The Offense and Attraction of the Cross
And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision,
why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross is ceased.
My year as a college student in France provided me with a lurid but instructive memory. Nice as it was on other counts, the youth hostel where I lived had a definite problem: cockroaches. During the midnight hours when I rose to use the restroom I would have to brace myself for a genuinely creepy rendezvous. One had only to turn on the light in the bathroom, not just to see the big black bugs, but to see them in great abundance, scurrying every which-way back into their holes. The unpleasant creatures did not like light. Indeed, light clearly caused them pain. It offended them, and sent them racing to home base: darkness.
Such, I am afraid, is the biblical testimony concerning man. No, God does not look upon us as cockroaches: If we are more valuable than many sheep, then surely we are more valuable than many insects (Matthew 12:12). Indeed, because we have been created in His image, He reckons us just a little lower than the angels; indeed, like God himself (Psalm 8).
Yet in one important respect we are very much like those creeping things: From birth we are creatures of darkness, both by nature and by choice (John 3:19, Acts 26:18). This is our sad inheritance from the first man Adam, who long ago chose lies over truth, covetousness over contentment, and rebellion over obedience (Genesis 3). And when he chose that darkness, he chose it not only for himself, but for his posterity as well (Romans 5:12f). Ever since Eden, darkness has been home base for the family of man.
This testimony is difficult to receive. As a rule we fancy ourselves creatures of kindness, goodness, and light, no matter what history or the daily news say to the contrary. But there is any easy way to get at the facts of the matter: We need only to stand before the cross of Christ and study carefully how we respond. Then and there the truth will be told.
The apostle Paul understood this. From painful personal experience, both as a persecutor of Christians and later as a messenger of Christ, he knew that the cross is an offense to fallen man. Unless and until God performs His miracle of regeneration in our hearts, we will flee it rather than embrace it; we will back away into darkness rather than bathe ourselves in its wondrous healing light.
Indeed, this is precisely what certain Jewish “Christians” were doing when they told the Galatian believers that they had to be circumcised. They were saying, in effect, that these new disciples had to obey the Law of Moses in order to be forgiven and accepted by God. Such “legalism” sounded spiritual, but in fact it betrayed a terrible misunderstanding, for no man can perfectly obey God’s Law, so that no man can be saved by it (Romans 3:20). More importantly, Jewish legalism actually revealed a hidden enmity towards the true, God-given instrument of salvation: the cross of Christ. Apart from the cross, says Paul, man is hopelessly trapped and lost in his sin. Yet at this–their only way of escape –these Jewish “Christians” had taken offense.
Why the Cross Offends
Why does the cross so offend fallen man? And how, precisely, does it offend him? What effects does it have upon the sinful human self when it is faithfully preached; when Christ Jesus is “clearly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1)?
Here are a few biblical answers to these important questions.
First, the cross offends our self-estimate. By nature, we think of ourselves as good people; not, perhaps, perfect, but with only enough naughtiness to make us interesting. The cross, however, renders a far more sobering diagnosis, declaring that in God’s sight we are evil people; not, perhaps, as evil as we could be, but fundamentally evil: fundamentally hostile to the true God, rebellious towards His revealed will, and indifferent to His glory (Mark 7:21f, Luke 11:13). At the cross, God certainly judged something. If it was not the evil of His people, graciously and mercifully laid upon His Son, what was it?
Secondly, the cross offends our self-importance. It belongs essentially to our fallen nature–to our mutant and inflated egos–that we compare ourselves with others, rank ourselves above others, and seek out the flaws in others whom we know to be better than ourselves (Luke 18:11). But before the cross, all such self-importance withers away. For the meaning of Jesus’ substitutionary death is quite clear: All have sinned, all are loved, all are judged in Christ, and all are forgiven–if and when they come to Him. The way is the same for rich and poor, smart and simple, beautiful and homely, famous and infamous. The cross is the great leveler of men. Where then is self-importance? Where is boasting? Paul tells us where: “God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
Thirdly, the cross offends our self-righteousness. Fallen man knows that he is sinful, that he has fallen short of the perfect righteousness that God requires (Romans 3:23). But instead of humbly seeking out the perfect righteousness that God has graciously supplied, he prefers to fashion a righteousness of his own, based on good deeds. To be sure, God knows our good deeds and approves them; yet He also knows that good deeds cannot cancel evil deeds; and also that good deeds, even their best, are always contaminated by evil motives. For in God’s sight a deed is good only when it is done out of pure love for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. I wonder if even one such deed has ever been done under heaven, save every deed performed by God’s one and only Son.
