Boasting in the Cross
April 9, 2015
“God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14a NKJV).
A cross is a strange thing to boast about.
Most people boast about other things: their family, their background, their education, their career, their salary, the size of their house, the important people they know, the great deeds they have done, and of course their children and their grandchildren. These things are not wrong in themselves, and it is understandable that we should feel good about our accomplishments, our connections, and our family.
Some victims survived for 72 hours
But who boasts about a cross?
In the first century the cross was an instrument of torture, a means not simply of death but of ghastly suffering. Few people today would boast of an electric chair, but even that comparison is not quite right because an electric chair is designed to kill within a few seconds.
Crucifixion was not like that. Historians tell us the Romans were experts at killing. They had learned well the lessons of previous empires. They knew that to stay in power, you must be ruthless against your enemies, so they became experts in execution.
The Romans were experts at execution
Of all the various ways the Romans had of killing people, crucifixion was the worst because it took so long. The whole point of crucifying a man was to expose him publicly, to nail him up in agony, and to do it in such a way that he might live 24 hours or even 48 hours and in rare cases even 72 hours in unimaginable suffering. There are stories of hundreds of people being crucified at one time, of roads where you could see crosses for miles in either direction, where you could hear the multiplied screams of the dying and the wailing of family members who could do nothing to ease the pain.
Cruel and Unusual
Crucifixion was bloody, brutal, and inhumane. In today’s terminology, crucifixion was the ultimate in “cruel and unusual” punishment. Victims were first beaten, then they were stripped and nailed to a cross. Over time the Romans perfected the process so that the criminal would suffer in agony for hours, being forced to raise himself up by placing his weight on the nails in his hands and his feet, every breath a gasp of searing pain. It was torture in its purest form.
When you consider our text in light of that, a question comes to mind. How could anyone boast in a cross?
Paul, what are you thinking?
How could you say such a thing?
To us the cross is beautiful. In fact, it is the singular sign of the Christian faith, which is why the Muslim terrorists in the Middle East make sure they destroy the cross wherever they see it. But we have beautified an object of terror, cleaned it up, and covered it with gold and silver so we can sell it as jewelry.
In the church the cross is beautiful.
That thought would have been unimaginable 2000 years ago.
The cross is a precious symbol to Christians
I don’t wish to suggest that we do wrong by making the cross the symbol of our faith, or that it is wrong to wear the cross. Even though I used the world “jewelry,” I know that for most people, the cross is more than that. It is a precious emblem of their faith. I’m simply pointing out the irony that a symbol of suffering and shame has become the universal symbol of the Christian faith.
On one hand the cross stands for the faith of the followers of Jesus. It transcends time and culture and language. It unites believers who can’t agree on much of anything else. We are the people of the cross called by the One who died on the cross to follow the way of the cross. On the other hand the cross reminds the world that there is no way to God through good works or religion or self-effort. The cross spells the end to man’s attempt to gain God’s favor. No wonder the world has a hard time with the cross. One verse of a familiar gospel song gives us both sides of this truth:
Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.
What we love, the world despises.
In his book The Contemporary Christian (pp. 61-67), John Stott discusses five objections modern men and women have to the cross of Christ. Let’s meditate on these objections in light of Paul’s commitment to boast only in the cross of Christ.
I. The Intellectual Objection
This is what Paul called the “foolishness” of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). When he came to Athens and preached the gospel, the brilliant thinkers of that great city regarded him as a “babbler” (Acts 17:18). The Greek word literally means “seed-picker.” It’s a term of derision roughly equivalent to “country bumpkin,” “chatterbox,” or (to quote Eugene Peterson) “airhead.” When they heard him preach, it made no sense to them so they dismissed him as a babbler of nonsense. Nevertheless Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The Jews could not accept that their Messiah would die like a man under a curse from God. To the Gentiles it seemed absurd. Who could ever believe a thing like that? How could you worship a God who died on a cross?
Who would trust a God who died on a cross?
Those sentiments persist in the 21st-century. Many people think it is absurd to believe that a dying Jew on a Roman cross could save anyone. I can see their point. After all, we believe that the hope of salvation rests in an itinerant Jewish rabbi who was arrested, rejected by his own people, beaten, treated like a common criminal, crucified between two thieves, and buried in a borrowed tomb. Then we go to the world and say, “There is your Savior!”
This isn’t, of course, all that we believe about Jesus, but that is how some people hear it. In the face of this, it is tempting to water down the cross and to talk in generalities of God’s love for the world. But it is the cross that demonstrates the extent of God’s love (Romans 5:8). The cross shows us how far God will go to save us.
