Just about any jewelry store features cross jewelry, most often as a pendant on a necklace. The display of ornamental crosses is common among traditional Christians, and some subcultures use the cross as well. Gothic outfits sometimes feature black crosses in their jewelry; rock stars occasionally even wear a cross. The simplicity of the cross shape allows customization, and some would say that different variations allow for self-expression. An icon in western societies, the cross has long been recognized as a universal symbol of Christianity and has been featured as an ornament not only in jewelry but in wall hangings and other items of decor.
But to the Christian who believes the Gospel of Scripture, the Cross is more than just an item of jewelry, a wall hanging, or a knick knack. And unlike jewelry or home decor, the message of the cross cannot be customized.
In a recent article in the on-line “The Resurgent” Erick Erickson wrote that
In 2013, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mainline and increasingly heretical version of the Presbyterian branch of Christendom in the United States, cast out the popular Christian hymn “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal revision.
The reason was that hymn authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend refused to change a line of the hymn. The PCUSA wanted the line “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” changed to “the love of God was magnified.”
The PCUSA has increasingly embraced the idea that God is fully love, “love is love,” and the concept of His wrath needs to be downplayed. This drags into long term theological problems that often wind up dragging proponents of this theological revision right out of Christendom. If the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the same unchanging God, why must so much blood be spilled in the Old Testament if God is all “love is love?” Trying to resolve it all with God’s love being magnified makes no sense.
The correct theological answer is that God loves us, but cannot tolerate sin. Sin must be punished for us to be able to have a relationship with the Creator and the punishment of sin is death — our own or someone or something else’s. Throughout Biblical history, blood must be shed to make us right with God. On the Day of Atonement, blood is shed. On the cross, blood was shed. 1 John 2:2 states that “Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Paul in Romans 3:21-25 states, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
John Murray noted “The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath.” (John Murray, “The Atonement”)(The Resurgent, August 20, 2019, article titled “The Atoning Sacrifice of the Union Soldiers Means Nothing to the New York Times’ 1619 Project.”)
Why can’t God simply forgive sin? Why can’t he simply offer forgiveness by fiat, by decree? Why did there need to be a cross? Like many other questions related to good and evil and salvation, this is not an easy issue to comprehend, but it is pivotal. If we are to understand the Bible’s presentation of the cross, we must first have some understanding of the divine nature, of who God is. It is only by remembering his complete self-sufficiency, glory, holiness, justice, and love, that we will begin to understand the nature of our sin problem and its only solution in Christ. In large part, God cannot simply forgive because of who he is as the moral authority of the universe. All of God’s attributes are a part of him, including his holiness, righteousness, and justice. He is not like a human judge, who adjudicates a law created by others; instead, God himself is the law. Our sin is not against a principle or law, but it is against God who is holy and just (Psalm 51:4). When God forgives sin, he does so by remaining true to his nature, and that is why our forgiveness is only possible if the satisfaction of his moral demand is met. For God to declare sinners justified, Jesus perfectly obeyed all of God’s moral demands for us and paid for our sin in his substitutionary death on the cross (Romans 3:21–26; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
At the root of every caricature of the cross, every bad customization, is an incorrect understanding of God. To think that God can forgive our sins without the full satisfaction of his justice, we must deny that God’s holiness and justice are essential to him and that he is not the moral standard of the universe, or, that God’s love is greater than his other qualities and so God can forgive us without the consideration of his justice and holiness. But in forgiving us of our sins, God’s love is not opposed to his justice; instead the ultimate demonstration of God’s love is that in Christ and his death on the cross, God’s own righteous demand is met. He doesn’t ignore evil or neutralize it by edict, but He provided the full and perfect atonement for sin in the person of his own Son, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness” (Romans 3:25). God’s love is not at all unjust and his justice is not unloving. Sin is not overlooked or condoned, but our sin is paid for in full either in Christ or in final judgment when all sin, evil, and death will be destroyed. God has graciously provided the necessary atonement through the death of Christ on the cross.
The honor and glory of the Creator is the ultimate reason that all of creation exists. God created us with the ability to choose good and evil, but his nature and the fact that he is the cause of all that exists does not allow rebellion to go unchallenged. It is in the gruesome death of God incarnate on the cross that the horrible nature of sin is exposed, and it is at the cross that his love is demonstrated. The supreme display of God’s love is the Father giving his own Son on the cross as our propitiation, as the necessary satisfaction offered for our sins, which turns back his wrath against us and meets the demands of his holiness and justice on our behalf (1 John 2:1–2, Romans 5:8). In the cross, we see the greatest imaginable demonstration of God’s holiness and justice as well as his love; it is there he remains supremely just and the one who justifies of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21–26). His holiness and justice is upheld, his grace and mercy is gloriously manifested. It is in the cross that we see the greatest imaginable display of his glory.
