THE CROSS

The Word of the Cross

The grace of God and the cross of Christ are inseparable. The cross is the power behind grace, the bank account necessary for God to cancel the debt of sin (I Cor. 1:18; Col. 2:14). These truths are commonly affirmed, however, are their implications commonly applied to our understandings of Christianity? Do these truths regularly make it to the “streets” or to the “marketplace of ideas”? How practical are we with the word of the cross?

While it is certainly true that an essential aspect of God’s character is “love” (I Jn. 4:8), equally true is the fact that He is just. His justice will, therefore, be served (Rom. 3:26). The combination of these two innate characteristics of the Father insists that grace cannot be cheap. The unearned nature of grace is, as with many other gifts, paid for in full before appropriated without cost. There can be no incongruity within the nature of God. No cross; no grace!

With regard to our salvation, sinful men and women have created a problem. How, therefore, could there be salvation without first having an accounting for this disturbance in God’s creation? A correction is needed. The scales of justice ultimately cannot be imbalanced; they must somehow maintain equilibrium.

Jesus dying on the cross is the balancing factor needed in a world dangerously tilting away from God. Jesus made right what otherwise could never have been brought to stability (I Pet. 1:17-19; Heb. 9:11-14, 10:4, 19-23).

This solution required the death of a perfectly sinless human being. The cross is tied to blood, totally innocent blood. This thought, however, has caused many to recoil at what they consider to be a “barbaric” concept. William Paul Young, author of The Shack, recently voiced this belief in an interview,

 He is the God who exacts the last drop of blood from His Son, so that His just anger, evoked by sin, may be appeased. This God whose moods alternate between graciousness and fierce anger — a God who is still all too familiar to many Christians — is a caricature of the true God. This God does not exist. (Shannon, Silence on Fire, p. 110, also see Manning who stated the very same thing in Above All, pp. 58-59)

The cross with all its so-called “barbarity” must be seen through God’s eyes to make sense. Men have rejected the cross because it does not fit their notions of justice. It does not fit because it is based on man’s limited understanding of the “sin problem” (I Cor. 1:18-2:2).

Consider the nature of the “sin problem” as seen from a biblical point of view. The biblical mix of ingredients must be complete before an adequate solution can be developed and understood. In such a view, the cross not only makes sense, it is indispensable. Consider the implications of the following Scriptures (I Jn. 4:8; Rom. 3:21-31; Gen. 3:1-7; Gen. 3:15; Job 9:30-35; Rom. 8:29; I Pet. 2:24; Psa. 22; Matt. 27:46; Matt. 26:39; Rom. 6:23; Rev. 5:9-14; Jn. 1:14).

1.         God is a God of love.

2.         God is a God of justice.

3.         Humans have rebelled against God.

4.         Humans are, therefore, part of the problem.

5.         Humans cannot, however, deliver themselves from their dilemma.

6.         Yet, humans must have participation since they are the cause of the problem.

7.         God, as the creator, must also be part of the solution since His nature would not allow Him to create humans

              knowing they would sin and yet give them no hope of salvation.

8.         Someone must serve as an adequate mediator for God and man to worktogether in a solution.

9.         Sin demands death.

10.       The Incarnation led to a worthy human/God sacrifice.

Many other Scriptures could be used to support the points listed above. Clearly, if we let the Bible speak for itself, the entirety of Scripture fits together perfectly to show a plan perfectly in harmony with all salient factors. No cross; no grace.

Now that God has acted to offer correction to an unbalanced creation, how are we to take advantage of the gift? To answer this question, we are taken to “the word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18).

The word of the cross is good news—the gospel. The first sermon presenting the gospel is found in Acts 2:14-41. Its development shows the pattern for all subsequent presentations and responses.

1.         God developed and delivered the message to be preached.

2.         The message was in keeping with God’s intentions as revealed to the prophets.

3.         Jesus was preached.

4.         His resurrection validated God’s plan.

5.         Sinners were convicted by preaching and wanted to know how to find relief from their sins

6.         They were told to change their lives and be immersed into Christ for the remission of their sins

7.         Through their faithful obedience they would receive the long awaited “promise.”

The preaching of the cross reveals God’s plan and presents how sinners are to respond. The two aspects of the plan must then be well understood. The word of the cross is too important to misunderstand.

The word of the cross contains both essential primary and secondary components. The primary side of the equation is the part God has provided in a crucified, resurrected Savior. Without God’s plan being realized in Jesus, we would not need to speak any further about salvation (I Cor. 15:3; Heb. 9:28). No cross; no salvation.

The secondary elements of the plan involve our response. As sinners we are helpless to solve our problem (Rom. 3:23, 27a). This being the case, we must understand that the “law of Christ” with all its instructions cannot save us in the primary sense any more than could the “law of Moses” save a Jew. Neither the things Christians do nor the things Jews did to access a relationship with God have the power to bring about salvation by themselves (Gal. 3:21).

Our understanding the lack of efficacy found in secondary items standing alone is of greatest importance. The Jews serve as a stark reminder to us that trusting in our works is a damning error of judgment (Rom. 2:17-29; 9:30-33). Similarly, if Christians glory in their response to God rather than in the God who made possible the response, we too fall short (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). No cross; no salvation.

