If you were to ask me what day in the Christian calendar grabs my attention the most, I would have to say Good Friday. Something about that day lays hold of my heart and gets me thinking about the things of Christ, even more so than Easter. (I suspect that is largely due to my upbringing.)
When I enter the online Christian world, one reality hits me time and again: The top Christian blogs present solid cross-centered theology. In an age of Your Local Nondenominational Community Megachurch and its emphasis on showmanship and “what’s in it for me?” churchianity, that’s a good thing.
Yet at the risk of sounding heretical, I wonder if there’s a shortsighted lack associated with a focus on the cross alone.
Over at The Sola Panel, Gordon Cheng titles a post “Too Much Cross of Christ?” and calls on John Stott to help him with his answer, which is no. (HT: Challies)
That answer to the post title troubles me because it follows from a different question than the one Cheng actually addresses in his blog post, especially when he answers in light of a teaching and preaching emphasis. The question he is really asking is “Can the cross be too essential to the core of Christian theology?” That’s a solid no; obviously, much of our theology stems from an understanding of sin and the cross. The problem is that it is not the same question as Cheng asks in his blog post title.
We live in an age soft on sin. Despite this, many parts of the Church today are stuck on sin. Believers are constantly reminded that they are sinners in need of salvation. Reminding people of the necessity of the cross is a fine message, but is it the only one?
To me, some churches live as if it were always Good Friday and never Easter and Pentecost. As lamented by the inhabitants of Narnia, winter seems to have a perpetual grip on the land, unthawed by springtime and rebirth. Some preachers and teachers capably get people to the cross, but they can’t seem to get them to the empty tomb and to the assembling place where Holy Fire fell from heaven. In that light, the answer to whether we can have too much cross of Christ may very well be yes.
Without the resurrection, Paul writes that our faith is in vain and we are men most pitied (1 Cor. 15:1-22).
Without Pentecost, there is no Church and no empowering of the saints for service (see the entire book of Acts).
So it seems to me that while the Christian faith begins at Good Friday, it continues on and on in Pentecost.
Why then do our churches often fail so badly to venture beyond the cross? Why are so many of us still rooted in our identities as sinners and not in the new birth identity of saint?
Consider this passage:
Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:7-18
I am troubled by some denominations and Christian thought-groups that fail to teach believers that they are daily transitioning from sinners into saints. Such pew-dwellers repeatedly hear how they are mired in sin, but they never hear that as the redeemed they are being transformed from one degree of glory into another. In fact, in churches that never seem to venture beyond the cross, one must ask if they are even a New Testament church at all.
In some circles where the sinner mentality reigns, their pneumatology appears rooted more in the Old Testament than New. The radical reality of the New Testament is that the Holy Spirit of God comes to dwell inside the redeemed believer. Such was not the case with the Old Testament heroes of the faith. The Holy Spirit would fall on them for a time, but the permanent dwelling inside was reserved for the New Testament saint.
Some Christians have this tendency to continue to place God solely outside the believer. This is an Old Testament kind of thinking, though. It gives the individual believer no authority. All things supernatural that happen do so despite the believer, not because of the believer. It creates a worldview where the Church does not matter because God can do it all Himself.
There is no doubt that God can do it all Himself. The reality is that He chooses NOT to do it that way. Instead, He invest authority in believers by virtue of His own Spirit dwelling inside them. This is the exciting—and essential—truth of what it means to be in Christ!
The ramifications of this are astonishing: The lowliest New Testament saint is greater than the greatest Old Testament prophet (see Luke 7:27-28 and throughout the NT for corroboration).
When was the last time you got that sermon in church? How many Christian blogs discuss this reality at length?
If the answers to those questions trouble you, they should. This lack is largely due to the fact that we have an underdeveloped understanding of what it means to be Spirit-filled believers. And we have that lack because we are not preaching and teaching what exists beyond the cross: the resurrection, Pentecost, the transition of the sinner into sainthood, and the authority of the redeemed believer in Christ. Instead, we continue to push a theology that keeps the believer a meaningless, individual sinner and not a saint.
