October 19, 2019

While We’re Talking About the Gospel….I Have a Story

I wrote this as part of a post from February of 07. It goes so well with what I want to say to all of you who may wonder if going on and on about the Gospel is really necessary.

Yes, it is.

Read and think about it:

There is another reason I care deeply about the gospel of Christ, and it has to do with my dad. It’s a story I want to share with you.

My dad had an unusual life. He grew up in Appalachian poverty. He had an 8th grade education. He made little money. He failed at a lot of jobs, but did well at some things that didn’t pay much money. He was friendly and funny most of the time, but also tended to be bitter, angry, short-tempered and depressed. After his health collapsed and depression took over, he had a lot of bad days and a lot of good days. You just never knew.

My dad grew up in a large family, and his younger brother became a very popular preacher. There was a lot of Appalachian mountain religion in him: emotional, fatalistic, mysterious, full of a God that couldn’t really be known or loved, but had to be dealt with anyway. He was converted, but he also left his first wife and family, living for years in shame, anger and dread over what that kind of failure meant. He wrestled with whether he was a Christian, and always wept at prayer. (Hearing my dad pray at night before he went to bed is a memory that always stays with me, especially knowing he was praying for me.)

Because my dad considered himself a sinner and a failure, he didn’t go to church. His brother was the pastor, and the church was nearby. But as fate would have it, his first wife and his daughter were also there. So he didn’t go to church. He sat at home, exiled from the preaching of the Gospel. (I really believe if he had been there much he would have lived at the altar.) he wrestled with issues of shame and self-righteous anger. He loved God, but there was something that kept his joy far away. He seldom experienced the kind of joy in the Gospel that should be the food and drink of the people of God. He never, in my memory, took the Lord’s Supper.

He heard me preach about 5 times in his life. Of all the things in my life I regret, that one is at the top.

To hear this next part of the story, however, it is important to know that my dad read the Bible and loved God. I never doubted that he was a soundly converted man who knew what the gospel was all about. He saw himself as a Christian, though a rather self-defined one.

My dad didn’t read books, though he was very smart. I never saw a Christian book in the house. I never heard him listening to a TV or radio preacher, though they were available.

That was my dad. So the story is quite simple. I hope you will see why it affected me, and why I carry it to the pulpit every time I preach.

It was 1986. I was working as an associate minister at a large First Baptist Church. I got to see my folks a few times a year. Dad’s mental health was better than in the past, but he was in his mid 70’s now, and starting to look and act more frail.

We’d come back to western Kentucky on a holiday, visited with our parents and were with my folks the morning we were starting home. Dad went into the back room and came out with a set of cassette tapes. Six in a set.

He handed them to me. “The Cross: Your Victory Today.” It was a set of sermons on the cross by Dr. Charles Stanley at First Baptist Atlanta, Georgia.

“Do you know about this?”

I thought he meant Dr. Stanley…or cassette taped sermon series that you could order. I started to answer along those lines.

“No…do you know about this…what he’s talking about?”

He meant the cross. Did I know about the cross. My 70+ year old dad was asking me if I knew about the message of the cross. It was a new discovery for him, and he wanted to share it with me.

I’ve looked at these tape titles many times since that day. The titles were about Jesus saving work on the cross. Substitution. Taking our sins upon himself. Giving us his righteousness. Setting us free from the penalty of sin and purchasing every benefit of salvation.

My dad was asking me if I knew about this. About the cross. He might have wondered if this could possibly be true, or why I hadn’t shared this with him. Maybe he just wanted my verification that such a thing could be true.

If you don’t know about Appalachian mountain religion, then you may not understand that it’s possible to go to church and be around Christians for years hearing about the devil, heaven, mama, the end of the world, sin, morals, family, miracles, prayer and twenty other things…and almost never hear about the cross.

But it’s not just mountain churches; it’s evangelicals and Christians of all kinds. You can be in church, around Christians and neck deep in a Christian culture and not understand the heart of the Gospel.

My dad, in his mid 70’s, after years of fearing God, praying to God and hoping that God would take him to heaven, finally learned about the cross and all that it means to the very heart of our faith.

How does that happen? Dad wasn’t in church much, so it’s no surprise, but that still doesn’t soften the blow. Dad didn’t know what I knew as a 16 year old boy. He didn’t know about the cross until Charles Stanley told him. When he did, it was good news. Good news for a man with many sins, many failures and many, many fears. Now he knew that the cross wasn’t just a bad event done to a good man. Now he knew the cross was for him.

