The Cross and Christian Ministry by D.A. Carson- A Review (Part 1 of 2)

Book Reviews

There is no shortage of books purporting to provide ministerial guidance for pastors, too many for any one man to read and process. The discerning reader will dramatically narrow this field by sticking with those authors who order their counsel according to God’s Word and avoiding those who immediately adopt the presuppositions and tactics of business marketing or secular psychology. God’s revelation of Himself and His ways must rule our practice as well as our belief, and therefore the Bible is the ultimate and primary source of all practical ministerial guidance. If we depart from God’s Word at this point and seek the wisdom of Madison Avenue or the pop-psychology/self-esteem gurus, we play the part of the prodigal son. We leave the riches of our Father’s house to chase after the chimera wisdom of a fleeting age.

The objection which may be raised against this sort of insistence on a Bible-driven ministry is that the Bible actually contains little in relation to the minutia of pastoral ministry. It must be admitted that there is some truth in this charge. God’s Word compels us to preach (2 Timothy 4:1-2), yet it does not dictate the sermon’s length or topic. It compels us to evangelize, yet we are given only general guidelines (1 Peter 3:15) and circumstantial examples (Mark 5:20). It is not difficult to empathize with those who feel they must look to other sources than the Bible for practical guidance as they seek to shepherd the flock and evangelize the lost, especially as it relates to their specific cultural context.

It is this arena which D. A. Carson enters with his book The Cross and Christian Ministry. Here he shows that those who would depart from their Bibles, seeking a more practical and direct source of ministerial guidance, are actually walking away from the greatest source of this wisdom which can be found. This vital source of ministerial wisdom is not to be found outside the Scriptures, rather it is to be found in that central and penultimate theme of the Scriptures: the cross of Jesus Christ. In five chapters Carson shows how a radically cross-centered understanding of the pastorate, the church, and the world will take us into a deeper and more Christ-like ministry than any other scheme. Carson explains

“The cross not only establishes what we are to preach, but how we are to preach. It prescribes what Christian leaders must be and how Christians must view their leaders. It tells us how to serve and draws us onward in discipleship until we understand what it means to be world Christians” (p. 9).

Carson’s five chapters are all built out of the Apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. Through careful exegesis and helpful examples built from his years of ministry, Carson assembles a set of cross-centered prescriptions which all ministers and ministerial aspirants would do well to emulate.  I’d like to take two posts and work through this very helpful book, with the hope that others will be encouraged to pick it up and be as blessed by it as I have been.

Chapter One: The Cross and Preaching

The first of the five chapters deals with The Cross and Preaching. The key text used is 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5, wherein Paul declares that his primary task as an Apostle of God is to preach the message of the cross. Carson begins by effectively reminding the reader how abhorrent and culturally disgraceful crucifixion was to first century Jews and Romans. We are reminded of the deep irony of 1 Corinthians 1:23: Christianity preaches eternal life through a means of death, a message which is foolishness to those who are perishing. This chapter of the book dwells on a text rich in ministerial counsel. Carson applies the words of Scripture to our view of ourselves (Not many of you were wise), our view of our own ministerial labors (let him who boasts, boast in the Lord), and the focus of our preaching (For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified).

The central theme of this chapter is the manner and the content of Christian preaching.  Carson writes

“Granted that ‘preaching’ or ‘proclaiming’ in the Scriptures is not restricted to something done behind a wooden pulpit between 11:00 and 12:00 on Sunday mornings, it is nevertheless hard to avoid the strength of this emphasis on proclamation in the New Testament. The reason for the emphasis lies in the message itself” (p. 37).

At this point one of the chief strengths of this book becomes very evident. Carson is not content to simply stop with platitudes and mottoes, however Biblical they may be. He presses on and gives direct, practical, exegetically sound application. Explaining Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 2:2, Carson writes

“…what he means is that all he does and teaches is tied to the cross. He cannot long talk about Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the doctrine of God, or anything else, without finally tying it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross-centered” (p. 38).

True cross-centeredness isn’t just about standing in a historically orthodox line of the church or about a carefully crafted creedal statement; it’s about a ministry that actually and constantly proclaims the cross of Christ. A cross-centered ministry preaches Christ and Him Crucified at every opportunity and in every sermon. This sort of preaching ministry is extreme, radical, and tenacious- and it’s exactly what God calls us to in 1 Corinthians 2:2: For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The point is not that every sermon has the cross as its main topic or initial starting point, but that every sermon will inevitably be related to or arrive at the cross and Christ’s death for sinners.

Chapter Two: The Cross and the Holy Spirit

Chapter Two takes up the subject of The Cross and the Holy Spirit. Textually, Carson continues in 1 Corinthians into verses 6-16 of chapter two. This chapter provides the theological backdrop for the radically gospel-centered ministry prescribed in chapter one. Carson shows that the Bible both gives us a message to preach (the cross), and promises that the Holy Spirit will testify in the hearts of men who hear this preaching, bringing them to see truth of the gospel. This is a thrilling and liberating doctrine for Christian ministry. Pastors are free from a crippling and slavish subjection to this world and it’s shifting whims. As Carson writes on page 60,

“From this perspective, it is idiotic- that is not too strong a word- to extol the world’s perspective and secretly lust after its limited vision. That is what the Corinthians were apparently doing; that is what we are in danger of doing every time we adopt our world’s shibboleths, dote on its heroes, admire its transient stars, seek its admiration, and play to its applause.”

Chapter Three: The Cross and Factionalism

Chapter three is drawn from 1 Corinthians 3:1-23, and has as its title The Cross and Factionalism. In these verses the Apostle Paul chides the Corinthians for their immaturity and corrects their tendency to rally around a dynamic leader: You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:3-4). As was the case in the preceding chapters, Carson must first correct erroneous interpretations of this text which have become unfortunately common in evangelicalism. He begin the chapter by noting that “Few passages of the New Testament have been abused by preachers and writers more than this one” (p. 68). In part, Carson deconstructs the current extreme theory of the “carnal Christian,” a doctrine which is primarily built from 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. While he is careful to affirm that “Certainly there is such a thing as a carnal or worldly Christian…” he also points out that “the ‘carnal Christian’ theory has in recent years taken on some fairly weird extremes that bear little relation to what this chapter actually says” (p. 69).

The main thrust of this chapter is to come along side and amplify Paul’s denunciation of factionalism in the church of Christ. It is hard to underestimate the relevance of the ministerial vision of this text to today’s church. The Corinthian factionalists who claimed improper allegiance to Paul or to Apollos did great damage to the church, her peace, and her witness. One can hear echoes of this divisive factionalism all around today’s church. Celebrity-driven ministries and bitter infighting plague the church. Far too many pockets of the church are seemingly intent to move their own fences in as far as possible, rather than spread the kingdom to the ends of the earth. The antidote for the ministerial poison of factionalism is to die to pride and immaturity, and live to a cross-centered vision of the church and her mission. Men must be liberated from the rampant cult of personality and the parochial divisiveness endemic in modern Protestantism. This liberation comes from resting one’s identity in Christ alone and by taking seriously the simple charge to proclaim Christ and Him crucified.

We’ll finish next time by looking at chapters four and five in this very helpful book.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

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