Preaching the Cross: A Reply to Bob Setliff

By Jeff Asher

In the June 20, 1993 bulletin of the church of Christ in Gruver, Texas brother Bob Setliff has an article titled “When Are We Going to Hear Some Sound Gospel Preaching?” For the benefit of our readers we reprint it below. Following the article will be our views on the subject that brother Setliff introduces.

The Setliff Article

He had just passed the halfway mark in a series of sermons on the cross. The congregation appeared to be reveling in a deep, reverent study of the love of God that created the way for mercy and justice to meet at the cross  unto our salvation.

So he was caught by surprise when a brother con-fronted him at the door. “This sounds like what you could hear in any denomination in town!” he said. Then, poking his finger into the preacher’s chest, he asked, “I want to know when we are going to hear some sound gospel preaching from this pulpit?”

The poor man was just reflecting his background. He had been reared in a heritage that got sidetracked from the gospel. In the name of “preaching the gospel” and “sound doctrine” he had heard a lot of anger and name-calling. He had endured verbal assaults delivered by angry men. The louder the noise and the angrier the man, the “sounder” the preaching was judged to be.

Think about your own experience. Can’t you recall six evening sermon titles of a Sunday through Friday “Gospel Meeting” when you were growing up: Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, Be Baptized and Live the Christian Life. These topics can be preached repeatedly without any gospel being taught. They are appropriate and necessary responses to the gospel. But authentic gospel preaching is an exploration of the love of God shown in the incarnation. It tells of Christ’s treatment of lepers, prostitutes, and flops. It never gets far from the story of the cross.

Sound doctrine never leaves the impression that the burden of redemption lies with us and the scrupulous performance of our duties. It always impresses the hearer with what God did to take the full burden of our sin to himself at Calvary. The historic reduction of the gospel to a series of strident messages about human liability to commands has stood the gospel on its head. It has produced a counter-gospel that brings that anathema of God on those who teach it (Gal. 1:6-9).

May God raise up more who will exalt Christ with sound gospel preaching.

A Response

I am not certain whether brother Setliff is recounting a recent experience of his own or some other’s. I am rather inclined to think it is the former. Whichever, something has certainly put a burr under his saddle. The bulletin from Gruver is generally filled with the congregational “gossip” and perhaps a piece of poetry or a cute short story. It is out of character for brother Setliff to be so critical of his brethren. He certainly must think it important to break with his pattern.

I am not complaining. It is past time for brother Setliff and those with whom he sympathizes to frankly express themselves. While I do not rejoice in his erroneous convictions, I applaud his “grit.” However, I fear he has condemned himself in his efforts having joined the ranks of “angry men” who engage in “name-calling.” While brother Setliff has not poked his finger into anyone’s chest, he certainly has pointed it, and then shaken it, at the majority of his preaching brethren.

There is much in this little piece that needs to be answered.


Brother Setliff’s view of the gospel “never gets far from the story of the cross.” Certainly, the cross is the central theme of all our preaching. Paul wrote the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). However, did Paul not preach anything but the death of Jesus?

In that same first letter to Corinth Paul said, “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried and that he rose again on the third day” (15:3,4). Yes, the facts of the cross were the first thing they heard, but that was not the totality of Paul’s preaching. As a matter of fact, Paul complained about their spiritual condition saying, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither now are ye able, for ye are yet carnal” (3:2,3). These brethren were babes in Christ who started on the milk of the gospel and should be progressing on to the meat of the gospel. The gospel is more, much, much more, than just the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

The gospel in addition to the facts of the cross includes commands to be obeyed (2 Thess. 1:8; Mk. 16:15,16) and promises to be received (Col. 1:5,23). These commandments and promises are tied directly to the foundation facts of the gospel. They cannot be properly obeyed, nor hoped for without genuine reliance upon Jesus death upon the cross. However, it required that we venture beyond “the story of the cross” to the significance of the cross.

It is brother Setliff that is off on the side and getting nowhere. He talks about “appropriate and necessary responses to the gospel,” then he belittles preaching the conditions of pardon and calling it gospel. Brother Setliff, is preaching water baptism a part of the gospel? If not, what is there in the facts of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus that could lead a person to respond by seeking baptism? There is nothing in the facts of the cross that demands a response of any kind until the significance of those facts is tied to the commands and promises of the gospel.

“Preached Repeatedly Without Any Gospel”

It is impossible to properly preach faith, repentance, confession or baptism without preaching the gospel of Christ. What was brother Setliff doing during those “gospel meetings” when these things were being preached? He must have been asleep to have not heard “the story of the cross.”

