14 August 2007

Preaching the Cross to those without the categories to understand it

by Dan Phillips

Back in late June, I had the great joy of being at the Founders Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with Frank and Phil.

One of the best of many excellent addresses was that by Dr. David Wells, in the 6:30pm session on June 27. The title was "Preaching the Truth of the Cross for the Modern Age." M'man Frank Turk live-blogged it, and you should read his notes. What follows is from mine own.

Wells painted a vivid picture of the breakdown in our moral world. He pointed to four major sign-posts, indicating changes that hasten people out of the moral world that the West long inhabited. Thinking has shifted from the objective and/or transcendent, to the subjective and culturally relative. The sign-post shifts are:
  • from thinking about virtue, to thinking about values
  • from thinking about character, to thinking about personality
  • from thinking about nature, to thinking about self; and
  • from thinking about guilt, to thinking about shame.
Follow these, Wells observed, and you’ve exited a moral world. The Cross then becomes simply incomprehensible. [Update 12/26/2011: Wells expands on this in The Courage to Be Protestant, 143ff.]

And Wells made this very powerful statement, as my notes have it:
Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is, no longer have the categories to understand it, no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories in their non-moral universe — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty.
Then he said that this is why the Bible does not begin with John 3:16, but with Genesis 1. Again, from my notes:
What we see at work between those two points is the patience of God who, bit by bit and stone by stone, lays the foundation and builds an edifice of understanding, which corresponds to what is there. Only when this long work of preparation had been completed, when the last stone had been put in place, God sent His Son, born of a woman, to redeem those under the Law. Cross is a message of substitution – Him, for us. It is not just a formula, nor a product to be sold. It is to be anchored in true truths. God’s enduring character of holiness has been established long before John 3 was written.

From that previous revelation, we know about ourselves, made in the image of God, a people who are willingly sightless. So when John 3:16 was penned, this message of the Cross was positioned to connect with these other foundational truths, without which the message of the Cross is incomprehensible.

So our question to our PoMo neighbors and colleagues, is (or should be): which of these points do you not understand, or do you reject? But often we don’t have the patience to do this. We want instant results, now!

So between Gen 1 and John 3 is a long, patient work of God, so that people can understand the Cross. Can’t we learn something from God’s slow, long, patient work? If we did, we might end up with disciples, instead of simply converts.
Doing, not just talking. I found this all very incisive and thought-provoking. But regular readers will know that I grow a bit impatient with discussions about "how we ought to" do this or that, which don't themselves issue in doing it. I read so many wonderful debates and expatiations about how we ought to "do" apologetics, but none of them issued in a "Here, let me show you." So I attempted one myself.

Well similarly here, what Wells said really lodged in my brain, and excited my thinking.

And so on August 5, at Soaring Oaks, I attempted to do just what Wells suggested. The sermon I preached is titled, "Why Does It Matter That Jesus is a Ransom?"

You can listen to it HERE. My intent was, and my hope is, that it could find its way into the hands of just some such folks.

Dan Phillips's signature


Kim said...

Thanks for sharing the words of Wells. I just love his books, and I would have loved to hear him speak. Thanks for this post.

FX Turk said...

I saw the phrase "M'man Frank Turk", and I read the phrase "imam Frank Turk", and thought I had been waked up in an alternate universe.

However, after checking Christianity Today, I realized that I was in the same one we are always in.

More on that tomorrow.

DJP said...

...and, once again, one of my posts makes Frank Turk think about (and tease) something completely unrelated.

It's my gift — and my curse.

Anonymous said...

Good post Dan.(I'll have to listen to the sermon later) This is the one place where I think "contextualization" has meaning. How does one communicate the Atonement, when "values" are some nebulous concept one plucks from the air and shapes to their personal preferences? I think it's a journey of leading someone from their own context into God's context (of true truth).

Anonymous said...

If you liked Wells on that theme you'll love, as I did, his Christ in the Postmodern World (Above all Earthly Po'ers) - every thinking Christian should read it!

Blessings, Jim

Anonymous said...

"From thinking about virtue, to thinking about values
From thinking about character, to thinking about personality
From thinking about nature, to thinking about self; and
From thinking about guilt, to thinking about shame."

I would appreciate hearing more on these contrasts, if time allows. Maybe a post?

DJP said...

Yep, I think it'd probably warrant a post.

But first, everyone has to listen to my sermon and pass a little quiz.

Particularly Frank.


DJP said...

(BTW, I do expand on some of that very thing in my sermon, er, Mommy.)

Terry Rayburn said...


Dumb technical question:

Why can't I download and burn your message? I notice it's not an Mp3 file, but an M3u, whatever that is. Does that mean it can only be streamed?