Faithfulness to Christ demands that we continue to preach the cross.
II. The Religious Objection
This has to do with the exclusivity of Christ. Recently I talked to an evangelical leader who predicted this will be the next doctrine to go. Already some evangelicals feel uncomfortable with John 14:6 where Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The problem with this verse is not with the words. The words are simple and clear. It’s the meaning that some people don’t like. Jesus plainly said he was the only way to heaven. In our feel-good, make-everyone-happy, don’t-leave-anyone-out age, that verse doesn’t fit in. You can almost hear someone saying, “Who are you to claim that your religion is any better than anyone else’s? How dare you suggest that only Christians go to heaven.”
You won’t win friends by preaching John 14:6
It sounds positively un-American, very unfriendly, and possibly illegal.
Certainly you won’t win many friends by preaching on this verse.
If we consider John 14:6 an anomaly, what do we do with Acts 4:12?
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
“No other name.”
That’s clear, isn’t it?
Stott points out that the Corinthians wouldn’t have minded if the early Christians had said, “Jesus is a God,” meaning that he is one more deity to be added to the bulging pantheon of Greek gods. They would have been happy to push their gods around on the shelf to make room for one more named “Jesus.” If Paul had said, “You can have Jesus and keep Zeus too,” that would have played well in Corinth. No problem. No issues. No controversy.
But Jesus as the one-and-only way to God?
Who does Jesus think he is, anyway?
Paul would not compromise on that point.
Neither should we.
Stott concludes that “what people want is an easygoing syncretism, a truce in inter-religious competition, a mishmash of the best from all religions. But we Christians cannot surrender either the finality or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. There is simply nobody else like him” (p. 64).
Why was Paul stoned?
Why were the early Christians martyred?
Why were they seen as a threat to Rome?
They taught the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. They would not go along with a watered-down version of their faith that said, “We’ve got Jesus, but you’ve got your gods, and it’s all the same in the end.” Why preach Jesus if there is some other way of salvation? Why sacrifice to take the gospel to the lost if they aren’t really lost?
III. The Personal Objection
Many people object to the preaching of the cross because it humbles the proud. The gospel announces that there is nothing—absolutely nothing!—that you can do to save yourself.
You can’t save yourself
This is a hard word for modern man to hear. We’re okay with the love of God in a general, fuzzy sense that allows us to feel good about ourselves. We have a hard time with verses like Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one,” and Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” and Isaiah 64:6, “All our righteous acts are like a polluted garment.”
There is no other religion in the world like Christianity. We are the only people who preach free grace. Ours is the only free religion in the world. Every other religion says, “Do this and live.” Our God says, “It has been done for you.” The whole gospel comes down to just three little words:
Do vs. Done
Every other religion is based on works
Every other religion is based on works. You go to heaven because of what you do: Give money. Go to church or to the synagogue or the mosque. Pray toward Mecca. Light a candle. Pray all night. Keep the feast days. Give alms to the poor. Offer a sacrifice. Keep the Ten Commandments. Be a good neighbor. Obey the law. Stay out of jail. Be courteous, kind, and forgiving. Try harder. Do your best. Follow the Golden Rule. Live a good life. Many of those things are good and noble and right, but the problem with a religion based on “doing” is that you can never be sure you’ve done enough. And if somehow you finally do enough, how do you know that you won’t blow it all tomorrow by one stupid sin?
The whole difference comes down to this: Christianity is based on what Christ has done for us. Every other religion is based on what we ourselves do.
This verse from Jesus Paid It All makes the message clear:
For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
If you preach that gospel, some people aren’t going to be happy. They won’t like it that your church is in their community or that you have moved into their neighborhood. The gospel message of “grace alone” offends the pretensions of modern man. He doesn’t want to hear that he is a sinner, and that he can do nothing to save himself, and that if God doesn’t save him through Christ, he will not go to heaven.
God doesn’t make deals
There is something in us that says, “I am willing to trust Jesus 90%, but I want to throw in my own 10%.” God says, “No deal.” It’s either 100% Jesus or we don’t go to heaven at all.
We must preach salvation by grace because the gospel is truly the Good News the world needs to hear.
IV. The Moral Objection
In the first century Rome and Greece were hotbeds of immorality and idolatry. The Greeks created a verb to describe the city of Corinth because it was so perverted, so vile, so given over to fleshly indulgence. They said certain cities were “corinthianized,” meaning they had reached the depth of evil typically found in Corinth.
That’s how bad the ancient world was. It was wholly given over to licentious behavior.
