Friday, February 7, 2014

4 Reasons the Cross is Central to Christianity

Last week, the following article in abridged form was published at Trevin Wax's blog. You can access it here. What follows is the same article expanded. Thanks to Trevin for featuring it on his site.

At the core of Christianity stands the cross. To most that might sound too elementary but few Christians sitting in our pews have seriously given it much thought beyond Passion week festivities. No other symbol better represents what Christianity is than the cross. While preparing a recent sermon series on the atonement, I sat and wondered what the Bible has to say about the cross and precisely why it matters. Why, of all available options (from a fish to to shepherd's staff) did early Christianity choose the cross to represent them and us today? Is the cross a mere symbol for the Christian or the root of Christianity? Is it merely an event in human history or the crux of human history? If it is the latter, then why? Below, then, are four truths of the cross that show why the atonement is both central and necessary.

1. The Cross is God's Clearest Revelation of Himself

Often when reading Scripture, we approach it as a divine encyclopedia. If I want to know what the Bible says about pride, marriage, suffering, or election I simply open my Bible, highlight a number of verses and suddenly I know what the Bible says about a given subject.

This can be a dangerous and misguided approach to understanding Scripture. We rightly and justly believe that the Bible, all sixty-six books, is God's special revelation to man, however, the purpose and climax of Scripture is to how the Creator redeemed a fallen humanity and cursed cosmos. The Bible is not a collection of stories, it is a story. It is not about a series of characters, from Adam to John, but about its author.

Thus the cross stands as the central message of Scripture. The cross, then, is also a divine act of special revelation. We see God most clearly through the lens of the cross. At the cross we see God's sovereignty, providence, benevolence, justice, power, holiness, mercy, glory, transcendence, immanence, and victory. In short, any study of God - his essence, nature, attributes, etc. - would be incomplete without a study of the cross for at the cross God has made Himself known.

2. The Cross Personifies God's Love

Though highlighted in the first point, the subject of the cross and God's love deserves special attention. One should note that after the cross, God's love is repeatedly referred in the past tense or in direct reference to the cross. Consider the following few examples:
  • John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son...
  • Romans 5:8 - But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
  • Romans 8:37 - But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
  • Galatians 2:20 - I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. 
  • Ephesians 2:4-5 - But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
  • Ephesians 5:2 - and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:16 - Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace,
  • Titus 3:4-5 - But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared...
  • 1 John 3:16 - We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us...
  • 1 John 4:9-11 - By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
  • 1 John 4:19 - We love, because He first loved us.
One other important text should be added here. In applying his doctrine to husbands, Paul tells men to love (present tense) their wives as Christ loved (past tense) the church (Ephesians 5:25). How did Christ loved the church? He died. Thus for Paul we could say that the only good husband is a dead one! Or better yet, a crucified one.

The point is to show how frequently the New Testament writers proclaim that God loved us (past tense) instead of loves us (present tense). The difference is important. By using the past tense, the apostles are not saying that God's love has ceased but instead reminding us that God's love is continually demonstrated by the cross. We need not doubt the depth of God's love when we approach the cross. God is love because God loved.

3. The Cross is the Means By Which God Saves Sinners

Clearly the cross is declared as the saving act of God toward sinners. Sinners are saved by Christ at the cross. To make this point, the New Testament authors utilize a number of motifs and images of salvation. Here are a few of those motif's and what redemptive doctrine is associated with it.
  • The Court - God declares the guilty righteous (justification)
  • The Shrine - the wrath of God is satisfied (propitiation) and the sinner is cleansed (expiation)
  • The Home - God's sets us right with Him (reconciliation)
  • The Orphanage - God adopts sinners as sons and daughters (adoption)
  • The Battlefield - God defeats the enemy and peace is declared (Liberation)
  • The Market - God sets the slaves free (redemption) and all our debts are paid in full (ransom)
The above are not theories of the atonement, but actual images frequently used throughout the New Testament authors and more could be added. At times, the apostles mix these motifs. For example, in Colossians 2:13-15 Paul intertwines both Redemption (Christ paying our debts) with Christus Victor as the means of forgiveness. 

All of these images point to the central theme of Scripture that God has come down to save sinners. He is the justifier of the guilty, the liberator of slaves, and the adopted Father of spiritual orphans. He pays our ransom, redeems us of our sins, and reconciles us to Himself. And it all happens at the cross. There is no salvation, therefore, outside of the cross.

4. The Cross is the Standard of What it Means to be a Christian

In Matthew 16:21-25 an important four letter word is used by Jesus twice to make two very profound points. First, Jesus says He must go to the cross thus establishing its necessity. He could do nothing else and was incarnated for nothing else. This is why in verses 22-23 Jesus rebukes His well-intentioned disciple, Peter, for suggesting that Jesus could build His Kingdom without the cross. Jesus equates Peter's desire with that of Satan Himself. Jesus must go to the cross and it is important for Peter, the disciples, and us to know, embrace, and celebrate that.

In verses 24 and 25 Jesus uses the word again. If Jesus must go to the cross, he adds, then anyone who wishes to follow Him must likewise pick up their cross and follow Him. To where? To Calvary for sure. Thus for Jesus and the New Testament, what it means to be a Christian is summarized in the cross. A Christian is a follower of Christ. A follower is one who has counted the cost and picked up their cross and died with their Savior. Christians are described as having crucified the flesh (Galatians 5:24), we have died to our sins (Romans 6:1ff; 1 Corinthians 15:31; 1 Peter 2:24), and are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).

The only saving Christ is a dying one. The only living Christian is a dead one.


This is why the cross matters. Though more reasons could be given (for example, the relationship between a theology of the cross and a Christian theology of suffering), the above represents the core of Christianity. At the cross we see God. At the cross we see our true selves. At the cross we are regenerated. The cross matters and stands at the center of God's story of redemption and our story as the redeemed. Preachers must, therefore, preach the cross as their only strength. Sinners must embrace the cross as their only hope. And church members must pick up their cross as their only way to live.

For more:
A Victorious People: John Stott on Christus Victor & the Vocabulary of the First Christians
"The Cross of Christ" by John Stott: A Review
Its Not Just a Theory: Stott on Penal Substitution
John Stott on the The Human Enigma 
Allison: A History of the Doctrine of the Atonement
"Salvation Brings Imitation": Piper on Christus Exemplar
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 1 - Introduction
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 2 - Christus Exemplar and the doctrine of sin and depravity
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 3 - The History of Christus Exemplar
Where Theology and Life Intersect: A Theological Case for Christus Exemplar and Why It is Necessary - Part 4 - Christus Exemplar and Humility
Sanctification Demands It: The Necessity of the Atonement
"Death by Love" by Mark Driscoll
"In My Place, Condemned He Stood"
"It is Well"
"Precious Blood": A Review
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