A Review of The Cross and Christian Ministry, By D.A. Carson

D.A. Carson’s The Cross and Christian Ministry is an expositional work attempting to take the leadership lessons found in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians and apply them to the lives and ministries of leaders today. Carson looks at how Paul places the Cross at the very centre of Christian ministry and attempts to contextualize Paul’s teaching about Cross centred ministry for ministry in our contemporary culture. Carson’s theme, which he works out throughout the book, is the application of the Cross of Christ to Christian ministry. Carson aims to go beyond a simple examination of what the text meant to Paul’s original audience and apply the truths, he writes with the conviction that “The message of these sections from 1 Corinthians must be learned afresh by every generation of Christians, or the gospel will be sidelined by assorted fads” (10). To present and apply these leadership lessons Carson discusses 5 key passages in 1 Corinthians through his book’s 5 chapters.

Each chapter in The Cross and Christian Ministry is an exposition and application of a specific passage from the book of 1 Corinthians, in each exposition Carson looks at how Paul applies the truths of the Gospel, namely the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to the different situations facing the Corinthians and how in addressing the skewed understanding of the Corinthians Paul lays out what true leadership in light of the Cross looks like. Progressing through Paul’s argument in the text, Carson’s exposition brings out a specific application of the truth of the Cross to a variety of different aspects of Christian ministry giving it the feel of similar books like Brothers We Are Not Professionals and Preaching the Cross, in each of these a separate chapter addressing a specific topic fits in with the whole via its connection to the overriding theme of a specific issue being addressed. Because Carson is following the flow of Paul’s thought, there is more of a progression to his writing than in these other two books, but it still bears the feel of various independent chapters connected by one overarching theme, here being the Cross and its application to Christian ministry.

In the first chapter, examining Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5, Carson addresses the application of the Cross to preaching. Looking at how Paul chose to present the Gospel to the Corinthians when he first came to them and how their misunderstandings of wisdom ended up in factionalism, Carson shows how Paul addressed the misunderstandings of the Corinthians pre-emptively with his initial approach and then in his recollection of his original evangelism. Carson shows that the Cross applied to preaching means messages that glorify the wisdom of God and point to Him rather than messages catering to the false conceptions we have of wisdom and messages that glorify the one speaking. Practical application here can be as simple as examining the way we present ourselves and asking if our rhetoric and skill in speaking point more and more to the glory of God or instead brings attention to our ability to present and articulate the truths of Scripture.

In the second Chapter, examining Paul’s teaching in 2:6-16, Carson addresses the Cross and the Holy Spirit. In this chapter Carson looks at how Paul addressed the Corinthians false ideas about “spirituality” with the truth of the cross and corrected their misconceptions. As he draws out theological principle that Paul was laying out, Carson highlights two practical lessons that can be applied to ministers in the our day. The first is a biblical definition of what it means to be spiritual, which is that “spirituality” is inseparably tied to the Cross (62). Though he acknowledges that some Christians are more mature than others, Carson underlines the truth that there are not separate categories of those Christians who are spiritual and those who are not; “The spiritual person is simply a believer, one who has closed with the message of the cross” (62). The second practical lesson Carson draws out is that without the work of the Spirit one cannot gain insight into the message of the cross; it is foolishness apart from the work of the Spirit in someone’s life (64-66).

Throughout the third chapter of The Cross and Christian Ministry Carson exposits and applies 1 Corinthians 3. In this chapter, after showing how Paul deals with the underlying issues of the Corinthians wrong ideas about wisdom and spirituality, Carson looks at how Paul addresses factionalism in the Corinthian church by application of the Cross. Throughout this chapter Carson draws out much application for us today. Some areas he identifies and draws out are the inherent danger of identifying oneself with one specific leader (70), of a defensive attachment to human leaders that borders on idolatry, sometimes almost giving them godlike status (77), and  how when we so focus on singular leaders we can easily “depreciate how much there is to receive from all the others. In other words, factionalists overlook the wealth of the heritage we as Christians properly enjoy” (86). Factionalism is very dangerous in our churches, as it was for the Corinthians, and Carson does a great job in this chapter of addressing the various facets of Paul’s discussion in its application for leaders in our day, while doing this he also manages to defend against those who take advantage of texts like 1 Corinthians 3 to defend a doctrine of carnal Christianity (68-73).

For the fourth chapter Carson explicates what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 4, addressing how the Cross applies to Christian leadership. Throughout the fourth chapter of his book Carson works out three subthemes of Paul’s thought expressed in 1 Corinthians 4, he identifies three thing which characterize Christian leadership. He identifies Christian leadership as something which means “Being Entrusted with the ‘Mysteries’ of God” (94-103), “Living Life in the Light of the Cross” (103-108), and “Encouraging—and If Necessary, Enforcing—the Way of the Cross Among the People of God” (108-114). Each of these is associated with a specific passage of Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 4 and Carson proficiently takes Paul’s thought and applies it to contemporary ministry.

