Results tagged “the cross” from Reformation21 Blog

Unconsciously Paying the Ransom


In his remarkable book, The Suffering Savior, Frederick Krummacher made the astonishing observation that by Jesus' prayer for mercy from the cross for those who crucified him, we can conclude that "while offering up the Lord Jesus, [those crying out for his death] unconsciously pay the ransom for themselves, and thereby render it possible for God to have mercy upon them, without detracting from his justice." He wrote:

"We now fully comprehend the tone and perfect certainty, firmness, and confidence with which the words, "Father, forgive them!" are uttered. The High Priest pronounces them from the most holy place, and that too at the very moment when he is paying the debt of the guilty. That he really does this, and that the true meaning of his sufferings is to be sought in this, he once for all evinces to a sinful world from his elevation on the cross; and hence, while bleeding on their behalf, he sends up to heaven this unconditional petition for mercy in favor of the vilest sinners, his murderers.

But how could the Lord commend these hardened rebels to divine mercy? Observe, my friends, that those whom he had in view, were by no means hardened. For such as have committed the "sin unto death" there is certainly no longer any deliverance or salvation, and according to the apostle's directions, we ought not to pray for such. But the Lord well knows what he is doing. Although he says at first, "Forgive them," which is certainly very general, yet he immediately limits his words, so that Judas, for instance, and doubtless many of the heads of the people, are excluded from the influence of his intercession. The addition of the words, "They know not what they do," defines its bounds. By this clause the Lord selects from the multitude which surrounds him those to whom the majority of them that crucified him probably belonged. They were not like the Pharisees, who accused Jesus of casting out devils by Beelzebub, and had therefore committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, but they were under a delusion, which was certainly far from guiltless, when they consigned Jesus to death.

Now observe, first, the sublime self-possession which the Lord here again manifests in the words, "They know not what they do." For what other meaning lies concealed beneath them than this, that if they had known it was the Lord of Glory, or even some innocent and just person, they would not have done it? For in the words, "They know not what they do," the idea is included that while offering up the Lord Jesus, they unconsciously pay the ransom for themselves, and thereby render it possible for God to have mercy upon them, without detracting from his justice.

Finally, the words, "They know not what they do," must be apprehended in the same sense in which I must be understood, if I likewise said of any one whom I had come to deliver out of his distress, but who, ignorant of my intention, basely repulsed me, "He knows not what he is doing." In this case, my meaning would be, "Have patience; he will soon recollect himself when he is aware who I am, and for what purpose I entered his abode, and will then act differently toward me." I thus utter a prediction, and such a one is doubtless included in our Lord's words. They contain a veiled prediction of the future repentance and conversion of those for whom he prays. For even by this petition a powerful impulse to repentance is given them, and a direction to a change of mind. Only look forward a little, and you will already see, first, in the Roman centurion under the cross, and his shield-bearer, the commencement of the fulfillment of that prediction. Mark, then, the crowds who, returning from Calvary to Jerusalem, smote upon their breasts, and, at least in part, gave evidence of sincere repentance. Assuredly among them were some to whom the petition, "Father, forgive them," applied. But if they were not among these, they were decidedly among the three thousand who were pierced to the heart by the apostles' words on the day of Pentecost. For listen to the address of Peter: "This Jesus," says he, "whom ye have crucified, hath God made both Lord and Christ. Now, when they heard this," the narrative states, "they were pricked in their hearts, and said, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Yes, it was these who knew not what they did, but now it became evident to them. O how did the remembrance of the words, "Father, forgive them," smite humblingly and overwhelmingly upon their hearts! How did the love which was manifested in those words melt their souls! Alas! alas! they had nailed to the cross their only Deliverer and Savior! Could it be otherwise than that under such reflections their eyes became fountains of tears? But the repentance for which the consolation of forgiveness first made room in their souls, issued in devotedness to the Lord, and in their being faithful to him even unto death. Thus did the petition, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do," neither overthrow the statutes of divine justice, nor the method of grace, once for all established by the Lord. Justice retained its splendor, by virtue of the satisfaction of the only-begotten Son, and the plan of salvation was preserved entire in the repentance and conversion of them to whom the petition applied."1

Frederick Krummacher The Suffering Servant (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1859) pp. 386-387

The Unthinkable Sin


One day I had the opportunity to preach with John Barros outside of an abortion mill in Orlando. In the message I preached, I made the point that I am also a murderer because Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matthew 5:21-22). After I finished, John cautioned me not to use this kind of argument because, though it is true, it can, inadvertently undermine the gravity and seriousness of the sin those heading to the abortion clinic were about to commit. I was, to some extent, downplaying the teaching of Scripture regarding the degrees of the severity of sin.

Most Christians are familiar with the unpardonable sin which Jesus speaks of in the Gospels: "...the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." (Luke 12:10). The fact that an unpardonable sin even exists is evidence that some sins are more evil than others. During Jesus' trail in which He was unjustly condemned, He taught us that there are greater degrees of sin. Jesus said to Pilate: "...he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin." (John 19:11).

