For most of the twentieth century in the United States, evangelistic preaching meant explaining how the vicarious penal substitutionary theory of the atonement works. The logic of this approach has made good sense because Christ accomplished the work of salvation on the cross. Nevertheless, the cross does not exhaust the good news of Jesus Christ. Each element of the gospel addresses specific ultimate spiritual issues for which Christ is the answer. The problem in evangelistic preaching has come when preachers try to answer all of the questions of life with the cross.
This issue first emerged for me on Christmas Sunday morning fourteen years ago as I sat in my study ten minutes before the service began. The phone rang, and when I answered it a woman asked if she could still go to heaven if she killed herself. Protestant scholastic theology has an answer to her question. The blood of Jesus is sufficient to cover all sins; once saved, always saved. So in confidence I could have answered her question: “Yes, madame, you can go on and kill yourself.”
Of course, she had not asked her real question. She really wanted to know some reason to live. She wanted hope, and the cross does not address that issue. The resurrection gives us a concrete reason for hope.
Soon after that episode while preaching in a series of revival meetings, I went with the pastor of the church to visit a prospective member. In the course of the conversation, the pastor asked the man if he would like to be “born again.” Using the third chapter of John, the pastor then explained how the vicarious penal substitutionary theory of the atonement works. I sat amazed. The pastor never once mentioned how the Holy Spirit regenerates people. The cross speaks to forgiveness and justification, but the gift of the Holy Spirit speaks to the new birth and sanctification. I began to realize that most Christians in the west have grown so accustomed to the old, old story that they have forgotten what it means.
In the New Testament, every element of the gospel represents an avenue to faith. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ who saves. Protestant scholasticism has also had the tendency to equate justification and salvation. Salvation would not happen without justification, but justification does not exhaust the meaning of salvation, nor does it exhaust the work of Christ on the cross. Would anyone want to choose between receiving forgiveness of sin, being cleansed of sin, or being freed from sin. Yet, justification, purification, and redemption represent three entirely different dimensions of what Christ accomplished on the cross, only one of which relates to penal substitution.
In a world that knows the Law, has a grounding in Scripture, and has had familiarity with the story of Jesus, justification often represents the major spiritual issue to address. Justification addresses the spiritual experience of guilt. In past years, Americans tended to assume that everyone experiences guilt in equal measure. Sermons often proceeded with the assumption that people everywhere labored under a load of guilt.
The failure of the mission enterprise in Japan following World War II may be laid at the feet of this assumption. Given the Japanese understanding of ultimate reality without a Creator and Law giver, the idea of sin as guilt over transgression made no sense. Forgiveness certainly had no appeal. Missionaries assumed the spiritual issues and assumed a common world view. Peter could assume a common world view when he preached to the Jews in Jerusalem. He could lay out a sermon with a text from Scripture which his audience knew. When Paul went to Athens, however, he had to make a case for the existence of a Creator God before he could make a case for judgment.
In the past, addressing a different world view in preaching posed a problem only for the missionaries. In the postmodern U.S., however, different world views have come home to roost. In order to face the challenge of preaching the gospel to a world that has little or no background in the church, does not know about Jesus, and has no familiarity with the Scripture, preaching must learn anew how the gospel addresses the spiritual issues people face. A current debate has revived interest in an element of the gospel which serves to illustrate how a long ignored element of the gospel may speak powerfully to different people in different circumstances.
John MacArthur and Charles Ryrie have debated whether the exaltation of Christ represents a part of the gospel. This debate brews in evangelical circles, but the significance of the exaltation for faith and salvation has been preached for two thousand years. Confusion arises, however, because MacArthur stresses faith in who Christ is while Ryrie stresses faith in what Christ did.
The exaltation stood at the center of Christ’s understanding of salvation as inclusion in the Kingdom. Christ made the exaltation the grounds for his execution by insisting that He would be exalted to the right hand of God. Stephen could face execution by virtue of his faith in the exalted Christ who was more real than the stones that crushed him. Paul’s conversion centered around his experience with the exalted Christ on the Damascus Road, and his theology revolved around the necessity of being “in Christ.” Excluding the Gospels and Revelation (which is a message from the exalted Lord), the New Testament writers appeal to the exaltation at least 280 times. But what does the exaltation say to people living at the end of the twentieth century? And what part should it play in the message of the contemporary preacher?
The Exaltation as Good News
Exaltation appears to be one of the emerging themes of late twentieth century Christian life in several parts of the world. In Korea, prayer is the dominant integrating theme in the context of a church that is growing rapidly in a Buddhist culture. In India, the expression of power in the church in the form of healings and exorcisms popularly known as “signs and wonders” has resulted in significant growth of churches in areas dominated by tribal religion. In the United States, contemporary worship services that emphasize the Lordship of the exalted Christ have resulted in dramatic growth of churches that try to reach Baby Boomers and Busters. All of these dimensions of the exaltation address significant spiritual issues of the groups for whom the exaltation represents good news.
Prayer represents one of the most remarkable privileges that Christians enjoy. Through Jesus Christ in whom a Christian lives, conversation may take place with the Almighty God. Part of the religious nature of humans in all parts of the world is the quest to have some contact and interaction with the spiritual world. Depending upon how people conceive of deity, these experiences take different forms. Whether through the spinning of prayer wheels, assuming a particular posture, the recitation of fixed prayers, approaching intermediary spirits, or the emptying of ones thoughts, people desire some meaningful contact with the transcendent. The use of tarot cards, horoscopes, tea leaves, casting sticks, peyote, channelling, and Ouija boards also represent an attempt to hear from the spirit world. Rather than deal with other spirits who may be friendly, hostile, or manipulative, Christians may converse with the Creator in the mystic experience of prayer. For the person who longs for meaningful spiritual experience, the exaltation of Jesus offers good news that people may have access to God in this life.