This is why I tell my preachers that I want them to preach the Gospel. I don’t want their stories and anecdotes if they aren’t leading us to the cross. I don’t want to hear lessons from the Bible to help my students be better people. I want them to hear about, be moved by, be compelled to consider the God who was crucified for them.

My dad listened to those tapes a lot. They are now very close to me as I type. They are the good news he heard as an old man. I want the men who preach with me and to our students to take up the cross, and lift high the one on the cross. May the Gospel be preached so that in the light of the cross we can see who we are, who God is, and be in awe of all he’s done for us in his gracious Gospel.

Comments

  1. Michael,
    Great post. I woke up early today stressed out because my sermon for today is about the Cross. I have been preaching for close to 3 years and I always focus on what Christ did for us but this morning I was “worried” about the sermon and it’s message. Christ is the only gate to the Father. I woke up to look for a story, well I found a story, yours. Not exactly what I had in mind but it made the point. The church is starting to grow. Out of no where people are coming and I have to admit I am overwhelmed. I will stay on course and keep preaching the Gospel!

    Thanks
    Juan

  2. Wow, this reminds me of something I heard in high school. I was sitting in my Bible class one day, and I overheard a conversation between two other students. One of them said “I thought Jesus just spiritally rose from the dead.” This was no liberal Christian school I was in either, but it was a fundamentalist Baptist school. She was a regular attender of some Charismatic congregation. Sad. Sad. Sad.

  3. Dan Crawford says

    Many years ago I belonged to a religious order whose primary mission was the preaching of Christ crucified – that emphasis has stayed with me since. The cross gives meaning to my Christian faith, it makes sense of my daily life, it helps me understand the God of the Holy Scriptures, it enables me to hope in spite of my sinfulness. And I amazed at how easily Christian preachers tend to pay so little attention to it. Thanks for a lovely essay, Michael.

  4. Dan Crawford says

    “am” amazed. Sorry.

  5. Sadly, I’m not amazed any more by what people never, ever hear in church.

    The obnoxious thing is when I actually had students and their parents argue with me over basic Christian teachings. They hadn’t heard these things from their pastors, so they wondered where I got off teaching such things in my bible classes—and since I wasn’t a pastor, where was my authority to teach anything about God at all?

    And of course, at the Christian schools I’ve been to, the story of the cross is rarely taught—because the school’s disciplinary structure is based upon legalism, and upon the threat of God’s wrath if the kids don’t behave themselves and follow the rules. If you teach them forgiveness, why, you may never get control back. ‘Cause all that forgiveness junk the Lord teaches is nice and idealistic, but completely impractical for keeping the kids under your thumb. (Or so the attitude goes.)

  6. Brother Monk, thank God for those 5 times.. What I wouldn’t give for just one time that my dad would have heard me preach. Or one time that he could have heard his grand daughters sing to the Lord as we went from church to church. You were blessed.

  7. For reasons why my dad would not go to church under any condition, see previous post on legalism. Legalism does Satan’s work for him.

  8. Some months ago a colleague of mine (I’m a journalist in Austria) went to some “peace camp” event where an enthusiastic couple had invited young Jews and Arabs from the Holy Land and had them live together, sing and dance together for some weeks. It must have been a terribly syrupy, hand-holding-style affair.

    When my colleague, a young man in his late 20s, came back to the office, the first thing he said was: “It was all so terribly ‘peaceful’, I was becoming aggressive at the end… I felt as if a Catholic church.” I found this remark terribly irksome and it made me think.

    It said a lot about our failure to preach the Cross. This guy had probably gone to church as a kid and always heard how Jesus all loves us and we all love each other. But he never heard about the Cross, about suffering, atonement, about the spiritual fight, about Original Sin. So he thought at the end that this superficial, syrupy “let’s all get along” was Christianity.

    How many other people are betrayed in a similar way?

  9. Sorry about the typo:
    “I felt as if IN a Catholic church.”

  10. It is indeed sad to see people either given false standards fo holiness which keeps them hopeful about themselves or to see people shortchanged on the completeness of Christ’s work.

    The first makes the cross seem unnecesary and the second makes it inadequate.

  11. There is an English (Anglican) hymn from the late 19th century whose words express well what you have told us to remember.

    Refrain: Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,
    Till all the world adore His sacred Name.

    Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
    The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.

    Refrain

    Each newborn servant of the Crucified
    Bears on the brow the seal of Him Who died.

