The longer I pastor, the more I’m convinced that pastors should regularly preach the unsearchable riches of Christ not only for the salvation of the lost but also for the believers’ growth in grace.
But sadly, when dealing with the Savior’s work in saving us from sin, we preachers so often say very little. Because of this, something frightening happens over time: those who listen to us fill in their own meanings to the common words “Jesus died on the cross”—and those meanings can be far from what the Bible actually teaches concerning the death of Christ on the cross.
Here’s an example. In Africa, where the blood of birds and animals is used as a charm of protection from witchcraft, it’s become popular, even among Christians, to see a bumper sticker that declares “Protected by the blood of Jesus.” Pulpits are to blame for this serious confusion.
When the death of Christ is merely mentioned as part of the final appeal in sermons, too much is being assumed. I am amazed at how many people hear, “Jesus died because of our sins,” and understand it to mean that he died to merely show us how bad our sins are. I am equally shocked that many Christians, upon being asked where they would go if they died immediately after sinning, think they would go to hell. Is this not due to failing to understand what really took place when Jesus died?
It is our responsibility as preachers to regularly explain the subject of penal substitutionary atonement so that those who listen to us can come to a fuller understanding of what really took place on the cross when the Son of God took our place and paid our debt in full.
What we emphasize in a sermon will often depend on our text. Thus, there will be sufficient variety as we proclaim the gospel. And yet, we must avoid merely mentioning words like “blood,” “death,” and “cross” without ever unpacking their meaning.
I can think of three truths about the atonement that our preaching must elaborate on so that our listeners can understand in this central act of our salvation. What are those three truths?
1. Jesus suffered the penalty of sin.
From the very beginning of history, God had told Adam that he would die if he ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:17). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). That’s precisely the price that Jesus paid when he died on the cross.
2. Jesus suffered as our substitute.
Because Jesus was born sinless and lived a sinless life, death had no claim on him. His death was in our place the same way that animal sacrifices were made to appease God’s wrath across history (2 Cor. 5:21).
3. Jesus satisfied God in his suffering.
Whereas animal sacrifices weren’t sufficient to atone for human sin, the substitutionary death of the Son of God was more than sufficient. The righteous God is totally satisfied, and as evidence, he raised Jesus from the dead.
It’s beyond the scope of this article for me to open up these points. What I want to say is that these three truths about the penal substitutionary atonement should not be assumed. We must teach them line-upon-line and precept-upon-precept.
There’s a perception in the minds of many preachers that the depth of teaching they got on the atonement during their Bible college days is only for them as preachers, that it would be too deep for the ordinary Christian in the pew. This perception is entirely false. It’s also why, over time and across generations, churches lose the truth. The pastor should ensure that in his regular ministry of expounding God’s Word he is plumbing the depths of the truths he encounters in the sacred text.
A tree with shallow roots will easily be uprooted when howling winds blow. But the ones with deep roots will remain standing. In the same way, individuals with a shallow understanding of Christ’s work on the cross are easily unsettled by life’s trials. They also are easily misled by popular false teachings. This happens because false teachers often use scriptural words but fill them with wrong meanings and interpretations. Only well-taught minds will be able to pick that up and reject the error.
Where much ground has been lost, pastors should consider special Bible studies and seminars on this vital subject. Perhaps host question-and-answer sessions that will equip your people. The materials taught can be uploaded somewhere, printed, and disseminated throughout the congregation.
Brothers, my point is a simple one: let’s not assume that our people know the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Let’s teach it regularly in all its depth as we expound the Scriptures. We must not allow the generation growing up under our ministry to lose such a glorious foundation.
(First published in August 2019 9Marks eJournal)