To illustrate, a window shade raised during the day can bring light to a dark room. The same shade raised during the night cannot allow sunlight to light the room. The necessity of the secondary act of raising the shade in daylight only worked because the primary factor of the sun was present. In a similar manner, all the commandment keeping in the world cannot make any contribution to our salvation if there is no cross. As Paul so powerfully put it, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

We must understand this clearly or we will misunderstand verses teaching that secondary matters of response save us. I Peter 3:21 is a classic example. This verse tells us “baptism now saves you.” The question here is not “if” but “how.” If baptism saves in a primary sense, we need no cross. However, the verse itself explains how baptism saves. It saves “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism occupies the place of the window shade in our earlier illustration. It accesses something only because something is there to access.

Examining this concept in reverse, let us have a look at Hebrews 10:4. In the primary sense, animal blood could not take sins from a Jew.  It could, however, allow access to forgiveness later to be realized in Christ (Lev. 4:20; Rom. 3:23-25). In much the same manner as baptism, animal sacrifices allowed access into God’s salvation, but neither baptism nor an animal sacrifice has the power to take away sins apart from the cross of Christ. No cross; no salvation.

Our discussion of primary and secondary aspects of salvation leads to a practical evaluation of our teaching and preaching. What is the proper proportion each aspect is due in our presentations? In recent times accusations have been made that grace has not been preached sufficiently. It has been said that we dwell more on our response than on God’s initiative. I don’t doubt that this has been true in some cases, but certainly not in all. Additionally, at times, when the above accusations have been leveled, the desired response calls for our preaching to unduly minimize the biblical place of obedience of faith (Rom.1:5; 16:26). Secondary matters of response are necessary.

A common reaction against those who accuse others of not preaching grace has been to cite examples of sermons preached in the past that dealt with grace. Impressive lists have been developed to “prove” we have preached grace in the “mainstream.” The fact is, we have all heard sermons and read articles that emphasized grace. There is, however, more to the story.

In both cases, could it be true that when a person in opposition goes “over the top” in their broadsides others dismiss their entire argument because they have gone too far with the point? I suspect there have been at least some cases when taking a realistic evaluation of our present practices has been torpedoed by extreme reactions to extreme positions.

Biblically speaking, there are times when more pressing lesser matters must rise to the top of our discussions due to the concerns of the moment (Jude 3). These are judgment calls. However, like Jude, we should get more delight in speaking of our common salvation than in condemning error. We do not want to become like the church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-4).Conversely, we do not want to be like the church at Thyatira and allow open sin to go unopposed (Rev. 2:18-23).

There must be balance. A sense of proper proportion is not a small thing (Matt. 23:23-24). Leeway must be given in matters of judgment. Local autonomy is to be respected.

Life comes at us in unexpected ways that may well call for momentary disproportions in the subjects we speak or write about. Both primary and secondary matters of necessity must be preached! It is not always easy to know the best judgment to make when we face problems. Nevertheless, we must always keep this in mind, no cross; no salvation!

THE BALANCE OF GRACE IN AN UNBALANCED WORLD

THE BALANCE OF GRACE IN AN UNBALANCED WORLD

            Some subjects that are supposed to bring peace and comfort wind up being twisted into controversy. One such subject is grace. There is one extreme involving a hyper-grace predestination that informs God about the limits of His sovereignty. In this humans are but pawns in a predetermined game. I find this lacking in biblical reason and ultimately self-defeating. At the other end of the discussion is a checklist proudly paraded while grace becomes but a perfunctory whisper.  In this the attention comes to be focused on our actions rather than on God’s goodness. This, too, has no Scriptural support.

            I seriously suspect an unbiased Bible student would find neither of these extreme positions a fair representation of the complete discussion. Extremes are easy; they demand little thinking and require a closed mind. Unbiased searchers would find such prerequisites insulting and unsatisfying.

Consider the following combination of grace, faith and works as a balanced alternative to the extremes just mentioned. A seasonal illustration may help.

            Your shopping has finally located the much sought after gift. The gift, wrapping paper, tag, ribbon, and stickers have all been purchased. The gift is positioned under the tree until the day for unwrapping arrives. But, what if the gift remains unwrapped? The answer is simple; the gift cannot be enjoyed.

Now consider a variation of the story. All the details remain the same, but this time the gift is opened and enjoyed. Did the person who unwrapped the gift supply a penny of its cost? This also allows for an easy answer, no.

             Another illustration may also contribute to the point I wish to make. Blinds are opened in a dark room on a sunny day. The room is filled with light. The same blinds are opened at midnight. The room remains dark.

            In both illustrations, the work of enjoying either the present or the light did in no way purchase or create the thing enjoyed. Presents unopened are not enjoyed. Light blocked does not light a room. For that matter, opening the blinds if there is no light is useless. The sun gives the light, not the blinds.

            I suggest a balanced, biblical view allows for the gift of grace apart from any human merit while providing a place for human reception. Therefore, any work that seeks to earn salvation cannot succeed. Grace is a gift. However, a work of faith is to be understood in a different context. The positive, biblical context of works is merely receptive in nature, never deserving.

            Therefore, rather than seeing Romans 4 and James 2 in conflict or developing convoluted “harmonizations” may we not see them as expressing different aspects or contexts of the place of faith and works. The faith that saves puts no trust in the purchasing power of our works. The faith that does not act, however, is dead.

            Let us glory in grace, God’s incomprehensible gift! Let us also appreciate that the obedience of faith, though always flawed and never deserving, is nevertheless part of the conversation (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; I Jn. 1:7).