The Unthinkable Sin That Never Entered God's Mind

There is not only an unpardonable sin in the Bible, there is also an unthinkable sin in the Bible. There is only one kind of sin that is so evil, so wicked, and so unbelievably horrific that the Bible says it never even entered into the mind of God. This is the sin of parents murdering their sons and daughters. The Prophet Jeremiah speaks of this sin three times:

"For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind." (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

"Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind..." (Jeremiah 19:4-5)

"They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin." (Jeremiah 32:35)

This unthinkable sin involved parents sacrificing their own children to false gods. These parents were murdering their own children, and they did so as a part of a religious, idolatrous ritual. God hates and forbids idolatry, but nowhere else in the Bible does He speak this way about idolatry - that it never even entered His mind.

Why might God speak this way? Because this particular form of idolatry was particularly abominable to Him because it involved the shedding of innocent blood (which God particularly hates: "There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood..." (Proverbs 6:16-17)) and it involved the unthinkable act of parents shedding the innocent blood of their own children. God designed parents to be the life-giving protectors of and providers for their children; to love their children; to be God-like authorities in their children's lives who are supposed to lead them to God by teaching them about God and displaying for them what righteous, good, loving authority is supposed to look like. When parents reject this God-given calling and do the exact opposite by murdering their own flesh and blood - this sin is particularly abominable to God - it's even unthinkable to Him. 

God Knows, But He Doesn't Know The Unthinkable

How can something - anything - not even enter God's mind? Doesn't God know all things from all of eternity? Isn't He omniscient? Hasn't He ordained "whatsoever comes to pass?" He absolutely is and He absolutely has! There is nothing that God does not know. He knows all things and no one can teach Him anything. Consider the following teaching of Scripture about God's infinitely and eternal knowledge:

"Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?" (Isaiah 40:13-14)

"...remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose...'" (Isaiah 46:9-10)

"God is greater than our heart, and knows all things." (1 John 3:20)

So if God knows about the evil of His people sacrificing their own children, in what sense does He not know? How does this practice not even enter His mind? He doesn't know it in the sense that this particular sin is so wicked and contrary to His will, that it is unthinkable to Him. Iain Duguid has explained that the phrase "did not enter into My mind" is "an anthropomorphism indicating how contrary it is to the LORD's will for His people."1 Ardel Caneday suggests, "[This is] not an expression of previous ignorance . . . [but] . . . an intensive idiom to express what is unthinkable."2 Michael L. Brown writes, 'This was the last thing on my mind! I never intended this for you, nor did I ever associate you with such vile practices.' The divine 'shock' is genuine, but not because of the 'surprise element' as much as because of the horrific nature of the sins committed."3 And, Charles Feinberg notes, "One of the most debased forms of idolatry involved child sacrifice...By strong anthropopathism, the Lord indicates that the enormities the nation committed in sacrificing children had never been enjoined on them or spoken of and had never even entered into his mind. It was totally alien and opposed to his will."4

It's as if this particular sin is so bad that the all-knowing, omniscient, all-powerful God could not even think of it because it is so contrary to His perfect, holy character.

The Unthinkable Sin Of Abortion

Like in Jeremiah's day, child sacrifice exists today. Abortion is the unthinkable sin of child sacrifice in our day. Abortion is the murder of an unborn child. God's Word makes this abundantly clear. As Nick Batzig has recently written: "It is estimated that under Stalin, 23 million men, women and children were brutally murdered, under Hitler, 17 million were tortured to death; but, under the red, white and blue, close to 60 million helpless, unborn children have been ripped apart in the womb - which, as we all know, is supposed to be the safest place for a child." Abortion truly is the great unthinkable sin of our day.

In his commentary on Jeremiah, Philip Ryken writes:

"Jeremiah's sermon on the Valley of Slaughter suggests important parallels between child sacrifice and abortion on demand...Anyone who has ever seen pictures, videotapes, or ultrasounds of children in the womb knows how early the human heart forms, and how the fetus can respond to pleasure and pain. To know those things is to know instantly and instinctively that abortion is the murder of an unborn child. There is no substantive moral difference between the child sacrifices offered in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and abortion as practiced in America."5

Some may think it a stretch to equate abortion to the pagan rituals of demonic child sacrifice; however, it is actually one and the same in a more demonic form of sophisticated idolatry. Instead of the altar of Molech, many sacrifice their unborn children on the altar of convenience, a college education, reputation, or money. Whenever couples abort their children under the rationale of any of these reasons, they are essentially shedding the blood of their children on the perceived altar of their own personal idol.

Saving Sinners From The Unthinkable Sin: The Son God Sacrificed

There is only one unthinkable sin in the Bible. And there is only one unpardonable sin in the Bible - and praise God that murdering your own children is not that unpardonable sin!

You see, the sacrifice of a Son did enter into God's mind once. God did think the unthinkable - He determined to crush, strike, condemn, and curse His own perfect, beautiful, sinless Son in place of sinners so that they might be saved.

