The tendency over the past 50 years in some Christian circles has been to say:
Jesus died on the cross so we could go to heaven.
The epitome of this approach was an evangelism strategy developed by the Reverend D. James Kennedy, pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In home visits, church members would ask prospects: “Do you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?”
At Seminary, we learned this method in a slightly modified form. However, it has always seemed incomplete to those coming from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective. In Matthew 28:16-20, the passage commonly called the “Great Commission,” Jesus outlined our mission not as helping people make sure their ticket is punched for the heavenly bus ride. Rather, it is a call for people to follow Jesus in the here-and-now:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).
Common Evangelical parlance says that we must “get saved.” Strangely, there is often little mention of this in relationship to following Jesus. An experience of praying a “sinner’s prayer” becomes the be-all and end-all of our interaction with individuals. Discipleship – the act of following Jesus and growing in holiness – seems to be relegated to an optional activity. To this, Gregory Boyd responds:
To place faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, therefore, is inseparable from the pledge to live faithfully as a disciple of Christ.
Even this needs more clarity, for a decision to “be saved” is a decision to turn our backs on wrongdoing and to follow Jesus together. The Great Commission is explicit at this point since disciples are to be baptized, a sign of our abandonment of evil ways and our initiation into the church. In meeting together we find strength and mutual encouragement. An ember separated from the fire soon grows cold, but when left piled up with other embers keeps glowing and producing warmth. It is together that we can learn to obey all that Christ commanded, in love holding each other accountable.
But let’s return to the original question: Why did Jesus die on the cross?
We’ve seen so far that the answer “so that we could go to heaven” is inadequate in that is skips over the crucial notion of discipleship. It neglects to mention that our one day being with Jesus in heaven will be because we’ve followed him there first.
A better answer to the question would be:
Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.
In the film, Apollo 13, the astronaut character played by Tom Hanks radios back to earth: “Houston, we have a problem.” In the same way, the Bible teaches that each of us has a problem, and that problem is sin. Sins are the evil actions we commit that estrange us from God. These acts of disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4) set us on a path that ultimately leads to our destruction (Romans 6:23). To follow the path of sin is to follow what Jesus called the “broad path” (Matthew 7:13). On the other hand, God gives us the power to choose to follow Christ. A decision to follow him is a decision – by God’s help – to turn away from the path of destruction and take another path, a narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
When the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child, the angel told Mary what name to give the newborn. He was to be called Jesus, derived from the Hebrew word Yeshua (salvation). And what would Jesus’ mission on earth be? He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, KJV).
These days some want to rewrite Matthew 1:21 to say that Jesus will save his people not from their sins but in their sins. It is like we believe that since Jesus saves me, it doesn’t matter how I live. John Wesley (1703-91) called this false doctrine antinomianism, or lawlessness. He saw it as the most widespread and deadly error of his day. Yet the writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus died in order for us to live transformed lives:
Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood (Hebrews 13:12, NRSV).
In this verse, to sanctify is to purify. God longs to make us like Jesus, to clean us up! Nina Gunter insists: “Grace does not leave us where it found us.” This is exactly the opposite of the slogans we hear, such as “I’m only human” or “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” You may have been a sinner, but that was then, this is now (1 Corinthians 6:11). Now, we are followers of Jesus Christ, reconciled to God, adopted into God’s family! Jesus can change us; he can save us from our sin, or he is no Savior at all.
Church leaders are wringing their hands, wondering what they can do to make the church grow again. May I suggest sinning Christianity is the problem? Until we get to the place where we are sick of our sin and desperate for God’s holy love to fill us, we will have nothing of value to offer to people who look on and see only the same filth and absence of love that they can find 24/7 elsewhere. If the church has a PR problem, it’s only because it has a sin problem. How can we offer deliverance if we ourselves are still enchained?
Heaven isn’t enough. Jesus died for more than to take us to heaven. He died so that as his true followers we can live new lives, transformed lives, lives characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit, spilling over with God’s holy love right here on earth. May the Lord renew His church both individually and corporately!
Staircase to heaven: picturesofheaven.net