April 11, 2019
Call it what you like—Passion Week, Holy Week, Greater Week, Holy and Great Week—this is the time of year that reminds Christians of the foundation of their faith. It is observed in different ways by various Christian traditions. In many “low” evangelical churches, the Easter season is only an eight-day period featuring Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. In more liturgically-minded “high” churches, Lent leads to Holy Week, and Holy Week to Eastertide, the eight-Sunday season between Easter and Pentecost, from April 21 to June 9 this year. In this post I’m not concerned so much with how churches officially remember Christ’s death and resurrection every year as I am about how Christians personally relate to it every day. If this sounds strange, bear with me as I explain how our life in Christ centers on our relationship to the cross by reflecting on three words—the cross isn’t merely for us, it’s also by us and in us.
Grace: The Cross for Us
The cross was God’s loving, resounding “yes!” God acted for us when Jesus died and rose again on our behalf (cf. 2 Cor 1:18-22). Paul’s reflection on God’s cross-centered plan led him to ask rhetorically, “if God is for us, who can stand against us?” (Rom 8:31; cf. Matt 20:28; 26:26-29; Rom 8:31-39; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 1 Pet 1:18-20). In 1738 Charles Wesley asked a related question in a great hymn, one updated in 2003 by Billy James Foote: “Amazing love, how can it be, that you my king would die for me?”
The problem is that this truth can be taken out of its biblical setting, resulting in a triumphalist “it’s all about me” mentality: I’m really special if Jesus died for me. This sort of shallow “faith” covers narcissism with the thinnest scriptural veneer. We do absolutely need to understand and believe that God speaks resoundingly for us in the cross, but there’s more to the cross than this.
Guilt: The Cross by Us
We can’t appreciate how the cross is for us until we contemplate how the cross is by us. In God’s plan Jesus willingly went to the cross because of our sin. God said “yes” to us even though we had said “no” to him. We don’t get the cross unless we get grace and we don’t get grace unless we get guilt. Jesus took our guilt upon himself when he died on the cross. He arose to show our guilt was gone, replaced by a new standing before God in him (Rom 4:25). An African-American hymn from the 19th century asks the question “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Fact is, we were all there when “they” crucified our Lord. We are they. As Shai Linne put it in his rap on that old song, you miss the point if you don’t see your face in the crowd. What’s more, we weren’t disinterested spectators. We were part of the mob shouting “Crucify him!”
It is a foundational Christian teaching that the sin of all humanity brought Jesus to the cross (Isa 53:4-6; Rom 3:23-26; 4:25; 5:8-10; 2 Cor 5:21). However, again, taking this truth out of its biblical setting can lead to a defeatist “Woe is me!” mentality: I’m so worthless, I made Jesus die. There’s no hope for me. Unfortunately, loathing oneself can be just as selfish as loving oneself. We do need to believe that we are guilty of saying no to God, and that God graciously answers our guilt with the yes of his amazing grace, but there’s still more to the story of the cross.
Godliness: The Cross in Us
We can’t fully appreciate how the cross can be for us and yet also by us without considering that God works in us through the cross. As we come to realize more deeply that God answered our guilt with his grace, it leads us to godliness. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes our story. He inhabited our fallen, dying past so that we could inhabit his risen, living future. We died with Him to our old vices, and we were raised with Him to a life of new virtues. The cross enables us to get our eyes off of self—whether we were loving ourselves or despising ourselves—and to focus on Jesus as our model, hero, and Lord.
This is a third foundational biblical truth about the cross. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling as we model our lives after our Lord’s life. He was exalted to God’s right hand only after he humbled himself to the death of the cross (Matt 16:24-26; Rom 6:1-14; Gal 2:20; Eph 2:1-10; Phil 2:1-13; 3:7-11; Col 3:1-17). The Spirit is at work in us to draw us into cruciformity—the daily process of denying selfishness and affirming Christlikeness as we embrace and embody God’s loving “yes” to us through the cross. In his name we come alive to declare his victory. The resurrected King is resurrecting us (Elevation Worship).
The Point of the Prepositions
The cross is for us. Jesus went there to save us. God is gracious. The cross is by us. Jesus went to the cross to save us because our sin had separated us from God. God is just. The cross is in us. Jesus went to the cross to transform us from an empty, self-centered, living death to a full Christ/cross-centered, dying life. God wants us to be like him. God loved us enough to send Christ to die for our sins, and He loves us too much to leave us in sin. This year as we remember the cross, let’s ask God to help us resemble what happened there. Let’s ask God to help us not only to believe in the cross, but also to behave in a way that emulates the cross, and to become more like the One whose cross we cherish. Jesus keep us near the cross, and help us always to live in the power of the cross.
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again. . . . God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:14-15, 21)
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 6:14)
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Phil 3:10-12)
(All biblical quotations are from the NIV.)
An Eastertide Prayer
Adapted from “The Book of Common Prayer”
O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us to die daily to sin, so that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection. Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit. Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
An earlier version of this post may be found here.