God loves sinners! God loves parents who murder their own children! So in eternity past, God determined to save sinners by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to save sinners by His sacrifice on that cross and by His resurrection from the dead. On that cross Jesus took upon Himself the unthinkable sins of sinners and the wrath of God that son and daughter murderers deserve so that there is therefore now no condemnation for all those who repent and believe in the LORD Jesus Christ!

There is salvation in Jesus, even for the unthinkable sin of abortion. Jesus' grace is greater than all our sin! Whether you've had one, ten, or one million abortions, where your sin abounds, His grace abounds all the more - if you will admit that your abortion is the unthinkable sin, turn from this sin, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you shall be saved! "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved!" "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life!" (Acts 16:31; John 3:16).

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves the unsaveable and forgives the unthinkable: He washes away the unthinkable sin; He casts it behind His back and remembers it no more; As far as the east is from the west so He removes your sin from you; He casts it into the depths of the ocean floor forever! And God then accepts you and delights in you just as He does in His own Son. I love they way Dr. Russell Moore puts it:

"And what the Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us is that there are probably women in this congregation right now who have had abortions - probably many of you. And you are probably hiding in the secret and in the shame of that abortion, fearing that anyone will ever find out about that secret that you have. What the Gospel of Jesus Christ says is that you are not an enemy in any culture war. If you come out of hiding and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Scripture says that you are so hidden in Christ that when Satan accuses you and says: 'I know who you are, and I know what you did. I know your secret!' - your response is to say: 'Satan, you are exactly right. You are right when you say that I am deserving of condemnation, but I have already been condemned! You are exactly right when you say that I am worthy of execution, but I have already been executed! Because I am in Christ - so every bit of penalty that belongs to me has already fallen on me! I've been crucified! I've been pulled off of that cross! I've been buried under the curse of God! And you know what? God now has announced what He thinks of me when He opened up that hole in the ground and Jesus Christ - my Head, my New Life, my New Identity - walked out of there. So when God looks at me, He says of me exactly what He says of Jesus Christ: this is my beloved child, and in you I am well pleased!'"6

Hallelujah! What a Savior! He alone forgives the unthinkable sin and all of our sins! After receiving such a great salvation may we go and sin no more, and may what is unthinkable to God become unthinkable to us as well.


1. Iain Duguid, Notes on Jeremiah in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 1480.

2. Ardel Caneday, Beyond The Bounds, Open Theism And The Undermining Of Biblical Christianity, eds. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 194.

3. Michael L. Brown, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Jeremiah, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 115.

4. Charles L. Feinberg, Jeremiah A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 141.

5. Phillip Graham Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations (ESV Edition): From Sorrow to Hope (Preaching the Word) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 144-145.

6. I heard Dr. Russell Moore preach this in a sermon delivered on a Sanctity of Life Sunday.

Joseph Randall is the Pastor of Olney Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA.

A Call for Gospel Centered Preaching


God saved me at a conference at which John Piper was speaking in Atlanta in 2001. Through his public ministry, Dr. Piper has been one of the most influential men in my life. Last month, he wrote a post, Should We 'Make a Beeline to the Cross'? A Caution for Gospel Centered Preaching, in which he raised a caution about "gospel-centered" preaching. I have concerns about how many might misunderstand or misuse this post. It is probable that John Piper agrees with much or most of what will follow, therefore, this should be received as more of an addition to the discussion than a rebuttal.  

Piper's intentions in his post are not altogether clear. The post contains enough qualifiers or nuance to leave me with the following questions: Does John Piper believe it is appropriate to have sermons with no gospel in them or not cross in them? Is he advocating for sermons that do not have the cross in them if the text does not specifically mention the cross? Is he advocating for sermons that do not have Christ in them if the chosen text does not specifically mention Christ?  

Prior to considering what the Scripture teaches about preaching the cross, I want to start with some points of agreement with truths that Piper affirms in his post. 

First, no text of Scripture should be treated quickly or superficially. Second, We should not give a mere nod to any portion of Scripture. Third, all Scripture is God breathed and profitable that the man of God may be complete. Fourth, we must declare the whole counsel of God.

That being said, I believe that every sermon should contain the person of Christ and the gospel of Christ. Central to the gospel is Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sin. Here are 12 arguments in defense of this thesis.

1. Like Piper, I could not find a source for the beeline quote many have attributed to Spurgeon. However, a cursory reading of Spurgeon's sermons reveal his great love for preaching Christ and Him crucified with incessant frequency. Here are a few Spurgeon quotes that make his views plain on the place of Christ and the gospel in preaching: 

In his Sermons to Soul Winners, Spurgeon explained,

"I believe that those sermons which are fullest of Christ are the most likely to be blessed to the conversion of the hearers. Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the gospel. As for myself, brethren, I cannot preach anything else but Christ and His cross, for I know nothing else, and long ago, like the apostle Paul, I determined not to know anything else save Jesus Christ and Him crucified. People have often asked me, "What is the secret of your success?" I always answer that I have no other secret but this, that I have preached the gospel,--not about the gospel, but the gospel,--the full, free, glorious gospel of the living Christ who is the incarnation of the good news. Preach Jesus Christ, brethren, always and everywhere; and every time you preach be sure to have much of Jesus Christ in the sermon."

In Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students, we read,

"Brethren, first and above all things, keep to plain evangelical doctrines; whatever else you do or do not preach, be sure incessantly to bring forth the soul-saving truth of Christ and him crucified." And, "Of all I would wish to say this is the sum; my brethren, preach CHRIST, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme." And, "O that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God."

2. Every sermon in the book of Acts contains the person of Christ and the gospel of Christ, every sermon includes reference to  the cross of Christ. The apostolic pattern of preaching is still a pattern of preaching for us today.

3. Every epistle written to God's people by Paul, Peter or the author of Hebrews preeminently centers on the person of Christ and the gospel. This is significant insomuch as that is how we discover what the apostles believed about what should be included in the saints' diet of truth.

4. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). Central to the gospel is the cross. To not preach the gospel, therefore, assumes that there are no unbelievers present in the congregation, or it assumes it is unnecessary for  unbelievers who may be present to hear to the gospel.

5. Believers need the gospel because the gospel, produces fruit in the believer's life (Col. 1:5-6). Tim Keller writes, "The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom." In his Commentary on Galatians Martin Luther writes, "Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually."

6. Have you ever wondered why Paul was eager to preach the gospel to Christians? Have you ever wondered why every Spirit inspired writing we have from Paul and Peter to God's people contains in it the the gospel.

7. Since we should take seriously Piper's encouragement not to superficially and quickly deal with any text then we should include with these deep treatments a proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified. Here is what I mean by way of example: Let's say that a preacher's given text for the day is 1 Peter 4:7-9 (the Scripture Piper cited), which deals with self control. Dealing deeply with self-control will bring us face to face with our need for the cross. After a careful treatment on self control, the cross would be a cup of cold water to those of us who have failed to have been as self controlled as we ought--which is all of us. In fact, Peter teaches us that the one who lacks self control and other godly characteristics has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins, which happens at the cross. Peter, therefore, teaches us that we need a reminder of the cleansing provided by Christ crucified (2 Peter 1:4-11).

We are not not arguing for a reductionistic preaching that only speaks about the cross of Christ. Like Paul, we must declare all of God's counsel. However, we can not say we have preached Christ crucified on any given Sunday if we did not preach Christ crucified. Preaching Christ crucified means preaching Christ crucified.  Paul wrote, "we preach Christ" and "we preach Christ crucified" (Col. 1; 1 Cor. 2:2) He used words to preach the person of Christ and cross of Christ.

8. No matter how mature a saint is on this side of eternity he never gets past his need to hear the good news of Jesus who died by being crucified. When John the apostle was an aged, mature saint on the isle of Patmos, he had a vision of Jesus. John was in the Spirit on the Lord's day. What did Jesus deem necessary for the mature Apostle to hear while in the Spirit on the Lord's day? Jesus said, "Fear not...I died (Rev. 1:17-18). The solution to the fear every saint deals with is found in Christ's words-- "I died."

9. God's word inextricably, continually and explicitly connects sanctification or the living of the Christ life to the gospel of the cross. We cannot treat sanctification or the Christian life atomistically apart from the cross. The apostles do not separate out these subjects in their writings. They are inseparably connected in Scripture. Many, many examples can be furnished from the NT. Here are a few.

Romans 6:1-4:

"What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."

Galatians 2:20:

"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but 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."

Colossians 2:20:

"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations."

Ephesians 4:32:

"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."

Ephesians 5:25-26: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her"

10. When we fall short at fulfilling the many imperatives in God's word--as we surely will--we need to hear the good news of the cross.  Preaching that leaves off the gospel of the cross is preaching that can assume that God's people have a good enough grip on the gospel, particularly when it comes to applying the cross the our failures in all the imperative sections of Scripture. As Piper has explained, "the only sin that can be repented of is a forgiven sin." The good news is necessary in repentance, which is a consummate part of the Christian life. A non-superficial treatment of any text will bring all of us face to face with our need for repentance and the gospel of the cross. None of us grasps the gospel like we should. Peter, after being discipled by Jesus, after Pentecost, stood condemned because his conduct was not line with the gospel. If this can happen to Peter, it can happen to any of us. We must not assume the gospel of the cross with even the most mature among us. We must not assume the gospel with anyone. Assuming the gospel leads to the loss of the gospel.

11. I am not arguing for anything less in our preaching and teaching than that for which Piper was arguing. I am arguing for more. We must not treat any text quickly and superficially. and we must take care so that we can say with Paul, "we preach Christ crucified." We must ensure that we can say that our sermon had that in it which is the power of God unto salvation. Let's make sure that we can say that our sermon had the gospel which produces fruit in the life of the believer. The cross is made explicit in the apostolic preaching and writing. Shouldn't we follow the pattern of the apostles in our preaching week in and week out?.