Given the centrality of the cross, it is crucial that we understand it correctly. All orthodox Christians from the very beginning have agreed that Christ’s death brings forgiveness of sins resulting in our reconciliation with God. This is the very foundation of the faith. A variety of atonement theologies emerged throughout church history. As with other central doctrines, the church’s understanding of the atonement clarified quickly and theologians began to recognize that penal substitution was the theological explanation for why the cross happened and what it achieved even as other views developed and came to be accepted by some. One early view of the cross reasoned that Christ’s work on the cross was to be seen primarily in terms of his identification with humanity through the incarnation. By becoming human, Christ overcame the corruption of our nature in his incarnation and in his death on the cross. Especially in Christ’s resurrection, immortality is restored to us as well as reconciliation with God. Another view, sometimes associated with the idea of ransom to Satan, sees the primary objects of Christ’s death as the powers of sin, death, and Satan, the thought being that on the cross, Christ liberates us from these powers. Others deny that God’s justice necessitates the full payment of our sin since God’s justice is not viewed as essential to him. Instead, as the moral Governor, God can choose to relax the demand of the law similar to a human judge, thus forgiving us by his mercy. Another view, the example or moral influence view has been promoted within non-orthodox, liberal theology, and became prominent with the rise of liberal theology in the 18th and 19th centuries. It taught that God’s love is more fundamental than his justice and that God can forgive our sins apart from Christ and the cross. God, then, is not the primary object of the cross, as Christ’s death primarily shows us God’s love and sets an example for us. This idea has become the dominant thought in many circles, certainly in post-modern liberal christianity, and increasingly it is becoming accepted in some evangelical circles.
But it is the fact that Christ was our substitute on the cross and died to pay the penalty for our sins that is the real, non-customized cross of Scripture. Could God have chosen another method? Perhaps, but it is Christ dying on the cross as our substitute that was the divinely preordained method chosen for the atonement. The idea of substitution does not deny aspects of Christ’s death such as the restoration of what Adam lost, the defeat of sin and death, or the revelation of God’s love. But the Bible teaches that central to the cross is the incarnate Son acting as our substitute to satisfy God’s righteous demand against us due to our sin. To justify sinful humans, God provided a Redeemer who can pay for our sin and act in perfect obedience for us. Christ must be our penal substitute, paying the penalty for our sin. Ultimately, satisfying God’s justice is the central purpose of the cross. Scripture does in fact present Christ and his cross as the supreme moral example of love, obedience, and suffering. But the cross only functions this way because of who dies and what he achieves, namely the full satisfaction of God’s righteous demand against our sin, which is the ultimate demonstration of divine love (1 John 4:7–10).
We need more than an example to redeem us. It is not enough for Christ to identify with us in his incarnation and show us how to live. Our problem is not merely that we need a great teacher to show us how to live. Our problem is sin before the holy God, and this problem requires the incarnation of God’s own Son to live for us and to die for us as our substitute. It is only Christ as our substitutionary appeasing sacrifice that meets God’s righteous demand, and enables believers, in Christ, to receive salvation. The center of Christ’s work on the cross is that he has come to offer himself before God because of human sin. The substitutionary atonement of Christ so beautifully foretold by Isaiah some seven centuries before the cross (Isaiah 53) tells us why the Son had to die, and why he alone saves. All any sinner can possibly do is receive salvation by penitent faith, believing that a perfect atonement has been made by Christ that satisfies the wrath of God against sin.
At the cross we see a revelation of God’s love, grace, and mercy, and we see the depth of our sin – not our own goodness and worth. Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6), not worthy, good people that needed help in discovering their true identity or affirmation of their self-esteem. This message is denied by many throughout christendom, and is even being denied among many who identify as evangelicals. Many erroneously teach that people are inherently good. They have designed a customized cross that is not the cross of Scripture. If people are inherently good, they don’t need a savior, they need an inspiration, they need an example, they need to be affirmed, they need a new perspective. That is not the premise of scripture: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Where human goodness and moral relativism is the accepted basis of belief, people don’t feel the evil of their own sin against God, and thus don’t understand that the death of Jesus was needed because we have rebelled against and disobeyed our Creator. Jesus came to restore the image of God within us when he died on the cross for our sin. Our self-esteem thus shouldn’t be based on anything except the love of God in Christ who willingly gave his life for us when we were unworthy sinners. In this showed his tremendous love for us. Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Our worth is affirmed by the atonement that was made for us at the cross. When missionary William Carey was suffering from an illness, he purportedly was asked, “If this sickness should prove fatal, what passage would you select as the text for your funeral sermon?” He answered, “Oh, I feel that such a poor sinful creature is unworthy to have anything said about him; but if a funeral sermon must be preached, let it be from the words, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.'” In the same spirit of humility he directed in his will that the following inscription and nothing more should be cut on his gravestone:
BORN AUGUST 17th, 1761:
“A wretched, poor, and helpless worm On Your kind arms I fall.”
