Last time I was with you, we spoke on the uniqueness of Christianity. We said it was not based on a belief in God, a problem with man, God reaching down to resolve this problem by becoming man, of God dying, of a virgin birth, or miracles, of judgment, of heaven and hell, of eternal life, or of salvation by faith through grace. None of these are unique to Christianity.
Philip Yancey tells this story of C.S. Lewis.
During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.
Last time we looked at the One who was unique to Christianity. Jesus. No other religion has our Jesus. His nature is unique; fully God, fully man. His birth was repeatedly prophesied. His life is marked by an unprecedented level of miracles, by unparalleled teachings, and by unimpeachable character. His death was supreme love and a substitutionary atonement. His resurrection stands as an historical fact, not merely a “faith” fact. His present work is as our high priest, and His plan is our salvation, a union with God by faith alone in Christ.
Today, we want to look at the cross. In some ways, the resurrection has eclipsed the cross in modern evangelical Christianity. We slide past the cross on Good Friday, since we do not often have Good Friday services. We make a great production of Easter, which we should. But the resurrection, in many ways, simply validates the cross. We like the resurrection. The cross is uncomfortable, because it reminds us of our sin. It is bloody, gory, terrifying, messy. No one is naturally drawn to such a place. Even Jesus recoiled from it in the garden of Gethsemane. We want the victory of the resurrection. The cross seems such a place of defeat and death. The cross, at first approach, seems to offer only suffering. We want life and happiness. But though the cross is suffering, it is so much more.
The cross is unique to Christianity. The cross answers the central problems of life, unlike any other religion.
The problem of sin
How do we deal with sin? In Hinduism and Buddhism, it is dealt with by suffering. In Islam, it is dealt with by doing good works. In Judaism, the problem of sin is dealt with by studying and doing the commandments. But when you have slandered someone and ruined their reputation, what suffering, what good works, what commandments can you keep that will enable you to say with conviction that you have dealt with your sin? If you became angry and in a rage you killed your child, how can you ever properly respond to that sin? If you maim someone for life, will maiming yourself make right that sin? The answers to sin in other religions is very unsatisfying to me. It seems to me that if I harm someone else, I cannot ever make it right.Scripture affirms this view. I can never do anything for sin. Therefore, I must die. For 1,400 years, God had established death to be the only response to sin. A sacrificial system was established, with the death of animals, day after day after day. Death, death, and more death.
The soul who sins shall die.
Animals were substituted for people. Sins would be confessed over the animal and it would be killed. Yet, the Psalmist said that these sacrifices did not delight God (Psalm 40:6). Micah is greatly perplexed about the problem of sin and asks,
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
There seems to be no answer.Isaiah tells us that there is an answer. The Messiah would die for us, bearing our sins (Isaiah 53). If the One who made us both intervened to make it right, then sin could be answered. But that would take His own death. Peter tells us that
[He] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree.
1 Peter 2:24
He tells us again,
Christ suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.
1 Peter 3:18
The writer to the Hebrews states:
. . . so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.
Thus, the only proper response to sin, the forfeiture of life, is fulfilled at the cross. Jesus died as the substitutionary atonement for sins at the cross. All of my sins are placed on Him. It is as if the wrongs I have done never happened, not because they did not happen, but because He took on Himself my guilt. He must die. I get to go free. The cross answers in a unique way the problem of sin.
The problem of suffering
Mahatma Gandhi saw the cross as Christianity’s unique answer to evil. So many have rejected God because of inexplicable suffering in this world. But suffering is a problem for everyone. The Hindu and the Buddhist teach that we suffer to overcome bad karma from previous lives. But how does suffering deal with sins? Islam states that it is simply the will of God. Judaism struggles with suffering. The atheist has no answer.In comes the cross. The cross explains suffering in terms of redemption. Christ suffered to redeem us. Peter tells us:
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.