Kay said...

Yes, now I've escaped from the age of steam and have an mp3 player, I wouldn't mind being able to download it meself..

DJP said...

Well, Terry, Libbie:

A. Thanks for asking!
B. I bet someone else can give a better answer, but when I go to play it, it opens up RealPlayer. I don't like RP at all, but that seems to be what plays it. Do you have it installed?
C. Alternately, you could listen streaming from the site.
- go HERE
-you could use the Select Preacher drop-down to pick Daniel Phillips, and it will be the top sermon
-or you'll just see it towards the top of the list

Terry Rayburn said...


That worked, because the second button after the sermon on the web site is an "Mp3" button, so I was able to download and burn it.


Terry Rayburn said...

Just for the record, if you put the link to the Mp3 file in your post, the user will still be able to stream it on their computer, but will also be able to download it. Two birds, one stone.

I seldom have time to stream things, but driving in my car several hours a day, I have a virtual learning library of Mp3's running. Sermons, books-on-cd, occasionally music, etc.

More controllable than mere radio.

FX Turk said...

Actually, Dan, it made me think about how compelling Dr. Wells' presentation was that evening, and it caused me to download your sermon, which I am now listening to.

Sheesh. What am I? Don Sands?

"Good post, Dan."

(No offense, Don) :-)

donsands said...

"[The]Cross is a message of substitution – Him, for us."

Good post to read.

Excellent sermon to listen to. Very well done.

"My song shall be of Jesus;
His mercy crowns my days,
He fills my cup with blessings,
And tunes my heart to praise;
My song shall be of Jesus,
The precious Lamb of God;
Who gave Himself my ransom,
And bought me with His blood."

donsands said...

None taken. You M'man.

DJP said...

Terry — done... I think. Thanks.

James Scott Bell said...

Dan, another well thought out and well delivered sermon. And anyone who can use the word "collocation" and the phrase "Well...duh" in the same biblical address is my kinda guy.

I preached on Gen. 3 Sunday, and also mentioned the "surfer Jesus" concept so many have. Great Calvinist and Arminian minds think alike sometimes, don't they?

Terry Rayburn said...

Dan's excellent post, and Frank's excellent notes caused me to find the Wells message on Mp3 at

Downloadable for 5 bucks.

Looking forward to luxuriating in my car today with Dan's and Wells' messages :)

Anonymous said...

I think our Lord walking on water makes a good case for "surfer Jesus". So does Paul riding to shore on a plank.

John Haller said...

Dittos on the recommendation to read Above All Earthly Powers. It is a classic.

Rebecca Stark said...

everyone has to listen to my sermon and pass a little quiz.

I already listened to the sermon. It was last week while I had a tooth pulled. And I can recommend the sermon as the most pleasant part of that morning.

I love it when I get my homework done ahead of time. Can I take the quiz now?

DJP said...

I'll bet you were the sort of student who was always throwing off the curve.

Little Shepherd said...

I love the first 3. They're spot on. But the last one about going from guilt to shame making the cross morally incomprehensible is dead wrong. Modern notions of guilt would be completely alien to the culture that Jesus preached to. There's a reason that they're called "honor-shame societies" in anthropological circles.

Now understanding honor-shame cultures certainly isn't necessary to salvation -- only faith is. But rather than making the message of the cross incomprehensible, or taking it out of the realm of morality, understanding such societies gives us a much richer understanding of morality, faithfulness, honor, the offensiveness of Christ's messages, and a whole lot more.

Of course, as I already stated, I completely agree with the other 3 points he made. That's some good stuff to keep in mind.

DJP said...

You'd have to explain yourself further.

Wells' point is correct, as I understood it. "Guilt" focuses on an objective standard that I have violated. "Shame" focuses on my feelings, which may or may not relate to the violation of an objective standard. The remedy for guilt is atonement. The remedy for shame is therapy.

Stefan Ewing said...

Dan: Thank you. I will eagerly listen to your sermon at the first available opportunity.

Frank, is this post what you were alluding to in your comment yesterday, that I should stay tuned?

Preaching the Cross is no mere abstract quandary for me. My mission field right now consists first and foremost of my own dear, sweet beloved. And when she comes to Christ, I want it to be according to the Substitutionary Atonement and the Doctrines of Grace, and before any of the myriad Pelagian influences out there win her to a false gospel first.

Booklover said...

Wells is very good about making us think.

I believe Francis Schaeffer spoke about this same "pre-evangelism."

