By Larry Ray Hafley
A few months ago I wrote some articles on what it does and does not mean to preach the cross of Christ. I cited New Testament examples of what it does mean and several current examples of confusion on the subject. I included a reference to some things another brother published in another paper as one example of a dangerous trend which has been developing. Lest someone think I am overemphasizing the person and the paper involved, I forbear at this time to repeat the specific reference since it is already available for anyone to look up. The brother in question has provided some feedback on what he intended to convey in his article. Both he and I have now written on what it means to preach the cross of Christ (see my series, “The Preaching of the Cross” (1-4), Guardian of Truth, May 21 -July 2, 1992). While we may disagree about some things in his article, judging from his feedback about the message he intended to convey, it seems to me we may agree on some fundamental principles involved in preaching the cross of Christ.
If we do agree, this article may preclude an impasse or a stalemate which would otherwise necessitate an open exchange of opposite views. If we do not agree on these fundamental principles, the brother in question may feel an exchange of opposing views is necessary. Since he says his only desire is to encourage balance in our preaching, I will do my best to affirm some balanced principles and propositions reflected in the gospel of Christ. If this will eliminate any grounds of strife between us, I will rejoice. I write not for his sake alone but that all of us may continue to reflect on what it means to preach the cross of Christ.
This article is written from the vantage point of things upon which we agree. The brother has stated some of these things in his feedback, and others are inferred from it. I do not wish to attribute anything to him which he does not believe, but I am assuming we do agree unless he chooses to protest. In this way it may be possible to put behind us some troubling aspects of his article (which will not be rehashed here) and to move on in the Lord’s work. With that hope in mind, each point will be introduced with the simple statement, “We agree.”
1. We agree. Properly understood, all the facts, commands, and promises of the gospel center in Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:16-17). The entire gospel system is the word or message of the cross of Christ (Acts 20:20-27; 1 Cor. 1:18). The center and circumference of all genuine gospel preaching is the cross of Calvary. The echoes of the execution, the cries of the cross, resound and reverberate throughout the gospel, whether we are proclaiming the atonement or baptism and the church. All “these items derive their significance only in proper connection to the one thing of preeminent importance — the cross of Christ.”
2. We agree. Preaching the cross of Christ means preaching all the Bible says about the man Jesus Christ and the plan he gave to save the world (Mk. 16:15-16). It includes the grace of God and the obedience of faith required of men (Rom. 1:5; 16:25-26). It includes what the Bible says about baptism, the church, and godly living (Tit. 2:11-14). It includes refuting error on any and all of these things (Gal. 1:6-9). If a person preaches only the man and the historical events at Calvary, he is not truly and fully preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified as New Testament preachers did (1 Cor. 2:2; Acts 18:8). The same is true of preaching only God’s grace, only obedience, only baptism, only the church, only godly living, or only refutation of error. The writer in question does not want to be committed to either — or in these things, nor do I, but we can be united in preaching Christ and him crucified by preaching all of these things. Neither of us wishes to say that preaching any one of these themes to the exclusion of the others is properly preaching the cross of Christ, as some have said (Bill Love, C. Leonard Allen, etc.).
3. We agree. The cross of Christ is central to New Testament worship. When we preach the New Testament pattern on worship, we are preaching the cross of Christ. When we oppose every departure from that pattern, we are still upholding the cross of Christ.
4. We agree. To attempt to preach the cross as a symbol of self-sacrifice, while neglecting the person and work of Christ, is a travesty on true gospel preaching. To strive to preach the cross, stressing faith in faith itself (as an end in itself), while ignoring the life and labor of the Lord, is a travesty on true gospel preaching. To endeavor to preach the cross, emphasizing repentance, baptism, and godly living as a self-help philosophy, while forgetting the Savior’s suffering and sacrifice, is a travesty on true gospel preaching. To pretend to preach the cross, presenting the church as simply group therapy, as something unrelated to the Christ condemned on Calvary, is a travesty on true gospel preaching.
Although I have not personally witnessed brethren preaching from such a perspective or even appearing to, I want to go on record as being unalterably opposed to all such contemptible concepts. Anything drifting in that direction would represent a perversion of the true meaning of the cross of Christ. If other brethren have seen, documented, and exposed such errors, I commend them and am ready to help in any way. I have heard and read some brethren such as Bill Love and C. Leonard Allen teaching that when we preach faith, repentance, baptism, reformation, and the church, we are failing to preach Christ. I trust the brother in question joins me in identifying that reaction as a travesty also.
