I daresay that many of us are searching for a faith, a worldview, an outlook that works for us. Some of us may try on various “philosophies” like we try on clothes. This one looks good. This one feels right. I can see value in this way of living. We may adopt it for a while and then over time things happen: the faith is tested and we think it fails, the worldview crumbles as it confronts reality and what we consider to be a good outlook is no longer good any more.
Such was my life in college. I dallied with a worldview that I thought was “cool”. It seemed to explain a lot. I had a mentor who believed it and he encouraged me to read literature that espoused it but in my heart I knew that something was lacking. At the time I could not figure out what was wrong but I knew something was wrong.
It captivated my heart for awhile…
John Stott closes “Chapter One” of The Cross of Christ by pointing to several competing thoughts in the world that do not support the idea that the cross is the most important symbol for Christianity. I have already discussed the Roman attitude toward crucifixion and the Jewish attitude toward crucifixion [see Nov. 1, 2020 post entitled “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”]. Romans felt the cross represented a horrific way to die and Jews felt that Jesus’ death was a curse from God. Certainly culture in First Century A.D. did not think the cross a significant or worthy symbol.
Other examples come from religions like Hinduism which has been around for five thousand years. Stott writes Hindus “repudiate the gospel of the cross” . Gandhi was attracted to Christianity for a while but could not accept the divinity of Christ. Writing in 1894, he said “I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart would not accept.” Hinduism was the worldview I was fascinated with but I remember feeling that it was a bit hollow, that it did not seem to go anywhere. Maybe I wanted a faith that inspired people to grow. As I said above, something about it was “lacking.”
The Muslim faith ranks second today with 2.22 billion followers and it is considered the fastest growing religion in the world. Muslims feel that Jesus was a major prophet, a Messiah, but they don’t accept the Christian concept of the need for the sin-bearing death of a Savior. They believe each man will reap the fruit of his own deed. Allah is capable of being merciful and capable of forgiving those who repent, but they just don’t feel that Jesus’ death on the cross served any purpose. Stott describes Muslim theories of Jesus’ death as “God cast a spell over the enemies of Jesus in order to rescue Him” and other people were substituted for Jesus on the cross at the last moment. Nothing miraculous occurred on the cross, certainly nothing so important that a large number of people should hold up a cross as a significant religious symbol.
Western cultural thinking has long been an enemy of the Christian cross. Friedrich Nietzsche [considered a major influence on modern intellectual history] wrote that Jesus was weak and Christianity was a weak form of faith. “What is more harmful than any vice is active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak Christianity.” Darwinism emphasizes “survival of the fittest” and he found that conception much more attractive than a Messiah who found Himself sacrificed on the cross.
Other scholars like Sir Alfred Ayer wrote that “among religions of historical importance, there was quite a strong case for considering Christianity as the worst.” He cites the “contemptible and morally outrageous” doctrine of original sin and Christ’s atonement on the cross.
One could go on and on citing example after example of opposition to the cross. In fact, it is amazing that the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith that it is today.
How did Christians persist in the face of opposition? What happened to cause this symbol to be the central symbol of a faith with 2.3 billion followers, making Christianity the largest religion in the world? Stott summarizes this phenomenon in a single word—“integrity.”
What he means by integrity is personal loyalty to Jesus. Stott has already written that he feels Jesus knew His life was leading to a death on the cross. In my November 8 post entitled “Looking into the Mind of Jesus” I comment on the idea that Jesus was fixated on the saving cross as His significant last act as a human being. Stott cites numerous Christian theologians that support his argument, P.T. Forsyth and Emil Brunner among them. Forsyth writes “All that was in heaven or earth was put into what He did there [at the cross]…Christ, I repeat, is to us just what His cross is. You do not understand Christ until you understand His cross.” Brunner feels there is no other way to understand Christianity if one does not understand the significance of the cross, what he refers to as “revelation and atonement through the Mediator.” “He who understands the Cross aright—this is the opinion of the Reformers—understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.”*
Given this Christian theological emphasis, it is no wonder that Stott describes the cross as the center of Christian history and theology. Christians “naturally perceive it [the cross] as the center of all reality. So they see it everywhere, and have always done so” [Stott, 49]. Anglican theologian Stephen Neill writes “the death of Christ is the central point of history; here all the roads of the past converge; hence all the roads of the future diverge.”**
Why all this concern for the cross? Why has Stott spent a whole chapter detailing the role of the cross in the history of the church? Why has he argued that Jesus had every intention of going to the cross as His life unfolded? Why does Stott turn to Scripture to make the case that Biblical writers knew that the cross was the central symbol of the faith?
The answer lies in the faith of the believer. Jesus was the Son of God, God in human form. Jesus came to save us sinners, to tear down the wall of sin that separates all of us from God. Jesus did all this through His death on the cross.
We need to have that faith, that cornerstone of our belief, that the only authentic Jesus is the Jesus who died on the cross.
*From Emil Brunner, The Mediator
**From Stephen Neill “Jesus in History” in Truth of God Incarnate