We are rapidly approaching Holy Week when the focus of the Church has traditionally turned to the Cross and the atonement. But what are we to think about the Cross?
American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once made this piercing observation of the liberal Christianity that was developing in his generation and its understanding of the Cross. He described it as having
“A God without wrath who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
A W Tozer was a contemporary of Niebuhr within the evangelical community in the US. Despite their profoundly different theology Tozer was equally scathing about the influence that the cross was having in the Church and lives of believers of his generation.
“The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter. The flesh, smiling and confident, preaches and sings about the cross; before that cross it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged histrionics—but upon that cross it will not die, and the reproach of that cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.”
Both of these men were worried that they were seeing Christianity being effectively emasculated by the diminishing of the importance of the Cross in their generation.
So, what of our generation? More importantly what of our lives? How important is the Cross to us today?
Over the past decades there have been several, what I think are helpful, developments in the church. The Charismatic Movement has reminded the whole Church of the importance of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think anyone today could claim that the Holy Spirit is the “forgotten member of the Trinity.” Over the last decade there has been a fresh realisation of the importance of the Incarnation. We have realised again that to be authentic disciples of Jesus we need to follow His example and obey His teaching. I know that I personally have learned and benefited so much from this renewed emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit and the life and teaching of Jesus.
Yet, I have a growing and nagging unease about the direction of the church in our generation. I worry that as we focus on Jesus life and teaching and the work of the Spirit, there is a danger we won’t focus enough attention on the Cross of Christ. That if we are not careful, we will find that Tozer and Niebuhr’s criticism will be as valid for us as it was for the Church of the middle of the 20th century. I fear that we could be seeing a Christianity without the Cross developing. A Christianity where the cross is not central in any meaningful way to our faith. There is no doubt in the past that the Cross has been preached sometimes in a crude and unhelpful way that set an Angry God against a loving son that has alienated some people. Yet by allowing the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction, by being largely silent about the cross or deemphasising its importance and centrality, we are in fact in danger of emptying Christianity of its power.
Just listen to the Apostle Paul
“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.” 1 Cor 1: 18
According to the Word of God, the power of God is active through and applied to our lives through the Cross. To neglect or diminish the Cross, then is to cut ourselves off from the transforming power of God in our churches and lives. A church without the cross at the centre is an impotent Church. A life which neglects the cross will be a life of spiritual weakness and poverty which will be powerless in the face of sin and evil. Christianity without the centrality of the Cross is no Christianity in any scriptural or meaningful sense.
Let’s be clear the Cross is God’s way to save us and shape us as His People. There is no pathway to God’s transforming power for us as God’s people that doesn’t go through the cross. When we talk of the power of the Spirit, we are talking about the power of the Spirit applying the work of Christ not some naked force at our disposal just for our benefit or enjoyment. This why General Booth the founder of the Salvation Army made their battle cry “BLOOD AND FIRE.” He realised that the transforming power of God came from the Cross of Christ and was applied by the power of the Spirit. Booth is right, the power of God becomes tangible and effective through blood and fire. We are only transformed by the work of Christ AND the work of the Spirit.
In 1909 the Scottish pastor and theologian PT Forsyth wrote a book with a slightly odd sounding title, it was called THE CRUCIALITY OF THE CROSS. If I tell you that the synonyms for “CRUCIALITY” are words like “momentous, vital, essential, significant”, I think you get the idea of what Forsyth was saying.
As we head towards Good Friday lets unashamedly glory in, celebrate, be in awe of, and be transformed by, the Cross. Let’s not just remember that Jesus died on a cross but let`s make the Cross crucial again in our lives and church. Lets once again regard the Cross as momentous, vital, essential and significant to how we understand and live out our faith.
Let’s make Paul’s words our mission and experience. “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” 1 Cor 1:23-24