12. God also uses the preaching of the cross to stir up the saints to take the gospel to the lost, to the nations. As Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." May our preaching aim to have the saints hearts full of the gospel so that they live it, share it with the lost around them and work for it to go to the nations.

Why would we leave out of any sermon that which is the song and saying of the throne room of God in heavenly, corporate worship: "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation...Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing" (Rev. 5:9; 12)! The cross is not only the means of sanctifying God's people, but the cross is how God glorifies Himself, which is the chief end of all things.

Stephen Burch is the Pastor of Centrality Church in Asheville, NC

The Disease of Ambition


Herman Melville's Moby Dick is an intense and rather gothic tale of seaman Ishmael's experience whaling under captain Ahab. It's a well-known story of obsession, revenge, mania, and ruin--the typically edifying material or a great American novel.

As everyone familiar with American literature already knows, the story centers on Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, which is indeed a rather theological beast. The whale is not God; God is an unassailable sovereign throughout the novel, the creator of the land and sky and seas and all that stirs and broods in them, including the leviathan of Ahab's obsession. God not only shapes the course of men's lives, in Moby Dick, but he haunts their profoundly troubled minds--and, according to Ishmael, all people are so troubled or cracked, not just Ahab.

Ahab is Melville's picture of mortal greatness in the world, a man defined by ambition that only he and God seem to know. This is precisely how Melville introduces Ahab. The first we hear about him is from Peleg, a Nantucket Quaker, former whaling captain himself, and now, along with Bildad, majority owner of the Pequod. He describes his captain of choice to Ishmael, the aspiring whaler, like this:

He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much, but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales; His lance! aye, the keenest and surest that out of all our isle! Oh! He ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; he's Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!

It's a fantastic description in a book where there is nothing deeper on earth than what lies beneath the waves and no mightier foe to combat than the whales that play in those mysterious deeps.

Ahab is on his own quixotic quest for a kind of greatness that is defined from within him, and it is about much more than wrestling whales or slaying a particularly infamous one in revenge. Like Job, Ahab has a complaint against God; like Jonah, Ahab dares to defy God. Unlike either, however, he refuses to bow before God, even when God turns his fury on him in Moby Dick.

The Disease of Ambition

Like God, Ahab is a mysterious being who "doesn't speak much" but when he does his words are able to upend everything casual and common to men, even the seagoing whaling sort. Neither God nor Ahab is well understood by others yet both haunt and torment the troubled minds of those who encounter them. But Ahab is an ungodly man of demonic dimensions, driven by the very ambition that makes him great and god-like in a most ungodly way.

"Be sure of this, O young ambition," Melville--or Ishmael--warns us just before we first hear of Ahab: "all mortal greatness is but disease."

Ahab's ambition is, for Melville it seems, the defining quality he has in common with the "Ahab of old," the "crowned king." Captain Ahab is an embodiment of the "demonic" sort of ambition that, according to James, upsets the world and is a source of everything vile (3:15). God opposes this kind of ambition and those animated by it--the selfishly ambitious who discover that God, who refuses to bend to our will or reward our arrogance, is their mightiest foe.

The biblical Ahab knew God was against him--could not possibly be for him given his life's ambition--and so does captain Ahab. Not only this, but they both realize their twisted ambition, whatever it may be, will eventually cost them their lives. So Captain Ahab, like king Ahab--and even Satan himself, it seems--gives free rein to this self-destructive disease. Unable to lay hold of God, Melville's Ahab vents the rage of his frustrated passions on the proxy-god that seems to be within reach: The White Whale.

Demonic Ambition

Arrogant, striving, self-serving and self-aggrandizing ambition is demonic. James is quite blunt about this:

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice" (James 3:13-16).

Selfish ambition (eritheia) is the opposite of love and meekness; selfish ambition is a kind of passion that insists on its own way in the world and will be met with "wrath and fury" from God (Rom 2:8). It is the disease of greatness, but it is also common to all men. And it must be mortified in the minister of Christ (and everyone else pursuing holiness), or it will be wreaking havoc at home, in the Church, and wherever else he goes.

Yet, not all ambition is demonic. Paul writes to the Romans that he makes it his ambition (philotimeomai) to preach Christ where Christ has not already been named (Rom. 15:20). Paul's ambition, however, is rooted in the particularities of his call to suffer many things for Christ's sake as an apostle to the Gentiles. It is nearly the opposite, in application at least, of eritheia.

Godly ambition does not promote any cult of personality, but selflessly serves Christ and his Church, and seeks no other prize than his glory and what he has promised in the Gospel. Paul's ambition, therefore, drives him to acts of profound and costly self-denial in order to fulfill his mission: To become all things to all people, that he might save some. Paul's ambition--godly ambition--can join John the Baptist in declaring that Christ "must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Godly ambition, in other words, mortifies selfish ambition.

