Friday: What Does Christ’s Death Mean?

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On Friday — the day we call Good Friday — Jesus Christ was nailed to an old, rugged Cross. I can only imagine. The cosmos paused in stunned silence to see the Son of God, bearing our sin, forsaken of God, torn by a whip and hounded by Satan. There he hung, the God-man, winning the ages-old battle for souls. There has never been a moment like that moment — and all the ages of eternity will echo with ceaseless wonder at what happened the day Jesus died.

I thought it would be good to apply our minds and hearts, on this day, to that central day of history when our Savior died for us all.

There has never been a message so amazing as the gospel. No religion offers anything like it. Its astonishing gift of grace sets the gospel of Jesus in a class by itself. Paul summarized the gospel in one sentence, so simple we easily overlook its riches:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4, NAS95. Continue reading

Wednesday: What is Christ’s Death Worth?

Mary-Magdalene-Anointing-Jesus-stained-glassOn Wednesday of Jesus’ last week, he again told his disciples he would be crucified: “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:2, NKJV). They didn’t get it, or if they got it, they didn’t like it.

Two equal & opposite events immediately happened, side by side:

1. A woman anointed Jesus for burial from an expensive alabaster flask. The disciples were offended: “But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste [loss]? “For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.'” (Matthew 26:8, 9, NKJV). Jesus correct them, saying she had done a “good work” for him.

2. Judas bargained with the chief priests to betray Jesus. They settled on the standard price of a slave, 30 pieces of silver. And said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. (Matthew 26:15, NKJV).

What is Christ’s death worth? Continue reading

Three Myths about Grace

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1980s: How are you doing? Fine, thank you.

1990s: How are you doing? Great.

2000s: How are you doing? Awesome!

2010s: How are you doing? Epic!!!!!!!

Over time, words lose their meaning. Like cars hooked together on a train, words carry freight. That freight consists of meaning and emotion (denotation and connotation, to be showy). Apparently, for some words, the freight leaks out. We use and overuse words to the point they have little meaning. If you tell me your day has been awesome or epic, I am sure you mean neither “that which produces jaw-dropping awe mingled with dread at powers beyond comprehension” or “worthy of universal acclaim and a big fat book like the Odyssey.” What you mean is “fine,” as our grandparents would say.

Word deflation. Continue reading

Why Boaz is NOT Ruth’s Kinsman-Redeemer

BoazSandalUnder the Bible’s laws for the Jews, there was a certain institution called levirate marriage. The laws of levirate marriage are found in Deut 25:5-10. These laws required that if a man died, his brother must marry the widow and produce an heir. Here you go:

“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. “And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. “But if the man does not want to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.’ “Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, ‘I do not want to take her,’ “then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother’s house.’ “And his name shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal removed.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, NKJV).

Under the law, the child would the child of the brother who died.

The man who undertook such a marriage was called the kinsman redeemer. Continue reading

Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 2

[This is part two of a two-part entry. Click here for Legalism’s Knockout Blow, part 1]

Mural, St. Sulprice, Price

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Why would God kick a guy when he’s down? Isn’t he supposed to be loving and kind? Why would he pick on Jacob at the lowest point in his life? Is he that uncaring?

Or could it be that he’s lovingly trying to condense a lifetime of legalism into a single encounter that he might uproot it once for all?

Verse 25 makes the stupefying claim that puny, frightened Jacob prevailed against infinite, Almighty God. What’s going on? These Scriptures present an acted parable—depicting how legalism stretches its tentacles into every area of life with God.

First tentacle: the idea that we are on equal footing with God. Legalism, by nature, demotes God to our own mercenary level and imagines we can go nose-to-nose with him. Was Jacob indeed on equal footing with God? Of course not. God wrestled him the way a father wrestles his five-year old. And, like the five-year old, legalists don’t get it. Like Jacob, they imagine themselves “winners” in the eyes of God; they believe they can, by human effort, merit his approval. Continue reading

Legalism’s Knockout Blow, pt 1

An Unusual Interpretation of the Day Jacob Wrestled God

Jacob-Wrestles-with-God

“We tried to get into your church, but the ushers wouldn’t let us in.” Two high school girls from my youth group berated themselves for not following my church’s unspoken rules. “Some men at the door told us we couldn’t wear shorts in church. We’re soooo sorry!”