Consider this passage:
And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?”
How is it that the demon recognized Paul? Because Paul had authority as a saint in the Kingdom of God. Consider the depth of what that means!
When that same Paul wrote to the young churches, he greeted them as fellow saints, not as fellow sinners. He talked about how they had all once been slaves to sin but were now translated into the Kingdom of God where they were now saints entrusted with the Spirit of God.
For the Church to truly rise to the calling of Christ, we need not only the cross but the resurrection and Pentecost. We need our preachers and teachers to tell the people in the seats that “sinner” is not their final identification. We need to learn what it means to have authority in Christ because He makes His home inside us. We need to know the full breadth of our birthright because of what the cross won for us, not just for the sin Christ took away from us.
We can have no pure Christian theology without the essential of the cross! But the cross is not the sole essential. Resurrection and empowerment by the Holy Spirit spring from the cross. And if we fail to teach and live what comes beyond the cross, we will fail to be the Church of Jesus Christ.
26 thoughts on “The Church Beyond the Cross”
Good post, Dan.
Let me add Romans 4.25 which says that we could only be righteousfied (my word) when he was resurrected. Cf. 1 Cor. 15.17.
A Christianity that doesn’t get to the resurrection isn’t a true Christianity.
I like Leonard Ravenhill’s take that the best symbol for Christianity is the empty tomb—except that it doesn’t make for good jewelry. 😉
I have been thinking about this question for a while and didn’t bring it up for fear of being heretical… Thanks for this and for the link to the article. I feel legitimately inspired by your words. Thank you.
It’s only “heretical” to those folks who set up camp at the cross and can’t see past it to Easter and Pentecost.
Early Church leaders considered sin as we consider disease. All too often we consider sin as being the normal state of things. We need to be more mindful of our true nature; how we were created, not what sin has done to us.
I think it’s like being told by a therapist what is wrong in our heads, then walking away assuming we’re always going to be like that. We ignore Christ’s ability to change us.
The cross is an easy symbol. Protestants at least took Christ off the cross, unlike Catholics who left Him hanging. The empty tomb is more complex. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” becomes a very important question when viewed through the myriad religions of the world. Only one Savior has risen, only one religion follows a living person, so why is it that the followers of that Savior still often consider themselves “dead in their transgressions”?
That’s a good point about the disease factor. Explains why leprosy was so feared and so equated with unrighteousness.
I like the thoughts in your final paragraph.
We seem to have two camps of people in the American Church today: those self-righteous types in need of a little more reality of their sinful nature and those flagellating types who are always mired in thoughts about their own sin.
The cross exists, in part, to show us that we deserve hell and do not deserve the grace and freedom from sin that Christ purchased for us with His own body and death, yet the grace and freedom are there all the same. Resurrection gives us a hope and a reason for faith. Pentecost gives us the seal of salvation, the means to be daily made into the image of Christ, and the empowering to the ministry to which God calls us. Those three are bedrock.
But one camp does not understand the killing nature of the cross, while the other doesn’t understand the new creation and what that means for hope and joy. It’s really sad.
Here’s another thought: Within a year of conversion, most new Christians have a decent handle on what is sin and what isn’t. On the other hand, I would say without hesitation that it takes most Christians their entire lives to fully understand what it means to walk in newness of life. Much of that lengthy realization is that our preachers and teachers seem to avoid unpacking birthright truths.I suspect the major explanation for the avoidance is that taking hold of that birthright demands unflinching faith, something too few of us have. Pointing out the birthright only succeeds in showing us the puniness of our belief.
I think a part of the problem too is that what comes from the pulpit is too often aimed at the lowest common denominator. And this brings us back around to the discipleship factor. Our churches are filled with infants because few churches foster growth. The result is that what is taught in Sunday school and what comes from the pulpit is aimed at infants.