The Subtlety of Eritheia

I suspect we do a poor job distinguishing between the two types of ambition, or of recognizing the perversity of eritheia. Selfish ambition, at least to a certain degree, is not only an acceptable sin in our culture but a seemingly necessary one for success. It may also be incentivized in a church culture caving to the temptation of elevating a public image of success above qualities like quiet, steady faithfulness in relative obscurity; a work-ethic rooted in giving and helping rather than getting and keeping; a willingness to go without and sacrifice for the good of others.

We cannot esteem worldly success without neglecting godliness and overlooking spiritual maturity. Worldly success is not a bad thing, but it is not to be confused with being above reproach or enjoying a good reputation, and it may indicate little more than selfish ambition (the disease of greatness). In ministers and congregations it may even dress itself in claims of kingdom growth, public witness, administrative acumen, evangelistic fruitfulness, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on. These are all highly desirable objects, but sin can twist each one into a pious-sounding cover for eritheia.

Our hearts are slippery things and may permit many things to pass for godly ambition that on closer inspection belong to the selfish, striving sort that stirs up envy and feeds jealousies, rivalries, and "every vile practice." This is the disease of Ahab and of all human striving after greatness by our own design and measure. It comes from setting and pursuing our own agenda in the world rather than submitting to the Lord and one another in Christ.


We see this striving ambition surface among the Disciples from time to time as they quarreled over greatness. They were disabused of it, it seems, when confronted by the reality of Christ crucified. There is the death of eritheia, the cure for the disease of striving after greatness on our terms. There the ambition of Christ is disclosed, an ambition that exposes and destroys every other ambition in us.

After the cross, the Apostles no longer quarrel about greatness. Neither did they find the message of Christ crucified nor the vessels of his church ill-fitted instruments for the work of the ministry. If we do, then the issue may well be our ambition rather than some wrong-headed piece of polity we are tempted to blame, much less our dim-witted brothers we cannot bend to our will or way of seeing things.

The ordination vow Presbyterian elders take to submit to our brothers in the Lord, like the call of Christ to take up our cross and follow him, is a call to kill the disease of demonic ambition that aspires to be great in the world, even "a crowned king." And there is some urgency to this: If we are not actively killing Ahab within us, then Ahab will surely carry us out to sea and leave us a wreck adrift on the waves of the deep.

Praying Through the Scriptures: Galatians 6


Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. The Alliance has asked me to share some with you too. Here are the prayers we have considered so far followed by the next prayer in this meditative series:

Genesis 1

Genesis 2

Deuteronomy 3

Joshua 23

Joshua 24; Acts 4

Judges 2; Acts 6

Galatians 5:16-26

Acts 7

Acts 8


Galatians 6

Gracious Father in heaven, hallowed by your name, and humbled be our own. We come to set your name above all others, for you alone are God; yours is the power and the glory and the honour. You are worthy of all praise and adoration for the glory of your character, for the goodness of your actions, for the grace of your salvation.

And so we ask, O Lord, that you would keep us from bragging. Keep us from thinking that we are really something, when we are nothing. Let us each test our own work, bear our own load, and correct fellow transgressors with a spirit of gentleness, keeping a watch on our own selves. Support us in doing good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith. Prevent us from growing weary; prompt us to remember that in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

And even as we ask that you would make us better servants, we beg that you would keep us from boasting. Stop us from boasting in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us, and us to the world. Make his suffering the talk of our day, his sorrows the source of our joys, his work, and not our own, the comfort of our hearts. Help us to walk by this rule. And may your peace and mercy, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, be our salvation in this life of trouble, our consolation in times of discouragement, and our aspiration as we seek to be like him through the help of your Holy and powerful Spirit.

This we ask for our own sakes, so that we would be encouraged; and we ask if for Christ's sake, so that he would be glorified, and you in him. AMEN.

*This is the tenth post in a series on "Praying Through the Scriptures."

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn (PhD, Cambridge University) is a Professor of Church History and the Director of the Craig Center for the Study of the Westminster Standards at Westminster Theological Seminary. He also serves as an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

The Incomparable Conjunction of Love and Wrath

I was recently reading John Murray's profoundly enriching sermon, "The Father's Love"--in the newly released volume of his sermon, O Death, Where is Thy Sting?--and was struck afresh with the wonder of the mystery of the commingling of the Father's love and wrath in His dealings with the Son on the cross. This greatest of all subjects received quite a good deal of attention last year, after Tim Keller tweeted out the following sentiment: "If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father out of His infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness." While I certainly share the concern of those who reacted swiftly to the idea that the Son lost the Father's love when He hung on the cross, I was disheartened to see how many of the responses lacked a strong focus on the simultaneity of the manifestation of the Father's eternal love and divine wrath directed to the Son when He hung on the cross. In his sermon on Romans 8:32, however, Murray held these two seemingly incompatible truths inseparably together. 

When he first gave consideration of the words of the text, "spared not His own Son," Murray explained:

"The Father loved the Son with infinite and immutable love because he did not cease to be the only begotten Son, and the infinite love necessarily flowed out from the very relationship that he essentially and immutably sustained to God the Father" (76). 