The vein in my left temple throbbed as I told them I was the one who should be sorry. Our youth group had been praying for two seventeen-year old girls who had just joined the group and had never attended church anywhere. They came—on a hot, muggy Chicago Sunday. Two ushers-turned-bouncers stopped them dead. “Oh no. You can’t come into church looking like that.”

The girls turned away crestfallen, and told me their story at youth group. They blamed themselves. They felt guilty for not measuring up to God’s standards.

Score one for legalism.

Anthony snorted and laughed out loud during my sermon, and later apologized for disrupting the service. He reacted to my mention of a chapel in Italy that contained the Scala Sancta. The “Sacred Stairs” were reported to be the very steps on which Jesus climbed to stand trial before Pilate. As the story goes, St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, commanded them dismantled, shipped to Italy, and reassembled in Rome.

I explained that, for centuries, faithful pilgrims climbed up those stone stairs on aching knees, pausing to pray on each of twenty-eight marble steps. To this day, no one may stand on the Scala Sancta. Pilgrims climb up on their knees, and exit via another stairway on their feet. For this act of contrition, penitents are promised a plenary indulgence—full pardon from the temporal punishments due all unrecompensed sins to date.

That’s when Anthony snorted. He later explained that he’d grown up in Italy, and his grandmother made him climb the Scala Sancta every week. He told how she stood by weeping, wringing her hands, and praying for his eternal soul.

I admire her dedication, but can’t agree with her theology. Score another one for legalism.

Every Christian is a recovering legalist. We come from a long line of legalists, all the way back to Adam and Eve who sewed fig leaves to cover their shame. Instead of approaching God as empty-handed charity-cases, legalists approach him as religious success-stories who, through their hard work and sacrifice, have earned a spiritual paycheck. “Come on, God. Pay up.”

God has a way of knocking the legalism right out of us.

Case in point, Jacob. Genesis 32 tells the strange story of his wrestling match with God. Is it true that we must win a contest with God before he gives us what we need and want? Or is this story a biblical case-study on God’s way of delivering a knock-out blow to legalism? Let’s see.

The Context: A Personal Judgment Day

Jacob is about to collide with the brother he cheated years ago. He’s frantic, thinking Esau is out for blood. He dreads the heavy hammer of retributive justice – well-deserved – and scrambles for a solution.

He does so in a schizophrenic way. His first approach to deliverance is through grace. In v. 9, he appeals to the goodness of God, who “promised to prosper” him. The Hebrew word tob, translated “prosper” refers to God’s settled disposition to do good this his people.  Then, in v. 10, he confesses, “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness [hesed] and the faithfulness you have shown your servant…” The word hesed refers to God’s policy of bestowing benefits on those who don’t deserve them and haven’t earned them. Hesed is a part of the Hebrew vocabulary of grace. Jacob prays a grace-based prayer.

Too bad he didn’t stick with grace. Jacob immediately shifted into legalism mode and, by his actions, undercut everything he just prayed.

The Human Solution: Paying the Price Ourselves

Jacob’s second approach to deliverance is through blatant bribery. He sent ahead treasure-laden caravans to buy his brother’s forgiveness. He offered goats, camels, rams, bulls, and donkeys.

We might laugh now, but how many times have we done the same thing? How many times have we sought divine deliverance through caravans of offerings, rituals, good behaviors, self-sacrifice, and religiosity? How many times have we expected God to answer our prayers on account of a week’s good behavior? Every time we try to pay our way out of judgment or into a blessing, haven’t we stepped into Jacob’s dusty sandals?

