Getting the point: a cross
An excerpt from The Tony Payne Collection:
There’s something that really bugs me about Christian sermons and books. I can put up with spiritual jargon; I can put up with cliché-ridden literary style; I can even put up with someone saying ‘Revelations’ instead of ‘Revelation’.
But one thing, I hate. I can’t stand preachers/writers who announce that their material is the missing dimension—the neglected truth, the forgotten emphasis, the dynamic discovery that will transform the church and usher in a new Golden Age. Conduct your own survey of sermon introductions and blurbs on the backs of new Christian books and see how prevalent this disease is.
It is therefore with some sense of hypocrisy that I approach the theme of this article: that modern Christians are neglecting the cross of Christ. It is a disturbing allegation, and one that many would immediately deny.
Why do I say that the cross is being neglected?
A trivial and yet telling symptom is the dearth of modern hymns or choruses about the death of Christ.1 In days gone by, the cross and the doctrine of the atonement featured prominently in Christian hymnody. And Can it Be, Rock of Ages, Man of Sorrows, When I Survey, O Sacred Head Once Wounded—I’m sure you can add your own favourites to the list. These days, when we want to sing about the cross, we are forced to go back to the classics, for there is little contemporary material available. There are plenty of songs about triumph and love and community and celebration and power and the Spirit. But how many modern Christian songs can you think of that focus on what Jesus achieved on the cross?
Another example from our church meetings is the way in which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Increasingly, it is seen as an act of self-giving (on the part of the Christian, not Christ); or as a symbol of our unity; or as the medium for mystical contact with God. Whatever happened to “do this in remembrance of me”?
These two examples are indicative of a change in perspective. This change has deep roots, reaching all the way down to the Enlightenment doctrines of Man’s sovereignty and competence. As inheritors of this man-centred view of the world, we modern Christians are more concerned about what Christ (or the Holy Spirit) does in us than what Christ did for us.
All this is quite astonishing when we consider the emphasis of the New Testament. As we read the gospels, the epistles and Revelation, there is one event that dominates the scene: the atoning death of the God-man. In The Cross of Christ, John Stott surveys the New Testament, and demonstrates the centrality of the cross not only in Jesus’ self-perception but in the life and thought of the early church. Who is it that sits on the eternal throne? The Lamb that was slain. (I will not reproduce Stott’s work here, but commend it to you.)
Let us zero in on one passage that is of particular relevance: 1 Corinthians 1-2. This may be a familiar passage but reread it now, before going further:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor 1:18-25)
The cross in Corinth
How appropriate that to a church overflowing with spiritual gifts (1:7) and given to demonstrative and disorderly meetings (see chapters 12-14), Paul should emphasize the cross—so weak and foolish in human eyes but the wisdom and power of God.
The Jews of Paul’s day didn’t want a message about a humiliated Messiah. They wanted miracles to demonstrate God’s power. The Greeks, who loved philosophy, also found it unacceptable. It was a foolish idea—that the death of an obscure Jew could be the manifestation of the saving power of God.
It is easy for us to underestimate the offence of the cross to first-century Jews and Greeks. The cross has mellowed with age. For us, it as an object of love and devotion. For them, it was a symbol of all that was barbarous and contemptible. Cicero wrote: “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is—What? There is not a fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.”2 Perhaps we can capture some of what they might have felt if we put it like this: how might we react if a latter day apostle Paul went on national television to announce that God’s marvellous new way of salvation was centred on, and achieved through, a man who had died in the electric chair?
However, for people from each category whom God had called, it was anything but foolish and weak. They saw it with new eyes. They saw it for what it was—the wisdom and power of God. God had no interest in satisfying the intellectual integrity of the Greek intelligentsia. Nor did he gratify those who hankered for miracles. He had his own methods, calculated to bring men low, so that they might not boast in themselves, but in the Lord. “It is because of him”, writes Paul, “that you are in Christ Jesus.”
Thus we begin to see why Paul designated the cross the “power of God”. Even though it sounds foolish, and is an object of derision, this cross, and the simple message that expounds it, changes lives. The cross grabs people and turns them inside out, changing their attitudes, behaviour, priorities—everything. The cross of Christ is God’s juggernaut, running rampant through human history, transforming individuals and families and whole societies. It is here, in the word of the cross, that God’s awesome, life-changing power is displayed in all its wisdom.
