The Cross, Our Focus

The very fact that in my mind it goes without saying is probably reason to say it: as Christians, the Cross of Christ is our focus…our focus for doctrine, praxis, theology, liturgy, life in general, etc.

Over at ‘Glory to God for All Things,’ Fr. Stephen has compiled and reposted a lengthy post on the Cross as the foundation of (Orthodox) ecclesiology. It has taken me several days to read, re-read, and digest it all, but as usual, he makes some wonderful points that we would all do well to ponder. I found the following two points exceptionally helpful:

1. Theology cannot be compartmentalized.

As much as we rationalistic Americans (who are highly influenced by the Enlightenment) like to create nice, discreet ways of packaging, organizing, and presenting just about everything, we must resist this practice with respect to our theology and thinking about our salvation. Unfortunately, the most popular classes and topics of discussion at my seminary were Systematic Theology, which by its very definition compartmentalizes our thoughts of God into nice, tidy, discreet areas. I say unfortunately because, while this approach is well-suited for discussion, Scripture simply does not allow us to break God’s acts (or our thinking about them) into such perfect categories. Much to my discredit, as a young, budding Reformed theologian, I was over zealous to jump right into Systematics, prior to spending enough time on studying Scripture…the right approach would be to study Scripture first, then perhaps Biblical theology, and finally Systematic theology. Many years later, I am still trying to ‘get over it’ and give the testimony of Scripture the precedence it deserves over the proof-texting tendencies of Systematics.

As Fr. Stephen writes:

There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

Rightly, Fr. Stephen reminds us that all our salvation ‘is encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ In other words, the cross must be the very center of our doctrine and practice. Even more, the cross must be the lens by which we understand the whole of Scripture. Because it may cause confusion, I may not use the exact words he does when he says, ‘All of our faith, is one,’ but I think I read him rightly and would agree with his understanding that, ‘Our salvation is one whole…encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ It is difficult for us to think like this, as Fr. Stephen points out, but it is essential if we are to keep our mooring in the right place…the cross.

2. Theology (doctrine and praxis) must necessarily be cruciform (i.e., cross-centered).

Fr. Stephen uses four points to flesh this out more precisely, but we can profitably look only at the first here. (I encourage those who are interested to spend some time reading his entire post). He writes, “The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.”

One could spend an entire life thinking on this one point! At first we may be inclined to simply nod and assent to this first point. “Of course the cross is integral to understanding the work of Christ,” we say, giving our best Sunday School answer. There is so much more, however, that meets the eye here even in something as familiar as the cross. Perhaps our over-familiarity (if I may be so bold) with the cross, especially in Evangelical circles has made us unintentionally blind to the true depths of wonder going on at Calvary. Think with me for just a minute about all of the amazingly difficult tensions and truths of the cross:

  • The cross is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, a ransom (life for life) to pay a penalty and redeem those under a curse…we like to think we have a pretty good handle on this concept, but there is nothing even remotely close in our contemporary world (except perhaps capital punishment) as a blood sacrifice for sin
  • God the Father, in his wrath, requires payment of the infinite penalty of sin…a payment that cannot be waived in his justice
  • God the Son, in his love and mercy, voluntarily becomes the necessary sacrifice as the only one capable (as God and man) of offering an infinite ransom for an infinite penalty
  • At the cross, in a moment in time, an transaction of infinite worth (in its punishment and merit) took place in a finite point in time
  • Do I need to go on? I haven’t even touched the mystery of the incarnation, asked how the Trinity can be one in purpose yet seems to be divided here, etc.

The cross is the intersection of Law and Gospel…perfectly demonstrating both the infinite wrath of God against sin and the infinite mercy of God in providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. At the cross, these two seemingly mutually exclusive realities crash together in the world-changing event of all time! Our rationalistic tendencies are to discount the event altogether (atheism), try to explain away the difficulties for our own placation (liberalism), compartmentalize these events to ease explanation, etc. Alas, we cannot do any of these things! We are forced to stand (or better, to prostrate ourselves) in awe of the wonderful majesty of our Triune God.

In his famous sermon on the merits of meditating on the sufferings of Christ on the cross (a sermon found here), Luther speaks to those comfortable in their sins (at times each of us), reminds us of the terrible wrath of God against sin and sinners that necessitated the crucifixion, and points out that one proper response to thinking on the cross ought to be complete terror. At the same time, to those overwhelmed by their sins and despairing of hope (at times each of us), Luther reminds us of the great love of God in Christ who provided the total sacrifice for sin and points out the other proper response to thinking on the cross, complete comfort.

Surely all of these wonderful thoughts, and more, should guide our every thought, word and deed as we sojourn in this world. It must affect all aspects of:

  • our theology…as we focus not on the latest vapid fad (Left Behind, Prayer of Jabez, etc.) but on Christ alone
  • our ecclesiology, as Fr. Stephen points out…as we strive to imitate Christ (even) in our interactions with one another instead of how we sometimes shamefully treat one another in church
  • our worship…as we focus not on amusement and ‘relevance’ but the centrality of the cross and true gospel
  • our hope…which in all things can be found truly and only in Christ, nowhere else
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One thought on “The Cross, Our Focus

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