Take heed of being offended at the cross that thou must go by before thou come to heaven. You must understand that there is no man that goeth to heaven but he must go by the cross. The cross is the standing way-mark by which all they that go to glory must pass.
John Bunyan, “The Heavenly Footman”1
What have we learned from the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ at this Easter season? Learning that He died is history. Learning that He died for me is the gospel! Luther’s famous statement was, “Living, or rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating.”2 That is, it takes the actual dying with Jesus through our repentance and faith in order to experience the new life that comes through His resurrection. We may know all about it, as those standing around the cross, without ever experiencing it.
If there is any such thing as a false believer, then there are those who speak of Christ’s death and resurrection but have never known it. John Armstrong wrote, “To preach evangelically is, by definition, to preach the doctrine of the cross in its full theological sense. This means that preaching on marriage, family or finance without the word of the cross at the center is a new form of legalism. It is a modern moralism without Christ and the cross. It is not, fundamentally, evangelical.”3 And neither is it the solution to our problems.
In the cloudy teaching on reconciliation today, we seem to ignore, or at least forget, that in Jesus’ death “if one died for all, then all died” (2 Cor 5:14). In His death “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (vs 19). When Paul tells us that he was crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20), he is telling us that he came to the end of himself completely, dying to Jesus on His cross. Jesus’ death made that faith possible for anyone who will also come to his own end.
This dying to ourselves so that we can be reconciled to God is, of course, repentance. Our repentance is our identification with Christ’s own humiliation on the cross. McGrath says, “Before a man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated—and it is God who both humiliates and justifies.”4 Luther put it this way, “Let us see how this works out, and see how it benefits us. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The human soul is full of sin, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them. Sin, death and damnation will be Christ’s, and grace, life and salvation will be the believer’s.”5
Now if Jesus only died but did not resurrect from the dead, we might have death with Him but we would have no life with Him. We could become good at self-crucifixion but it would amount only to dead works. In the great reconciliation chapter, Paul continues, “And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor 5:15).
Having died to our own ability to save ourselves, and having understood that Jesus has the power to bring life back from the dead, we cast ourselves upon Him in faith and find resurrection life! “For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you” (2 Cor 13:4).
Now we understand why the way up is down, the way of life is death, the way of power is weakness! The true meaning of life and the solution to our troubles is in the dying so that we can live. So we can continue with Paul, “and the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
Of course, we must understand the pitfalls. There is an offense to the cross. The sinful self does not want to be crucified because it is its nature to exalt itself. In Galatia, Paul met these people as Judaizers who hung on to at least some prideful work of the flesh in circumcision. But Paul said, if you hang on to any work, so that it is mostly of Christ and partly of you, “then is the offense of the cross ceased” (Gal 5:11). That is, your pride in your work has kept you from being embarrassed by a total repentance and identification with His crucifixion. No!, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (6:14).
There are those who would love to have the resurrection life of Christ but are not willing to be crucified with Christ. The humility of the cross becomes too high of a price to pay. Easter morning is fine with them but don’t remind them of crucifixion afternoon! What a wrong thing it is to place such a person under the baptismal waters who has never been crucified with Christ! You can’t be raised up out of the water until you’ve been buried underneath it.
Perhaps true believers can make the error of emphasizing either the death or the resurrection of Christ to exclusion. There have been extreme errors of flagellations and self-scourgings in an attempt to punish the flesh. But as Christians we may also emphasize the denial of ourselves without the joy of new life in Christ. We like it in the grave too much. We may actually feed on a martyr complex which becomes a prideful thing in itself.
On the other hand we may think we can have the new life without the death of the old one. “All things are lawful unto me” the Corinthian cry became. Yet Paul was well aware that he was “under the law of Christ.” Paul knew he had to “beat his body and keep it under subjection” lest he become disqualified in the race. It is much better for the believer to realize, “I am crucified with Christ nevertheless I live.”
Charles Wesley was amazed at the miracle of the new birth when he wrote “And can it be that I should gain.” A forgotten verse of that old hymn goes:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
Notes: 1. John Bunyan, Orations From Homer To Mckinley, IV (New York: P.F. Collier & Sons, 1902) 1586. 2. Alister McGrath, Luther’s Theology Of The Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994) 152. 3. John Armstrong, The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996) 23. 4. McGrath, p. 151. 5. Alister McGrath, What Was God Doing On The Cross? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 101.