I continue this series on what is determinative for the Christian life by looking at the Cross. I have already looked at the life and baptism of John and at the life and teaching of Jesus as possible focal examples for our own life, and have concluded that the former is sub-Christian and the latter is inadequate apart from what follows. Now I want to move on to consider what very many Christians consider to be the very centre of their faith, the Cross, or more precisely the death of Jesus on it.
First I want to make it very clear that for me this Crucifixion is absolutely vital for the Christian faith. The atoning death of the Son of God, however one might understand it and formulate it doctrinally, is the only basis for the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of sinners to the holy Trinity. Its significance goes beyond this into the cosmic realm, as it effected the reconciliation to God not just of humanity but of all things (Colossians 1:20, Romans 8:21).
However, for many Christians, especially those in the Reformed tradition, the Cross is treated as more than just one of the central aspects of their faith. For them it is THE centre, the one focal point of Christianity, relative to which everything else is secondary. Their presentations of the Gospel tend to begin and end at the Cross: Jesus died for the audience’s sins, and nothing more need be said.
These Christians of course accept that Jesus was the Son of God, and was born and lived as a man among us. After all, apart from that his death had no special meaning. For the most part they also accept that he rose again and ascended to heaven. But these parts of the story rarely if ever figure in their preaching, either as part of the narrative or for their theological significance. In part 1 of my review of Adrian Warnock’s book Raised with Christ I noted how, for example, people could be assured that they had become Christians without even learning that Jesus had risen again – and I expressed my amazement that it took a voice from God to prompt Adrian to preach on the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
This focus on the cross alone has its effect also on what these people understand the Christian life to be about. I started this series by linking to a post by Daniel Kirk (no relation) Resonate: Matthew (Ch. 11), in which he writes:
life in the kingdom is not about seeing fortune and glory here and now. It is as much or more about crucifixion. But resurrection awaits for those who are faithful to the end.
Well, it is good that Daniel does not ignore the Resurrection, but he seems to see it as relevant only in the distant future. For now, it seems, we should only take up our cross and expect to suffer with Jesus.
Now I certainly don’t deny that this is one aspect of the Christian life. Yes, Jesus did say
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Luke 9:23 (NIV)
But immediately before that he said
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Luke 9:22 (NIV)
For Jesus there was no Cross without the Resurrection to follow. Similarly those who follow him should take up their cross only in the hope of resurrection. And this is not just something for the distant future. Jesus also said
no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.
Luke 18:29-30 (NIV)
Yes, giving up all that is dear to us for the sake of the kingdom will be painful. At times it will feel like being crucified, and for some it may even literally mean that, or its equivalent. But Jesus promises us far greater rewards, not only in the age to come but also in this life. The apostle Paul fills out some of the details which Jesus left unclear, for example in this favourite verse of those who focus on the Cross:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20 (NIV)
What is sometimes missed in this verse is that the Christ who lives in the believer is not a person who is dead from crucifixion, but the One who rose again from the dead. So Paul’s teaching is that Christians are living the Resurrection life of Jesus, in the body here and now. He makes this explicit elsewhere:
because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus …
Ephesians 2:4-6 (NIV)
The consequence of this is that our salvation depends not only on the Cross but also on the Resurrection, as Paul also made very clear:
if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
1 Corinthians 15:17 (NIV)
What this means is that a Christian faith centred around the Cross, with the Resurrection considered as a secondary matter, is seriously unbalanced.
Continued in Cross or Resurrection 5: Risen and Ascended Lord.