Paul tells us,
It has been given you on behalf of Christ, not only to belief in Him but also to suffer for His sake.
Paul tells us again to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). We fill up the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24) for the redemption of others. Christ suffered for us and He calls us to suffer for others. Peter says that we should arm ourselves for suffering (1 Peter 4:1). We do not like suffering. And many reject God because of the existence of so much suffering. The story is told of Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Catholic mystic and nun, who was thrown from her carriage, falling hard into a mud puddle. She questioned God. In her words, He replied: “This is how I treat all my friends.” Her retort was: “Then, Lord, it is not surprising that you have so few.” We suffer. Some suffering we choose. Some we do not. But all suffering for the Christian can be redemptive. From the person who voluntarily steps out of their comfort zone to assist the less fortunate, to the person who risks ridicule and life to proclaim the gospel, to the one who allows himself to be robbed in order to win another, to the person who has chronic pain and demonstrates Christ, all suffering can be redemptive for those who have eyes to see the cross.
The problem of living
How should we live? The cross again provides a unique answer. We live by the cross. It is not a life at first blush we would choose to live.C.S. Lewis was asked: “Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?” He responded:
While it lasts, the religion of worshiping oneself is the best. I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
God in the Dock, p. 58.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer states in his book, The Cost of Discipleship,
Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross. The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus, it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. . . . In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life.
Scriptures repeatedly addresses the role of the cross in the life of the believer.
- In Romans 6:6-7, the cross frees us from slavery to sin and makes it possible for us to live the Christ life.
- In 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, the crucifixion is a stumbling block to unbelievers, but the power and wisdom of God to those who are called.
- In 2 Corinthians 5:14-16, the cross shifts the focus of our lives from ourselves to Christ.
- In Galatians 5:24, the cross calls us to put to death our flesh. Martin Luther says of this passage that Christians nail their flesh to the cross, “so that although the flesh be yet alive, yet can it not perform that which it would do, forasmuch as it is bound both hand and foot, and fast nailed to the cross.”
- In Ephesians 2:14-16 the cross reconciles us with God and man, so that we no longer live as “us and them,” but it is now “we.” When a Christian suffers in Africa, I suffer. When a Christian rejoices in China, I rejoice.
- In Philippians 2:1-11, the cross teaches me to look out for the interests of others.
- In Philippians 3:10, the cross teaches me to be conformed to His death.
- In Colossians 2:20, the cross frees me from regulations.
- In Colossians 3:3-4, in the cross my life is hidden with Christ in God.
- In 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, the cross allows us to live free of the coming wrath.
- In 1 Timothy 2:1-7, the cross teaches us to pray for the salvation of men.
- In Titus 2:11-14, the cross teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, with our eyes on the hope and our zeal for good works.
- In Hebrews 12:1-4, the cross teaches us to focus on Jesus in our battle with sin.
- In 1 Peter 2:18-24, the cross teaches us to suffer patiently when others mistreat us.
- In 1 John 1:7-9, in the cross we have cleansing from sin.
- In 1 John 3:16-18; 4:10-11, in the cross we have a model for love.
The cross teaches us both to die to self and of our unfathomable worth to God. It teaches us to focus on the coming hope and live here in a redemptive way. It provides a place for our joys and our sorrows, for our victories and our failures. It teaches us to live richly for eternity.
The problem of knowing what God thinks of us
Hinduism and Buddhism do not even attempt to answer this question. Judaism answers it somewhat obliquely. Islam simply does not know. In the cross, Christianity answers it concretely. God thinks lovingly of us (Romans 5:8). If ever we are tempted to think that God does not care for us, we need to remember the cross (Romans 8:31-32). If ever we are tempted to think that God is tired of us, that He is through with us, we need to remember the cross (Romans 8:33-34). If we ever doubt His intent, we need to spend some time meditating on the cross. The cross demonstrates the extent to which God is willing to go to secure our deliverance. The cross spells in huge letters “God Loves People.”