Why the cross is loving

In worship we sing a lot of songs about the cross. We call it “wondrous” and “mighty”. We sing about how it’s powerful, how it cleanses us, how it displays God’s amazing love.

This is all true. But it’s good to stop and think: Why?

The cross was an instrument of torture and death. When we sing about Jesus’ death, we’re celebrating the wrongful execution of an innocent man. Why?

We sing about how cross shows God’s love. Why?

We sing about how the cross means we’re healed and forgiven. Why?

Even some non-Christians are inspired by Jesus’ example of innocent suffering. But why? Jesus was accused of blasphemy, that’s what he was executed for. Was he really a blasphemer? Or is it particularly virtuous to let yourself be executed when you haven’t done anything wrong? Why?

Why was the cross loving? To adapt an illustration from (I think) D.A. Carson, if I ran onto the Charles Bridge and announced “I love you all! And I’m going to prove how much!”, then jumped into the Vltava, nobody would be amazed at my act of selfless love.

The words we use are so familiar that we need to remind ourselves what they mean. There’s a reason Jesus’ death is good, a reason it’s loving, a reason it’s beautiful. Isaiah tells us:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Jesu’ death was beautiful and loving and good because it was for us in a very specific way: He was found guilty of our sin, took the punishment we deserve. He bore our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities.

He did not lay down his life to make a general point about passive resistance, or to express the truism that love conquers evil. His love did conquer evil. It conquered evil in a specific way: by satisfying perfect justice. Blood was shed to atone for sin.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” The guilt is ours. And yet, “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” So when he died, our debt was paid. The breach between God and man was closed.

This “worked” because he had no transgressions of his own for which to be pierced, no iniquities of his own for which to be crushed. He was a substitute. He stood in our place, taking the punishment that by all rights was ours. He took the poison cup out of our hand and drained it to the dregs.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is how God showed his love for the world: by putting his Son to death. So that whoever comes to Christ in faith has death swallowed up in victory. This is why the cross is loving: because Jesus takes our punishment on himself. He opens the door for us.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” His chastisement has brought us peace. By his wounds we are healed.


Love and the Law

Jesus in the gospel of Matthew:

 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
(Matthew 22:36-40)

Paul in his letter to the Romans:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
(Romans 13:8-10)

I have occasionally heard Christians say something like “Keeping the Law doesn’t matter; what matters is loving people.” I don’t think that’s what Jesus and Paul mean here. If they did, it’s unlikely Jesus would say this earlier in Matthew’s gospel:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-20)

Neither Jesus nor Paul thought the Law was overbearing or unnecessary. So when they say that loving God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the Law, I think they mean that “Love God and love your neighbor” is an accurate summary of the Law; it expresses the heart behind the Law.

Does this render the Old Testament law unnecessary? Not at all.

In a perfect world filled with perfect people, God could say “love me, and love one another,” and that would work. But we’re sinful people living in a broken world, so that isn’t enough. We need to know how to love God; we need to be told how to love one another. That’s what the Law does. It describes exactly what God expects from his people. And since his people are sinful, it graciously gives provisions for how we repent when we fail to keep his law.

Another dimension to the Law: One feature of our sinfulness is that we tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. So rather than leave it at “love God and love one another,” knowing that we might well respond like the rich young ruler and say “All these I have kept from my youth,” God shows us how high the bar is. You say you love me? Have you ever taken my name in vain? Have you kept a weekly Sabbath of rest and worship for your entire life? You say you love others? Have you ever told a lie about someone else? Have you ever been jealous of someone else’s property?  The Law shows that we can’t keep the Law. It makes us want to look for a Savior. That’s by design.

Far from relaxing the Law to a broad we could claim to have kept, Jesus and Paul are showing us what the Law is about. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbor. We can’t do either of those, which is why Jesus came. His life and death covers over our failures, and frees us to pursue obedience with a renewed mind and heart.

Never, no never, no never.

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
(John 6:37)

When Jesus says “I will never cast out”, he uses a double negative. If you want to be fancy (and why wouldn’t you?), it’s οὐ μή ἐκβάλω ἔξω: something like “Not not I will cast out.” In English this is bad grammar; in Greek it’s for emphasis. (Also in Czech, for what that’s worth.) In fact, it’s pretty much the strongest negation available in Greek.

The English phrasing I like the most for this idea is at the end of the hymn “How Firm A Foundation”:

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes!
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

That’s what Jesus is saying here. He will never, no never, no never cast out the one who comes to him in faith. There is no circumstance under which he will reject those who trust in him. I’m not saved by how well I hold onto Jesus– not so well!– but by how well Jesus holds onto me. And he is, as my daughter’s name means, “God of the oath”– the One who always keeps his promises.

So when I’m at my worst, selfish and self-absorbed, seeking my own little kingdom at the expense of everyone else, there Jesus is: holding onto me. Not casting me out. That’s very good news.

Jesus isn’t a jerk, but sometimes he’s awkward.

In John 4 Jesus is having a perfectly nice conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the standards of the day he’s being nice to talk to her in the first place, her being a woman and a Samaritan and all (v. 9). And he gives her a beautiful picture of the Gospel:

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (4:13-14)

She’s sold. She wants this water. She asks for it. Then Jesus makes it awkward.

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (4:16-18)

Now this isn’t Jesus having a little faux pas, like when my dental hygienist apologized for hurting me and I said “That’s ok, if you came to me for marriage counseling I’d probably make you cry,” and she said “You’re probably right. I went through a divorce a couple years ago…” It wasn’t like that at all, because Jesus isn’t a blabbering fool like me. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows this woman has a particular sin pattern, and right at the point where she seems ready to believe his message, he baits her and brings it right out into the open.

In the process of sharing the Gospel, Jesus pointed directly to someone’s obvious, external, sexual sin.