    Refrain

    O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree,
    As Thou hast promised, draw the world to Thee.

    Refrain

    So shall our song of triumph ever be:
    Praise to the Crucified for victory.

    Refrain

  12. Beautiful story … sometime you should do an open mic with these basic power of the gospel truth stories.

  13. Wonderful story.

    I am not a Baptist, but I often watch Charles Stanley on TV or listen to him on the radio. I always get help from him. He definitely does not water down the gospel. I’m thankful that there are still some ministries out there that point people to Christ and His cross.

  14. Thanks a lot for this story, Michael. My dad is going through something of the same rediscovery – he’s been retelling me the story of Fatima these days, as if it were brand new to him. He’s been reading all these books on Mary and Maria Faustina and going over them in awe and he gets a lot of comfort from them.

  15. The cross isn’t just something to be thankful for, for forgiving us of our failures. It is something that we must also carry – at great price and with great reward. When my kids went with their Mormon friends to their church, I told them that one of the differences between that church and ours was that we go to a church with an image of a dead man on the wall. That crucifix is quite a reminder.

  16. Thankyou for sharing the story of your dad’s faith.
    You always write well and have something important to say, but you have really done something fantastic with the last couple of posts.

    Thanks

  17. Joe M, if you don’t mind, what does it mean to “carry the cross” today? What is the “great price” we must pay? I’m not asking facetiously. I’ve really struggled with this.

    In my experience, the verses in the Gospels about “take up his cross,” “loses the soul-life,” “denies himself,” etc., can be very damaging. They can lead to morbid introspection, “woe is me,” no joy allowed. They can also be used in an abusive way by Christian leaders (i.e. submission to an unhealthy situation is bearing the cross).

    I’ve always wanted to know how these verses can be obeyed in a way that honors the truth, and results in the freedom that Christ bought for us. Yet even reading those verses makes me feel guilty for loving my self too much, living a life of ease, not wallowing enough in condemnation, etc.

    Maybe I’m just a sick puppy. I need to re-read Luther on Galatians.

  18. Rob Lofland says

    It is the great Lie that has been foisted on the church.(Satan is a great lover and promoter of religion, even the evangelical brand).
    We can sit in services for years. Sometimes entire lifetimes and never hear the truths that Dr. Stanley preached or that should be preached from every pulpit every service in every meeting in the world.
    Not platitudes, not how the bible can help us to be better financial stewards or car mechanics or happier idiots.
    The cross, Christ crucified.
    His work total and complete.
    Nothing to be added. Ever.
    I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and I am sure I never heard this message.
    I have friends who have missed few services in their respective Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Non-Denominational, Bible etc, etc, who I am sure have not heard this message.
    I cannot judge their heart but I do know what I hear.
    iMonk’s 70 something father is no isolated or unusual story. what is unusual is that he somehow heard the series and understood after years of hearing something other.
    Apparently there are many pastors, preachers and priests on this post and regular iMonk readers.
    Are you declaring the cross? Every sermon?

  19. “Are you declaring the cross? Every sermon?”

    Well, even Christ Himself did not declare the cross every time He spoke. And Paul did not always talk about the cross. His epistles deal with quite a number of things.

    So let’s not be legalistic about it. 🙂

  20. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    There is an English (Anglican) hymn from the late 19th century whose words express well what you have told us to remember.

    Refrain: Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,
    Till all the world adore His sacred Name.

    — Fr Ernesto

    It’s not just Anglican. We’ve used that as the processional/entrace hymn at St Boniface lots of times.

    Sure beats that overused lightweight “Gather Us In”.

    “I felt as if IN a Catholic church.” — Petra

    St Boniface in downtown Anaheim IS Catholic. Third oldest Catholic parish in Orange County after Capistrano & Santa Ana.

  21. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    In my experience, the verses in the Gospels about “take up his cross,” “loses the soul-life,” “denies himself,” etc., can be very damaging. They can lead to morbid introspection, “woe is me,” no joy allowed. They can also be used in an abusive way by Christian leaders (i.e. submission to an unhealthy situation is bearing the cross). — Treebeard

    Then keep away from this Nondenominational Christian paperback called The Calvary Road by a Roy Hession. Cover was distinctive, with a scratchy-drawn silhouette of a figure on knees with face in hands before a crudely-drawn cross; lots of boldface B&W shadowing.

