Theologians have pondered the cross for centuries yet still have not been able to fully explain its meaning. There are many verses in the New Testament that speak of the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth that day long ago outside the walls of Jerusalem. Among these, some from Paul’s letter to the Romans are among the best known:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:8-9, NIV).
We were still sinners.
To be a sinner is to sin, to disobey God either by doing what God forbids or refusing to do what God requires (1 John 3:4, James 4:17). The amazing thing about Romans 5:8 is that we deserved judgment but received grace, favor from heaven that we never earned. God could in anger have said to humanity after the disobedience of Adam and Eve: “You’ve made your bed. Now, lie in it.” Yet from somewhere deep down in the great heart of this Three-in-One God, compassion welled up. A baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem, Immanuel, “God with us.” Mary – a faithful young Jewish woman who had never had sex with a man – was confused. How could she be pregnant? What was this all about? Yet this miraculous conception had a purpose. The angel instructed Mary to name the child Jesus – “the LORD saves” – for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, NIV).
In the Old Testament, sin always required a sacrifice to atone, to make human beings once again at-one with God. Reflecting on the book of Leviticus, the writer to the Hebrews observed:
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22, NIV).
But God demonstrated his love.
On the day Jesus died on the cross, that was far from obvious for the men and women who had followed him for three years. The evidence seemed to point in the opposite direction, that God was demonstrating hatred toward Jesus. Did not Jesus himself – borrowing the words of Psalm 22:1 – cry out:
” ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani? – which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ “
Anyone hung on a tree was considered cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). That their Lord had died naked and brutally beaten could only have been interpreted as divine abandonment – or was it?
As the disciples thought back over the time they had spent with their Lord, the cross finally made sense of some things that at the time were incomprehensible. They remembered the words of John the Baptist when Jesus came to be baptized in the river Jordan. Jesus’ cousin saw him coming, then announced loud enough for all to hear: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NIV). As for Mary, the mother of Jesus, surely now the words of the angel made sense. Jesus himself had warned his disciples that he would die in Jerusalem and rise again after three days (Mark 8:31). Somehow, they had not been ready to hear those words. They filtered them out.
Now, what had looked like hate and abandonment suddenly began to look like love. The death of Jesus was not in vain. It fulfilled a divine purpose and was motivated by God’s love for us, for me! The innocent died so that the guilty might live.
We have now been justified.
Sinners merit God’s anger and punishment. Yet Paul says in Romans 5:9 that in Christ, we have been saved from God’s wrath. We can be justified, forgiven, pardoned!
Transformation always begins when our broken relationship with God is restored, thanks to what Jesus has done for us.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a well-known writer and naturalist. As he neared death, his aunt came to visit with him. She asked: “Have you made your peace with God?” Thoreau replied: “I didn’t know that we had ever quarreled.” Thoreau’s response underscores the truth that we must be willing to admit that we have wronged God or else why seek God’s forgiveness? Confession is a prerequisite for pardon. 1 John 1:8-9 (NIV) teaches:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
From pardon to purity: transformation God’s way
To be reconciled to God brings the blessing of adoption into God’s family (Romans 8:15). Likewise, from that moment when we are reconciled, we become disciples of Jesus Christ, followers of his way. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis taught that Christians are to be “little Christs.” This is not possible on our own, but our transformation to become Christlike disciples begins immediately once we have been forgiven and agreed to let God direct us onto a new path.
This new mindset – a willingness to forsake our sins, to let God change us since we are powerless to change ourselves – is called repentance. Placing our faith in Christ and what he has done for us at the cross, nothing short of a miracle transpires. Jesus calls this being “born again” (John 3:3), from which we get the terms new birth or regeneration. Singer Keith Green recounts his own experience of deciding to follow Jesus, saying it was “like waking up from the longest dream.” Paul insists that we become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). With the Holy Spirit of God now living inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:18), God makes everything new.
The word that describes God’s transforming work in our heart and life is sanctification. One meaning of the term is to be set apart for a sacred use. Some of the utensils used by the Hebrew priests in the Tabernacle were to be sanctified, i.e. used only in the sacrifice of animals in the worship of God (Leviticus 8:10-11). In the same way, the follower of Jesus is to consider himself or herself as belonging totally to God. The Christlike disciple does not have the option to specify which parts of his or her life God may control. To be entirely sanctified means that all that we are and have is now under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). When God has all that we are, then God’s holy presence – God’s purity and love – fill us. Sin becomes distasteful as our attention focuses less-and-less on self-gratification and more-and-more on how we can love and serve others in the name of Jesus.
God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.
At 16, I took my first job, working in the produce department of a grocery store. One night, my boss asked me to mop the floor of the back room. I did the job the best I knew how, but he was unsatisfied. When this went on for several nights, he finally asked me to demonstrate what I had been doing. “Greg,” he said, “you’ll never get the floor clean if you use a dirty mop dipped in dirty water. You’ll just keep spreading the dirt around.” The next night, I changed the dirty mop head for a clean one and frequently changed out the water. Success! The floor was clean and my boss was happy.
Looking at the church today, sometimes I think about mopping floors. We’ve understood that transformation of the world is not a distraction from the Gospel work. It is Gospel work. But unless we recognize that God must first transform us, then we risk just being dirty mops dipped in dirty water, spreading the dirt around and changing nothing. We cannot assume that just because individuals have been in the church all their lives that they have encountered the living Christ in a life-changing way! Each of us must decide to follow Jesus. Pardon and purity are available, but we must individually acknowledge our sin and make our peace with God through Christ (Romans 5:1). Paul challenges each of us:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2, NIV).
A key part of changing the world is allowing God the Holy Spirit to transform us first, then inviting others to journey with us as we follow Jesus together. Christlike disciples make other Christlike disciples. God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.
Summing it all up
The cross towers before us, a symbol of God’s love and the sacrifice of Jesus so that we can be saved from our sins. In the cross, Jesus built a bridge between God and humanity, offering his own blood so that we can be forgiven and cleansed, set apart for God’s own use. Justification and sanctification describe the radical transformation that God works in the lives of those who turn their back on their sins and decide to follow Jesus. As we become Christlike disciples – spurning sin and hungering for God – God uses us to make more Christlike disciples. God sends us out arm-in-arm into the world. Purified and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we become agents of the change God desires in society and all creation. What a mission!