Can you imagine what we’d say if we heard someone preaching the Gospel like this? We’d call him a fundamentalist, or at least a jerk. We’d say he wasn’t being missional, or incarnational, or sensitive. We all know that kind of preaching is no good anymore.

But Jesus isn’t a jerk, and he went there.

My point is certainly not that we should go around constantly pointing fingers at people’s external sins. There were plenty of times Jesus didn’t do this. Also there’s the whole omniscience thing, and the fact that he knew things about this woman she didn’t know about herself. And we can be certain that what he did here was out of love, out of a desire for this woman’s good, not a desire to shame or humiliate her.

But Jesus’ love is often very different from our culture’s view of love. In the case of this woman, the rest of the conversation shows she’s very willing to talk about spiritual things, but always wanting to keep it on the level of the theoretical. So he shows his love for her by poking that bubble. He makes it personal, brings it down to earth. “You’re a sinner, and you need a Savior.”

We cannot be more loving than Jesus. We can’t be kinder or wiser or more sensitive or more missional than he was. And yet, sometimes he was quite abrupt, even awkward. (As we see here, it wasn’t always with conservative religious types.) We don’t have the exhaustive knowledge or wisdom he does, but surely there are times when we should speak with that same kind of boldness.

“Behold, the Lamb of God”

There are a lot of ways to look at the atonement and how it works. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis speaks of different “theories” of the atonement and sort of brushes the differences under the rug– the point, he says, is that we are saved by Jesus’ death, not how we are saved by his death.

Many of the ways people speak about the atonement are absolutely true. Jesus did die as an example of self-sacrificing love. His death did disarm the powers of darkness. His suffering does show that he can identify with all all those who suffer unjustly in this world. But at the heart of the atonement is the idea of substitution: Jesus stands in our place, receiving the punishment we deserve from God for our sin. (This is actually what makes all the other views make sense, but that’s for another day.)

As an illustration of this point, take John the Baptist’s first words when Jesus first appears on the scene:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! John 1:29

The phrase “Lamb of God,” to all John’s Jewish hearers, would have brought to mind a very specific set of ideas: The lambs offered in the sacrificial system were a substitute offering. The priest would lay his hands on the animal, symbolically transferring guilt from God’s people to the lamb. Then the lamb was slaughtered, its blood poured out, to demonstrate God’s wrath against sin. The people were then counted innocent, because blood had been shed on their behalf. Substitution. Imputation of guilt, and therefore innocence. Propitiation (the removal of wrath). All these ideas are wrapped up in that little phrase.

Penal substitution is not the only thing there is to say about the atonement. But if it’s not central to what Jesus accomplished on the cross, then the title “Lamb of God” is meaningless.

Believing and confessing

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Romans 10:9-10

If you read this verse as rigidly as possible, Paul seems to say that 2 things are necessary for salvation: Believing in the Resurrection and confessing verbally that Jesus is Lord. I’ve heard some unfortunate application based on that: that if you don’t say out loud that you believe in Jesus, you can’t be saved.

This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, you can easily think of situations where someone wouldn’t be able to “confess with their mouth.” Say you’re in a bad car wreck, and you wake up in a hospital bed, tubes running all over the place to feed you and help you breathe. A friend comes and shares the Gospel with you. You believe, but you can’t speak. Are you out of luck?

Secondly, and more seriously, that view would turn verbal confession into a work that you must perform in order to be saved. That would contradict the many times Paul and other Scripture authors emphasize that we’re justified by faith, over against any idea of conditions we must meet, works we must perform.

Nonetheless, Paul is emphasizing the importance of confession. So what’s he saying?

I think he’s looking at belief and confession as two distinct aspects of one response to God. What happens in our hearts and what happens with our mouths are related.

Believing in the heart is an inward action; confessing with the mouth is outward. Heart-level belief is the necessary ground of outward confession; outward confession is the vital fruit of heart-level belief. If we’re not willing to confess, it calls our belief into question. If we don’t really believe, it calls our confession into question. Genuine faith, genuine salvation, will involve both.

Preaching on this passage last week, I made two applications from this point.

First, we shouldn’t confess without believing. Especially if you grew up in the church, as I did, you might feel pressure to act like a Christian whether or not you really are. And even if you are a Christian, you might feel pressure to act more certain, more faithful than you really feel. We shouldn’t be shy about talking about our struggles and doubts– in fact, talking through these questions with others is often a way God strengthens our faith.

Secondly, we shouldn’t believe without confessing. It’s not a way to earn our salvation, but God is still very keen on our confessing that Jesus is Lord. We shouldn’t be ashamed to be Christians, or feel the need to apologize for Jesus. Certainly we shouldn’t be obnoxious, rude, or condescending, but we should feel eager to talk about who Jesus is and what he means to us. That will look different for each of us, and different from day to day, but we should have a base-level desire to talk about Jesus, to confess him as our Lord.

I don’t feel this like I want to. Maybe you don’t either. May God strengthen our trust in him and our love for him, so that we’re eager to speak his name and tell what he’s done for us.

Triumph before battle

In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascends into heaven, he gathers the disciples together on a mountain. Apparently they sense that something is about to happen, so they grasp at the first straw that occurs to them: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

There are theological things wrong with this question, but in his commentary on Acts,  Calvin points out that it also tells us something about the disciples’ hearts: “They desire to triumph before the battle.” They want the kingdom without all that suffering and unpleasantness Jesus always seems to focus on.

That’s an indictment of many of us in ministry. We want to see victory and success before we put in the hard work. Conversions without evangelism. Authority without relationship. Holiness without struggle. Language acquisition without sounding like an idiot. Growth without work.

It didn’t work that way for the disciples. Chances are it won’t work that way for us either.