Legalism thrives in the dank atmosphere of self-atonement. We may not climb up stairs on our knees, and we may not believe in religious penance, but legalism degrades our Christian walk into a moment-by-moment penance. We so easily take onto our shoulders the hulking burden of paying for guilt—a burden than only Jesus Christ can and did bear in full on Calvary’s cross.

I’ve been a Christian for decades, yet still I catch myself undercutting the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. I know it’s stupid, but I have a mental closet crammed with fig-leaf garments I’ve sewn together to cover my guilt and shame. The essence of legalism is humans by human effort seeking to merit the blessing of God.

It’s time for God’s loving whack upside Jacob’s legalistic head.

The Encounter: Wrestling with God

Jacob prepares for dawn’s showdown with his fraternal Grim Reaper. He splits his family into two caravans, hoping one will survive. He sends forth his bribe. He waits in solitude by a brook.

Enter an Unnamed Somebody who picks a fight with dispirited Jacob. Later, he will worship that Somebody, identifying him as God (v. 28). God comes down to wrestle Jacob.

Should we wrestle God for answers to our prayers? What was Jacob thinking? What do you think God was thinking? What have you heard about this story? How has it been interpreted for you? 

(Click here for Legalism’s Knockout Blow, part 2)

“But God…” A Dozen Reversals of Life’s Heartaches, pt 2

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Fussy grammarians identify the word “BUT” as an adversative conjunction; something like the word “and” with a contrary attitude. When a decent “but” drops into a sentence, it turns the world upside down. How true, especially when the “but” unveils a divine operation — a heaven-sent miracle for life’s darkest hour.

This crabby but beautiful adversative conjunction invites your faith in a God who is the adversary of all that breaks your heart.

Today’s post is part two from an earlier post which you may find here. I hope you find comfort, strength, peace, and hope in a half dozen more “BUT GODS.”

  1. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, NKJV). As the argument goes here, you might help out a friend; you might do something good for a decent human being. We find it far easier to help a person who is decent, thrifty, brave, and clean. BUT GOD is different. He embraces us with a love that knows now bounds when we are at our worst. While we were still sinners — moral train wrecks, fallen, helpless, and still shaking our collective fist in his face — the Son of God paid the ultimate sacrifice by shedding his precious blood on Calvary’s hill. He did not fold his arms and wait till we had our act together. Christ died for us, God proved his love for us, and the invitation to heaven’s banquet was sent to us long before we ever deserved it. But God…
  2. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; (1 Corinthians 1:27, NKJV). The earliest Christian churches weren’t pretty. They attracted society’s lower classes — not many mighty, not many wealthy, not many educated saints sang the praises of God. From all outward appearances, Christianity was a rag-tag assemblage of life’s last in line. The upper-crust occupants of Downton Abbey would look down their patrician noses and scoff. Who are these rabble? Must they be so noisy? What do they matter? BUT GOD delights in choosing life’s B-Team and using us to turn the world upside down. It is not the size of your portfolio, but the quality of your heart, that puts a smile on the face of God. Not your social rank, not your Klout score, not your Amazon ranking, and not an elite pedigree that fits you for service to the kingdom of God. It is your humble receipt of grace and your glorious identity in Christ that chases away the devil’s darkness and makes the angels stand and cheer.
  3. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13, NKJV). This is one of my favorite verses. No matter what adversities assail you, God is faithful. The night may be dark, the wait may be long, the news may be bad, the hope may unravel, BUT GOD will never let you go. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
  4. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise. (Galatians 3:18, NKJV). Hi. My name is Bill and I am a recovering legalist. Having spent half my life straining every fiber to measure up to God’s impossible demands, I so love the reversal in this verse. At question is the nature of God’s way of granting heaven’s immeasurably rich inheritance to God’s people: how does this happen? What is the nature of our great salvation? Paul offers only two choices: law or promise. These two choices determine the human response. If God offers salvation based on law, then the response must be obedience, compliance with the laws of God. If that’s the case, bend over backwards and kiss heaven’s inheritance goodbye; you’ve already screwed it up. BUT GOD offers salvation, not as a law to obey, but as a PROMISE. How do you respond when a promise is made? Simply BELIEVE. Your legalistic demons may peck you into bondage and despair, BUT GOD will keep his promise: he will save you freely and forever based on the finished work of Jesus Christ if you will only believe.
  5. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, (Ephesians 2:4, NKJV). Spiritual corpses, sinful, seized by diabolical forces beyond our control, slaves to lust and passion, and “children of wrath…” That is our dossier, by nature, before the court of heaven. The slimy pit of human depravity offers no escape. Any right-thinking judge, any decent, self-respecting God, would hurl javelins of judgment our way without batting an eye. Condemnation is our due. BUT GOD, who is rich him mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses and sin, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… that in the ages to come, He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. It just doesn’t get better than that. Thank God for the shed blood of Christ!
  6. But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14, NKJV). “Image is everything.” “It’s not the truth that matters, but the perception of truth.” Every day we swim in a sea of philosophical sharks ready to shred our hope, our self-esteem, and the deepest truths about who we are in Christ. Religious pretense. Social climbing. Outward conformity to the peer group. Fit in. Be cool. Dress just right. The world’s philosophies will squeeze you into a mold that can only lead to the death of your dreams and a cold and bitter heart. The world says we must boast in our conformity to its death-dealing system. BUT GOD opens a way of escape, inviting us to glory in the Cross of Christ, to stand secure in the robes of righteousness, to rest in the grip of his hand, and to wait for his glorious appearance. Your search for significance is over — you have found it in the approval of God gained once for all by the matchless grace of the Cross.

