We have spent two Sundays exploring the gospel of man in its two forms. There is the gospel of law-keeping, which tells us that if we do our part in meeting the requirements of God, he will do his part in accepting us. The other form of the gospel of man is the gospel of the heart, which declares that there is nothing for us to do because we are already accepted by God, who knows that our hearts are basically good.
In analyzing each form of the gospel of man, I reasoned out responses. Law-keeping seems honorable, but it inevitably leads to pride and turning God into a dealmaker. Trusting in one’s heart, however heartening it may seem, is ultimately disheartening due to the truths about ourselves that we have to hide. I think the reasoning was sound, but even for me it was not fully satisfying.
If we are to find satisfaction, we must turn to the cross. In our present heat wave, I am sure we have all drunk water to quench our thirst. If we have been hiking in the sun and come across a cold stream, we would delight in bending down and scooping the water into our mouths to satisfy our thirst. But we would likely do something else with the water. We would splash it on our faces. The sun and long walk have not only made us thirsty, but physically and mentally weary. It is difficult to think clearly. But the splash of water refreshes us so that we become mentally awake and alert.
That is what meditating upon the cross does for us mentally as we regard spiritual matters. Without the cross, the gospel of man seems sensible. For without the cross, the nature of sin diminishes, as well as God’s holiness, his righteousness, and his mercy and love. Without the cross, it makes sense that law-keeping is what wins his acceptance of us. Without the cross it seems reasonable to regard ourselves as basically good people doing the best we can and accepted by a kind, grandfatherly God who just wants everybody to be happy.
And then we come to the cross. We behold the Word, the Lord’s Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God hanging upon a symbol of curse. What is sin that its horror be so exposed? What is holiness; what is righteousness that requires such sacrifice? What is love; what is mercy that willingly takes on such suffering?
What do you think the cross is about? Why do we think Jesus died? We must answer that question. It is the cross that tells us that we are not playing a game of religion. It is the cross that tells us that the stakes are real. The unending “dialogue” about God and spirituality, the pleasant journey of finding God in our own unique ways — this is not a game. This is not a discussion over a novel or a movie, which, when it ends, allows each of us to go back to our comfortable homes, holding onto our comfortable perspectives.
The cross makes knowing God personal, not merely personal for us but for God. He sent his Son to die! He paid the price that no human father or mother would ever pay for the sake of anyone. His Son Jesus gave up glory itself for the purpose of dying for us. What are we going to do with that? What do we think the cross is about?
The apostle Paul understood what law-keepers (as expressed in the Jews) and heart-followers (the Gentiles) think of the cross. To the former it is a stumbling block, for on the cross must be a law-breaker. How else could God allow such a curse to occur to his prophet? To the latter, the cross is folly. How could a good-hearted God approve of such a travesty, especially when it was unnecessary?
Paul credits both attitudes with foolish pride. Whether a law-keeper or a heart-follower, man thinks he is wise enough to figure out what is sufficient for God, and he definitely knows that a man hanging on a cross is not the answer. But it is this Christ by man rejected who is the power and the wisdom of God. And it is Jesus Christ and him crucified that Paul will proclaim, however it may sound to anyone. It is Jesus Christ and his crucifixion that reveals what is true — who God is and what he demands. It is Jesus Christ and him crucified that shines the spotlight on men and women, whether they desire God’s acceptance or not, whether they believe he exists or not.
Let me ask again the questions that the cross answers: What is sin that its horror be so exposed? What is holiness; what is righteousness that requires such sacrifice? What is love; what is mercy that willingly takes on such suffering?
What is sin?
Ye who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed,
See who bears the awful load;
‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.
If you are a doctor and you become sick, you determine how serious your illness is by medical information. The rest of us determine the seriousness by the treatment we must undergo. If I go the emergency room because of heart palpitations, and the resident on duty gives me aspirin and sends me on my way, I conclude that my heart is relatively okay. If he tells me that he has a call into the best surgeon for this “kind of thing,” and an operating room is being prepared right now — I worry! This is serious! It is the treatment for my illness — not information about the problem, not how my body feels — that gives me proper understanding of how seriously to take my body’s condition.
