If someone were to ask you, “What’s the most important part of Christianity?”, how would you answer that? Obviously, everything in the Bible matters, but among all the do’s and don’ts and shoulds and shouldn’ts, what’s at the heart of it all?
What do we tell people around us who have all but given up on Christianity, who want to believe but can’t decide what actually is worth believing, who want to see something relevant and alive in the church today, but far too often see only the remains of a vibrant church that used to be.
So, what is the part that really matters? There’s an old cliché that we sometimes use to describe what happens when someone has a focus on the non-essentials — we say, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” And I think the same thing can happen when we get off-focus in our religion. We can have a wonderful church program, with an emphasis on a high standard of morals and true doctrine and great traditions, and still miss the mark in our religion.
Because all of those things, as important as they may be, don’t belong at the center. But if that’s the case, then what does? What is the part that really matters? And I’m confident that the apostle Paul would point us to the cross.
In I Corinthians chapter 2, Paul said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:1-2).
God’s Word Translation says, “While I was with you, I decided to deal with only one subject – Jesus Christ, who was crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2, GW)
And it’s not that Paul didn’t ever talk about anything else but the cross. But he wanted them to know that that the cross of Jesus Christ was constantly at the center of his message. And in chapter 15, Paul said,:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance (or as the New Living Translation puts it, “I passed on to you what was most important) what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (I Corinthians 15:1-4)
Paul defines for us here what the gospel is, and I think we need to be reminded. Jesus said to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, and that’s what we need to do. But what is the gospel? I’m sure you know that the word “gospel” means “good news”, but what is the good news? Paul tells us here exactly what the good news is.
He says, “When I came to you, I preached the gospel, and here’s what I preached – that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.” Folks, that’s what the gospel is, and if you’re not sharing that message with people, then you’re not sharing the gospel.
Paul goes one step further, though. He says that when he preached about the death and resurrection of Jesus, he was preaching “what was most important”. Paul says, “Of all the things that I preached about, of all the things I talked about when I was with you, this is the most important. This is what belongs at the center of our faith. This is the part that really matters – Jesus died on a cross and he rose again on the third day
And so, this morning, I want us to focus our attention on the most important part of what we do. Let me begin by raising this question:
Why Does Christianity Have a Cross?
Every major religion has a symbol that represents it. Modern Judaism has a six-pointed star of David, Islam has a crescent moon, Buddhism has a lotus blossom. But the universally known visual symbol for Christianity is a cross.
The Romans put thousands and thousands of people to death on crosses. Jesus of Nazareth was, of course, one of those victims. But representing the movement he founded under the symbol of a cross is strange, to say the least.
The truth of the matter is, the cross is not the most ancient visual symbol of Christianity. During the first and second centuries, the simple outline of a fish was commonly used by Christians to identify themselves to one another.
The Greek word for “fish”, “ichthus”, was an acronym for “Iesous Christus theos huios sotare” (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). Just like a modern company uses AT&T to stand for American Telephone & Telegraph or GEICO to stand for Government Employee Insurance Company, the word “ichtus” (fish) meant something special.
But the word “ichthus” only works in one language. In English, the outline of a fish is just that — the outline of a fish. The word f-i-s-h just doesn’t work very well as an acronym for anything distinctly Christian. First in serving humanity? Faithful in sharing help?
From the second century forward, Christians used the cross as the symbol of their faith. But why does Christianity have a cross? Why has this visual image remained central to the identity of Jesus’ followers? Why preserve the memory of so awful an event as crucifixion? Why is our faith focused on the death of Jesus of Nazareth?
There are several significant things about the cross that serve as reasons for putting it at the center of our faith.
1. The cross shows us God’s clearest revelation of himself
Too often, we approach Scripture as a divine encyclopedia. If I want to know what the Bible says about pride, or marriage, or suffering, or angels, I simply open my Bible, highlight a number of verses and suddenly I know what the Bible says about a given subject.
But, if we’re not careful, that can be a misguided approach. It’s true that the entire Bible is God’s special revelation to man, but the purpose and climax of scripture is the Creator’s redemption of a lost humanity.
The cross stands as the central message of Scripture and is itself a divine act of revelation. We see God most clearly through the lens of the cross. The cross reveals God’s sovereignty, his providence, benevolence, justice, power, holiness, mercy, glory, and victory. Any study of God, would be incomplete without a study of the cross, because that is in the cross that God has made himself known.
2. The cross reminds us how awful sin is
The cross tells us why God cannot live in peaceful coexistence with sin. And that’s something that God has tried to show us from the very beginning. Paul wrote, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And it always has been.