Please click the share buttons below for Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Thanks. 

How has God reversed your fortunes? Are there any BUT GOD moments, big or small, you can point to? You can encourage us all in the comments below. 

4 Links Between Grace and Thanksgiving

I love grace, and grace loves me back. Actually, that should go the other way, Grace love me, and I love grace back. Yeah, that’s better.  If you’ve read my blog much or have listened to my sermons, you already know grace is my central theme. On this Thanksgiving week, I thought it would be fun to explore the linkages between God’s amazing grace, and our attitude of thankfulness. I’m just trying to dig underneath Thanksgiving to see what it’s really about.

Here are four links I can think of… in the comments you can add some more.

1. The Linguistic Link

Language stores up the accumulated wisdom of a culture — and the words for thankfulness reveal the conceptual link between grace and giving thanks.

When my Greek friends  say thank you, it sounds like this: ev-kar-ees-TOE. They are actually saying eucharisto in their own, beautifully Greek way. That term, Eucharist, has come to refer to the Lord’s Supper, or communion — that symbolic meal in which we remember the Lord’s death and give him thanks. It simply means thank you, and is translated Thanksgiving in Scripture.

What you might not know is that the word itself has two parts. The prefix eu– means good, valuable, or pleasant. The word charis is the main Greek word for grace. The word for grace is literally at the heart of thanksgiving.

The English language joins the club with the words gratitude and grateful, preserving the Latin word gratia, at the core. Gratia means grace in Latin just as charis means grace in Greek.

To be grateful is to recognize yourself as having been filled with grace. Even our words retain the distant memories of the linkage between thanksgiving and grace.

2. The Theological Link

To say thank you is to recognize an act as an undeserved favor. You don’t write a thank you card for your paycheck; you earned that thing. When you work hard and earn an A in a class, you don’t fall on your knees and thank your teacher for the A. No, your teacher owed you that A — you earned it. You’d be angry if you didn’t get it, just as you’d be angry if your boss withheld your paycheck.

The Bible recognizes this: “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” (Romans 4:4, NKJV).

But when that birthday present lands in your lap, or when you find your surprise iPad hidden in your spouse’s secret hiding place — when a gift is given freely without regard to what you earn or deserve, then it is a true grace, and the only decent thing to do is say THANK YOU. Especially when someone else paid the price.

To say “thank you” is to acknowledge the receipt of grace.

