Christians, in theory, cling to an “old, old story” in an era freshly fixed on what’s new. As a society, we are increasingly like — and now perhaps exceed — those ancient Athenians who “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). The information and digital revolutions have conspired to create a veritable vortex of telling and hearing new things (“news,” for short). Meanwhile, we Christians cling to our admittedly (and gloriously) ancient truths — truths both out of step with the news milieu, and precisely what we most need to regain our bearings and restore spiritual sanity.
In the early 1990s, D.A. Carson identified a danger now all the more pressing a generation later: “The cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight” (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 26). And the temptation goes back even further than that. Pastor and poet Horatius Bonar (1808–1889) wrote in 1864 in the book God’s Way of Holiness,
The secret of a believer’s holy walk is his continual recurrence to the blood of the Surety, and his daily [communion] with a crucified and risen Lord. All divine life, and all precious fruits of it, pardon, peace, and holiness, spring from the cross. All fancied sanctification which does not arise wholly from the blood of the cross is nothing better than Pharisaism. If we would be holy, we must get to the cross, and dwell there; else, notwithstanding all our labor, diligence, fasting, praying, and good works, we shall be yet void of real sanctification, destitute of those humble, gracious tempers which accompany a clear view of the cross.
Bonar’s charge cuts painfully across the grain of our day, and perhaps his antiquated language might give us a much-needed angle of focus as we cling to the ancient center in the era of media inundation.
All Springs from the Cross?
What is the biblical support for such a claim that all true holiness and good works “spring from the cross”? For the early Christians, that Jesus had been crucified was not simply a singular event, but it quickly became part of his identity, and theirs. Everything changed when God was crucified.
“Other world systems of belief will dream up resurrection. Only Christianity puts God on the cross.”
“Crucified” became a kind of identifying descriptor of our Lord even in the immediate aftermath of his resurrection, when the angel speaks to the women at the empty tomb: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen” (Matthew 28:5–6; so also Mark 16:6, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified”). Then, fifty days later, at the climactic moment of his Pentecost address, Peter declares, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
Soon after, in Acts 4, when Peter has healed a lame beggar and been arrested, and now stands before the council, having been asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7), he answers, “By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10). “Crucified,” as an identifying marker of Jesus, then came into its own in the ministry of the apostle Paul, who writes to the Galatians that, in his preaching, “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1).
For the apostles and early church, that Jesus was crucified was not accidental or peripheral; it was profoundly revealing. Counterintuitively, the early church didn’t try to hide his crucifixion but push it front and center. The Son of God had not only taken on our flesh and blood, but he had given himself, sinless, in our stead, to execution at the cross — which revealed to us, through Jesus, the very person and heart of God for his people (Romans 5:8). As Carson says about the cross, this was “the most astonishing act of divine self-disclosure that has ever occurred” (16).
Fancied Sanctification vs. Real
In 1 Corinthians 1:30, Paul says that this crucified Christ “became to us . . . sanctification,” or literally, holiness (Greek hagiasmos). Bonar speaks to two sanctifications: real and fancied. “Fancied sanctification,” he says, “does not arise wholly from the blood of the cross.”
With this, John Owen would agree. Commenting on Psalm 130:4 (“with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared”), he expresses how essential it is to approach God on the basis of forgiveness: “Now, the psalmist tells us that the foundation of this fear or worship, and the only motive and encouragement for sinners to engage in it and give up themselves unto it, is this, that there is forgiveness with God. Without this no sinner could fear, serve, or worship him” (Works of John Owen, 6:469).
For Christians, true worship and “real sanctification” not only flow from the purchase of the cross, but also draw strength from conscious faith in the crucified Christ. We know our former selves to be crucified with him (Romans 6:6). “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). So also for us: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
Streams In The Desert
By: L.B. Cowman
My Father is the husbandman (John 15:1).
It is comforting to think of trouble, in whatever form it may come to, us, as a heavenly messenger, bringing us something from God. In its earthly aspect it may seem hurtful, even destructive; but in its spiritual out-working it yields blessing. Many of the richest blessings which have come down to us from the past are the fruit of sorrow or pain. We should never forget that redemption, the world’s greatest blessing, is the fruit of the world’s greatest sorrow. In every time of sharp pruning, when the knife is deep and the pain is sore, it is an unspeakable comfort to read, “My Father is the husbandman.”
Doctor Vincent tells of being in a great hothouse where luscious clusters of grapes were hanging on every side. The owner said, “When my new gardener came, he said he would have nothing to do with these vines unless he could cut them clean down to the stalk; and he did, and we had no grapes for two years, but this is the result.”
There is rich suggestiveness in this interpretation of the pruning process, as we apply it to the Christian life. Pruning seems to be destroying the vine, the gardener appears to be cutting it all away; but he looks on into the future and knows that the final outcome will be the enrichment of its life and greater abundance of fruit.
There are blessings we can never have unless we are ready to pay the price of pain. There is no way to reach them save through suffering.
“I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
“I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.”