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“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NASB)
For several months now I have been burdened by what appears, to me at least, to be an increasing apathy and indifference on the part of Christians, particularly in America, to the import and significance of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
These observations have led me to the lamentable conclusion that this spiritual lassitude is rooted primarily in a collective ignorance of and, consequently, a lack of appreciation for, Christ’s vicarious Atonement and its eternal implications to our lives, both in this world and in the world to come.
In his book, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology, Dr. Jeremy R. Treat has defined the doctrine of the atonement as:
“…faith seeking understanding of the way in which Christ, through all of his work but primarily his death, has dealt with sin and its effects restoring the broken covenant relationship between God and humans and thereby brought about the turn of the ages. At its core, the doctrine of the atonement is the attempt to understand the meaning of Christ’s death as “for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).”
When compared to Christians in other parts of the world, believers in America have it easy.
Perhaps too easy.
For the vast majority of professing Christians in America, living the so-called “Christian life” – a term that is becoming more ambiguous by the day – is a relatively effortless and often superficial undertaking.
We attend church if and when we feel like it. Conversely, advances in technology have made the Word of God so readily accessible that we tend to treat it no less casually than we would any other book. Consequently, personal convenience becomes the primary variable by which we determine to commit (or not) ourselves to study to actually know God to any great extent (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
It is with the aforementioned thoughts in mind that I am reminded of the words of J.I. Packer, who comments that:
“He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe. The most excellent study for expanding the soul is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity.” – Knowing God, p. 18
Unlike our persecuted brethren in countries like China and North Korea, who must resort to obtaining bibles through clandestine and surreptitious means – often at risk of their own lives – we need not concern ourselves with the hazards of having the gospel smuggled in to us because, as the saying goes, “there’s an app for that”.
The stylistic nuances and ecumenical aesthetics to which we have become so accustomed, particularly as it relates to our personal preferences in corporate worship, have fostered a collective spirit of indifference to the fundamental reason why we gather together to worship to begin with: the death of the Son of God on the cross.
It is against the backdrop of this kind of apathy that Charles Spurgeon declared:
“Nothing provokes the devil like the cross. Modern theology has for its main object the obscuration of the doctrine of atonement. These modern cuttlefishes make the water of life black with their ink. They make our sin to be a trifle, and the punishment of it to be a temporary business; and thus they degrade the remedy by underrating the disease.”
When examined on the whole, there really is nothing about being a Christian in America that can be said to be sacrificially demanding.
Notwithstanding certain targeted political attacks against Christians in recent years, the truth is that the Christian experience in America can largely be defined not in terms of suffering (Philippians 1:29), but of indulging in creature-comforts like coffee bar lounges in our churches that resemble the neighborhood Starbucks®.
After all, how can anyone be expected to practice good liturgy without a good latté?
“We live in an age where the one wrong thing to say is that somebody else is wrong. One of the impacts of postmodern epistemology is that we all have our own independent points of view, and we look at things from the perspective of our own small interpretive communities. What is sin to one group is not sin to another group. But not only does the Bible insist that there is such a thing as sin, it insists that the heart of its ugly offensiveness is its horrible odiousness to God – how it offends God.” – D.A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, p. 42
Christianity in America has become so accommodating, so unexacting, so facile, that we have numbed ourselves to what it truly means to be a follower of Christ (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). And, perhaps more importantly, what was accomplished for us as a result of God volitionally bringing about that reality in our lives (Ephesians 2:8-9).
“The essential background to the cross…is a balanced understanding of the gravity of sin and the majesty of God. If we diminish either, we thereby diminish the cross. If we reinterpret sin as a lapse instead of a rebellion, and God as indulgent instead of indignant, then naturally the cross appears superfluous. But to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves not only dispenses with the cross; it also degrades both God and humans. A biblical view of God and ourselves, however – that is, of our sin and of God’s wrath – honors both. It honors human beings by affirming them as responsible for their own actions. It honors God by affirming him as having moral character.”
Our nature as sinners is such that the degree of appreciation we have, even for those we say mean the most to us, can tend to wane the more comfortable with them we become. I can only imagine how many marriages today are being destroyed because one spouse is inclined to take the other for granted.
But, as Christians living in America, is our mindset any different when it comes to how lightly we treat the death of Jesus? Are we any less guilty of taking for granted the One who espoused Himself to us, His bride, through His propitiatory death on the cross (Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10)?
Has the easiness of American Christianity reduced the cross of Christ to a mere symbol in our eyes? Or do we carry within us the incredible weight of knowing that the cross is absolutely the only means by which a just and holy God could ever be satisfied with sinners like you and me (Acts 4:12; John 3:36; 2 Peter 3:7)?
As you contemplate those questions, consider prayerfully these words from theologian James M. Hamilton, who reminds us that:
“The cross uniquely displays that both Jesus and the Father are committed to justice and mercy, even unto death. The cross displays that Jesus and the Father are unique – holy – in their devotion to righteousness, to mercy, and to one another. The cross displays the all-conquering love of Father and Son for rebels who will repent and believe in Jesus. Such a sacrifice to save sinners!” – God’s Glory In Salvation Through Judgement: A Biblical Theology, p. 416
Please understand that none of what I have said is to suggest or imply that biblical Christianity either is, or should be, based upon a life of perpetual suffering.
Nor am I intimating that Christians in America should feel guilty for not suffering, either at all or as much as, their brothers and sisters who are in other countries around the world. God is sovereign over all events that occur in the universe; and it is He who ordains the outcomes of those events in our lives (Psalm 115:3).
Nevertheless, I do caution against giving in to the allure of the kind of Christianity that minimizes the death of Christ, making the cross an adornment to be worn around our necks as opposed to a way of life to be borne on our backs (as it were).
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” – Matthew 16:24 (NASB)
Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate (Colossians 2:9), died a brutal, demeaning, dehumanizing, and gruesome death for unworthy and undeserving sinners like you and me (Mark 14:65; 15:17-20). This reality should serve to remind us that it is we who, by virtue of our innate sinfulness, put Jesus on the cross thereby necessitating the shedding of His blood.
Despite the relative comforts of living as a Christian in America, as followers of Christ we must avoid at all costs the temptation not to take the death of Christ seriously. Instead, we must see ourselves as our gracious and merciful God saw us before the foundation of the world – as worthless sinners in desperate need of a Savior.
American Christianity would have us believe that we are somehow worthy of Christ’s dying on the cross for our sins, but I assure you we are not (Ephesians 2:8-9).
There is no church apart from the cross.
The cross of Christ should not only be worn; it must be borne.
May we not let a single day pass without contemplating the inexplicable wonder of which the great hymnist Charles Wesley wrote nearly 280 years ago:
“And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood! Died He for me who caused His pain? For me who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?”
Humbly in Christ,