedly and plainly that whoever will may understand, you may never attain to the honor, in the sight of God, of teaching and preaching Jesus Christ, whatever the estimate of those who have not learned to discriminate between truth that is religious and truth that is not only religious, but distinctively gospel-truth; who know not the difference between such preaching as makes the hearer feel some spiritual need, and that which tells him what he needs and where and how he is to find it.

The hearer who has learned Christ, as his lesson of heart and life, of hope and peace, and knows nothing as precious to his soul, but as it leads him to Jesus, on the cross of sacrifice and on the throne of intercession, Jesus in his invitations and promises, Jesus in his grace to help, his righteousness to clothe, and his power to sanctify, will feel that in all that ministry "one thing is needful" -- and that one thing, the very thing on which all its character hinges, -- CHRIST.

But let us advance a little further. You may preach with faithfulness and plainness the strictness and holiness of the law, how it enters with its requirements into all the thoughts and affections of the heart, pronouncing condemnation on the sinner, and bringing us all in guilty before God. There may be no shrinking from the fullest exposition of the Scriptures concerning the end of the impenitent.

Still more: the office of Christ as the only Savior, and his merits as the only plea, may be introduced not infrequently, and yet may there be a great lack of such distinct setting forth of Christ -- such holding up of Christ crucified, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness before the dying Israelites for all to see and live -- such presentation of God's great remedy for every man's necessities, as belongs to the consistency, simplicity and fullness of the work committed to the minister of the Gospel.

While speaking much of duty, the grace to enable us to do it may not be proportionably presented. While the penalties of sin may be kept in full view, the fullness and tenderness and earnestness of the invitations and promises of Christ to the sinner turning unto God, may be very dimly exhibited.

That great lesson, which we have need to be always studying, may have been but little learned, how to preach the law as showing our need of the righteousness of Christ, and how to preach the Gospel as establishing and honoring the law; the one to convince of sin and condemnation, the other as providing a deliverance so complete that to the believer there is no condemnation; the one as taking away all pleas derived from ourselves, the other as furnishing a most perfect and prevailing plea in the mediation of Christ; the law as giving the rule of life, the Gospel as giving the power of life, yes, life from death, in Jesus Christ; the law to humble us under a consciousness of an utter beggary before God; the Gospel as directing us to him in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell.

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Again. It may be that doctrine immediately concerning the Lord Jesus, and bringing his person and office into view, may be much introduced. We may take opportunity to speak of his infinite dignity of being; the mystery of his incarnation; the humiliation and love and grace of his coming in our nature; his tenderness and compassion, and power to save; the perfectness of his example and the depth of his sufferings. Indeed, everything revealed concerning him may at times be found in our teaching, without error, and in each particular, as it stands by itself, without serious defect. But there may be still an important deficiency.

The proportion of truth may not be kept. There is a proportion of parts in the whole body of gospel truth just as there is the same in our own bodies. We must omit none of the parts, but put each in its right relation to all the rest. To fail in this, so that while we embrace all we deform all, by a disproportionate exaltation of some, and depression of others, may be just as destructive of the gospel character of our ministry, just as confusing and misleading, as if we omitted some truths, and perverted others.

For example, you may preach Christ in various aspects; but Christ crucified, the great sacrifice of propitiation, though not omitted, may not have that high-place, that central place, that all-controlling place, that place of the head-stone of the corner, which is necessary to its right adjustment to all parts of the system of faith.

You may preach the Incarnation of Christ in all its truth as a separate event, and yet be in great error as regards its relation to other events; making it so unduly prominent that his death shall be made to appear comparatively subordinate and unessential -- the means exalted above the end -- the preparation of the body of Christ for sacrifice, being made of more importance and more effective in our salvation than his offering of that body on the cross. But the great Sacrament which we carry with us all the way of our journey, as our great confession, and joy and glory, is to show, as often as we eat that bread and drink that cup, not the Lord's birth, but "the Lord's death until he come."

