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The Transforming Power of the Cross

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Let’s face it, no one reads a blog like this unless he (or she!) is deeply interested in and committed to growing in their own personal piety and helping others do the same. Because we love the Lord, we all want to grow into men and women who reflect His life more perfectly. For us, the question isn’t: “Should we seek to grow in holiness?” 

but rather, “How do we grow in holiness?” Further, most of us would answer the “How?”  question in this way, “We grow in holiness through the gospel.”

And while that’s the right answer, the possibility exists that it’s not specific enough to be of real help. And so, we talk about the gospel, we want to point others to the gospel, but perhaps we’re not seeing how the specifics of the gospel connect to our daily struggles with unbelief and idolatry…our sin. So let’s take a moment to consider exactly how the individual truths of the gospel change us.

When we talk about the gospel, we’re not talking only about what Jesus did on Calvary – although, of course, it would be impossible to over-exaggerate the importance of his substitutionary death. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes that the gospel message is not only the cross, it is the incarnation, the sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, ascension, reign and return of Jesus Christ. It is the story of the incarnation (God without flesh cannot die, v. 3), his sinless life (the death of another sinner cannot atone “for our sins” v. 3), his substitutionary death and burial in our place, his bodily resurrection procuring our justification and freedom from bondage to sin (v. 1-2, 4), his ascension and reign (revealing Himself to Paul on the road to Damascus, v. 8) and His victorious return for his bride (v. 24-25). Incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, ascension, reign and return: the gospel.

It is this entire gospel message that Paul says is “of first importance.” The gospel is more than just the cross. When we fail to appreciate all the other facets of the good news about His work, we’ll be tempted to use Jesus’ suffering on the cross to motivate obedience. In other words, we’ll be tempted to feel sorry for the victim Jesus and try to guilt ourselves (and others) into submission, rather than seeing the victor, Jesus, who acted purposefully throughout His existence and acts powerfully upon us to transform us.

Briefly, here’s how the whole gospel message might impact me when I’m struggling with my own unbelief, idolatry and sin: Let’s say that I’ve got company coming over for dinner and I realize that I’m running low on table salt. I calculate the time I need to get to the store, get the salt and get home so that I can be a gracious, organized hostess (idols everywhere here). I jump in my car, race up to the store, grab the salt and run to the Quick Check Out line only to find myself stuck behind another woman who obviously didn’t read the “10 Items or Less” sign. Instantly I’m angry and then, because I know that my anger is sinful, I feel guilty and then, because I remember all the times I’ve failed like this, I despair. Now, what are my options?

  • Option #1: If I’m a Happy Moralist, I’ll assure myself that my anger is “righteous” because the person in front of me is not obeying the rules like I am. I’ll remain angry but feel better about it.
  • Option #2: If I’m a Sad Moralist, I’ll recognize that my anger isn’t righteous because I’m not loving my neighbor and I’m angry because of my idolatry. I’ll feel both guilty and angry but now I’ll despair because it seems as though I’ll never change.
  • Option #3: If I’ve been thinking about the cross without considering the rest of the gospel, I’ll despair even more because I’ll know that Jesus suffered for this sin and I’ll be sad, guilty and despairing thinking about how much pain He endured on my account. In this case the gospel doesn’t elevate my soul, it crushes me.
  • Option #4: If I’m seeking to live in the light of the whole gospel, my heart will be transformed in these ways: 
  • Because of the incarnation, Jesus Christ knows exactly what it is to live in a sin-cursed world with people who break the rules…like me. I am a rule-breaker but He’s loved me and he’s experienced every trial I face. He’s with me. He sympathizes with my weakness (Hebrews 4:15).This understanding of His love in the face of my sin drains my anger at my rule-breaking neighbor. I can love her because I’ve been loved and I am just like her.
  • Because of His sinless life, I now have a perfect record of loving my neighbor. He perfectly loved rule-breakers. This record of perfect love for my     rule-breaking neighbor is mine now; knowing this relieves my guilt. Even though I continue to fail to love, His record is mine.
  • Because of His substitutionary death, I am completely forgiven for my sin…even the sins that I seem to fall into at the slightest provocation. God has no wrath left for me because He poured it all out on His Son. He’s not disappointed or irritated. He welcomes me as a beloved daughter.
  • Because of His resurrection (and the justification it brings), I know that the power of sin in my life has been broken. Yes, I’ve failed again, but I can have the courage to continue to fight sin because I’m no longer a slave to it. This replaces despair with faith to wage war against my selfishness and pride.
  • Because of His ascension and reign, I know that this situation isn’t a mere chance happening. He’s orchestrated it so that I will remember Him and be blessed by the gospel again. He’s ruling over my life and interceding for me right now. I’m not a slave to chaos or chance. He’s my Sovereign King and I can rest in His loving plan today and rejoice in Him.

And, because of His promised return, I know that all the doubt, injustice and struggle will one day come to an end. This line in this grocery store and my plans for dinner isn’t all there is. There’s the great good news of the gospel. I can go home now and share with my family and guests how Jesus met me at the grocery store and we can rejoice together in His work on our behalf.

It is the whole message of the gospel that has the power to transform impatient, guilty, selfish, despairing idolaters into free and joyful worshippers of the Living God. The whole message of the gospel includes His incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, ascension, reign and return.  Seeing Jesus and His glorious work is the only power strong enough to transforms us from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18) or as John Owen wrote, “Here in this life, beholding the glory of the Lord [true believers] are changed into his likeness. Hereafter they will be like Him for they will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

[Note: John Owen quote from The Glory of Christ (London: Grace Publications Trust, 1987), 8.]

Posted on June 16, 2011