Thus, Paul’s message to the Corinthians was simple and profound: Jesus Christ and him crucified. Is this our message?
The cross today
The temptation to ‘move on’ and leave behind the preaching of the cross is powerful. Now, as then, the cross seems foolish and weak.
Today, the demand for miraculous signs dominates our public discourse and divides our congregations. Those who stress the need for a ‘return to the miraculous’, display a disturbing similarity to the Jews of Corinth. They find it hard to accept that God’s power is not displayed in miraculous signs, but in the shame of the cross. Was Paul into ‘power evangelism’? Undoubtedly. But the power he preached and demonstrated in his life was the stunning, incomprehensible power of Christ’s cross. The power of God’s weakness.
On the other flank, it is no longer the Greeks but Liberal theologians who demand wisdom, and who ridicule the intellectual crudity of the cross. John Hick, a Professor of the Philosophy of Religion in California, has written:
It has become obvious that we are living at a turning point in the history of Christianity. This is mainly because the development of modern science has made incredible much of the content of traditional Christian belief.3
Alongside such outmoded beliefs as the Fall and the virgin birth, Hick rejects the primitive idea that Christ “made atonement by his death for human sin; and that after death his corpse came back to life…”
With people of this mindset teaching widely in theological colleges, is it any wonder that preachers have lost confidence in the cross? Now, as in first-century Corinth, the gospel of a crucified God seems beyond belief. How can we preach such a thing? Won’t they think we’re stupid? Yes, they will—and they do.
The cross not only humbles the sinner, it also humbles the preacher. He does not win converts by the power and strength of his oratory; nor by the latest church growth techniques from America; nor by analyzing sociological data and coming up with the right marketing strategy. All these things may be important, and they have their place. But if we allow them to displace the crude and foolish word of the cross as the focus of our evangelism, we have begun to rest our confidence on men’s wisdom rather than God’s power.
It is fashionable to say that Evangelicals require a ‘paradigm shift’—that we need to recover the miraculous, supernatural element of the gospel. This is largely true. Under the influence of liberalism, we have lost faith in the supernatural power of God. However, we should not be looking for the manifestation of that power in miraculous signs, but in people’s conversion through the preaching of the cross. This is the locus of God’s power and wisdom.
There is another danger—a very modern danger—of which Paul was unaware. And it is perhaps the greatest and most insidious threat of all. It is that, with two millennia of Christian history behind us, we are bored with the cross. Singing the old, old story is as tiresome and dated as the hymn tune that accompanies it. This, it seems to me, is the ultimate blasphemy: to be told that the holy God of all the world has given himself up to an agonizing death to save rebellious mankind from their sins, and to reply: “So?”
To regard the cross as weak or even foolish at least takes it seriously. First-century Jews and Greeks had no sentimental attachment to crucifixion. It was understandable that they should regard Paul’s message as preposterous, as weak and foolish. They, at least, grasped what he was saying.
For us, however, the cross is part of our race memory. We have heard it so many times that it neither excites nor revolts us. We just move on to something else. We look for some other secret that will revitalize our flagging Christianity. The cross has become part of the furniture—it comes with membership of the club, but it is hardly central.
Stott puts it well in the conclusion to his book where he asserts that the cross must pervade every sphere of our Christian lives. It is the ground of our justification, the means of our sanctification, the subject of our witness, and the object of our boasting:
If the cross is not central in these four spheres for us, then we deserve to have applied to us that most terrible of all descriptions, “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18).4
1. I concede that since 1989 when this article was first published, there have been a more encouraging number of cross-themed songs come into our repertoire.↩
2. Cicero, Against Verres in The Verrine Orations, trans. LHG Greenwood, Heinemann, London, 1928-1935, 2.5.64, par. 165; quoted in Stott, The Cross of Christ, IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 1986, p. 30.↩
3. John Hick, The Centre of Christianity, SCM, London, 1971; quoted in William Lawton, Being Christian, Being Australian, Lancer, Sydney, 1988, p. 106.↩
4. Stott, p. 341.↩