James said, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:15). The Bible gives us account after account of how that principle holds true.
Adam and Eve being forced out of the Garden of Eden tells us that God cannot live peaceably with sin. Sin came in, and immediately fellowship was disrupted. Sin entered and so did ugliness and lies and shifting of blame.
Throughout history, we have the words of the prophets that God hates sin. And throughout history, we have a record of nations being destroyed because of their rebellion against God. The flood that destroyed the world in Noah’s day, and the fire and brimstone that wiped two cities off the face of the map tell us of God’s hatred for sin.
But why did God have to make such a big deal about sin? Why couldn’t he have just rebuked people and let them go their way? So they lied and cheated and murdered. So they gossiped and stole and lusted and were ungrateful. Why should such things matter to a God who is immensely higher and above this tiny little globe? Why doesn’t he just let them go their way and do what they want?
Part of the answer is that God loves men more than he is able to say. And part of the answer is that God made us for fellowship with him, and his holiness won’t permit rebellion to exist peacefully in fellowship with him. I believe too that we don’t appreciate how just terrible sin is.
All you have to do is to pick up a newspaper and read about what sin can cause a person to do. Sin will lead a man to steal, and rape and murder. But sin will do more than that — sin will even attack God and seek to destroy him.
And that’s exactly what happened. God came into our world and sin took hold of him and tried to exterminate him. Sin is open rebellion against God himself. Sin is man setting himself up as his own authority. Sin is a war waged against God’s right to rule and reign over us. It’s the repudiation of his law and the setting up of our own desires as the standard of conduct.
God wants me to see the ugliness of sin, and so he has left me a record of our shameful history so I can see what sin does to people. But then, to show us just how terrible sin is, to show us how utterly disgusting and repulsive it is, God “spared not his own Son”. And as I hear the sound of spikes echoing in my mind, as I think of what God had to go through on that cross because of my sins, I begin to realize just how awful my sins are.
And yet, there’s still the feeling within us, isn’t there, that God takes sin too seriously? Maybe it’s because we’ve lived with sin for so long that we don’t smell the rottenness; we’ve become used to the stench. Sin has such a deadening power. The alcoholic sees nothing wrong with the liquor industry. The fellow who goes to X-rated movies sees nothing wrong with pornography. And the sinner wants to know why God makes such a big deal out of transgression. We’re too close to it.
I need to see the death on the cross to remind me of how horrible my sin is. God hates my sin so much that he sent his Son to die in my place. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The cross shows us how terrible sin is.
3. The cross shows us how great God’s love is
The awfulness of sin could only be countered by an infinite divine love. John said, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.“ (I John 3:16). Jesus taught us what love is by giving up his life for us. John further writes, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” (I John 4:9).
God loves this world so much that he cannot and will not let man go into eternal darkness without doing everything in his power to stop it. And nothing can prevent God from loving us. Not even sin! A preacher named J. H. Jowett once made this observation about the love of God:
“I know how I have loved my sin. I know how I have clung to it. I know how I have yearned after it….I know how I have pursued it at any cost. And now,…My Master takes up this, my overwhelming passion for sin, and contrasts it….with his passion for me. (He says): ‘I love thee more than thou hast loved thy sin.'”
Have you ever felt your sin weigh you down like that? Then measure your love of sin with God’s love for you. If you adore your sin, God loves you even more. If you confess your sin loudly, Jesus shouts even louder by his hanging on the cross. You can refuse to love God, but you can’t stop him from loving you. And he wants you to know that!
And although God’s deepest desire is that we live the holy life that he lives, he didn’t tell us to get rid of our vileness and our filth and then he would embrace us. No, he loved us first and we can’t help but love him in return.
During his ministry, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Then Jesus proceeded to show that there actually was a greater love. The love that is greater than dying for your friends is the love that motivates you to sacrifice your life for your enemies. And Christianity has a cross to remind us of a love so incredibly great.
4. The cross shows us how involved God is in our humanity
In Matthew 1, Matthew said of Jesus when he was born, “And they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:23). Jesus Christ is “God with us” in our human predicament of pain and mortality.
In the 19th century, Queen Victoria had a daughter by the name of Princess Alice. She had a four-year-old son who was the apple of her eye. When he came down with the disease known as “black diphtheria,” Alice was overwhelmed with anxiety. This disease was highly contagious and very deadly. Because of her own frail health, nurses took care of the child and repeatedly warned the princess to stay away from her son.