5. We agree. To refute denominational error as a mere academic exercise, as a mere display of human learning or logic or eloquence, as anything separate from the person, work, and words of Christ, is a travesty on gospelpreaching. Although I have not personally seen this done among our brethren, I commend anyone who documents and opposes such errors. I do know some who react to any refutation of denominational error as a failure to preach Christ, and I trust the brother in question joins me in identifying that reaction as a travesty also.
6. We agree. Paul preached nothing but Christ and him crucified to the Corinthians, including all that Paul taught in person and in his epistles to Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-13; 4:17; 5:4; 7:17; 16: 1; 2 Thess. 2:15).
7. We agree. Paul preached the first things first at Corinth, including Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection along with the evidences of prophecy and eyewitness testimony. Along with the simple facts of the gospel, Paul preached the commands of the gospel (faith, repentance, baptism, scriptural worship, and faithful living) and the promises of the gospel (remission of sins, fellowship with God, all spiritual blessings in Christ, and the hope of resurrection and eternal life in heaven with God). See Acts 18 and all the 1 Corinthian letter, especially chapter 15. All of these things are included when we truly preach “Christ and him crucified” as Paul did (explained in more detail in my earlier series).
8. We agree. No faithful gospel preacher will fail to preach the facts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ simply because some denominations preach those facts. In a land filled with denominations, no faithful preacher will fail to openly oppose and refute the sins and errors of denominationalism, showing that they nullify the spiritual blessings procured at the cross, by the cross and through the cross (Eph. 2:16-18; Col. 1:21-22).
9. We agree. The gospel message has the cross at its center and includes everything God said about the church — its establishment, spiritual nature, work, worship, organization, discipline, and destiny (Isa. 2:24; Dan. 2:44; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:5; 1 Cor. 15:24).
10. We agree. Men in denominations who believe in the atonement of Christ must be pricked in the heart by learning the difference between Bible baptism and denominational baptism, and the difference between denominations and the New Testament church. To preach on such differences wherever needed is to preach the whole counsel of God on the cross of Christ. Such preaching does not relegate or consign the cross to a place of lesser importance, nor does it constitute replacing a cross-centered gospel with a church-centered gospel. All through the years, faithful gospel preachers have stressed that Christ is at the center of all things we preach and practice, and that no one can work or earn his way out of sin and into heaven.
11. We agree. Christ and the church are at times used interchangeably by the Holy Spirit in describing the spiritual realm or relationship of salvation (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Acts 8:1,3; Gal. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9; Acts 9:5; 2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 2:16). Therefore when we preach what the New Testament says about the church, we preach Christ and him crucified in the New Testament sense.
12. We agree. The church is not an institutional bureaucracy standing between God and man, but properly understood in New Testament terms, it is a spiritual relationship into which men must enter. When we preach that men must enter that relationship (the church), it is equivalent to preaching that they must enter Christ himself (2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 2:16; 1:3-23; 5:23-28). In that sense we preach Christ and the church, but we do not preach that some organizational structure or ecclesiastical hierarchy is the way of salvation.
13. We agree. The church is not our savior, but we have no savior or salvation unless we are members of the body of Christ, which is the kingdom of Christ, which is the church of Christ, the church we read about in the Bible. Who can name any one among us who preaches that the church rather than Christ is our Savior? We would be obligated to oppose that doctrine if anyone began to teach it. Among professed churches of Christ, men such as C. Leonard Allen, Rubel Shelly, Leroy Garrett, Carl Ketcherside, Cecil Hook, Charles Holt, Bill Swetmon, Richard Rodgers, Randy Mayeaux, Max Lucado, Bill Love, and a host of others have been teaching that people are being saved in Christ while continuing to be members of various denominations. While claiming to be cross-centered rather than church-centered, such men are actually enemies of the cross of Christ and we are obligated to oppose their perverted concepts of preaching Christ and him crucified. We are united in recognizing that the supposed super piety of these men is nothing but a superficial spirituality and we both repudiate such a spirit.
