Anti-Christian elements in the secular world would like very much to do away with all public display of the cross. Yet it is still seen atop tens of thousands of churches and in religious processions, often made of gold and even studded with precious stones. Most frequently, however, the cross is displayed as popular jewelry hanging around necks or dangling from ears. One wonders by what strange alchemy the bloodstained, rugged cross of torment upon which Christ suffered and died for our sins became so sanitized and glamorized.
No matter how it is displayed, even as jewelry or graffiti, the cross is universally recognized as the symbol of Christianity—and therein lies a serious problem. The cross itself rather than what transpired upon it 19 centuries ago has become the focus of attention, resulting in several grave errors. Its very shape , though devised by cruel pagans for punishing criminals, has become holy and mysteriously imbued with magic properties, fostering the delusion that displaying a cross somehow provides divine protection. Millions superstitiously keep a cross in their homes or on their person or make “the sign of the cross” to ward off evil and frighten demons away. Demons fear Christ, not a cross; and any who have not been crucified with Him display a cross in vain.
Paul declared, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor:1:18). So the power of the cross lies not in its display but in its preaching ; and that preaching has nothing to do with the peculiar shape of the cross but with Christ’s death upon it as declared in the gospel. The gospel is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom:1:16), not to those who wear or otherwise display or make the sign of the cross.
What is this gospel that saves? Paul states explicitly: “I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you...by which also ye are saved,...how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures...” (1 Cor:15:1-4). It comes as a shock to many that the gospel includes no mention of a cross . Why? Because a cross was not essential to our salvation. Christ had to be crucified to fulfill the prophecy concerning the manner of the Messiah’s death (Ps 22), not because the cross itself had anything to do with our redemption. What was essential was the shedding of Christ’s blood in His death as foreshadowed in the Old Testament sacrifices, for “without shedding of blood is no remission [of sins]” (Heb:9:22); “for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” (Lev:17:11).
This is not to say that the cross itself has no meaning. That Christ was nailed to a cross reveals the horrifying depths of evil innate within every human heart. To be nailed naked to a cross and displayed publicly, to die slowly with taunts and jeers filling the air, was the most excruciatingly painful and humiliating death that could be devised. And that is exactly what puny man did to his Creator! We ought to fall on our faces in repentant horror, overcome with shame, for it was not only the screaming, bloodthirsty mob and derisive soldiers but our sins that nailed Him there!
So the cross lays bare for all eternity the awful truth that beneath the polite facade of culture and education the heart of man is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer:17:9), capable of evil beyond comprehension even against the God who created and loves him and patiently provides for him. Does any man doubt the wickedness of his own heart? Let him look at the cross and recoil in revulsion from that self within! No wonder the proud humanist hates the cross!
At the same time that the cross lays bare the evil in man, however, it also reveals the goodness, mercy, and love of God as nothing else could. In the face of such unspeakable evil, such diabolical hatred vented against Him, the Lord of glory, who could destroy this earth and all upon it with a word, allowed Himself to be mocked and falsely accused and scourged and nailed to that cross! Christ “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross ” (Phil:2:8). When man was doing his worst, God responded in love, not merely yielding Himself to His tormenters but bearing our sins and taking the judgment we justly deserved.
Therein lies another serious problem with the symbol, and especially with Catholicism’s crucifix, which portrays Christ perpetually on the cross, as does the Mass. The emphasis is focused upon the physical suffering of Christ as though that paid for our sins. On the contrary, that was what man did to Him and could only condemn us all. Our redemption came about through: His bruising by Jehovah and “his soul [being made] an offering for sin” (Is 53:10); God laying “on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6); and His bearing “our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pt 2:24).
The death of Christ is irrefutable evidence that God in righteousness must punish sin—the penalty must be paid or there can be no forgiveness. That God's Son had to endure the cross even after crying to His Father in agonizing contemplation of bearing our sins, (“[I]f it be possible, let this cup pass from me” — Mt 26:39), is proof that there was no other way mankind could be redeemed. When Christ, the sinless, perfect man and beloved of His Father, took our place, God’s judgment fell upon Him in all its fury. What then must be the judgment of those who reject Christ and refuse the pardon offered in Him! We must warn them!
At the same time and in the same breath that we sound the alarm of coming judgment, we must also proclaim the good news that redemption has been provided and God’s forgiveness is offered for the vilest of sinners. Nothing more evil could be conceived than crucifying God! Yet it was from the cross that Christ in infinite love and mercy prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). So the cross proves, too, that there is forgiveness for the worst of sins and sinners.