But, one day as Princess Alice stood in a corner of her son’s room to weep and pray for him, she heard him whisper to the nurse, “Why doesn’t my mother kiss me anymore?” The princess-mother couldn’t stand such a thought in the mind of her dying child, so she raced to his bed, she held him in her arms, and smothered him with kisses. Unfortunately, they turned out to be kisses of death. Alice herself contracted the awful disease, and within a few days both mother and son were buried.
You might say that what she did was a foolish thing to do. You might say that she should she have known the likely outcome. But even if that’s the case, who would ever say that the expression of love is sensible? God loved us so deeply that he was required — not by any external compulsion but compelled by love alone — to become God with us. To embrace us in our mortality. To be infected with our disease. To die and be buried with us.
God did not insulate himself from our predicament but came among us, took our sin to himself, and died for our redemption. The cross shows us how involved God is in our humanity.
5. The cross shows us how sin is overcome
As I said earlier, the ultimate human problem is sin. Sin is what separates us from God, and makes it impossible for us to enter heaven. Nothing impure, defiled, or unholy can enter God’s presence, so there is no way I can go there to be with him. No way, that is, unless my sin can be removed. And removing sin and its effects from a human heart is similar to trying to remove a crack from a piece of glass. It can’t be done!
You can’t undo sin! You can’t turn back the clock. You can’t re-make a bad decision. You can’t not do something you’ve wished a million times you hadn’t done! And in one sense, at least, it doesn’t even matter that you promise never to do it again. The window pane to our souls is already cracked — in some cases, it’s shattered! — and the only cure is a new replacement. Paul described it this way:
The cross tells us how our sin problem is overcome. We don’t have to fix things; God has taken the initiative and fixed them for us — in Christ. Our problem has been taken care of in full at the cross. Jesus did everything necessary to make us new creations before God. We simply need to die, be buried and be raised again, as through our faith we recognize what Jesus did for us on the cross.
The New Testament uses a number of images of salvation.
- It’s like being in court and the cross is what justifies us, it’s what allows us to be found “not guilty”
- It’s like having a sacrifice offered on the altar to atone for our sins.
- It’s like a father welcoming back a wayward child and being reconciled.
- It’s like a child in an orphanage who is adopted into a new family.
- It’s like being on a battlefield and winning our freedom.
- It’s like being a slave and having someone redeem us, pay the price to set us free.
All of those are images that are used throughout the New Testament to help us to understand what atonement is. All of them point to the central theme of Scripture that God has come down to save sinners. He is the justifier of the guilty, the liberator of slaves, and the adopted Father of spiritual orphans. He pays our ransom, redeems us of our sins, and reconciles us to Himself. And all of that takes place by way of the cross.
6. The cross is the standard of what it means to be a Christian.
In Matthew 16, Jesus said that he must go to the cross. But, then, in verse 24, he said that anyone who wants to follow him must likewise take up their cross. And so, for Jesus, Christianity is summarized in the cross. A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ who has counted the cost, picked up their cross, and died with their Savior.
The only saving Christ is a dying one. The only living Christian is a crucified one.
It is not an exaggeration to say that everything that we are and everything that we do as Christians is done because of the cross. The songs that we sing, the prayers that we pray, the observance of the Lord’s Supper — all of this relates to the cross. And none of it has any meaning apart from the cross.
There is a word that describes this cross-centeredness, and it should be familiar to you all because that word is “cruciform”. The word “cruciform” means “formed in the shape of the cross”, and we took this on as our name to constantly remind us that we are to be a cross-shaped people, a people shaped by the cross into the shape of the cross.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this or not, but most of the great cathedrals are “cruciform”; that is, they are built in the shape of a cross. But God is not so much concerned with whether our church building is cross-shaped as he is with whether or not our lives are cross-shaped. Do we allow the cross of Jesus to shape who we are? Do we allow his example of sacrifice, submission and service to define who we are? We are truly called to be a group of people “shaped by the cross into the shape of the cross.”
Paul made it clear that the cross is what belongs at the center of our lives. The question is, is that’s what’s at the center of your life?
Isaac Watts’ wrote these words in a song that we often sing:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride.
* * * *
Forbid it Lord that I should boast
save in the death of Christ my Lord
All the vain things that charm me most
I sacrifice them to his love.
I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say that you are not a Christian until you have truly seen the cross and understood how important it is. And I don’t care how many baptisms you’ve undergone, how often you attend church services, how many good works you may have done for others….. None of those things matters without the cross.
So, this morning, I want to know – Is the cross at the center of your life? Have you been broken by the cross? Have you bowed down before the cross? Have you been changed by the cross? Are you living a cruciform life?