You may preach all of Christ's work as well as person, and all in due proportion of parts, and yet some other vital truth essentially connected may be so disproportionately presented as to create in the whole a most important defect. You have exhibited the foundation which God has laid in Zion. The question remains, how the sinner is to avail himself of that foundation. He is to build thereon. But How? The Apostle answers, "He that believes on him shall not be confounded."

We build by faith. We cannot preach Christ without preaching on that by which we become partakers of Christ. Evidently confusion, indistinctness, feebleness, deficiency there, must produce the same effect throughout the whole Gospel. If faith, in its nature, office, efficacy and distinctive operation and fruits, be kept in a place so obscure, so subordinate, or taught so confusedly that either it is wholly out of sight or hidden in a crowd of other things placed in the outer court of the temple instead of immediately by the altar of sacrifice, as the one instrumental grace by which the sinner partakes of the "Lamb of God;" if the works which are its fruits be so confounded with itself that the grace by which we are "rooted and grounded" in Christ, is made of no more influence in our participation of him than the several works of righteousness which grow out of its life, and follow upon the participation of Christ through its agency, then is the relative adjustment of truth most seriously spoiled and deformed.

Lastly, under this head of our inquiry; it may be that occasionally in a discourse, now and then, the setting forth of Christ is satisfactory in point of doctrine and the proportion of truth. But it may be only occasionally thus, when the text so obliges, according to rhetorical propriety, that we cannot avoid it. But such texts may not be chosen very often. Passing from subject to subject, the preacher comes, from time to time, to one which necessarily leads to the manifestation of Christ, in some leading feature of his grace and salvation, and then all may be well done and calculated to enlighten a mind hungering for the truth.

But, meanwhile, you may hear many a discourse which contains scarcely more of anything distinctive of the Gospel, or pertaining to Christ, except perhaps his name sometimes introduced, than if it were some other religion than Christ's of which the preacher is the minister. And in the general course of his work we may look in vain after that evident fondness of heart for views which most intimately and directly look unto Jesus; that habitual feeding of the flock in pastures watered by the river that proceeds out of the throne of God and the Lamb; that strong tendency, when subjects not directly testifying of Christ must be handled, to keep them as near to him as possible, and to return from them as soon as possible to others of a nearer neighborhood to the cross; that desire to illuminate all subjects with light from "the face of Jesus Christ," which proves the preacher's determination "to know nothing among men, but Jesus Christ and him crucified."

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We miss that habitualness of the testimony of Christ, that special love for all the region round about Gethsemane and Calvary, the atonement and the intercession, and the great gifts of the Spirit purchased thereby; we miss that constant tracing of all spiritual life and consolation, in its every influence and fruit, to Christ as the life, and that careful binding of all spiritual affections and duties upon him for support and strength, as the vine-dresser trains his vine upon its trellis, which appears so remarkably in the teaching of the Apostles.

We have thus endeavored to indicate some of the paths by which, without delivering anything untrue, and while delivering much important truth, we may come short of the duty under consideration. We proceed to consider HOW we may fulfill it. What is it to preach Christ?

We have a great example in our Lord's own teaching. When, after his resurrection, he met the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, and found them in such darkness and doubt concerning himself, it is written that, "beginning at Moses, and all the prophets, he expounded unto them, in all the Scriptures, the things concerning himself:" the things concerning Himself. Our office as Christian ministers, expounding the Scriptures, is to bring forth all their teaching concerning that glorious One, Himself. Paul therefore said that he was "separated unto the Gospel of God concerning His Son Jesus Christ." (Romans 1:1-3). To teach sinners to know Christ, and to "count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Him," looking to the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate, through the truth which we give only in the letter, that spiritual and saving knowledge which only God gives, is the general expression of our duty.

But in the Gospel "concerning our Lord Jesus Christ," that is, in the circle of doctrines and duties and promises and blessings which constitute the message of great salvation in him, there is, as we have already hinted, a system of parts mutually related and dependent, all in perfect harmony, none so obscure or remote as to be of no importance to the right representation of the whole. That system, like that of our sun, has a center, by which all the parts are held in place, from which all their light and life proceed, and around which all revolve. You cannot exhibit the system of truth and duty until you have made known that central light and power; nor can you make known that power in all its truth, without exhibiting those surrounding and dependent parts of doctrine and precept. That central sun of light and life is Christ.