An elder at our church pointed out that the reason we are to bring the sick to the elders for the laying on of hands is that we seek acts of faith from those with experience so that we might exercise our faith. But how many elders honestly have the experience in the exercise of faith? Most congregations pick their elders for their management skills, marketing acumen, or simple charisma. How many are sought out because “their prayers accomplish much”?
It’s the exercise of faith, I think, that gets us beyond understanding that we deserve hell, and into the freedom of the grace extended at the cross. Faith rolls away the stone of shame that made Adam hide in the bushes.
Excellent and well needed correction.
While I welcome the Young Calvinist movement as an anecdote to the emergent/seeker-sensitive pablum of late, I am saddened about their theology of Holy Spirit, whihc is basically non-existent. Even the so-called “Charismatic Calvinists” to me are very light when it comes to Pentecostal/Charismatic doctrine and practice. The Pentecostals have gone to sleep of late and really need to wak up fast! In the 1970’s with leaders like Jack Hayford and other intellectual, more middle- class Pentecostals, the extreme emotionalism was calmed, and the Bible, including the cross, was being preached in a more exegetical way. For some reason, today so many Pentecostals are going into a psycho-babble/postmodernism-babble direction. If we could combine the best of Pentecostal doctrine, especially concerning the work of the Holy Spirit, along with a more Reformed doctrine, I think it would be awesome. Then we truly would have a strong cross as well as the doctrine and praxis of the Resurrection and Pentecost.
And I guess that is why I consider myself a Pentecostal Presbyterian–sadly, a rare creature indeed.
I find that the more “conservatively Evangelical” a Christian is, the less dynamic his pneumatology. In some of the people you describe, the Holy Spirit is reduced to being a seal of salvation and a better means to understanding the Bible. His personhood is almost completely obliterated, not to mention any hope that He does anything supernatural through a believer once that believer is effectively born again. It’s almost as if the new Christian is less supernaturally inclined, not more.
In the gospel according to “The Santa Clause” one of the more scripturally stunning statements takes place in a discussion between Scott Calvin and an elf named Judy:
Paul tells us to mature in the faith, but what we often do is mature in knowledge, ‘growing out of’ belief. We forget the wonders of Santa’s toyshop, in return for the despair of the ‘real world’. Is that such a great trade-off?
To quote from another movie: “Beings of light are we, not this crude matter.”
Odd that in some ways, the world understands more about our true being than we who should have the inside slant on the supernatural.
Thanks brother. We do not need to be shot out of a canon to be a saint. Just enter Christ at the new birth. Halleluia!
Thanks to all of you for your insightful replies. I am always blessed by listening and watching.
A much needed topic and an excellent discussion.
There is a popular evangelist who preaches the “message of the Cross”. While I think that is solid what he and his contemporaries are preaching about the cross, I always get the impression that they are stuck at the cross and never encourage anyone to move on to the new life.
I know that we tread a fine line with heresy (as some would think) when tackling this subject, but Christ’s work was accomplished through his death, burial AND resurrection. Yes, we need to go to the cross daily to die to ourselves, but we are also to enter into that new life in Christ that we shared with him through baptism. Like Romans 8 talks about, we need to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, who is continually sanctifying us.
There is a friend that I have who is a recovering alcoholic. Although he has been sober for close to a couple of decades, a lot of what defines him is caught up in being an alcoholic. He attends twice weekly meetings and sometimes heads up part of a Christian-based recovery program. It occurred to me during one of our discussions about this group that he seemed to be stuck in this twelve step process. When I asked him when does one move on past the twelve steps, his answer was basically never. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. To me, there never seemed to be a time when one would finally approach their alcoholism from a position of victory.
There were many times where I sat in service and thought the same thing. When do we start approaching this (the sin life) from a position of victory?
That were in there is past tense. Sinner is not how God identifies us anymore. His action in redoing us has already happened. That’s the victory you speak of. But are we walking in it?
Out of the past and into the present (and future). The old reality gives way to the new reality. Translated from a failed kingdom into a perfect Kingdom. Sinners into saints.
