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Shepherd’s Conference (VI)

This evening’s session began with a selection of songs being sung by the Master’s College choir. They are clearly an exceptionally talented group and sing absolutely beautifully. It was a real blessing to hear them. When they had finished up, MacArthur introduced Al Mohler, tonight’s speaker.

After regaling us with some hilarious stories of his own ineptitude (with the final story culminating in him buying a hilariously inappropriate Mother’s Day card for his wife), Dr. Mohler said that many preachers today really have nothing better to say than what is in a greeting card. All around us are preachers preaching greeting card theology that says the gospel comes down to this: you’re affirmed, you’re encouraged, you’re loved, be happy, God loves you, seize the day. After declaring “God save us from preachers with greeting card theology!” he turned to 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, his text for the evening. This passage does not portray a greeting card theology, but a gospel-focused, Christ-centered theology. It is a theology that is nailed to a cross. And, in fact, Paul’s whole purpose in this letter is to point to the centrality of the cross. He then posed this question to the audience: To what extent are we really preaching the cross?

The cross makes no sense if you are looking for therapy or self-help. It only makes sense within the context of the full gospel. The cross is an always has been counter-intuitive and counter-cultural.

In this passage Paul sees two great enemies in gospel preaching:

The first issue he takes up is superiority of speech or wisdom. This is difficult to understand without stepping into the original context. Paul speaks effectively but does so without refusing to play the game and making the expectation. There was an expectation in Corinth of particular kinds of sophisticated rhetoric. There was intellectual association that amounts to absolutely nothing. There were three parts to the kind of sophistry that people of that day and that culture expected. Ethos – credibility because of who a person is, pathos – emotional connection, logos – reason. But Paul would not play this game or play the role of an orator. It is not that he couldn’t but simply that he wouldn’t. He refused to meet the expectation. The Corinthian church was being seduced by the flashy and skilled speakers. They were people who had itchy ears and just wanted those ears to be scratched. From this we see that it is easy to believe you can base your ministry on eloquence but Paul’s argument is simply that someone more eloquent will eventually come along and destroy your ministry. The greatest problem in all of this is not that they’ll be drawn to the eloquent but that they won’t be drawn to the cross.

We don’t worry too much today about orators coming to town or sophisticated eloquence being the problem in our churches. Our problem is that everything distilled to a sound bite, to commercials. If you can’t say it in 30 seconds it’s not worth saying. In our harmonic age, when people mostly want to feel better about themselves there are those who will package whatever you want to sell to meet the expectation. You can package things to meet any need, either real or created. Politicians play this game and spend millions to help them reframe and repackage their platforms in order to alienate the fewest and attract the most. This is all pathos, no logos, no need for ethos. Much the same is true in the church. Paul was concerned that any reliance on the game that was expected would reduce the gospel’s power.

Mohler then had the people in attendance imagine a scenario. What if there could be a great winepress for our ministry into which all the words we could ever preach and teach? And what if that winepress could distill these words to their very essence? What would this be? Would they be words about the cross and would they constitute the gospel? The Apostle Paul always distills this down to the essence. Mohler surveyed a wide variety of passages and proved just how consistently Paul returns to the cross. It is the very essence of his ministry.

Tragically, there are some who love theology more than the cross. However, theology without the cross is dead and sterile and lifeless. There can be learning and erudition but no saving power. When you preach the theology of the cross it does not make the preacher look wise, but it makes Christ look glorious. The theology of the cross is simple, clear and uncluttered theology. There are to be no tricks, no false and manipulative emotionalism – just the gospel and never selling the gospel short.

Paul’s second issue is weakness and he makes it known that he did not come to the Corinthian church in strength. Most pulpit committees today are not looking for weakness, but Paul makes very clear that when he came, he came in weakness rather than strength. He wanted to be sure that the church saw the strength of a crucified Christ. He wanted them to be sure they knew that the power they felt was the power of a gracious God through His gospel rather than his own skill in oration. There was no confusion about his strength because he is weakness personified. Who wants to sign up for weakness? Paul says, “Christians do.” We are the fellowship of the weak and the preacher should be the weakest in this respect. Paul wanted to be sure that the gospel was not reduced by any misunderstanding about who he was and how capable he was. And so he was unashamed to arrive in Corinth weak and fearful and trembling.

Paul was afraid of failing in his mission. He was afraid that he would appear falsely self-sufficient and would rob the power of the cross. From here Mohler described the power of the cross in words that just jumped out at me: “The whole counsel of God is summarized in the cross. The cross is a symbol of the gospel in its totality.” These days we know that the cross is robbed of its power by liberal revisionists who deny the blood atonement, who argue against the crosses necessity and so on. We know that these imperil our people as they are packaged by the slick. But the bigger problem is that in many pulpits the cross is not denied, but simply not preached.

Because Paul came in weakness, the people would know that it was not Paul who persuaded them but that it was the Holy Spirit. Most preachers want the wrong kind of power to be demonstrated in their ministries. But it ultimately comes down to whether they really believe in the power of the cross and that it is the Holy Spirit’s task to take that simple declarative message and save. It is tempting to try to look good and healthy and slick. But Paul was clear about his weakness. God uses our weakness in ways He never chooses to use our strength. At this point Mohler read the final letter of James Boice to his congregation (and if you have not read it before, you really ought to do so. You can find it here.). This letter serves as a beautiful illustration of strength in weakness.

And then Mohler closed by returning to the analogy of the winepress. He asked When you come to minister what are you going to come with? Power, purpose, charisma? We should learn from the example of Paul who brought only the testimony of God. What do you want your people to know? Again we learn from Paul who wanted to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. Paul wanted nothing more than that his preaching demonstrate the Holy Spirit and His power. And then he finished with some rhetorical questions. In the great winepress of words, what will be left of your ministry? If we could reduce it to its essence, what would it sound like? What would it look like? Would it look anything like this? Would it look anything like the ministry of the Apostle?

We’ll be back tomorrow for the final day of the conference. We will have the privilege of hearing from Mark Dever and John MacArthur and to witness a panel discussion. See you then!

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