Murray insisted that we must distinguish between the two kinds of love that the Father had for the Son. The first is that immutable, "infinite love that flows out from the Father to the Son because of the intrinsic relationship that they sustain to one another" (75) The second is "the love of complacency that flowed out with increasing intensity to the Son because of His fulfillment of the Father's commission" (75). This second kind of love that the Father had for the Son is captured in the words of Christ in John 10:17: "Therefore, the Father loves me because I lay down my life, that I may take it again." From this, we must conclude that the Father loved the Son incarnate the most, precisely at the moment when he was voluntarily laying down His life in connection with the command of His Father in the counsels of eternity. Murray noted:

"Every detail of the suffering endured by the Son constrained the love and delight of God the Father because it was all endured by the Son in obedience to the Father's will and--in the performance of the Father's will--the Son committed no sin." 

There is, however, "an incomparable conjunction" at the cross--"an unheard-of conjunction: infinite love and divine wrath." The Son becomes the object of the commingling of the love of the Father and the unmitigated wrath of the Father. "The essence of sin's curse and judgment," stated Murray, "is the wrath of God. So, if Jesus bore sin and if he bore our curse and if he was made sin, then the vicarious fearing of the wrath of God belongs to the very essence of his atoning accomplishment" (78). Here we see that the doctrine of propitiation is of the very essence of the truth of the Gospel. 

Murray further developed the mystery of the meaning of the conjunction of the manifestation of the Father's infinite love and divine wrath at the cross in this sermon, when he noted: 

"The truth is that it is just because the Son was the object of this immutable, infinite, and unique love that he could at the same time be the subject of the wrath of God... (78)

...It was only because the Son was the object of the Father's unique and immutable love that He could be thus abandoned. No other would be equal to it. The lost in perdition will be abandoned eternally, but not one of them will be able to of have occasion to say, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" The abandonment of Christ on Calvary's tree was abandonment in pursuance of the commission given him by the Father, and it was abandonment with the unparalleled effect of ending that abandonment. And because it was abandonment with this result, it was abandonment with inimitable agony and reality...(79)

...The determinate purpose of the Father's love was the explanation for the spectacle of the Son's death. But the love that the Father bore to the Son did not diminish the severity of the ordeal that creates this spectacle--the ordeal of the cross and the abandonment vicariously born" (79). 

The Father's love for those for whom the Son bears His wrath is set against the background of this wondrous conjunction of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son. Murray noted, "The Father loved His people with such invincible love and purpose that he executed the full toll, the full stroke, of their condemnation upon His own Son. That is the Father's love" (77).

All of this should, of course, make us "stagger with amazement...the amazement of believing and adoring wonder" (77). When we come to understand that the Father loved the Son the most while making the Son the object of His full and unfettered wrath--as He stood in our place as our substitutionary sacrifice--our hard hearts are melted. It is the "incomparable conjunction" of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son that enables believers to grasp something of the greatness of the love that the Father has for us. 

Race and the Imago Dei


In light of current discussions regarding racial reconciliation, we thought that it might be a benefit to our readers to run a series of videos from a longtime contributor, Rob Ventura, and his wife, Vanessa, concerning a variety of subjects related to interracial marriage. Rob is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Providence, RI. Rob and Vanessa have been married 20 years and have three children.

The interviewer, Suhylah Claudio, has provided the following rationale for this series of interviews:

"To share the varying perspectives on race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality from various ethnic backgrounds. The purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes and expose points of view from those whom we may not feel are 'like us' and ultimately to think about what Scripture says about these things. My goal is to help unite us as one race of Christians who are aware of the perceptions and experiences of one another so that we can be more sensitive and loving as brethren in Christ."

In this video, Rob and Vanessa talk about race, all mandking being made in the image of God, and how the cross gives meaning to all of life

Three Mistakes to Avoid in Good Friday Preaching

Preaching "Christ and him crucified" is core to the job description of any minister of the Christian gospel (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Good Friday drives this home more than any other day in the church calendar. On that day, the preacher's task is to proclaim and explain why the bloody spectacle of the Son of God murdered upon Golgotha is "good news." How is this moral rupture the center of God's great act of atonement--of God reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19)? 

Christ's cross itself has always provoked hostility and scorn whether among pagan Greeks or Jews and is, in many ways, no easier to stomach now than it was then; it still confronts us with our sins and bids the old Adam to come, submit to death, so that the New Adam may rise to new life. But that's not the only difficulty involved. 

The fact of the matter is that many have rightly recoiled at some of the defective ways pastors have preached the cross--especially its penal and substitutionary dimensions--in the past. When we make mistakes in this area, it's easy to give people a distorted and destructive view of both God and the gospel. This is tragic. Both because we deprive people of the beauty of the cross, but also because, as C.S. Lewis points out, the more powerful and good something is, the more destructive it can be if it goes wrong. Much as a doctor cannot be careless in wielding a life-saving scalpel, so preachers cannot treat the preaching of the cross lightly or carelessly lest we bring death instead of life. 

