The Church Beyond the Cross


Sun & CrossIf 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?”
—Acts 19:11-15

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.

The Hell Birds


On Friday, I attended a Bible study led by a friend who comments here from time to time. This friend knows the Scriptures because he dedicates himself not just to reading but to comprehending all their rich meaning.

The text covered Genesis 15. This section caught my attention:

And [the LORD] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
—Genesis 15:5-11

The Holy Spirit spoke to me powerfully while reading this, the kind of kick in the head,  “sit up and pay attention, son” shaking that led me to understand that if no one commented on the part of the passage that drew my attention, then I had to—or else I’d explode. That’s how it felt.

Fortunately, my friend ably covered the topic for me.

In this classic passage that all of us know, God makes a covenant with Abram concerning an heir and the numberless nature of the man’s descendents. Abram believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. So God makes a covenant with Abram, tells him how the necessary covenantal sacrifice must be prepared, and Abram obeys.

Then something happens to the offering:

And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

That passage gripped me.

Here was Abram in the midst of this most important covenant with God. He’d been obedient and done what God asked. He carried out the task of butchering the sacrifice as he’d been told.

'The Crow' by KessiyeAnd the birds of prey descended to snatch away his offering to God, threatening the blessing.

In Leviticus 11:13-19, God pronounces these same birds unclean.  In this passage of Genesis they do not serve the function of God, but they serve another master. They are the hell birds.

In the midst of Abram’s faithful response to God, the hell birds descended to wreak havoc. They smelled the sacrifice from afar and came winging in.

So it is that all of our faithful responses to God’s requirements of us attract the wrong kind of attention. Much truth exists in the old aphorism, “No good deed goes unpunished.” The Enemy opposes by his nature, and so he must oppose the saints when they obey God.

Expect it.

The Enemy will attack any work that advances the cause of God. The Enemy will attack any person who responds to God in obedience. This explains why a child acts up and distracts us at the most inopportune time in the midst of ministry. Why the car won’t start right as we are going to visit prisoners in jail. Why we get sick on the day we are to share our testimony with others. Why people who live simply so they can give their money to the needy end up hit with a massive, unforeseen expense they cannot pay.

I’m old enough to have seen this routinely in my life. I have shared my conclusion on this before, but it bears repeating:

If you are not experiencing active and relentless opposition from the Enemy in your life, you’re probably ineffective for the Kingdom of God. The hell birds don’t come a-swarming without a worthy offering to rend and devour.

Abram chased them away from his offering.

How are we to do the same when faced with the hell birds?

Satan has no authority over the believer. Christians have been rescued from His dominion, translated from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of Light.

Too many believers let the Enemy rend and savage their offering because they do not stand on the authority granted them at the cross by Christ.

And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.
—Revelation 12:10-11

Some Christians don’t even try to resist. They perpetually let the hell birds descend and make off with the blessing. Then they fall into a series of excuses, which leads to perpetual defeat.

But Abram chased off the forces of evil that threatened the covenant.

Don’t let the hell birds rob you! Do everything possible to stand on your authority as a believer, as one who is no longer under the thumb of the Enemy. Claim what Christ bought for you. Stand on the Lord’s promises. Fight back. He gave you the weapons:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints….
—Ephesians 6:10-18

I like that last line because it calls each of us into a community where you watch my back and I watch yours. Abram may have had to drive off the hell birds alone, but the Church exists to do so together. Band together, saints! God has given you everything needed to drive off the hell birds. Start doing so!

Sinners or Saints?


Driving home this evening, I got to thinking about what I’ve written here the last few days. Much of it centers around how we Christians perceive ourselves and what Christ has done for us. Saints of the Most High God!It’s the question of whether we see ourselves as sinners or saints.

The more I read the Scriptures, the more I realize we’re misunderstanding the extent of Christ’s work on the cross. And in that misunderstanding, we fall back into a grossly mistaken position.

The New Testament draws clear lines of distinction between sinners and saints. We, however, like to blur those distinctions whenever we call our post-conversion selves “sinners.” But I don’t see Paul going back to that well all the time. When he writes a letter to a church, he doesn’t say, “To all the sinners in the church of….” No, he repeatedly uses the word saints.

In truth, you and I are saints who are being changed by God through the putting off of our old sin nature. Our identities got swapped out. God doesn’t look at us as sinners, but saints because of the salvation purchased for us by Christ.

So why is it that so many of us go back to that hangdog “sinner” appellation? Aren’t we giving up what Christ did for us at the cross? If we truly are new creations in Christ, if He’s paid the penalty on our behalf, and He’s secured for us access to the Father, why do we fall back into thinking of ourselves as sinners and not saints?

If anything, the epistles drive this home:

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
—Romans 6:11

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
—Galatians 2:20

So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
—Galatians 4:7

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…
—Ephesians 2:19

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
—1 John 3:1a

If we don’t have this mentality, then we’re missing out on what it means to be alive in Christ.

We then

  • set our expectations low and don’t believe God for the impossible because we still think we’re aliens and strangers,
  • fail to appropriate what Christ has purchased for us on the cross, because we mistakenly think the sinner in us is triumphant over the saint, and
  • muddle through and lament, rather than walk in our inheritance as children of God.

I’ve got to believe that our failure to move beyond identifying primarily as sinners is one reason why our churches lack power. It explains why so much of what we attempt for the Kingdom fails. It shows why so many of us limp through our days rather than rising on wings like eagles.

Church, it’s time to step out of the sinner ghetto and walk in the sainthood Christ so dearly paid for!