Why then are we so oddly focused on what we were in the past while ignoring what we are now and forevermore?
So yes, I know exactly what you mean.
Dan, most churches are stuck in various legalisms. For example, just try challenging the whole “tithing” issue (everybody’s favorite law out of the OT) and see how quickly pastors start screaming bloody murder. So it doesn’t surprise me in the least that no one is going anywhere. The greatest Easter sermons were preached by St. Peter in Acts. Coupled with the Resurrection is the Ascension, which is just as important.
Don stated earlier,
“When do we start approaching this (the sin life) from a position of victory?”
Hebrew 10:12, 13 declares, But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
Jesus expects us to take the authority he gave to us and use it to force his and our enemies to be made his and our footstool. This is a position of victory.
I agree, Don Costello. We do give too much power to anything that comes along, instead of standing in the authority that Jesus died for us to live in.
Good thoughts. Two observations: I think the fixation with the Cross that leads to “I’m a worm” stagnation is less interested in the Cross as the central in the narrative of salvation history, and less intersted in what it says about Jesus than what it says about us. The Cross tells us we’re sinners in need of a sacrifice. Good. Now onward- who made such a sacrfiice? Jesus, the prophesied, risen, reigning, glorified God-man. Being consumed with Him and not just this one particular act of his will take us beyond a decontextualized Cross-focus and bring us onward into Resurrection, Ascension, and the Church’s commission and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. It will also take us backward into redemptive history to shows the “why” and the roots of God’s interaction with humanity, and specifically his chosen people. Which in turn shapes how we see ourselves in our own time. It will counteract the tendency of Pentecostals and Charismatics to “use” Pentecost and the Resurrection as merely pragmatic means to enhance one’s personal relationship with God, and rivet us on something that is far bigger- the Redemptive history, power, reign, and Kingdom of God into which we fit. Rather than as something that fits conveniently into our plans for church growth, or serves some codependent need to see miracles for our own satisfaction. Jesus Reigns, the One who was and is and is to come!
Ultimately, no matter where we look, all roads must go back to Christ Himself.
At the center of the Gospel is the cross, it is the hub of the wheel so to speak, that all things in relation to God and man branch out from. I really don’t know of any legitimate evangelical church, or blogger that only preaches or teaches about the cross, and omits the resurrection.
But if your asking if we can focus to heavily on the cross, my answer would be certainly not.
I’ve been thinking about this a bit more. It is a truth of God that Christ is above all. In the case of this question of center, a cross-centric emphasis is actually a step below the greater emphasis, which is Christ. Christ is more than His cross, and for that reason, we should be Christ-centric, with the incarnation, the ministry, the cross, the resurrection, and the empowering by the Holy Spirit as spokes off of Christ, the true hub.
In some ways, I think, the modern movement to put the cross at the center rather than Christ Himself is a reform action that seeks to re-emphasize the cross in light of the times we live in, where dying to self is regarded as passé (even in some churches). While it’s commendable that some work hard to keep the cross before us, if this ultimately keeps us from seeing the entirety of who Christ is (and ultimately, who we are in Him), is it an overemphasis? It may be why some who put all their eggs in the cross basket are unable to fully integrate resurrection and Pentecost into their practice. Perhaps it’s why some Christians can’t move into their birthright as saints: The victorious Christ who triumphed over the cross is not their center.
I totally agree Dan that Christ is at the center of the gospel, He is the gospel. What I’m trying to say is at the center of gospel, what the gospel is saying to us is, God loves us. God reveals that love by His mercy, and His grace, and the most powerful visual display of that love is the cross.
God knows that we are powerless to defeat sin on our own, our nature is to reject God goodness (His laws) but the cross is God’s gift to a fallen race. He says here I’m doing this for you, the cross is the door to the Kingdom, it’s available to all who would come. Once we enter in through the cross our eyes are opened to another kingdom that is not of this world. The cross is the ultimate display of God’s goodness and glory to a world that has been blinded by the enemy, and by self.