While there are a number of ways preaching the cross can go wrong, here are three key mistakes to avoid in your preaching of the cross this Good Friday. 

Don't Break Up the Trinity

One popular, but dangerous, mistake that gets made is to speak as if the cross was an event that momentarily split the Trinity up into pieces. We sing hymns with lines like "The Father turned his face away" and think that on the cross God the Father poured out his judgment on God the Son in such a way that the eternal Father is somehow ontologically or spiritually separated from God the Son. To suggest this is to teach a split in the being of the eternal, unchangeable, perfect life of the Father, Son, and Spirit, which is unthinkable. 

What's more, this is not the historic, orthodox view of penal substitution--at least not as we encounter it in the best teachers in church history. John Calvin himself is quite clear on this:
Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, "in whom his heart reposed" [cf. Matthew 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was "stricken and afflicted" [cf. Isaiah 53:5] by God's hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.11)
This is where having a properly Chalcedonian Christology matters. We have to remember that Christ the Mediator is not solely divine, nor solely human precisely because he is fully divine and fully human. The teaching of Scripture is that divine, eternal, perfect Son assumed human nature (adding humanity) to himself in the incarnation in order that he might live, die, and rise again on our behalf as man (John 1:1-14; Col. 1:15-20; 2:8). This is why Calvin (along with the Fathers), said it is appropriate to speak of some realities being "according to" his divine nature (eternality, omnipotence, etc) and others according to his human nature (thirst, hunger, sleepiness) even though they are both properly spoken of Christ as he is one person in two natures.

When we speak of the Son suffering the consequences of sin, judgment, the wrath, or the abandonment of God on the cross, we speak truly, but we speak these things according to his human nature. You have to be able to say that the divine Son suffered these things because Jesus is the divine Son. But you also have to say that the Son suffered them according to his human nature. This is not a dodge or over-subtle, logic-chopping. This is the metaphysical logic of the incarnation--God is unchangeable and impassible. God cannot suffer in his own nature, so the Son takes on our nature in order to suffer with and for us in his human nature, which is now really and truly his, alongside and on behalf of his brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:14). God the Son suffers and dies in his human nature. 
In other words, if you forget orthodox Christology in the preaching of the cross, you'll be in danger of losing the Trinity and the gospel itself. 

Don't Forget--Love Comes First

A second mistake we can make in preaching the atonement is connected to the first. Many critics have rejected the atonement as the satisfaction of God's justice and wrath because they've gotten the impression that somehow the picture is about a loving Jesus going to the cross in order to satisfy an angry Father who's just out for blood. And even when it's not explicitly taught this way, unless corrected, many people in the pews can get the impression that God somehow has to be convinced he ought to be merciful. 

But this is not what we see in Scripture. Instead, we have a portrait of the triune God of holy love who purposes from all eternity to redeem sinners for himself, before it ever entered their minds to repent he looked to embrace us in Christ (Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Peter 1:20). God revealed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, cursing God with every breath, that the Son came to die for us (Romans 5:8).  God doesn't have to be convinced or persuaded to love us, nor does the Father need to be convinced by the Son. 

Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that the Father loves the Son precisely because the Son goes willingly to lay down his life for the sheep just as the Father desires because of his great love for us (John 10:14-18).  Hebrews makes clear that the Son does so in the power of the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14). This is the triune shape of the gospel: Father, Son, and Spirit beautifully and harmoniously accomplishing the salvation of sinners. 

In that case, we have to understand that God is not moved from wrath to love because of the death of Christ. He is moved by love to satisfy his wrath (ie. judicial opposition to sin) against us by removing our guilt and enmity through the blood of his cross. Whatever else our people understand, they must see that mercy and grace are God's idea and accomplishment before it ever enters our minds, because God, by his very nature, is love.

It's Not All About Wrath  

Finally, I've focused on issues connected to wrath and punishment simply because Reformed and Evangelical preaching tends to focus on some form of penal substitution in its cross-preaching. Don't forget, though, that the cross is about much more than those issues. Scripture is clear that Christ got a lot of work done in his life, death, and resurrection. Herman Bavinck notes the diversity of the New Testament witness at this point and says, "Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula." We must remember not to sideline the various other aspects of Christ's cross-work. 

For instance, when was the last time you preached on Christ's conquering over the powers of sin, death, and the devil? The drama of the gospel isn't only about interpersonal reconciliation between God and humanity, but about the liberation of God's people from the clutches of his enemies. The same apostle John who tells us that Christ came to make atonement for sin (1 John 2:2) also came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) . Paul says that through his death for our sins, Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, bringing our forgiveness, and thereby disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). Satan can no longer accuse the saints (Revelation 12:10-12). In doing so he liberates us from guilt and the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14). 

And this is just one of the many aspects of Christ's multi-faceted work on the cross beyond the satisfaction of God's justice. 

We need to be careful, then, to avoid giving our people a lopsided view of the cross so that they might begin to perceive the height, breath, and depth of the good news of Good Friday.

Derek Rishmawy is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He writes regularly at