We Preach Christ, Not Ourselves (Jan-Feb 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Bill Love
January – February, 1993

9Tall and articulate, smooth and dynamic, entertaining, inspiring – he could move you from laughter to tears and back before you knew what happened. He spoke of power over life’s battles, of ways to develop a winning attitude, of goal setting, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. He said pain is life’s indicator that something is wong. If one simply claims salvation he or she can escape pain and suffering altogether. According to his gospel, Jesus served and suffered so that we might be all we can be and reign victoriously in regal splendor. The religion he offered sold like cotton candy at a county fair: it satisfied the sweet tooth, melted in the mouth and was never hard to swallow.

Such a person was the leader of Paul’s enemies in the church of Corinth. By contrast, the apostle was totally unimpressive. Physically he was anything but imposing. Paul was not drawn to the rhetorical fads of his day: pretty phrases with amusing alliteration, pleasing rhymes and surprising word plays. His gospel did not focus on the development of human potential. he started with the dark and disturbing news that humanity is alienated from God, guilty before the judge and doomed to suffer the wages of sin.

According to Paul, Jesus did not come to congratulate mankind on its impressive achievements and potential. He served and suffered to reconcile men and women to God and to make them servants like himself. Jesus was despised and rejected; he died on a criminal’s cross. The cross laid open the heart of God. Nothing else could have shown how much God loves his wayward children.

Paul spoke in moving terms of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). If he was not raised the Christian’s hope was vain. If Jesus was not raised his disciples were still in their sins and alienated from God. “But,” Paul shouted in victory, “Christ has, in fact, been raised … We shall all be raised, in a moment … at the last trumpet! … The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

In short, Paul rejoiced in what God had done in Jesus Christ, not in his own achievements or in the merits of the church. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” – that was the essence of Paul’s good news. The gospel is about God’s mighty deed of salvation, not about human wisdom, human plans, human organization, or human achievement. Paul succinctly expressed his reaction to the “super apostle” critics in 2 Corinthians 4:5: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for his sake.”

His impressive critics were preaching themselves as their gospel. Only in biting sarcasm did Paul compare resumes with these super apostles (2 Corinthians 11). His conclusion after listing his achievements? “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” He illustrated his point by painting a picture of himself in a ridiculous situation. The full story is told in Acts 9. The Jews in Damascus were still fuming because their young champion had deserted their ranks to become a Christian and preach Jesus Christ. They persuaded King Aretas to issue orders that Paul was not to leave the city. So one night some of Paul’s brothers let him down over the wall through out outside window by a rope and a basket. Was Paul bragging about this humiliation? No, I think he saw a great deal of humor in the story. Because Paul gloried in the Lord, he could laugh at himself.

This retelling of the Damascus story was even more meaningful because Paul had written a few chapters earlier of the great dignity he felt in preaching the gospel. “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” No greater honor could be bestowed on any person! But not honor as the world defines it. Can you imagine a dignitary like the Secretary of State exiting a city that way, an ambassador in a basket?

How did Paul come to this position of spiritual and mental health? What enabled Paul to take the Lord’s gospel so seriously and himself not so seriously? Again, it was not his own achievement. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2). Before the gospel ever made its way into Paul’s sermons it ripped his own life apart and put it back together again.

After his own agonizing disintegration and the miracle of new life in Christ Paul had no need to promote himself. His whole life was devoted exclusively to preaching the “Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Because of the cross there was no room left in Paul’s thinking for building his own kingdom, his own image, his own constituency, or his own big church. In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, James Denney wrote that preaching the true gospel glorifies God only.

If he [the preacher] wishes to do anything else at the same time, the manifestation will not take effect. If he wishes, in the very act of preaching, to conciliate a class, or an interest; to create an opinion in favour of his own learning, ability, or eloquence; to enlist sympathy for a cause or an institution which is only accidentally connected with the Gospel, – the truth will not be seen, and it will not tell.

Through the centuries proclaimers in all Christian traditions have promoted other agendas along with the gospel. We in the American Restoration Movement are no exception. Those among us who first called for non-denominational Christianity were men of broad vision, deep faith and considerable learning. Two who exerted strong formative influences on our thinking were Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott. One was a great scholar, the other our first great evangelist. They believed if disciples from all denominations could come together in one great body of Christ then God would be glorified, the world would be converted and the millennium would come. In order to bring about this great achievement they began emphasizing more and more the need to reform and unite the churches by the patterns in the Scripture. Campbell gave himself to restoring “the Ancient Order,” which he viewed in terms of church membership, worship, nomenclature, organization, and mission. Scott devoted himself to restoring “the Ancient Gospel” in answer to the sinner’s question: “What must I do to be saved?”

Scott’s preaching had a double emphasis. He preached that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This proposition he called “the Golden Oracle.” he also preached a plan of obedience to the gospel by which every reasonable person could be saved. On the frontier at the time many were saying that only the elect could be saved, or only those who had special ecstatic experiences. Scott showed the process of salvation to be a logical, sensible plan any penitent sinner could follow Campbell explained Scott’s achievement:

Brother Walter Scott, who in the fall of 1827, arranged the several items of faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life, restored them in this order to the church under the title of ancient gospel, and preached it successfully to the world … (Walter Scott, The Gospel Restored, p. vi.)

Scott’s clarifications were a godsend to many a despairing person who was unable to feel secure in election or have ecstatic experiences. Many of us know the “five finger exercise” which later evolved in our Restoration Movement: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. This later version lays even less emphasis on divine action in salvation since all five steps are made by human effort.

It seems apparent that Scott and Campbell were true servants of God with genuine motives. Unlike the “super apostles” in Corinth, they were sincerely devoted to the kingdom’s cause. Nevertheless, as a consequence of their emphasis on the Restoration agenda, Paul’s core gospel of “Christ crucified” became a mere assumption for Scott and Campbell. In Scott’s preaching he defined the gospel message, not in terms of God’s mighty act of atonement on Golgotha, but as the good news that one can be saved by accepting the proposition: “Jesus is the Messiah.” It seems clear that, for many who responded, conversion happened not so much as the result of a personal encounter with the crucified and risen Lord as by a process of rational assent. For Campbell and Scott, “the Ancient Gospel” was not God’s mighty deeds at Calvary and the open tomb, but the clearly outlined human response set forth by Scott. For many heirs of Scott and Campbell the “gospel plan of salvation” became essentially a human achievement of obedience.

In their later days Scott and Campbell had heated conflict over who had restored what. Our great men were also proud men. Even the best of us wants credit for his achievements and is irritated if others get it.

The situation in Corinth long ago and the story of our beginnings on the American frontier not so long ago can give us perspective on what we are presenting as the gospel and why. Several questions arise. “Does our message resemble more the slick sophistries of the super apostles at Corinth or the gospel of the apostle weak in himself but strong in the crucified?” “Do we have a sense of humor about our own limitations and blunders?” “To what or to whom are people converted when they respond to our teaching?” “What hidden agendas, noble or ignoble, distort the gospel we preach?” And perhaps the most telling question of all: “Who is center stage in our gospel and who gets the glory?” To the last question Paul’s answer was plain and unequivocal: “I was determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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