So it is with diagnosing sin. The gospel of man takes sin lightly. Those who believe in following the heart believe the heart is basically good. Sure, everyone to some degree has his faults, but deep down the heart is healthy. We just need improvement. For example, the better educated we become, we will shed misconceptions that make us fearful. Or we suffer from bad experiences and mistreatment. Therapy, a positive environment will heal wounds. We are not really bad, at least not most of us.
Those who believe in law-keeping also devalue sin. They recognize that there is a code of behavior to keep and may even think that most people don’t keep it. But the code is not unreachable. Anyone can keep the law well enough to win God’s acceptance, if they really care to. Yes, we have our faults, even our sins, but we can make up for our failings.
Look to the cross! See who is hanging there — the Son of God. Why do you think it is he that was sent?
Why not another prophet? Why not another king like David? Why not an angel? Or if he must send his Son, why was his ministry of preaching and healing not enough? If education is sufficient to make us right, why could the teachings of God the Son not do the job? If healing from suffering was what was needed, why were the miraculous healings insufficient to heal the sinful spirit of the eye-witnesses? Why send the Son? Why send him to the cross? Why was it necessary to be “ransomed from [sin], not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ”? (1 Peter 1:18)
Maybe sin is more terrible than we realize. Maybe, what seems to be a simple, lingering cold is a deadly disease. Maybe what seemed to be treatable with a pain-killer will truly kill without radical measures. Let the cross, not how you feel, not how you have been educated or conditioned — let who is hanging on the cross measure for you how serious your sin is.
What is holiness; what is righteousness that requires such sacrifice?
Tell me, ye who hear him groaning,
Was there ever grief like his?
Friends through fear his cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress;
Many hands were raised to wound him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.
It is the cross that impresses upon us the reality of terms that we mentally acknowledge but have little hold on us emotionally. God is holy. God is just and righteous. Yes, yes we consent, but we cannot shake the stronger image of an old man who acts reverential with his hands clasped in front of him. God is righteous, but more like the judge who strikes fear in real criminals and then passes out treats to children who “will be children.” And we, of course, are the children.
Do you think such an encounter with God is what Jesus experienced on the cross when he called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We see on his body blood and stripes and are filled with compassion. God sees on his Son’s body the sins of the world, and he is filled with wrath at such an offense to his holiness and righteousness, for he “cannot endure iniquity” (Isaiah 1:13).
And so “the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that Justice gave.” The cross was not a game; it was not a make-believe stage production. Christ took upon himself our sin; he became sin so that the stroke of righteous justice would fall upon him, not us. And that stroke of righteous justice is the stroke of God his Father.
Does such a concept shock you? It should! It is so shocking that people have tried to explain it away. The cross must be about something else. It is about Jesus winning victory over evil forces: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). That is true, but only part of the truth. The previous verses say, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (vv. 13-14). The record of debt was the record of our trespasses. They were removed from us by being nailed on the cross, that is, by being nailed on the cross with Jesus.
Others say that the cross was the means by which God demonstrated his love for us. As John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” God did in truth display his love for the world through the death of his Son, but it was love with a purpose. As 1 John 4:10 explains, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The meaning of propitiation is to turn away wrath. Whose wrath? God’s wrath. And why is God angry? Because a holy and righteous God cannot endure iniquity.
The logic of all this is simple. For God to be holy and righteous and also forgive us for our sins, atonement of that sin must be made. Thus the cross. That, of course, is true. But though we can follow the logic, we still struggle with the reality when we see the cross. Why such measures? Why the cross?