Into that world came the early Christians preaching the Good News that Jesus Christ could change your life from the inside out. It was, in the deepest sense, a promise of liberation from the sins of the flesh. No mystery religion could do that. No other system of thought could take men and women far gone in sin and set them on the path of holiness.
You can have Jesus or you idols!
We can see this very clearly in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 where Paul reminds the early Christians that they had turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. The order is all-important:
We turn to God.
We turn from idols.
We turn to serve the living and true God.
You can have Jesus or you can have your idols, but you can’t have both at the same time. When Christ comes in, the idols must leave and take their moral filth with them.
That message was unwelcome then.
It is unwelcome now.
If you want Jesus plus your sinful ways, forget it.
You aren’t ready to become a Christian.
You don’t really want Jesus until you are willing to agree with God about your sin.
Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat
There is an upside to this truth. If you are ready and willing to deal honestly with your sin, you can be changed forever by Jesus. Please understand. Coming to Christ is not like slapping a coat of paint on a shack. Coming to Christ is like those renovation shows on TV where they take an old, ramshackle house with sagging porch, broken windows, vermin-infested walls, leaky roof, cracked foundation, and they strip it down and then rebuild it totally so that it becomes a thing of beauty.
Coming to Christ means submitting to his “extreme makeover” of your life. That frightens some people so much that they never come at all. But if you are willing for the Master Carpenter to take over your life, when he is finished, you will be masterpiece of grace for all the world to see.
V. The Political Objection
This is the objection to the lordship of Jesus. Here’s an interesting fact about the Romans. Whenever they conquered a new territory, they generally left the local religion in place. They only asked that the people in that region be willing to make an offering saying, “Caesar is Lord.” The term they used for Lord was the same Greek word translated “Lord” in the New Testament. As you might expect, Christians across the Roman Empire steadfastly refused to say “Caesar is Lord.” They were willing to be good citizens, willing to pay their taxes and to obey Roman law. But they could not violate their conscience by declaring “Caesar is Lord.”
As a general rule, Christians ought to be good citizens, we ought to support our leaders as far as we can, and we ought always to pray for them. But we can never give ultimate allegiance to any president, prime minister, king or queen, or any military leader. That’s why Christians have gotten in trouble over the centuries. We pledge our allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. Any lesser allegiance is just that—lesser. We can’t give ultimate allegiance to any human leader even when we are of the same political party. In American terms, Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. He’s far above partisan politics.
We need a “Back to the Cross” movement!
He’s the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
We owe our ultimate allegiance to him alone.
So here are the five objections to the cross of Christ:
The intellectual objection, which says the cross is foolish.
The religious objection, which says the cross is intolerant.
The personal objection, which says the cross is humiliating.
The moral objection, which says the cross is too demanding.
The political objection, which says the cross is subversive.
The cross will take you all the way home to heaven
Those objections were present in the first century, and they are still with us today.
Three Concluding Thoughts
So where do we go from here?
1. We must hold fast to the cross of Christ.
The fact that the world doesn’t like it or even objects to it has no bearing on what we must do. The famous London preacher Charles Spurgeon said it this way:
“Jesus died for me.” Those are four words to live by, and four words to die by.
We must be ready to live for Christ or to die for him if necessary.
2. If we hold fast to the cross, we must not expect to be popular with the world.
All of us have been saddened by the news of Muslim terrorists who attacked Garissa University in northeastern Kenya. When they attacked the students, they asked, “Are you a Christian?” If they answered, “No, I’m Muslim,” the students were spared. If they answered yes, they were killed. When it was over 147 students were dead, some of them shot, some beheaded.
“Are you a Christian?”
Not everyone killed was a Christian, but most were.
This is the high cost of following Jesus in the 21st-century.
Maybe we need a “back to the cross” movement today. We talk about the love of God, but apart from the cross the love of God is just an ethical concept. We can’t separate the love of God from the bloody cross of Calvary.
Samuel Rutherford said, “Christ has no velvet crosses.” He wasn’t crucified on a velvet cross, and he doesn’t have a velvet cross for you and me either.
3. We must hold fast to the cross because it is the only way of salvation.
Jesus died there.
He paid the price.
All our sins were laid on him.
Christ has no velvet crosses
So here’s the good news. If you want to go to heaven, Jesus has already paid the price. All you need to do is to take hold of the cross of Christ by faith.
Run to the cross!
Just take the words of that gospel song and make them your own:
Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.
Run to the cross!
Don’t delay. Run, run, run to the cross!
Embrace the Son of God who died for you.
That cross will take you all the way to heaven.
Boasting in the cross?
A cross is an odd thing to boast in.
God forbid that we should boast in anything else.