What are men to hear? The message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). What are men to believe? The death of the cross (Phil. 2:8). What are men to confess? The Christ that triumphed in the cross (Col. 2:15). How are men to repent? By crucifying themselves unto the world by the cross (Gal. 6:14). Into what are men baptized? The blood of the cross (Col. 1:20; Rom. 6:3). How do men live the Christian life? Our old man is crucified with him on the cross (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20).

The kind of preaching that brother Setliff is criticizing is the very kind of preaching for which he prays. These “strident messages about human liability to commands,” as he calls them, are cross-centered appeals to men in sin and error.

For example, I am preaching the cross when I preach on the unacceptability of instrumental music in the worship of the church. How so? By properly applying the death of Christ to the covenants (Col. 2:14), by exalting the authority of the resurrected Lord in matters that pertain to the church which he purchased with his blood (Acts 20:28), and by calling men to repentance and forgiveness of sins which is in his blood (1 Jn. 1:7-10).

Another example of preaching the cross would be in exposing the errors of the doctrine and practice of the Baptist denomination. When I preach a man cannot wear the name Baptist, I am preaching the cross (1 Cor.1:12,13). When I show that Baptist baptism is not of Christ, I am preaching the cross (Eph. 2:16; 1:22,23).

“Angry Men and Name-calling”

The “legs of the lame are not equal,” and brother Setliff has a well-pronounced limp. It is a case of the pot calling the kettle black when he complains about name-calling. There are quite a few epitaphs hurled in this piece: “poor man,” “angry men,” “verbal assaults,” “noise,” “strident messages,” “counter-gospel.” This certainly is language that is loaded and prejudicial.

However, he may mean that some of us gospel preachers still believe in identifying those who teach and practice false doctrine, calling the names of the denominations from the pulpit. If this is the charge, I plead guilty. However, I am in good company. The Lord did it (Matt. 23). Peter did it (Acts 2:23; 3:14-15; 5:28). Paul did it (1 Tim. 1:20). I will follow their example in this matter gladly (1 Cor. 11:1).

Also, it would do brother Setliff some good to stray far enough away from his version of “the story of the cross” to learn that anger is not necessarily a sin (Eph. 4:26). The Lord got angry enough to drive the money changers out of the temple On. 2:14-18). Phinehas got angry enough to slay the Prince of Israel and the woman of Moab (Num. 25:7). Paul was angry enough that he struck Barjesus blind (Acts 13:10,11). When men love God and hate sin they can get angry and sin not. Brother Setliff do the false doctrine of the denominations and wickedness of the world make you angry? Maybe the problem is that some just do not love God and hate sin as they should.

“A Counter-Gospel”

Brother Setliff contends that teaching men that they must obey God somehow stands “the gospel on its head” and produces a “counter-gospel.” Furthermore, he contends that this “leaves the impression that the burden of redemption lies with us and the scrupulous performance of our duties.”

Here brother Setliff talks like a Baptist preacher rather than a gospel preacher. Baptists have always complained that “if baptism is necessary then salvation is of works and not grace.” They have ridiculed the idea of “having to eat the Lord’s supper every Sunday and be faithful unto death.”

The fact that God requires the obedience of faith does not imply that “the burden of redemption” is ours. Obedience is its integrity. Hear James, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou has faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:17-18). Our obedience to God’s commands does not earn our salvation; rather, obedience perfects faith and makes it alive. Furthermore, what God requires is not a “burden” which we are unable to bear, that is, our duties are not such that we must live in fear of failure. God has promised that we have his grace in times of need (Heb. 4:16), that no temptation will come upon us that we cannot bear and escape (1 Cor. 10:13) and that none of his commands is beyond our ability to comply if we are willing (1 Jn. 5:3). This being the case we are confident (1 Jn. 5:14-15).

“Sound Gospel Preaching”

I do not know who the brother was that poked his finger in brother Setliffs chest asking, When are we going to hear some Sound gospel preaching from this pulpit?” However, I think it was a pretty good question. Brother Setliff has made it pretty clear that he does not want anything to do with the kind of preaching that was done by Christ and his apostles. Rather, brother Setliff wants to dilute the gospel by dc-emphasizing those elements of the gospel that make the cross significant.

Brother Setliff, the gospel you are promoting never gets around to the story of the cross. It will not begin to tell “prostitutes and flops” what do to be saved, nor does it “explore the love of God” and what he did to take the full burden of our sin to himself at Calvary.” You have rendered the gospel powerless by refusing to declare the whole counsel of God wherein the righteousness of God is revealed.

It seems to me that we have an example of that about which Paul warned Timothy in his first letter. He said, “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud knowing nothing, but doting about questions arid strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputing of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Tim. 6:3-5).

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 2, p. 16-18
January 20, 1994