14. We agree. Bill Love, C. Leonard Allen, and others are wrong when they represent T. W. Brents’ book, The Plan of Salvation, as a departure from the preaching of the cross. The book is not inspired or inerrant, nor does it profess to cover everything the Bible covers on the plan of salvation, any more than the articles written by my brother and me profess to cover everything that can be said of the cross of Christ. Brents’ book is very thorough in preaching the truth and refuting error in terms of the audience he had in mind, just as could be said of Peter’s preaching in Acts 2, Stephen’s in Acts 7, and Paul’s in Acts 17. Whatever we may think of Brents’ book, we can agree that the Bible itself is the only truly comprehensive and inerrant proclamation of the cross of Christ and the whole plan of salvation.
15. We agree. Historically and currently, denominationalism, Calvinism, and sectarianism have professed to preach a cross-centered gospel but have perverted the New Testament pattern for the church and have often dismissed the importance of that pattern in the name of exalting Christ and the cross. Historically and currently, many brethren have included the pattern for the church in preaching Christ and him crucified. Men like C. Leonard Allen, Rubel Shelly, Leroy Garrett, Carl Ketcherside, Cecil Hook, Charles Holt, Bill Swetmon, Richard Rodgers, Randy Mayeaux, Max Lucado, and Bill Love regard the efforts of faithful brethren to preach Christ and his pattern for the church as out of order and out of balance. In their view such preaching eclipses Christ in favor of a church-centered religion because they see preaching Christ and preaching the church as a dichotomy rather than an interrelated, integrated whole.
This false dichotomy, this false distinction, is developed at length in Bill Love’s book, The Core Gospel, and in C. Leonard Allen’s book, The Cruciform Church. It seems clear from comparing Allen’s book to some parts of the brother’s article which I cited that the article was influenced by Allen’s thesis that to preach the pattern for the church is to drift from the central meaning of the cross, and in fact amounts to not preaching the cross. This brother has now explained that he does not mean to endorse Allen’s thesis, and that he believes preaching Christ and the church to be an interrelated whole, not a dichotomy. In that case we can be united, lay aside his earlier article, and go forward preaching Christ and him crucified in its New Testament sense.
16. We agree. We do not neglect the cross of Christ but we confirm its practical meaning when we preach in favor of godly living and in opposition to all the ungodly works of the flesh, including profanity, pornography, abortion, dancing, immodest dress, gambling, “and such like” (Gal. 5:16-26; Tit. 2:11-14; 1 Pet. 4:1-3). Admonishing people to live godly separate from the person, work, and teaching of Jesus Christ is futile and unscriptural. I have not seen our brethren doing this, but will quickly join with any faithful brother to oppose any such trend. I am aware of a growing number, even in non-institutional churches, who regard preaching against worldliness as perpetuating mere traditionalism and neglecting the cross of Christ. Inasmuch as the brother in question will join me in recognizing this growing number as “enemies of the cross of Christ,” there can be no strife between us.
17. We agree. In the interest of a balanced emphasis, we should be often reminded that the grace of God and the cross of Christ are central to the gospel. At the same time, we must guard against setting arbitrary standards for judging whether that emphasis is present. At least eleven books of the New Testament say little or nothing about the death of Christ, as is also true of entire chapters and sections of other books, but the cross undergirds it all. If the brother in question, myself, and all other brethren will keep the cross of Christ prominent in our preaching, preach all the counsel of God, and openly oppose sin and error of every kind, we can “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). Let Christ “have the preeminence in all things, . . . having made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:18-20). Let us all recognize that when anyone departs from the teaching of the covenant sealed with the blood of Christ – whether on baptism and the church, divorce and remarriage, unity and fellowship, or anything else revealed – they make themselves “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).
If on these things we are truly agreed, we agree on what it means to preach the cross of Christ, and there can be no strife between us.
(Editor’s Note: This article was sent to brother W. Frank Walton for him to read and approve before it was published. Having gone over the article, brother Walton called me and expressed his approval of its content. This expression of the areas of agreement should clarify any questions regarding the specific beliefs of both brother Hafley and brother Walton which may have arisen as a result of the article in Christianity Magazine by brother Walton or the four part series on “Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross” which appeared in Guardian of Truth.)
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 21, pp. 652-654
November 5, 1992