    It will drive you schizo. The basic idea is any sinful thought or anything will BREAK contact with God and you always have to keep atoning and begging forgiveness so you can get back “under the blood” — until the next thought breaks contact and you have to start all over again. I ended up whipsawed back-and-forth trying to atone atone atone (until the next thought) until I almost went crazy.

  22. Rob Lofland says

    Dang, treebeard, you got me.

  23. Please forgive me for my presumption, Michael, but it seems like your father was earnest all those years, seeking a God he misunderstood, and in His mercy, God responded with a chance to hear the Good News.
    Kind of like how Simeon waited his whole life for the Redemption of Israel and then one day, there He was.

  24. Christopher Lake says

    I am feeling incredibly blessed that fairly early in my Christian life, I came to a church where Jesus’s finished work on the Cross was the center of *everything.* I’m feeling incredibly blessed, because I *have* been incredibly blessed. I am humbled to hear about your father, Michael… and thankful that he did at least get to experience some Cross-centered joy while on this earth.

  25. Michael,
    Thank you for that post. I want to print it out, and use it.
    I have a bit of the opposite story. Growing up in a Lutheran Pastors house I grew up with the Gospel. Oh, my dad could be a strict disciplinarian, but when we went to church on Sunday it was the gospel we heard, the cross drummed in week after week, the forgiveness of sins proclaimed. Failing to preach the Gospel will probably not be one of the sins my dad has to answer for on the last day. And he will have many, as will I.
    I used to ask my dad about other churches, churches I’m not sure he ever entered, churches he read about and studied at seminary. He would always say well their Christian, we disagree about this or that, but they are Christian. True enough. But it gave me the impression that the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins was something everyone knew.
    Wasn’t until I was forced by lack of a Lutheran Church to go to those other churches where I realized my mistake. Sermon after sermon was devoid of Gospel, undermined the gospel. I learned fundamentalists and liberals often have a lot in common, refusal to actually preach the Gospel. I think they are afraid if they preach the cross, their sanctuary is going to break out into a drunken orgy. It wasn’t until I had experienced that and saw the brokenness of so many people that I decided I needed to become a pastor, and preach the gospel for a living. Too many pastors aren’t doing that. I used to think that market was saturated. Many of the life long Lutherans are under that impression, which is maybe why we aren’t always good at talking to others about it. We often think they know it already. Slow on the uptake, us Lutherans.

  26. When I talk of answering for our sins on the last day. I do not mean to imply they will not be forgiven by the blood of Christ on the cross. They most certainly will be forgiven even as they are already forgiven. But we will hear of them as our accuser accuses us before the judgment seat. Thankfully our advocate, Jesus Christ, gets the last word, you are forgiven.

  27. To Treebear, you asked:
    “if you don’t mind, what does it mean to “carry the cross” today? What is the “great price” we must pay? I’m not asking facetiously. ”

    I think that “carrying the cross” today is cooperating with Grace to make us more into an image of Christ by having self-sacrificing love. I think that phrases such as “deny your very self” and “carrying your cross” imply some real action or interaction. In the modern world this may be seemingly great or small acts ranging from: giving money to charities (and doing without that big screen tv), giving time to a cause or person who needs help or support, helping out at work when people need help, writing letters or visiting a prisoner, praying instead of surfing the net, fasting, helping out your local school when your kids are no longer students, not having an abortion and raising a handicap kid, caring for a sick person or parent that is ungrateful. Anything that is a purposeful or even accidental act of self sacrificing love. If any of this makes a person feel entitled, or better than others, or more “saved”, then maybe it wasn’t self sacrifice or Christ-like.

  28. Thanks, Joe M. Very insightful and encouraging.

  29. Oh, and to be honest – maybe someday I’ll start doing some of these things myself.

  30. BTW, treebeard, I hope You know that I took your comment as it was meant and meant no offense in return.
    I disagree.
    I believe that the cross was in every discourse of Paul, Christ, Peter, Moses, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and throughout the Word but your point is well taken my friend.
    And to Joe M As long as I’m here you have no claim to Miss Hypocritical.

  31. Rob, no offense taken. And I fully understand where you are coming from.

  32. I read this post with many tears coming to my eyes. I say that with all sincerity. Why is it that we think we need Jesus and …fill in the blank?

    It all begins and ends with the cross. As Piper says “The Blazing Center of God’s Glory.”

    Thank you so much for sharing this. A letter was sent to our senior pastor of our church here in CA encouraging him to keep preaching the Gospel and not to “assume” the Gospel if you know what I mean.

    Thanks!