Why is it that the things most emphasised by the early church seem to be the very things we belittle, ignore or omit today? Why is it that the central features of the gospel enunciated and championed by the first disciples get such short shrift from modern believers?
There almost seems to be an inverse relationship between the central tenets of the gospel, and the emphasis we place on them. The more the Bible talks up certain doctrines and truths, the less we seem interested in them. All this shows just how far removed we are from First Century Christianity.
Consider one of the most basic and most vital of Christian concepts and terms: the cross. The cross is everywhere spoken about in the New Testament. It is something the NT writers emphasise, praise, glory in, and celebrate. It is a theme that can never be far from the apostolic writings.
Time and time again we see it referred to, appealed to, championed, and upheld. It is perhaps the summon bonum of Christian thinking. Yet just as prominent as it was back then, just as absent is it in today’s Christian church. And it is not just the doctrine and the teaching which is found missing today.
There are plenty of churches today which almost seem ashamed of it, and have removed any cross or cross-like figures from both within and without of the church. But it is the very heart and soul of biblical Christianity. Take away the cross and we have nothing.
Indeed, simply consider one key text from Paul, and how he elevates the cross above everything else. I refer to Galatians 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.”
As Leon Morris reminds us, “It is easy for us to miss the shocking nature of this assertion.” He cites F.F. Bruce who wrote that polite Roman society would not even use the word. They instead used euphemisms, and spoke of those who were hung on “the unlucky tree”.
Morris continues, “But Paul not only used the unmentionable word: he gloried in it. He saw with clarity that the central truth of Christianity is that the Lord Jesus Christ went to the cross for the salvation of sinners. . . . No matter how unpalatable this was to the people of his day, he saw it was a truth that must be proclaimed with emphasis. So he gloried in it.”
John Stott very helpfully reminds us why the preaching of the cross is so unacceptable and why such an angry reaction to it occurs: “The cross tells us some very unpalatable truths about ourselves, namely that we are sinners under the righteous curse of God’s law and we cannot save ourselves. Christ bore our sin and curse precisely because we could gain release from them in no other way. . . . Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.”
Exactly. This is why sinners hate the cross and carnal Christians shirk the cross. And that is why so many churches and preachers today avoid the cross. It is not the sort of stuff most believers want to hear about today. So we ignore the cross, or seek to water it down. We present a domesticated and feminised cross.
As is always the case in these areas, one can do little better than return to the great prophetic writings of A.W. Tozer. And one can especially profit from returning again to a key piece he wrote, “The Old Cross and the New”. It is chapter ten of his 1966 classic, Man: The Dwelling Place of God.
He begins his article this way: “All unannounced and mostly undetected there has come in modern times a new cross into popular evangelical circles. It is like the old cross, but different: the likenesses are superficial; the differences, fundamental. From this new cross has sprung a new philosophy of the Christian life, and from that new philosophy has come a new evangelical technique-a new type of meeting and a new kind of preaching. This new evangelism employs the same language as the old, but its content is not the same and its emphasis not as before.”
Later on he offers these powerful words: “The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-by to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.”
And he reminds us of what we are called to: “We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum.” Just as Paul sought not to please men but to proclaim the cross, so too must we. Or as he wrote in “Victory Through Defeat,” a chapter in his 1950 volume, God’s Pursuit of Man:
“If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament on the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity… The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter.”
Quite right. This is exactly why we hear so little about the cross – or at least the cross of the New Testament. It is not the message people want to hear today. Sadly, it is not the message most Christians want to hear today. And even more sadly, it is not the message most Christian preachers want to proclaim today.