Signs and Wonders
The apostles challenged the spiritual realities that the Hellenistic world feared and discovered that they were more than conquerors through the Lord Jesus Christ. Fifteen hundred years ago a monk named Patrick went into one of the most barbaric and demonic cultures in all history and challenged the spirits of Celtic religion in the name of his Lord. The mass conversion of Ireland in a generation compares with similar phenomena occurring in different parts of the world today for which most American Christians are totally unprepared to deal emotionally, intellectually, or theologically.
In the pre-modern world, people live with an awareness of spiritual realities that goes beyond sensory experience. In the post-modern world people have re-discovered that science can observe the observable but that it does not speak about all possible reality. Pre-modern tribal peoples and post-modern technological societies have an interest in the “spirit world,” though these different groups would have different understandings of what this means. It is not surprising to observe that the United States, with its amazing interest in the occult, varieties of New Age thought, and experimentation with spiritual religion, shares with underdeveloped cultures a growing expression of “power evangelism.” Power evangelism occurs when people respond to Christ with faith on the basis of His exercise of authority over disease or demons through Christians who minister in His name. For people beset by fears of spirits or indecision over which spirit to worship, the exaltation of Jesus offers good news that He has authority and power over all physical and spiritual realities.
Perhaps the greatest songs of worship in all scripture are the songs of praise in Revelation that glorify the exalted Christ who reigns forever and ever, the Lamb who is worthy. One of the characteristics of younger American society is its rejection of authority, yet those being converted in the context of their own cultural mediums predominantly sing songs about the exalted Lord. These people have found someone worthy to submit to as their authority. The rejection of authority by this generation is perhaps more a search for a worthy authority which they only find in Christ, who is Lord of all. For people who have spent their lives disappointed by authority, the exaltation of Jesus offers good news that there is One who is worthy to receive glory, honor, and power.
A thousand years ago, one of the greatest people group conversions in history occurred when the Russians converted to Orthodox Christianity on the basis of their sense that they entered into the very presence of God in the heavenly realms when the Orthodox worshipped. Religion is often seen in terms of the observable structures such as ceremonies, organization, official beliefs, and traditions. Sometimes people come to faith through these formal expressions of the Lordship of Christ over His church because of His mystic presence in the body. When this happens, it is usually unintentional on the part of the church.
This phenomenon is not unusual in the member bodies of the Anglican communion and the Orthodox church through their worship. If the Lord inhabits the praise of His people, then one should not be surprised to find that His habitation has an impact on people who come into the worship of true believers. Not even my own biases and prejudices about ecclesiology and worship will allow me to ignore the number of my friends who have come to faith out of atheism through the Anglican service. For people who have shut themselves to logical argument, the exaltation of Jesus who guides His church in worship offers good news of transcendent reality to people who are not even aware that they are searching.
Personal Relationship
On the other hand, many more people in late twentieth century western society have rejected institutional religion outright. In a complex, organized society they have no interest in yet another complex structure over which they have no control. For many, the church represents the obstacle to spiritual truth. Many people are looking for something “that works for them.”
What they are asking for, in fact, is a return to something personal in an overpopulated, complex, impersonal society. The Lordship of Jesus Christ offers such a personal relationship. The gospel does not offer an organization but a person. In spite of all the teachings of the church, the gospel does not offer knowledge or information but relationship with Christ. In Christ one becomes part of a community, rather than a member of an organization. Personal relationship with Christ becomes incarnate through His body, the church. For those who long for personal religious experience, the exaltation of Jesus offers good news that it is available in Him.
Fifteen hundred years ago a cosmopolitan sophisticate named Augustine was struck to the core when he read the accounts of people who went to their death rather than renounce their Lord. Fifty years ago a German preacher named Bonhoeffer made the same choice as old Bishop Polycarp nineteen hundred years ago.
After two thousand years, people still suffer persecution for their faith in Christ. At the end of communist domination of Russia and its persecution of believers, many members of Russian society now ask why atheism failed and why Christians remained true to their faith in Christ in spite of persecution. Sharing in the sufferings of Christ creates an unnerving feeling after the fact for many casual observers. Russian society now has a remarkable openness to the gospel of Christ because of the testimony of those with whom Christ was present powerfully during the great persecution. For people who can only think of self-preservation in the face of adversity, the exaltation of Jesus offers good news that God offers more through relationship with Christ than the world can ever take away.
These implications of the exaltation hardly exhaust its meaning. In this small space they have suggested the riches of just this oft neglected element of the gospel as a catalyst for faith. It may also prove helpful to notice that the appeal of one implication may actually offend someone else. While I continue to assert simplistically that Jesus is the answer, preaching continues to have the responsibility to explain how Jesus answers the questions people are asking.
Earlier in this century, C. H. Dodd explained the difference between kerygma (gospel preaching) and didache (doctrinal teaching). Both are true, but it pleases God by the foolishness of gospel preaching to save people. Gospel preaching introduces Jesus to someone who does not know Him. Whether the exaltation of Christ, the incarnation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the return of Christ, or one of the other elements of the gospel, all can form the basis for initial faith.
This article is adapted from material in Dr. Poe’s forthcoming book, The Gospel and Its Meaning, being published in June by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids.

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