All of gospel truth and duty, of consolation and strength, abides in Christ -- derives from Christ, and glorifies Christ -- and must be so presented or it is divorced from its only life and loses its gospel character. He is the True Vine, and all parts of gospel truth are branches in him. Let such truth be presented without that connection, then its character as truth may remain, but its character for "truth as in Jesus" is lost. Its vitality is gone. Fruit of life in Christ Jesus, it cannot produce. It is just as true and important concerning truth as concerning men, that "the branch cannot bring forth fruit except it abide in the vine."

Now what is the best mode of setting forth this system of grace? Where shall we begin? Shall we first take up the elementals of religion (the outsides of the circle; reasoning upward from general truths to the more particular; explaining and enforcing ordinances and institutions of the Church) as our road of approach to the Head and Life of the Church; confining attention to means of grace before we have directed our hearers to the grace itself in the great fountain head; and thus gradually, and after a long process of preparatory work, arriving at last at the person and mission and sacrifice of Christ? But we must remember who they are whom we are thus keeping so long in the cold and in the dark. They are sinners under the condemnation of the law of God. They are dying sinners.

How brief the time of some of them to learn, you know not. You have no time to spend on preliminaries before you have introduced them to the great salvation. What they have most need to know is, He who came to seek and to save the lost -- how they may find him, and what are the terms of his salvation. Begin at once with Christ -- "Behold the Lamb of God " -- is the voice. There is no light until that light appears. The icy-bondage of the sinner's heart yields not until that sun is risen. Astronomers, when they teach the solar system, begin with the sun.

Thence, to the related and independent orbits, is easy. So the apostles taught. See how, when they had the whole system of the Gospel, as distinguished from that of the law, to teach the Jews -- the whole outward and visible of the Christian Church, as well as all the inward and spiritual of the Christian life, all so new and strange and unpalatable to a people so unprepared, so entangled with traditionary aversions and deep-seated perversions, see how they leaped over all preliminaries and begin at once with Christ and him crucified, the sacrifice of his death, "and the power of his resurrection." At once they broke ground and set up the banner of their ministry there.

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Just at the point where the pride of the sinner would most revolt, and the wisdom of man was most at fault, and the ignorance of Jew and Gentile was most complete, where the Jew saw only a stumbling block and the Greek only foolishness, there they opened their message. "I delivered unto you, first of all (said Paul), that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." (I Corinthians 15:3) They could not wait to root out prejudice, plant first principles, approach the entrenched power "that rules in the children of disobedience," by the strategy of man's wisdom, when they knew that Christ was the great "power of God unto salvation." At once to open the windows and let in the sun was their way of giving light to those who sat in darkness.

At once to show the amazing love of God to sinners in not sparing His own Son, but delivering him up for us all, was their way to draw the sinner's heart to God. Human device would have said, as it has often said, in substance, Make philosophy prepare the way. Clothe your teaching in robes of man's wisdom. Keep back the offence of the cross until you have first conciliated the respect of your hearers by a show of human learning and reasoning. And when your master must be preached directly, don't begin at his death.

Speak of his life, its benevolence, its beauty. Compare his moral precepts with those of heathen sages. Christ as the example and the teacher, is your great theme. "No (said Paul), lest the cross should be of none effect," "that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." They remembered the words of their Lord, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me." Lifted up in the cross he had now been. Lifted up as Christ crucified for us, in the sight of the whole world, by the ministry of the Gospel he was next to be. Such was God's argument with sinful men.

They believed and therefore preached. God gave the increase, and wonderful was the harvest.