In our relationship with God, EVERYTHING is grace. He never owes you, never is in your debt. If even a droplet of goodness has dripped in your direction from the divine hand, you owe God a great big thank you. “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15, NKJV).

3. The Psychological Link

Sometimes we sever the link between thanksgiving and grace. This happens when we delude ourselves into an entitlement mentality. God owes me. The world owes me. My parents owe me. Society owes me. “The Man” owes me. Karma owes me. Whatever. This little bit of unreality is brought to you by your own lunacy. “What do you have that you did not receive [by grace]?” (1 Corinthians 4:7, NKJV).

To be unthankful is to refuse to acknowledge the grace in your life.

The beginning of entitlement is the end of grace and the death of a thankful spirit. Such ingratitude amazed Jesus. After he healed ten lepers only one returned to give thanks, and he was a Samaritan. Where were the other nine? “Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18, NKJV).

Where were the other nine? I don’t know. Look around the room you’re in; you just may see one. To be pouty, whiny, unthankful, or bitter… to complain about what you don’t have… to simply neglect giving thanks… is to sever your emotional life from the MOUNTAINS OF GRACE God is ready to pour out upon you.

Big mistake. I can think of nothing more miserable than a graceless existence. It is a psychologically damaging way to live.

If you need help being thankful, here’s a tip: start with your shoes and work your way up. Giving thanks produces thankfulness.

4. The Mystical Link

You are not alone if you have Jesus. He is closer to you thank you realize. If you are a Christian, he indwells you.

Why? To make you into the kind of person he was on planet earth. This doesn’t mean he sucks the personality out of you and makes you a Christlette Clone. No. He makes you yourself with all the color added, with all his character and virtue infused.

What kind of person was Jesus? HE WAS A THANKFUL PERSON. (John 11:41; Matt 11:25; Mark 14:23).

This means that every day, 24/7, the power of Christ works within you to bubble up with thanksgiving, gratitude, and praise. If you hold that in, you’ll crack. Jesus is inside you, creating a thankful heart… and he doesn’t come with an off-switch. To be unthankful, or to neglect being thankful (different things), is to act AGAINST YOUR NEW NATURE IN CHRIST.

Are you thankful? Christ put that in you. Did you have a grateful spirit? Christ did that. In the end, even the thank you’s that flow from your lips are generated by the power of God, based on the work of God through Christ within.

Even your thank you’s flow from grace. To God be all the praise.

Happy Thanksgiving.

  • Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15, NKJV).
  • But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57, NKJV).
  • Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. (2 Corinthians 2:14, NKJV).

What other links do you see between thanksgiving and grace? What are you especially thankful for this season? 

Five Must-Ask Questions for Christian Communicators

When Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free,” he meant it. Writers, preachers, and speakers should wise up: Every time you deliver God’s truth, you have the potential to unlock emotional chains in your hearer’s heart. A skilled Christian Communicator weds good theology with healthy psychology. That’s not an argument for shallow preaching, or an excuse to regurgitate pop psychology. It’s a recognition that redemption is an ongoing process of setting people free through Christ and his truth — especially from chains they didn’t realize they had.

  • If you preach to the head only, you become a dry, academic lecturer and create an audience of theological snobs and condescending doctrinal critics.
  • If you preach to the heart only, you become a manipulative puppet-master and create an audience of spiritual adrenaline-junkies… salivating for their next worship-high.
  • If you preach truth to the head even as you apply it to the heart, you set people free to become all God called them to be. And sincere seekers will flock to your message.