Carey understood the real message of the cross.
The cross is everywhere in Scripture. In the Old Testament, the need for the cross is explained and it is prophesied in detail. Paul preached the gospel of Jesus according to the Scriptures. The death of Jesus was at a predetermined time in history and was for a specific predetermined purpose. It was not merely the death of a martyr or philosopher who recklessly challenged the authorities of his society. Paul declared its necessity (Acts 13:27–33), and like Jesus before him, Paul established from the Old Testament scriptures the reasoning why Messiah had to suffer (Luke 24:25–26). Jesus had to die because righteousness could not come through any other means (Galatians 2:21). The message we must understand and explain today is that it is only through Jesus’s atoning death on the cross as our substitute that we are forgiven, reconciled to God, and rescued from the evil dominating the present world (Galatians 1:4). This is the message that must be at the center of evangelism. This is the cross that must be taught and preached.
Music is at the heart and soul of believers and of churches. Given the centrality of the cross, a list of hymns and gospel songs about the cross would be lengthy. Isaac Watts, perhaps the leading early voice of English hymnody, wrote the well-known “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” beginning with the words, “When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of Glory died.” Prolific hymn writer Charles Wesley in “And Can It Be?,” wrote in the refrain, “Amazing Love! how can it be, That Thou, my God should die for me!,” connecting the substitutionary death of the savior to the “Amazing Love” of God. Present time hymn writer Chris Anderson (hymnody is very much alive), in “My Jesus Fair” has written of the death of the Savior on the cross,
My Jesus, fair, was pierced by thorns, By thorns grown from the fall. Thus He who gave the curse was torn To end that curse for all.
Refrain: O love divine, O matchless grace— That God should die for men! With joyful grief I lift my praise, Abhorring all my sin, Adoring only Him.
My Jesus, meek, was scorned by men, By men in blasphemy. “Father, forgive their senseless sin!” He prayed, for them, for me.
My Jesus, kind, was torn by nails, By nails of cruel men. And to His cross, as grace prevailed, God pinned my wretched sin.
My Jesus, strong, shall come to reign, To reign in majesty. The Lamb arose, and death is slain. Lord, come in victory!
My Jesus, pure, was crushed by God, By God, in judgment just. The Father grieved, yet turned His rod On Christ, made sin for us.
Not all songs that use the word “cross” are about the “real” cross. This is readily apparent in contemporary entertainment that has replaced hymns and gospel songs in many churches. Some use the word “cross” without explaining anything of what it means. Others see the cross merely as a selfless act of love for our encouragement. Some come close to actually remembering what Jesus accomplished at the cross while leaving out any mention of the details. Few mention salvation from sin or the blood or the wrath of God against sin or the concept of atonement. But the power of the cross is in those details. Jesus, the perfect Son of God, bore our sins in his body on the cross to endure the wrath of God for us so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. That is the song of the redeemed believer, the source of joy and the ultimate cause of true worship.
The building of the church of which we are members has an auditorium that has a balcony and so has a high ceiling. On a recent Sunday night I sat in a seat adjacent to the center aisle, and looking up the aisle I reflected on what I saw. There is a communion table at the front of the aisle, a matching wooden pulpit above that, the platform for the musicians and choir, and a baptistry against the back wall. Above the baptistry is a beautiful large wooden cross. There are screens well off to each side for the display of things like the speaker’s notes, but it is the cross that is the central architectural feature at the front of the room. That cross is there in the background, above everything that happens in the room. It likely looks little like the crude Roman cross upon which Jesus was crucified, but it beautifully reminds of that sacred event.
In some post-modern vestiges of christianity, there are beautiful and elaborate crosses, but the true message of the cross has been abandoned – customized. Some newer evangelical churches might choose to not have a cross in their auditorium, lest someone be offended or find it too traditional, and many have customized their message of the cross. In our church, the real beauty of the cross is that it is the real message of the cross – not a customized version – that is ever present. When the pastor preaches, the cross is there, not because it is the stated subject of the lesson or sermon, but because the Bible is taught and preached, and the cross is everywhere in the Bible. Hymns and songs are sung, like those mentioned above, that speak of sin and salvation, of the blood, of the atonement – of the cross.
Cross jewelry? By all means wear it. If I were not so, er, frugal, I might buy a piece of cross jewelry for my wife. In the post-christian western world, we can display the cross freely, in our churches, in our homes, on our persons. In a communist Asian country or in an African or Asian country dominated by Islam, one might not be able to openly display a cross. Yes, display the cross. But more importantly, a Christian must not forget the message of the cross and the reality of a relationship with the One Who died there. Renunciation of sin, self, and the evils of the world in identification with the crucified Christ is the aspiration of everyone who believes that Christ died on the cross for them. Jewelry gets shuffled aside, wall hangings get taken down, display pieces get lost among others. This must not be so with the message of the cross. That message must remain an ever present moment-by-moment reality in our life.