Churches need to be better at explaining who God is and what Jesus is saving us from before they make the request to "ask Jesus into your heart." In the Lutheran church of my childhood, every Sunday we had an Old Testament lesson, a Gospel lesson, and a reading from the Epistles. It didn't take the congregation long to have a context in which to place the death of Jesus, and to learn what Jesus saves us from. Also, our song liturgy came from every area of the Bible, so we got the context in our singing, too. Another point is, the entire worship service portrayed the holiness of God so that we knew there was a standard that, without the gift of Jesus, we were unable to attain. Now, in many of our evangelical churches, we do not get the context of the entire Bible, only the New Testament; we do not learn the context of salvation history in our songs, only shallow choruses; and we do not at all see the holiness of God portrayed, only chummy informality.

Thank you to men like Wells who make us think and don't let us just pat our evangelical selves on the backs.


Dave said...

Hi Dan

I am brand-new at posting here but I have been following Pyro for a long time now. I'm a doctor way down here in South Africa, and I can relate to all your guys' blogs. We are blessed in our church to have as our senior pastor a graduate of Masters Seminary, so we get very solid Biblical teaching every Sunday.

I had an interesting corollary to the whole discussion and that is that some of us grew up in a Christian environment to such and extent that we take for granted what we have been saved from. Even as believers, we still need to remind ourselves of the awesome work that God wrought for us on the cross through his Son.

Just a few thoughts to introduce myself.


philness said...


I'm listening to your sermon right now. Could you please email that outline to philbradshaw77@yahoo.com

DJP said...

Sure; after I get home.

Dave said...

Could I ditto philness and ask you to email your outline to me as well please Dan


Thanks so much - am really appreciating your sermon



DJP said...

Copyc... I mean, "sure."


philness said...


That was awesome. I like that Burger King bit about the world reconstructing it their way.

Stefan Ewing said...

Dan: ...Or any possibility of posting the outline, either here or at your own blog?

rpavich said...

I do agree with this post.
The gospel just does not make sense without the preaching of the law...

Someone said that their should be a moratorium on preaching the "cross" of John 3:16 for a year and when people sufficiently understand and tremble at their sin, then, and only then, should we tell them about the price that was paid in their place"...

I agree. From speaking to hundreds of people about sin, righteousness and judgment, I can tell you that NOBODY thinks that they are a bad person...BUT EVERYONE KNOWS John 3:16....
I've seen gang members on videos who admit to horiffic crimes say they think that they are saved because they know "John 3:16.

Leberwurst said...

Presenting the gospel from Genesis 1-3 is a simple and complete presentation of God's Power and Holiness, His Love, Mercy,Justice and Provision as well as man's sinfulness and responsibility, then just a short jump to Genesis 22 and you can describe the Substitute to come. Only after a survey such as this is the message of John 3:16 relevant!

Dave said...

Brad leber : I comletely agree with you. I always felt the 5 step process of leading someone to Christ using only NT verses somewhat deficient and I think your way seems to be q really good idea. thanks.


Stefan Ewing said...

Brad Leber: Thank you very much for that.

Dave: Welcome aboard, by the way!

Dan: Thank you again for this, though it might be tomorrow or Thursday evening before I have a chance to listen to your sermon. (No mobile devices for listening to mp3s or CDs away from the home computer.) I will listen at the first available opportunity, though.

Little Shepherd said...

In response to djp, who said: "Wells' point is correct, as I understood it. "Guilt" focuses on an objective standard that I have violated. "Shame" focuses on my feelings, which may or may not relate to the violation of an objective standard. The remedy for guilt is atonement. The remedy for shame is therapy."

I understand what you're saying, but you have your terms backwards. It's important to get our terms right when speaking of things like shame and guilt. If your definitions are the ones that Wells was using, then while his point would be right he got his terms backwards. It in in fact guilt that is about internalized feelings, and shame that is about objective standards regardless of how one feels about them.

So yes, if his point is that we need to submit to the external standards of rightness found in the Bible in spite of how we feel about it, I agree wholeheartedly. I just wish he hadn't mixed up his terms.

DJP said...

Thank you, I understand your response to Wells better.

But I look up "guilt" in MW, and the first definition is: "the fact of having committed a breach of conduct esp. violating law and involving a penalty broadly : guilty conduct"...

...and the first definition of "shame" is "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety."

So I'm wondering whether your definition is specialized in some way? My impression is that Wells' use is the general one.

Terry Rayburn said...


A few comments, after listening to both your good message and David Wells', which I have now done:

1. My first reaction to the general idea that Post-Moderns of this amoral generation don't see their need of a Savior was, "Well, is the Gospel that we're not ashamed of the power of God for salvation or not? Is it only the power of God for salvation for those who have been "prepped" by a thorough Old Tesament survey?"