Thus, dear brethren, we have our lesson. We must begin as well as end with Christ, and always abide in him, for the life and power of our ministry, just as for the peace and joy of our own souls. But having thus begun, what remains? It is the revealed office of the Holy Spirit, as the Sanctifier and the Comforter, to glorify Christ. "He shall glorify me," said the Lord. But how? "He shall take of mine, and show it unto you." It is our office also, under the power of the Holy Spirit, to glorify Christ in all his person and relations to us, and by the same method, namely, to take of what pertains to him and show it unto men. Whatever pertains to him, we are to show. We must "expound in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." Of those things we will attempt a brief sketch and outline, but it must be only the merest outline, and that very imperfect.

We must preach Christ in regard to the glory of the Godhead which He had with the Father before the world was. We cannot exhibit the death of the cross to which he became obedient, without considering the infinite majesty of the throne from which he descended. We must keep the connection which the apostle has given us between the glory of our Lord before he came in the flesh, and his humiliation in the flesh. You remember that "he became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross," is introduced by "being in the form of God, he thought it not robbery to be equal with God." (Phil. 2:6-8)

In the same connection is the Incarnation and Birth of our Lord. Very near are the mysteries of Bethlehem to those of Calvary. We cannot tell how Jesus bore our sins, without telling how he took our nature. To show that he could stand in man's place under the law, we must show that he was made very man. Hence, in the apostle's account, between the form of God from all eternity, and the obedience unto death, the connecting event is, "he was made in the likeness of man." We must take care that in a just zeal for his divinity we do not impair or put in a place of comparative unimportance his humanity. The one is as essential to the Gospel as the other -- the perfect man as the perfect God. Our confession glories as much in the Word "made flesh," as in the truth that the same Word "was God."

In beholding and showing the great salvation, we are to consider as of equal necessity thereto "the Man, Christ Jesus," and that he was, and is, "Jehovah our Righteousness." In the earliest ages of Satan's attack upon the integrity of the gospel, the heresies did not more assail the essential divinity than the real humanity of Christ; knowing that if he were not perfect man, the sacrifice for man's sins were as unavailing as if he had been only man.

The assaults of these present times are indicative, we think, of the same strategy. How carefully and minutely do the Scriptures exhibit our Lord as man in all that is of man, while at the same time we are made to behold his glory, "as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." "In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman," that in all time and to all eternity he might be "made unto us of God," through his death, "wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption."

In setting forth our Lord's atoning death, we must keep in full view his perfect life -- that suffering life between the cradle and the cross, in which his obedience to the law, completed by the endurance of its curse for us, was all wrought out. He was the Lamb without spot, that he might be the sacrifice all-sufficient. It was his fitness as the purchase-price of our redemption, and at the same time the pattern of the mind which must be in us to make us meet to be partakers of that redemption. Christ our example of holiness is a most important part of the setting forth of Christ as our foundation of hope. There was one hour in his life for which he came into this world; (John 12:23, and 17:1) but every hour while he was in this world, as leading to that, exhibited the mind that was in Christ Jesus, and which must be also in us.

In preaching Christ crucified, let us take care that we avoid the mistake, not infrequently made, of terminating our representation almost entirely with the crucifixion -- as if the slaying of the sacrifice completed the oblation of the sacrifice; forgetting the office of the High Priest to enter within the veil with the blood of sprinkling, carrying the sacrifice before the mercy-seat, there to appear in the presence of God for us, and thus to "obtain eternal redemption for us."

"Christ crucified" is not merely Christ on the cross, but Christ also "on the right hand of the throne of God," as having "endured the cross." That throne is called "the throne of the Lamb," and the redeemed in heaven are represented as praising "the Lamb that was slain." The preaching of Christ crucified goes necessarily into all that Christ did and obtained for us after, and in consequence of, his crucifixion. The Resurrection, Ascension, and Exaltation to headship over all things, are great themes, vitally associated with what immediately preceded them, forming the essential connection between what was finished "once for all" when Jesus died, and what is yet to be finished "for all that come unto God by him," now that he "ever lives."

Continued



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© 1999 The Old Time Gospel Ministry
"When to seek God has become life and to glorify God has become self, then you have truly found God."