‘He Preached Christ’
The title of this article is the text that Charles Hodge took for a sermon he preached following the death of J W Alexander.1
Alexander (1804-1859) was briefly a professor in Princeton Seminary, but spent most of his ministry as a pastor in New York.
The text is part of Acts 9:20: ‘And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God’. This describes Saul of Tarsus immediately after his conversion and his call to be an apostle and therefore a preacher of the gospel. The focus of that first sermon was Christ and the fact that He is the Son of God. It was the same message that the angel brought to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, immediately after the birth of Jesus: ‘Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:11) – the Child who had just been born was the promised Messiah and was Jehovah; He was divine.
Much had happened since the angel had delivered his message: the divine Saviour had grown up; He had gone about doing good; especially He had died in the place of sinners, had risen again and had ascended to heaven. He appeared to Saul on the way to Damascus and, in spite of all his persecution of Jesus’ followers, Saul was beginning to preach the everlasting gospel – what Christ had called him to do. He was emphasising two gospel facts particularly: that Jesus was the Messiah and that He – though indeed man – was more than man; He was the Son of God.
After the resurrection, Jesus had sent out the remaining 11 disciples with the words: ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16:15). The content of what they were to proclaim was specified: it was the good news of who Christ was and what He had done. They were also to proclaim the result of His work: there was salvation for guilty sinners. It was a message of peace, as the angels had made clear – it was ‘peace through the blood of His cross’ (Col 1:20), as Paul was later to write as he pointed to Christ’s death as the substitute for sinners, when He took their sins and suffered their punishment. These are the great facts to be made known in the preaching of the gospel in every generation.
When Hodge came to comment on Alexander’s preaching, he said: ‘He endeavoured to turn the minds of men away from themselves, and to lead them to look only unto Jesus. He strove to convince his hearers that the work of salvation had been accomplished . . . and was not to be done by them; that their duty was simply to acquiesce in the work of Christ, assured that the subjective work of sanctification is due to the objective work of Christ, as appropriated by faith and applied by the Holy Ghost. He thus endeavoured to cut off the delays, anxieties and misgivings which arise from watching the exercises of our own minds, seeking in what we inwardly experience our warrant for accepting what is outwardly offered to the chief of sinners, without money and without price.’2
Here is an example for preachers today: they are to point to Christ as the source of all spiritual blessings, emphasising to their hearers that they cannot in any degree save themselves; and they are not to seek for anything in themselves which could possibly provide encouragement to seek for salvation – but their need, their sin, their guilt, their helplessness should certainly send them to Christ, for He has done all that is necessary for the salvation of guilty, polluted sinners. And, as Hodge made clear, He ‘is outwardly offered to the chief of sinners’. So Paul proclaimed, ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief’ (1 Tim 1:15).
This is the type of preaching that congregations should be looking for: what centres on Christ. Yes, preachers are to proclaim ‘all the counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27); that was what Paul, as he spoke to the elders of the church in Ephesus, had every right to claim he had done. But he also stressed: ‘We preach Christ crucified’ (1 Cor 1:23). He did both: he proclaimed the whole testimony that God had revealed, but his focus was on the Saviour who had suffered, the Lamb whom God had provided – to be a propitiation, a sacrifice that would turn away the anger of God from those sinners whose substitute He was, for He came to satisfy God’s justice in their place. Apart from preaching Christ crucified, ministers have no foundation for any message to their hearers except condemnation.
Yes, appropriate attention must be paid to the law and to the terrible consequences of breaking that law, but no one will obtain deliverance from condemnation apart from the message of forgiveness through Christ, who was crucified. And no one will continue on the way to heaven, bearing fruit, apart from going on ‘looking unto Jesus’. We should also bear in mind the Saviour’s words to His disciples: ‘Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit’ (John 15:8). This is how God is to be glorified in the lives of people in this world. To glorify God is our primary duty in this world.
In one of his communion addresses, Alexander thus encouraged believers: ‘The view which we are to take of a dying Christ is not natural sympathy with His human sufferings. These were indeed great, unparalleled and unutterable. But it is observable that the bodily pangs are not made prominent in the Scripture narrative . . . . Our Lord plainly dissuades us from this simply-human and compassionate view of His death, by the words which He turned and spoke to the weeping daughters of Jerusalem’.
Alexander goes on to oppose crucifixes, and pictures and plays featuring Jesus’s death; they ‘leave the very crowds that weep and smite the breast ready next day to go about deeds of violence or licence. . . . We are in need of something that is beyond nature. . . . The death of Christ, exhibited in the sacrament, is to be viewed by faith. . . . It is faith that beholds this spotless Lamb laid on the altar of divine justice. It is faith that sees the penalty here exacted on the blessed Substitute. It is faith that hears the invitation extended to every sinner in the gospel. It is faith that receives the salvation as complete, suitable, available, present, made over and held out for the acceptance of the individual soul. It is faith that actually accepts it, laying the hand of appropriation on the head of the unblemished Victim . . . and it is faith that renews these very acts of reception, surrender and adhesion with equal or increasing readiness, again and again through all the Christian life. In other words, faith ‘discerns the Lord’s body’; faith receives it; faith feeds upon it.’3
Here indeed was preaching of Christ crucified. Yet many hearers reject such preaching. In Paul’s time, unbelief led ‘the Jews [to] require a sign, and the Greeks [to] seek after wisdom’ that had a human source (1 Cor 1:22). That unbelief continues today. What need there then is of the Lord to send out godly preachers to make Christ known everywhere and of the Spirit to apply their message powerfully!
Hodge thus ended his sermon in what had been Alexander’s church: ‘The sum and substance of the preaching ever heard within these walls is that Christ is the only source of truth, of righteousness, of holiness and eternal life, so that we are complete in Him. To Him therefore be honour and glory, might, majesty and dominion, world without end.’ May the time soon come when preachers everywhere will preach Christ crucified, as Alexander did, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven! Then how great will be the honour and glory which will ascend to heaven from all parts of this world!
This is written by the editor Kenneth Macleod and is in the February Free Presbyterian Magazine
- The sermon appears in James M Garretson, Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton, Banner of Truth, 2012. Readers may be interested in Thoughts on Preaching & Pastoral Ministry: Lessons From the Life and Writings of James W Alexander, by James M Garretson, published by Reformation Heritage Books in 2015. It is much more of a biography than the title suggests. The books referred to here are available from the F P Bookroom.
- Pastor-Teachers of Old Princeton, p 142.
- J W Alexander, God Is Love, Banner of Truth reprint, 1985, pp 131-135.
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