Knowing, then, the futility of self-righteousness, God wisely and mercifully ordained the cross as His appointed way of righteousness. There we behold the matchless gift: One whose people’s sins were credited to His account, so that His perfect righteousness might be credited to theirs. The saints, having been taught the depth of their sin, love and cherish this simple way of salvation. But the self-righteous–unwilling to acknowledge their sin and intent on earning their place in the household of God– are offended by it. Even at the peril of their eternal souls, they turn away from the cross (Matthew 22:1f).
Finally, the cross offends our self-rule. Independence, autonomy, self-rule–all belong to the very essence of sin. God’s original plan for man was to live in him, walk with him, and work through him. Life was to be a Father-Son business, with the Father leading and the sons following, prosperously. Jesus modeled this life for us, declaring that He always did only those things that He saw the Father doing (Luke 2:49, John 5:30). But Adam rejected this God-centered life in Eden, and his fallen offspring have spurned it ever since.
This is why we also spurn the cross. For there we see not only a condemnation of sin, but also a call to a new and better life– resurrection life, life beyond the grave of our own sinful self-rule; life like Christ’s life; life in God and with God, forever. One would think that people would find such a life attractive. But until God makes it attractive, we will flee it every time. The cross does indeed invite us to life, but always at the price of death: the death of our self-rule. And as much as he needs to, autonomous sinful man definitely does not want to die.
We see then that man, by his very nature, is offended by the cross. But if he is constitutionally hostile to the cross–if he has to commit a species of suicide in order to come to Christ–how can anyone be saved? Jesus himself gave us the answer: “With men, this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). In other words, God Himself must give sinful man new eyes and a new heart, so that he can see the meaning of the cross, behold its beauty, and desire to come to the One who died upon it. As Jesus put it, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father draws him. You must be born again” (John 6:44, 3:7).
How the Cross Attracts
Happily, this too is a Father-Son business in which everyday Christians can play an important part. Knowing that our unbelieving friends and loved ones find the cross offensive, God invites us to co-labor with Him in making it attractive. And this is not so difficult, since, for many reasons, the cross is attractive. Here are a few of the best.
First, the cross is attractive because it exhibits the unconditional love of God for fallen man. Long before a single sinner ever came to the Savior, God planned to send His Son into the world to be the Teacher, Priest, Sacrifice, and King of His people. He was certainly not moved to do so because He foresaw their holiness. To the contrary, foreseeing them in their sin and lost estate, He was moved with compassion and unconditional love to give His one and only Son to save them (John 3:16). Here is a most attractive flower in the garden of biblical truth: We do not have to be lovable to be loved!
Secondly, the cross is attractive because it displays salvation as a gift to be received, rather than a work to be accomplished. This is why, as Jesus breathed his last upon the cross, he triumphantly cried, “It is finished!” All that was necessary for our salvation–a life perfectly lived and a death willingly endured–had now been accomplished. Henceforth, says the Bible, Christ has done all, and fallen man can contribute nothing whatsoever to his finished work. All we can do is receive it gladly and gratefully, as a gift (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Yes, there is work for the Christian to do. But it is not done in order to be accepted; rather, it is done out of joy for having been accepted. Because of the cross, guilty, anxious, and driven souls can rest at last. Jesus said so himself. With the cross in view, he told sinners in Israel, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:30). He says the same to us today.
Finally, the cross is attractive because it offers hope of a life beyond the grave. All who learn of Christ’s death, learn also of his resurrection. All who see the cross, see also what lay beyond it–resurrection, ascension, the throne of God, and life in Heaven with God forever. To receive Christ is to receive it all. What an attraction! The cross is not the last word. The Savior is not dead, but lives. And if He lives, He can come to us, live within us, teach us, change us, take us safely to Heaven when we die and, some glorious day, raise us from the dead for even fuller life in a glorious new world (John 11, 1 Corinthians 15)!
Yes, of all its attractions, this may be the greatest–and the reason why multitudes of poor sinners, struggling to emerge from their darkness, keep turning to the cross day after day, year after year, even to the end of time. For there, atop Mt. Golgotha, we behold the very portal of Heaven. There, amidst the most dreadful darkness, divine light pours through most purely, most powerfully. There we see everything: God, sin, wrath, justice, love, grace, mercy, death, and–most attractively–eternal resurrection life with Him who loved us all.
If, by God’s grace, we have seen this great sight, let us labor with God to help others see it too. Let us labor to portray, not only the offense, but also the attraction of the cross. And let us labor confidently, knowing that with God all things are possible; that because of our simple obedience, many who are today offended by the cross will tomorrow count it their greatest glory.