Here are five questions to keep asking if you want to serve up books and talks that set people free:

  1. What lies about God does my audience believe?
    God is better than and bigger than your audience believes. Let them walk away from your work inspired by God’s ability, God’s sovereignty, God’s providence, and God’s care. Unless your arguments unleash God from the lies your hearers believe — by celebrating his attributes, promises, names, character, works, and abilities — they will walk away unchanged and still trapped in the unhappiness defective theology inevitably brings. Even if you psyched them up with temporary razzle dazzle.
  2. How does my message untwist my distorted view of my identity in Christ?
    Who am I? I am who God says I am, not who my crazy parents or schoolyard bullies convinced me I am. As a fledgling pastor, an aged Gandalf in my life named Lance B. Latham (founder of Awana), told me “Teach them their riches in Christ.” I took that to heart. There is, inside of every Christian, a radiant, Christ-shaped IDENTITY eager to emerge. That self is powerful, rich, and free. But it’s crusted over by the devil’s lies. Good theology peels away those lies, and let the new creation fly free.
  3. What is God’s duty and the believer’s privilege?
    Here is my heart’s passion: to reverse the epidemic of legalism in today’s Christian messaging. Repeat after me: The primary duty lies with God. The primary duty lies with God. The primary duty lies with God. And yet… almost every sermon, and nearly every Christian best-seller, shouts forth the duty of ME. I’d be the last one to deny Christian duty, but our proportions are dysfunctionally out of whack. If you want to heal people remind them of how God has obligated himself to bless, to provide, to protect, to go to war for, and to shower his love upon them in each and every situation. This is how theology heals psychology.
  4. What super-power does my message promise that my audience needs to seize?
    Remember the little phrase, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”? Sing it. Write it. Tell it. Explain it. Develop a reputation as a speaker/preacher/writer who ENABLES your audience. Inspire them to lay hold of their divine privileges and to sally forth to slay their dragons.
  5. Where’s the grace?
    You’re not ready to communicate a truth until you see the grace in it. Is grace offered? Resisted? Explained? Illustrated? Snubbed? Defied? Distorted? Denied? Embraced? Applied? Unless you show how God’s never-failing supply, presence, work, gifts, and love apply in each specific situation, you’ll morph into nothing but Oprah with a little Jesus sprinkled on top. 

Theology heals psychology, if we will let it. In our sex-saturated, parentally-starved, narcissistic, dysfunctional, fearful culture, those who bear the mantel of a Christian Communicator need to focus ninety percent of our “practical applications” on unravelling the web of lies and installing a matrix of truth in our audience’s heart and mind, so they possess the INNER resources to live as God intended. Let us faithfully communicate Christ and him crucified — and all the beautiful truths that radiate from him — as the only Savior who sets people free.

I’d love to interact with you on this. How has theology healed psychology for you? How has theology been used to damage psychology? In the Christian messaging you’ve been exposed to, what share of the “duty” lies with you? with God? 

Remember the Cross of Christ

jesuscrossThere has never been a message so amazing as the gospel. No religion offers anything like it. Its astonishing gift of grace sets the gospel of Jesus Christ in a class by itself. Paul summarized the gospel in one sentence, so simple we easily overlook its riches:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4, NAS95.

This gospel ranks highest on our list of biblical truths; it is “of first importance.” There is no truth in Scripture more important for Christians to comprehend, cherish, rest upon, and communicate to a needy world.

The core of the gospel lies in five monosyllables:  Christ died for our sins.

A little bit of history: “Christ died.”

A little bit of theology: “For our sins.”

Our great task is to keep telling that bit of history coupled with that bit of theology for all generations, till the Lord returns.

Let’s chew on this one grammatically…

crossvandyke.jpgThe Subject:  Christ. The subject of a sentence performs the action of a sentence. Any right understanding of the gospel recognizes Jesus as the central actor in a cosmic drama that spans the ages. Christ goes to war against Sin, Satan, and Death. He does this singlehandedly, without aid from me or you. He is the focal point of the gospel’s attention, and to divert attention to anyone else’s performance shatters the gospel’s integrity.

The full name and title of Christ would be Our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but each word emphasizes something different about him.

  • When Scripture writers wish to emphasize his human nature, they call him Jesus.
  • When they wish to emphasize his divine nature, they call him Lord.
  • When they wish to emphasize his unique personhood as the God-man who came forth on a mission from God, they call him Christ, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term, Messiah.

