Journey to the cross

The cross is the Christian's ground of certitude.

John M. Fowler is an associate editor of Ministry.

When I became a Seventh-day Adventist years ago, the strongest motivation to cross over from a traditional church to what was then considered a cult was the imminence of the second coming of Christ. The evangelist did a persuasive job. Supported by colorful prophetic charts, his exposition of the Parousia left no doubt in my mind that my young life could have meaning only if I faced the reality of the soon-to-unfold drama of the Second Coming. The Voice of Prophecy broadcasts and the correspondence school continued their reinforcement of the point week after week. Even the Sabbath school theme song reminded me, "Jesus is coming again."

The second coming of Christ thus be came the motivating force for most of my life activities. My faith, worship, values, study, vocation, and association were all somehow related to an eschatological hope, either as a definer or as a conditioner. This eschatological orientation was particularly prominent in my newfound Adventist ethic and lifestyle. One argument would suggest that since the investigative judgment has been in process for a while now, at any time it could be the turn of the living, and therefore it was necessary to lead a sanctified life. Another would appeal to the quote: "When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own."1

The quote, which I memorized as a teenager, was a momentous one. Are divine plans so dependent on simple mortals? Is there really a cosmic, universal, and eschatological significance in what I did or what I did not do? The thought was awe some and lasted a long time, until one day as a beginning pastor I realized that I knew more about the Lord who is coming again than about the Lord who did come. I knew more about the mysterious beasts of Daniel and Revelation than the mystery of the cross. I found it easier to explain to my friends Daniel 2 and 7 than Romans 5 and 7. My preaching was at home with the magic of history marching toward its teleological climax, but in the process the Lord of history remained the sovereign of the universe to many of my hearers without becoming their saving Lord.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I was missing the essential issue of coming to grips with what is central to Christianity. "Give me a place to stand," said the old philosopher Archimedes, "and I will move the earth." The question for me as a pastor was: Where is my place to stand, that I may move my parish for my Master's mission?

The answer came through the study of the momentous discovery of the apostle Paul: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2, RSV). Paul's decision (krino) was a resolute act of the will, a determination born out of deliberate consideration. Paul had employed a different approach at Athens, that great bastion of intellectual skill, philosophical tools, and historical pride. He met philosophy with philosophy, logic with logic, poetry with poetry, and at the end of the Mars' Hill production, the apostle did leave a magnetic spell on his audience—but very few in that city understood the mystery or the meaning of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Out of that experience, when eloquence seemed to bury the essential and when shadows seemed to submerge the sub stance, the apostle came to the conclusion that the Christ of the cross and Him alone constituted the essence of Christian living and preaching.

Christ and the cross! All other claims are secondary. "It is high time," wrote Visser't Hooft, "that Christians should rediscover that the very heart of their faith is that Jesus Christ did not come to make a contribution to the religious storehouse of mankind, but that in Him God reconciled the world unto Himself."2 As I considered this central theme of the New Testament, I made my discovery. The starting point for Christian ministry is the cross. "He who beholds the Saviour's matchless love will be elevated in thought, purified in heart, transformed in character. He will go forth to be a light to the world, to reflect in some degree this mysterious love. The more we contemplate the cross of Christ, the more fully shall we adopt the language of the apostle when he said, 'God forbid that I should glory, save in die cross of our Lord Jesus Christ'(Gal. 6:14)."3

The ground of certitude

To say this is to affirm two vital dynamics of Christian ministry. First, the cross is the Christian's ground of certitude. Any emphasis other than the cross would nullify the Christocentric nature of the gospel, and lead to the denial of the very essence of Christianity. Any experience, hope, lifestyle, or mission that derives its primary motive from any factor other than God's redemptive activity on the cross is essentially work-related, accomplishment-oriented, and self-centered. The preoccupation with all such cross-less endeavors, like that of the rich young ruler, is what must I do to enter into the kingdom.

What must I do? The cross strips the human of any pretension for such self-salvation. Non-Christian religions, as Emil Brunner rightly pointed out, may speak of the "self-confident optimism" of the human in the struggle with sin,4 but the Bible does not accede to self any such innate potential for redemption. As Ellen G. White wrote: "The principle that man can save himself by his own works lay at the foundation of every heathen religion."5 A self that could save itself is a contradiction to the gospel and its cross.

So the cross is the one and only means of identifying God's way. In the words of John Stott: "In different ways and with different emphases all the religions of the world proclaim the possibility of self-salvation by self-reliance or the accumulation of merit; only the gospel proclaims the salvation through the merit of An other, who paid the price of sin in a unique, historical act of self-sacrifice."

Even our understanding of the nature of God—His love, His fatherhood, His grace, His justice—flows out of the perspective of the cross. Other religions do talk about a loving, holy, just, omnipotent, omniscient, caring god—but never of a cross. Only Christianity talks of a God who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16, RSV). In choosing the death of the cross to deal with sin and to vanquish die originator of sin, the Man of the cross became both the defier of death and the definer of life. Through Him death is a defeated foe; through Him life becomes possible. Therefore, He is the ground of our today and our tomorrow, our faith and our love, our hope and our certitude.

A cross expects death

The second dynamic of the cross-centered ministry is that it expects a perpetual surrender to the demands of discipleship. "Every Christian," Martin Luther once said, "is a crucian—a man of the cross." When Jesus enunciated that taking up the cross to follow Him is not an option but a necessity of discipleship (Matt.16:24; Luke 9:23), He was saying that the cross and its claims—both immediate and ultimate—must confront Christian minis try and demand absolute response. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's comment is appropriate: "If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. . . . When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. ... It is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at His call."7

So the call to Christian ministry is a call to the cross—to continually deny self its persistent desire to be its own savior, and to adhere fully to the Man of the cross in order that our "faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:5, RSV).

1 Ellen O. White, Christ's Object Lessons
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1901), p. 69.

2 W. A. Visser 't Hooft, No Other Name
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), p. 11.

3 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915),
p. 29.

4 Emil Brunner, The Mediator (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1947), pp. 291-299.

5 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p.
35.

6 John R. W. Stott, The Authentic Jesus (Downers
Grove, 111.: Intervarsity Press, 1985), p. 79.

7 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
(New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959), pp.
78, 79.

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John M. Fowler is an associate editor of Ministry.

June 1991

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