Since as pastors we must handle the doctrine of sin, how do we avoid misusing this doctrine? How do we proclaim and unveil and apply the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? Here is how: never lose sight of Calvary. What happened in Christ’s death gives the greatest possible hope for sinners. There we find forgiveness for sin, freedom from condemnation, salvation from God’s wrath, power to put sin to death and to grow in godliness, strength in weakness, perseverance in suffering, certainty amid mystery, and hope for eternity.
Some facet of gospel truth is the ultimate answer for every pastoral situation you confront—every one. But it requires discernment and skill to unveil the gospel and apply it to the apparent complexity of people’s lives, the circumstances in our congregations, and the situations we face in counseling. This is what we have been called to do, and this is what we can do, if we never lose sight of Calvary.
In his study of the Puritans, J. I. Packer writes,
“The preachers’ commission is to declare the whole counsel of God; but the cross is the centre of that counsel, and the Puritans knew that the traveller through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of the hill called Calvary.”¹
This is how to avoid misusing the doctrine of sin: never lose sight of Calvary. Keep this landmark firmly in your view.
It is frighteningly easy to lose sight of Calvary. We drift away from the cross, not toward it. And when this happens, we become aware only of our sin, the sins of our wives and children, the sins of our church members. So we must establish practices that enable us to maintain a clear view of the gospel.
Make this a priority in your spiritual disciplines. Dwell on some aspect of Christ and him crucified as revealed in your daily Scripture reading. Use your supplemental reading to refocus your gaze on the cross. Like Paul, resolve to know nothing except Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).
Let the cross be central in your public ministry as well. As you prepare your sermons, ensure that at some point you give your church a clear sighting of Calvary. No matter how obscure the passage seems to be, however unrelated to the cross it appears, we must work at it until we can show how the text fits into the redemptive storyline of Scripture. Your sightings of Calvary should be so consistent that your church expects them in every sermon. When they arrive on Sunday to hear you preach God’s Word, they should be filled with anticipation. They should be able to say to someone who has never attended your church, “Regardless of what text our pastor begins with, regardless of whether he preaches from the Old Testament or the New, regardless of how obscure the text appears to be, I guarantee you that at some point in this sermon you will be led to the cross.”
And when you are counseling, although you must discuss heart issues, address sin, and carefully diagnose sinful cravings, at some point there must be a sighting of Calvary. Apart from the gospel, we have no basis on which to offer people hope for change. And we could continue on to every area of pastoral responsibility. No arena is exempt.
Paul never lost sight of Calvary. The man celebrated grace even more intensely than he grieved over sin. Even when writing to the Corinthian church—a church with more deficiencies than you will likely ever encounter in ministry—Paul reminded them that the grace of God was present and active among them as a result of the gospel. Paul wasn’t unaware of their sins. He was just more aware of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Which are you more aware of? As you think about your church, pray for them, preach to them, and counsel them—even in your casual conversations with them—which carries more weight in your soul: their sins, or the grace of Christ toward them?
Let us, like Paul, center our ministries on the cross of Christ. Let us labor that our churches may become more aware of the grace of God.
This post is part of an 11-part series, The Pastor and the Trinity, excerpted from the chapter “The Pastor and the Trinity” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper edited by Sam Storms and Justin Taylor, ©2010. Used by permission of Crossway.
¹J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 286.