In the final chapter, examining Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27, Carson addresses the Cross and what he calls “the World Christian” (115-116). He does not mean with this term the equivalent of a worldly or carnal Christian (116), but a genuine believer whose allegiance is not to an earthly culture or country but to Jesus Christ and His kingdom, whose commitment is to the Church; citizens of the heavenly kingdom first and all others secondarily (117). Throughout this chapter Carson explains under three headings, and a forth addressing the seriousness of the previous three (135), three “musts” for the world Christian. The world Christian must know what his or her freedoms and constraints are in Jesus Christ, here Carson addresses what it means to not be under the law but under the law of Christ (117-118) and how this calls for Christians to live by the standards of a new-covenant believer (120). The world Christian must not stand on his or her “rights” (122), here Carson address the issue of Christian freedom in relation to the conscience of those weaker than us—how a Christian is called to give up his or her rights so as to guard the conscience of a younger Christian who is not at the same place (122-131).  Lastly, the world Christians must take up as their aim the salvation of men and women, they must be willing to go to extreme lengths, within the confines of the Gospel, to “by all possible means… save some” (1 Cor. 9:22) (131).

Throughout these five chapters Carson’s practical exegesis and clear communication make Paul’s leadership lessons immensely applicable and accessible to anyone reading the book. I usually dislike reading books like this for classes because I find that I could spend hours on each chapter because of all that applies to where I am at right now but, because of time constraints, I unfortunately find myself having to sprint through much of what is said with only minor reflection. Caron’s book proved to be an example of both of these, giving me much to think about in too short of a time to actually think about it thoroughly. Though there were things in every chapter that stood out to me, what impacted me the most was Carson’s admonition in the first and third chapters. In the first as Carson addressed the cross and preaching I was particularly struck by the critical balance he calls for between taking the time to craft an effective and skillful sermon (35), in both content and presentation, and being a preacher who calls more attention to himself through his rhetoric than to God. Carson identifies Paul’s warning in this chapter as being against “any method that leads people to say, “What a marvelous preacher!” rather than, “What a marvelous Savior!” (35).

In the third chapter I was struck by Carson’s admonition against a factionalism where we so attach ourselves to one or two teachers that we miss “the wealth of the heritage we as Christians properly enjoy” (86). We miss so much of what others have to offer us in our growth with God; we also can turn our focus from the God to whom the teachers should be pointing to the teacher themselves.

Both of these points are ones that I can apply to my immediate position as a student of the Word and sometimes a preacher. In my preaching I must watch constantly my motives for presenting the way I do; is my aim to articulate the sermon well so that my God is glorified, or is it to do this so that people realize how good of a preacher I think I am? When I decide I want to discuss a specific word study I did in my preparation will it serve to help further the congregation’s understanding of Scripture, or will it make them think that much more of me because I can pronounce δικαιοσύνη? This is something I truly need to weigh in my sermon preparation, for I find it way too easy to see myself as greater than the wretch I truly am and strive to enlighten people as to what I think, falsely, of my own ability.

With the second point Carson made, I see for myself two ways to guard against this. The first is in the way I think about those I look up to and how I convey those thoughts. I hold biblical writers and characters as well as teachers throughout the history of the Church as heroes of the faith, sometimes it is too easy to focus on all that they have done well and ignore their human faults and imperfections. The danger here can be buying everything they have to give without discernment or putting them on such a pedestal that I turn away from the source of what they have to teach (Scripture) to their interpretation as my authority. I need to make sure I guard against both of these errors, a practical start is making sure that I associate those doctrines I hold to as not having been ratified by a teacher or council, such as the council of Nicaea, but as being taught by such and such Scripture, such as John 1:1-5. I also need to guard myself against giving the impression that I hold more to the interpretations and teachings of men, such as John Calvin, than I do to Word of God itself; I need to make it clear that this and this alone is my sole authority for all things upon which it touches.  The second danger I can practically guard myself against is the tendency to throw out entire traditions and the valuable contributions of people such as John Wesley because of disagreements over issues that, while being important, are not the Gospel itself. There is so much I can learn from people like N.T. Wright even though I may disagree with them on many things, even vitally important issues such as the nature of justification in Scripture.

Carson does an outstanding job in The Cross and Christian Ministry of drawing out important leadership lessons from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and making them highly practical for leaders in our day. I found this book challenging to myself personally and think it would be a valuable read for anybody entering, or already in, Christian leadership.

This book gets a rating of 5/5

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