Why indeed? Maybe, like sin, holiness and righteousness are concepts that we know little of. The prophet Isaiah always knew that God is holy. He followed the law, knowing that it was about following a righteous God. He understood the sacrificial system, that it was about keeping right before a holy God. Still, that did not prepare him for his temple encounter with the holy God, unnerving him and leading him to cry out: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
We are not given such a vision by which to come to grips with God’s holiness and righteousness, but we have been given something just as clear — the Son of God receiving the stroke that Justice gave. That is the just stroke we ought to receive from the Judge who is holy and righteous.
What is love; what is mercy that willingly takes on such suffering?
As much as it is revelation, the cross is also mystery. At the cross, the horror of sin is revealed; at the cross, the holiness and righteousness of God is revealed. At the cross, a mercy and love so profound is both revealed and yet made all the more mysterious.
Why would a holy God pay such a costly ransom for an unrighteous people? Did he need us? Hardly, considering his self-sufficiency and that as the Trinity he already possesses perfect relationship within himself. He has his angels.
Why then did the righteous and holy God do it? Contrast this gospel of mercy with the gospel of man. According to the latter, God loves us because we prove ourselves worthy of it or because of our basically good heart. In the gospel of the cross, God pays the most precious ransom price to redeem us, whom he knows to have wicked hearts. According to the gospel of man, God is doing nothing more than giving us what we deserve; he owes us. The gospel of the cross reveals that God owes us nothing but judgment; nevertheless, out of inscrutable love he provides a costly and painful mercy.
The cross reveals love — real love; love that honors holiness and righteousness; love that loves the vilest sinner; love that makes the costliest sacrifice; love that can be trusted.
Here we have a firm foundation;
Here the refuge of the lost;
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation,
His the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded,
Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded
Who on him their hope have built.
Here at the cross — and nowhere else — is the Rock of our salvation. Here is the refuge of the lost; here the firm foundation upon which we may stand. We do not need to drum up enough confidence in ourselves to make us feel worthy or to keep in favor with God. We do not need to keep laws and rituals in hope that if we do them well enough and throughout our lives, they will win us acceptance or will be enough to cancel our sins, our failings. We do not need to repeat to ourselves how basically good we are in order to convince ourselves that we are safe with God. Here at the cross, out of love, the Lamb of God canceled our guilt, if we will now but build our hope on him.
Sin, holiness and righteousness, love — it is at the cross that we find understanding, and we find hope. Real hope! Not the hope of wishful thinking, not the hope founded on our feeble efforts at law-keeping, not the hope of listening to our shifting hearts. It is the hope that rests on the salvation that God himself has provided. It is the hope that does not veil the horror of sin nor the brightness of holiness and righteousness to make us feel worthy of God’s love. It is the hope that rests fully on the work of the Lamb of God, given freely by the Father, offered freely by the Son — offered out of unfailing, unconditional, steadfast love.
Christian, will you not rest in such love? Will you not stand upon such a foundation? Do you worry that you have not proved yourself worthy of such a sacrifice? Of course you are not worthy; of course you are unable to prove yourself worthy now. Christ alone, not you helping out, is the foundation of your relationship with God. Yes, strive to live holy and righteous lives. Yes, seek to please your heavenly Father. But rest in the work of Christ. Look to the cross!
To any who still hold back. You don’t like being thought of as sinful. You think there should be no place for divine wrath. Is that because such thoughts are unworthy of God or unworthy of your self-dignity? Is it reason or is it pride that keeps you from looking to the cross? There upon the cross is the King of glory who humbled himself for you.
Or is it pain that holds you back? You have lost a loved one perhaps? You have suffered or a loved one has suffered, has been rejected, maybe even at the hands of those who claim to look to the cross. Then I bid you all the more to look to the one hanging upon the cross; the one who, as he was being crucified, asked the Father to forgive those crucifying him. I bid you to look and to listen to the one who said:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29).
Whatever burden you may carry; whatever burden you have told yourself that you can handle or have tried to convince yourself that it has been laid aside; give it to the one who hung upon the cross precisely to place that burden upon himself and to give you rest. By his Son God now has spoken to us. Trust this faithful Word.