Any accurate communication of the gospel will make Christ central. He is the sun, and all other truths orbit him. I get jittery whenever I hear a “gospel presentation” that makes US central, our works, our response, our efforts, our self-reformation, our act of giving something to God. No!  Christ is and must remain the great subject of salvation, and any gospel that doesn’t preach Christ is no gospel at all.

The Verb: died. The Greek verb is in a tense we don’t have in English: the aorist tense (say AIR-ist).  It’s a simple past tense, with a slight twist. Grammarians might call this a punctiliar aorist, meaning he died once, and he died once for all. HIS WORK IS FINISHED, and it was finished one dark day, two thousand years ago.

The terms of the Crucifixion are brutal, and worth remembering on Good Friday. Here is a medical look at Christ’s scourging:

“The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across the  shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as  the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an  oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial  bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce  large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin is hanging  in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissues.  When it is determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death, the  beating is finally stopped.” [Truman Davis, “The Crucifixion of Jesus” Arizona Medicine, March, 1965, p. 185]

On this Good Friday, it’s good to remember the death Jesus died. Please don’t turn away from this, today of all days. Here is a doctor’s description of the medical effects the crucifixion:

Most commonly, the feet were fixed to the front of the stipes by means of an iron spike driven through the first or second inter metatarsal space, just distal to the tarsometatarsal joint. It is likely that the deep peroneal nerve and branches of the medial and lateral plantar nerves would have been injured by the nails. Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.

The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hypercarbia would soon result. The onset of muscle cramps or tetanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia, would hinder respiration even further.

Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes.  Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort.  As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.

The actual cause of death by crucifixion was multifactorial and varied somewhat with each ease, but the two most prominent causes probably were hypovolemie shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Other possible contributing factors included dehydration, stress-induced arrhythmias, and congestive heart failure with the rapid accumulation of pericardial and perhaps pleural effusions. Crucifracture (breaking the legs below the knees), if performed, led to an asphyxic death within minutes.

Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or “out of the cross”).

cross2It’s easy to emotionally sanitize the Cross. It’s so easy to read, “Christ died…” and forget the awfulness of it. What Scriptures describe in two little words, all the words ever spoken or written could never do justice to. It was a real death, in a real body, of a real person, in real history. This is the heart of the gospel. Christ died…

Why?

The Prepositional Phrase: for our sins. The first two words of the gospel are history. These next three represent theology.  We state this so casually that we can easily overlook its meaning.

The Greek construction here consists of the preposition huper (“for”, say HU-pair) plus the plural noun (sins) spelled  a certain way. This spelling makes it a grammatical form called the genitive case. Huperplus the genitive indicates SUBSTITUTION. We could translate this: Christ died AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR our sins.

This is the biblical emphasis of the message of the Cross. Christ did not die simply as our moral example. He did not die simply to prove his love. He did not die simply to topple Satan. He did not die simply to advance God’s kingdom and cause in the world.

He died SUPREMELY, and above all other reasons, as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. God punished him for our sins instead of punishing us. God laid our sins on him. God executed him.  Whatever condemnation, wrath, punishment, hell, and agony our sins deserved, Christ endured in full measure.

What great love! Who can comprehend such a sacrifice? Who could fathom the agony of the Cross and the love that motivated it?

This is the gospel; it is the only gospel worth the name. It is the only gospel the Bible knows. It is the only gospel that makes the Christian’s heart skip a beat.  It is the only gospel that saves a soul.

Do you believe?

Bible scholars call this the vicarious atonement, or the substitutionary atonement for sin.  Christ died for our sins, as our subsitute, in our place.

He left his Father’s throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine;crossgrunewaldalive in him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach th’ eternal throne,and claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Amazing love, how can it be,
That Thou, My God, shouldst die for me. 
(Charles Wesley)

Thank God for Good Friday. Thank God for the Cross.  Thank God for Jesus. Thank God for a gospel so rich we can never fathom it, but so simple we can say it in five monosyllables: Christ died for our sins.

For comments today, please only brief expressions of gratitude to God, or favorite brief Scripture verses.