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The universal symbol of Christianity is the cross. The cross crystallizes the essence of the ministry of Jesus. It captures the deepest dimension of His grand passion. So central to Christianity is the cross that Paul, engaging in a bit of hyperbole, said that he was determined to preach nothing but Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Using words instead of oil paint or a chisel and stone, Paul employs a technique that was later called the “fruitful moment” by great artists. Rembrandt and Michelangelo would sketch scores of scenes from the lives of their subjects before choosing one to memorialize in their art. For example, Michelangelo sought to capture the essence of David in one specific pose.
For Paul, the fruitful moment in the life and ministry of Jesus was the cross. In a sense, all of Paul’s writing was simply further commentary on this defining act, that ministry in which Jesus met His hour, the ministry for which He was born, and for which He was baptized. This was the ministry that Jesus was preordained to carry out. He moved inexorably toward the moment that theology calls the grand passion of Christ, before which He sweated drops of blood. Everything in the life of Jesus converged in the point of climax of His death.
If we were able to read the New Testament for the first time, as if we were the first generation of people to hear the message, I think that it would be crystal clear that this event—the crucifixion of Christ, along with the resurrection and ascension—was at the very core of the preaching, teaching, and catechizing of the New Testament community. If it is true that the cross is of central and not peripheral importance to biblical Christianity, it is essential that Christians have some understanding of its meaning in biblical terms. That would be true in any generation, but I think it is particularly necessary in this generation.
the significance of the cross
I doubt that there has ever been a time in the two thousand years of Christian history when the significance of the cross, the centrality of the cross, and the question of the necessity of the cross has been such a controversial matter as it is right now. Never before in Christian history has the need for atonement been as widely challenged as it is today. From a historical perspective, there have been other times in church history when theologies emerged that regarded the cross of Christ as an unnecessary event. These theologies declared that it had value, to be sure, but that it was not something that people needed in any ultimate or significant way.
I find it interesting how so many people explain to me that the reason they are not Christians is not so much that they dispute the truth claims of Christianity, but rather that they have never been persuaded of the need for Christ. How many times have you spoken with people who have said, “It may or may not be true, but I personally don’t feel the need for Jesus,” or, “I don’t need the church,” or, “I don’t need Christianity”? When I hear comments like this, my spirit groans within me. I tremble to think of the consequences if people persist in such an attitude. If we could persuade people of the identity of Christ and the truth of His work, it would become instantly apparent that every person in the world needs it and that without it there would be no salvation from God.
While in a shopping mall not long ago, I wandered into a large bookstore. It was a secular bookstore with rack after rack of books for sale. Various divisions of the bookstore were marked prominently with labels such as fiction, nonfiction, business, sports, self-improvement, sex and marriage, and so forth. All the way back in the rear of the store, there was a section on religion. This section had about four shelves. It was the smallest section in the store. The material on those racks was hardly compatible with orthodox, classical Christianity. I asked myself, “What’s wrong with this store that all they sell is fiction and self-improvement, and they don’t seem to place any value on the content of biblical truth?” Then I remembered that the store owners are not there as a ministry. They are there for business. They are there to make a profit. The reason they don’t have many Christian books for sale is that there are not many people who come in and ask, “Where can I find a book that will teach me about the depths and the riches of the atonement of Christ?”
Then I thought, Perhaps if I go to a Christian bookstore, I’ll find such an emphasis. But no, Christian bookstores offer precious little literature on the cross of Christ. I thought about that while sitting in the mall and watching people walk back and forth in front of me. I got an impression. It was a scary impression that these masses of people walking back and forth were not concerned about an atonement for sin because they were basically convinced that they had no need for such an atonement. Such an atonement is simply not a “felt need” for people today. People are not pressed by the questions: “How can I be reconciled to God? How can I escape the judgment of God?”
One thing that indisputably has been lost from our culture is the idea that human beings are privately, personally, inexorably accountable to God for their lives. Imagine what would happen if suddenly the lights came on and everyone in the world said: “Hey, someday I will stand before my Maker, and I will have to give an account for every word that I have spoken, every deed that I have done, every thought that I have thought, and every task that I have failed to do. I am accountable.”
If everyone were to wake up to that fact instantly, a couple of things could happen. People could say, “Well, yes, I’m accountable, but isn’t it great that the One to whom and before whom I am accountable isn’t really concerned about what kind of life I lead, because He understands that boys will be boys and that girls will be girls?” If everyone were to say something like that, maybe nothing would change. But if people understood two things—if they understood that God is holy and that sin is an offense against His holiness—then they would be breaking down the doors of our churches, pleading, “What must I do to be saved?”
We may like to think that we don’t need a Savior, but the atonement and the cross and Christianity operate on the primary assumption that we are in desperate need of salvation. That assumption may not be shared by our modern culture, but that does not lessen the reality of the need.
I’m afraid that in the United States of America today, the prevailing doctrine of justification is not justification by faith alone. It is not even justification by good works or by a combination of faith and works. The prevailing notion of justification in our culture today is justification by death. All one has to do to be received into the everlasting arms of God is to die. That is all that’s required. Death somehow erases our sin—an atonement is not necessary.
A theologian friend of mine says frequently that in church history there have been only three basic types of theology. There have been a multitude of theological schools with subtle nuances, but in the final analysis there are only three kinds of theology: what we call Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and Augustinianism. Virtually every church in Western church history, and in Eastern church history as well, has fallen into one of those three categories. Semi-Pelagianism and Augustinianism represent significant debates within the Christian family—differences of opinion on biblical interpretation and theology among Christians. But Pelagianism in its various forms does not involve mere intramural issues among Christians. Pelagianism is at best sub-Christian and at worst anti-Christian. Pelagianism in the fourth century, Socinianism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and what we would call liberalism as a distinctive theology today are essentially non-Christian because at the heart of these views is a denial of the atonement of Jesus Christ—a denial of the cross as an act of satisfying God’s justice. For centuries, orthodox Christianity has seen the atonement as a sine qua non of the Christian faith. Take away the cross as an atoning act, and you take away Christianity.
It is not as if the Pelagians, the Socinians, and liberalism have no view of the significance of the cross of Christ. They declare that the cross shows Jesus dying as a moral example for man-kind—as an existential hero, as One who brings inspiration to us by His commitment and devotion to self-sacrifice and humanistic concerns. But these examples of morality fall short of atonement.
When I was in seminary, one of my classmates gave a sermon in homiletics class on the cross of Christ as the Lamb slain for us. When he was finished, the professor was furious. He verbally attacked the student while he was still standing in the pulpit. He said in his rage, “How dare you preach a substitutionary view of the atonement in this day and age?” He saw the substitutionary view of the atonement as an archaic, old-fashioned notion of one person dying to bear the sins of others. He categorically rejected the cross as a kind of cosmic transaction by which we are reconciled to God.
But if we take away the reconciling action of Christ from the New Testament, we are left with nothing but moralisms that are anything but unique and are hardly worth persuading people to give their lives for. In Pelagianism and liberalism there is no salvation. In Pelagianism and liberalism there is no Savior. Because in Pelagianism and liberalism there is no conviction that salvation is necessary.
Excerpt adapted from Saved from What? by R.C. Sproul, © 2021.