2. Both your's and David's messages were well-thought-out, and have much truth in them. But I'm still bothered by the general idea expressed by David when he said something like, "God patiently laid out the whole of redemptive history from Genesis to the Gospel, and we should have His kind of patience when dealing with PoMo sinners."

That's a hard idea to disagree with, because sometimes time is involved in a person's "journey" to Christ. "One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase."

Yet I can't help thinking that what someone *says* they think about right and wrong and their need for a Savior, is different than what is actually in their heart. Let me expand in #3.

3. One of the most brilliant things pointed out by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity is that man has a built-in idea that some things are right and others wrong, even if his standards are far below God's.

For example, if a strong young man gets on the bus with a feeble old lady, and he kicks her down on the bus floor and steps on her to scramble ahead of her for the only seat available, there's not likely to be a person on the bus who doesn't think, 'That's just wrong!"

Vito Corleone thinks it's immoral to neglect your family.

But C.S. Lewis' further point was that no matter what someone's standards of right and wrong are, they nevertheless break them, usually on a regular basis. They can't even keep their own standards, let alone God's.

And that's why each person inherantly knows his need for a Savior.

4. We Calvinists would say that this need for a Savior will only be acted on in faith upon regeneration, but what causes that

The answer is the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is "the power of God for salvation to those who believe", not only for the Jew (who presumably knows Genesis through Malachi), but for the Greek, who like Sargeant Schultz, knows *nothing*.

And this Gospel is capsulized by Paul as "Christ and Him crucified", not "the patient exhaustive survey of redemptive history".

5. Having made that Scriptural point, let me add my own observations (since that's what Wells was really doing in his comments on this amoral age). Here's what I've observed many times:

I've seen an immoral/amoral person who doesn't believe in Creation, doesn't believe in objective truth, doesn't believe there is any universal right and wrong, and doesn't even believe there is a God...completely drop those errant long-held beliefs in an *instant*(!) upon a miraculous response to the simple Gospel of Christ and Him crucified.

5. Or to put it concisely, even the PoMo knows he needs a Savior from his sins, and if he's an elect one, the Gospel and nothing but the Gospel, will open his heart.

6. Having said all that stuff that makes it look like I'm dissenting, I would add that to preach "Christ and Him crucified" includes both the "Person" and "Work" of Christ.

So I agree with you and Wells that some "prepping" is needed, but it's prepping that always was a part of the Gospel, not something altogether special for the Post-Modern, just because he *pretends* to have no sense of right and wrong. And when that Gospel is preached, "Bam!", the ancient miracle of being born again takes place, and he who was blind, sees.


Leberwurst said...


Good presuppositional approach.

But even Paul in acts 17 spoke of God the Creator, and in Romans 5 of the fall of man through Adam.

But I do agree with your point about the supernatural opening of the heart to the "foolish" message of the cross and Christ crucified.

DJP said...

I appreciate your thoughtful and orderly observations, Terry. My response will be less of the latter, but hopefully not less of the former.

I'd be the last person to argue — and am not arguing — that the Gospel needs to presented in the same way to every person in every situation. Jesus didn't, the apostles didn't, we shouldn't.

And so in presenting it in this manner, I am far from suggesting, "OK, everybody, here's how we all have to do it until the next big intellectual fad hits!"

But when Paul was in the synagogues, he reasoned from the Law and the Prophets; when he was on Mars Hill, he had exactly the same doctrine, but framed it with direct quotations from Greek writers rather than from the OT. In fact, I would argue (strongly) that what he did there was exactly the same (in spirit) as what I attempted to do in my sermon: focused the hammer of God's truth as a corrective to their faulty, cyclical worldview, then presented the Gospel in its correct framework.

All that to say this: I just want folks to preach Christ. Period. Anyone who remembers the Chan video episode knows that, when Christ is preached, I rejoice.

BUT Wells and I (and you too, I'm sure) look at the broad and wide profession of "evangelical" faith in America, coupled with the thundering ignorance and shallowness and unholiness, and we ask, "Could we be doing something better? Are we missing something?"

And we answer ourselves "Yes." (c:

I don't think you and I are really disagreeing, are we?

Terry Rayburn said...


I don't think you and I are really disagreeing, are we?


Kristine said...

This comment is a little late in coming, I know, but I haven't been able to sign into my account this week...even now, I've only been able to do so by hijacking my husband's computer at his office, while I visit for lunch.

I just wanted to say that I listened to your sermon the day that you posted it, and enjoyed it more than I have time to express, right now.

Thank you for faithful preaching and teaching; I've been blessed many times by it.

DJP said...

Your kind encouragement is much appreciated, Kristine. God bless you both.