Tragically, however, the vast majority of mankind rejects Christ. And here we face another danger: that in our sincere desire to see souls saved we adjust the message of the cross to avoid offending the world. Paul warned that care had to be taken not to preach the cross “with the wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (1 Cor:1:17). But surely the gospel can be explained in a new way that is more appealing to the ungodly than those old-time preachers presented it. Perhaps today's techniques for packaging and selling could be used to clothe the cross in music or a beat or entertaining presentation such as the world uses that would give the gospel a new relevancy or at least familiarity. Psychology, too, can be drawn upon to provide a more positive approach. Let us not confront sinners with their sin and the gloom and doom of coming judgment, but explain that their behavior isn’t really their fault so much as it is the result of abuse they have suffered. After all, are we not all victims? And didn’t Christ come to rescue us from victimization and our low view of ourselves and to restore our self-esteem and self-confidence? Blend the cross with psychology and the world will beat a path to our churches, filling them with new members! Such is today’s new evangelicalism.
Confronting such perversion, A. W. Tozer wrote: “If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is rather a new bright ornament upon the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity....The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it....The flesh, smiling and confident, preaches and sings about the cross; before that cross it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged histrionics—but upon that cross it will not die, and the reproach of the cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.”
Here is the crux of the issue. The gospel is designed to do to self what the cross did to those who hung upon it: put it utterly to death. This is the good news in which Paul exulted: “I am crucified with Christ!” The cross is not a fire escape from hell to heaven but a place where we die in Christ. Only then can we experience “the power of His resurrection” (Phil:3:10), for only the dead can be resurrected. What joy that promise brings to those who long to escape the evil of their own hearts and lives; and what fanaticism it seems to those who want to cling to self and who therefore preach what Tozer called the “new cross.”
Paul declared that in Christ the Christian is crucified to the world and the world to him (Gal:6:14). That is strong language! This world hated and crucified the Lord whom we now love—and in that act it has crucified us as well. We have taken our stand with Christ. Let the world do to us what it did to Him if it will, but we will never again join in its selfish lusts and ambitions, its godless standards, its proud determination to build a utopia without God and its neglect of eternity.
To believe in Christ is to admit that the death He endured for us is exactly what we deserve. Therefore, when Christ died, we died in Him: “[W]e thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead [i.e., all have died]: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him who died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor:5:14-15).
“But I’m not dead,“ is the earnest response. “Self is still very much alive.” Paul, too, acknowledged, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom:7:19). Then what does “I am crucified with Christ” really mean in daily life? It doesn’t mean that we are automatically “dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom:6:11). We still have a will and choices to make.
Then what power does the Christian have over sin that the Buddhist or good moralist doesn’t have? First of all, we have peace with God “through the blood of his cross” (Col:1:20). The penalty has been paid in full, so we no longer try to live a good life out of fear that otherwise we will be damned, but out of love for the One who has saved us. “We love him, because he first loved us" (1 Jn:4:19); and love moves the lover to please the One loved at any cost. “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (Jn:14:23), our Lord said. The more we contemplate the Cross and meditate upon the price our Lord paid for our redemption, the more we will love Him; and the more we love Him, the more we will desire to please Him.
Secondly, instead of struggling to overcome sin, we accept by faith that we died in Christ. Dead men can't be tempted. Our faith is not in our ability to act as crucified persons but in the fact that Christ was crucified once and for all in full payment of the penalty for our sins.
Thirdly, after declaring that he was “crucified with Christ,” Paul added, “nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life I now live in the flesh I live by [faith in the Son of God], who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal:2:20). The just “live by faith” (Rom:1:17; Gal:3:11; Heb:10:38) in Christ; but the non-Christian can only put his faith in himself or in some self-help program or phony guru.
Tragically, the Catholic’s faith is not in the redemption Christ accomplished once and for all upon the cross, but in the Mass, which allegedly is the same sacrifice as on the cross and imparts forgiveness and new life each time it is repeated. It is claimed that the priest transforms the wafer and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ, thereby making Christ’s sacrifice on the cross perpetually present. There is no way, however, that a past event can be made present. Moreover, if the past event accomplished its purpose, then there is no reason for wanting to perpetuate it in the present, even if that could be done. For example, if a benefactor pays a creditor the debt someone owes, the debt is gone forever. It would be meaningless to speak of re-presenting or reenacting or perpetuating the payment in the present. One could well remember with gratitude the payment that was made, but no reenactment would have any virtue since there no longer remains any debt to be paid.
As Christ died, He cried in triumph, “It is finished,” using a Greek expression that meant that the debt had been paid in full. Yet the new Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “As sacrifice, the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead and to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God” (par 1414, p 356). That is like trying to continue paying installments of a debt that has been paid in full. The Mass is a denial of the sufficiency of the payment Christ made for sin upon the cross! The Catholic lives with the uncertainty of wondering how many more Masses it may take to get him to heaven.
Many Protestants live in similar uncertainty, fearful that they may yet be lost if they fail to live a good enough life or lose their faith or turn their backs upon Christ. There is a blessed finality to the cross that delivers us from such insecurity. Christ need never be crucified again; nor can those who have been “crucified with Christ” be “uncrucified” and then “recrucified”! Paul declared: “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col:3:3). What assurance for time and for eternity!