Category Archives: Cross-centered life

Why Gospel Cultures Are So Hard To Build

Wise pastor Ray Ortlund addresses this problem throughout his forthcoming book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Crossway; April 30, 2014). He writes this on pages 82–83:

A gospel culture is harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine. It requires more relational wisdom and finesse. It involves stepping into a kind of community unlike anything we’ve experienced, where we happily live together on a love we can’t create. A gospel culture requires us not to bank on our own importance or virtues, but to forsake self-assurance and exult together in Christ alone.

This mental adjustment is not easy, but living in this kind of community is wonderful. We find ourselves saying with Paul, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things” — all the trophies of our self-importance, all the wounds of our self-pity, every self-invented thing that we lug around as a way of getting attention — “and count them as dung in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).

Paul did not regard the loss of his inflated self as sacrificial. Who admires his own dung? It is a relief to be rid of our distasteful egos! And when a whole church together luxuriates in Christ alone, that church embodies a gospel culture. It becomes a surprising new kind of community where sinners and sufferers come alive because the Lord is there, giving himself freely to the desperate and undeserving.

But how easy it is for a church to exist in order to puff itself up! How hard it is to forsake our own glory for a higher glory!

The primary barrier to displaying the beauty of Jesus in our churches comes from the way we re-insert ourselves into that sacred center that belongs to him alone. Exalting ourselves always diminishes his visibility. That is why cultivating a gospel culture requires a profound, moment by moment “unselfing” by every one of us. It is personally costly, even painful.

What I am proposing throughout this book is not glib or shallow. So much is set against us, within and without. But the triumph of the gospel in our churches is still possible, as we look to Christ alone. He will help us.


Crucified with Christ

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” –Galatians 2:20

Primitive Christian Worship

Although I disagree with a few strands of his overall theology, I appreciate what Ethelbert Stauffer writes about corporate Christian worship in his New Testament Theology [(Macmillan: 1955), 201]:

The worship of the primitive Church at every point took it back to the coming of Christ, the Christ-event. So it is the good news of the gospel that constitutes the real centre of her services of worship. The Word of Jesus Christ must have its course, said Luther, in the German Mass. It must dwell amongst us richly, declared Paul (Col. 3.16; cf. 1.27). So it came about that the prophecies and histories of the OT were read and expounded; the sermon set forth the mighty acts of God in the fulness of time (Acts 13.15 ff.); the correspondence of the apostles, new and old alike, the epistles, which are very much like sermons when read to the congregations, these were read and so, with their message, their thanksgivings and doxologies, helped to bring out the full meaning of Christian worship.

But Christian worship was ‘also’, most certainly, a service to the world. Yet the primitive Church did not serve mankind in solemn rites and cultic practices, in pious instructions and edifying spirituality. Christian worship rooted men out of their self-centred individualism into an extra nos — away from all that is subjective — up to that which is simply objective. This was its service to humanity. It summoned the nations to worship the crucified.

The Tone of Joy

Writes theologian B. B. Warfield (Works, 7:114):

We are sinners and we know ourselves to be sinners, lost and helpless in ourselves. But we are saved sinners; and it is our salvation which gives the tone to our life, a tone of joy which swells in exact proportion to the sense we have of our ill-desert; for it is he to whom much is forgiven who loves much, and who, loving, rejoices much.

Adolf Harnack declares that this mood was brought into Christianity by Augustine. Before Augustine the characteristic frame of mind of Christians was the racking unrest of alternating hopes and fears. Augustine, the first of the Evangelicals, created a new piety of assured rest in God our Savior, and the psychological form of this new piety was, as Harnack phrases it, “solaced contrition,” — affliction, for sin, yes, the deepest and most poignant remorse for sin, but not unrelieved remorse, but appeased remorse.

There is no other joy on earth like that of appeased remorse: it is not only in heaven but on earth also that the joy over one sinner that repents surpasses that over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.

A Soul-Satisfying Spectacle

Octavius Winslow, The Ministry of Home (London: 1847), page 39:

The sight of Jesus is a soul-satisfying spectacle.

The penitent soul is satisfied, for it sees in Jesus a free pardon of sin.

The condemned soul is satisfied, for it receives in Jesus a free justification.

The believing soul is satisfied, for it discovers in Jesus a fountain of all grace.

The tried, tempted, sorrowful soul is satisfied, for it experiences in Jesus all consolation, sympathy and love.

O, what an all-satisfying Portion is Jesus!

He satisfies every holy desire, for He realizes it.

He satisfies every craving need, for He supplies it.

He satisfies every sore grief, for He soothes it.

He satisfies the deepest yearnings, the highest aspirations, the most sublime hopes of the renewed soul, for all these center and end in Him!”

Lift Up Our Hearts!

C.S. Lewis wrote the following in a corrective letter to his friend, the 78-year-old Don Giovanni Calabria [12/26/51; Letters, 3:152]:

. . . This emboldens me to say to you something that a layman ought scarcely to say to a priest nor a junior to a senior. (On the other hand, out of the mouth of babes; indeed, as once to Balaam, out of the mouth of an ass!) It is this: you write much about your own sins. Beware (permit me, my dearest Father, to say beware) lest humility should pass over into anxiety or sadness. It is bidden us to ‘rejoice and always rejoice.’ Jesus has cancelled the handwriting which was against us. Lift up our hearts!

Permit me, I pray you, these stammerings. You are ever in my prayers and ever will be.


C.S. Lewis

For You

From the sermon of Octavius Winslow (1808–1878) titled “The Vitality of the Atoning Blood”:

The moment the ransomed and released soul enters glory, the first object that arrests its attention and fixes its eye is the interceding Savior. Faith, anticipating the glorious spectacle, sees him now pleading the blood on behalf of each member of His Church upon earth.

“By His own blood He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” [Hebrews 9:12]

“For Christ has not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, NOW to appear in the presence of God for us.” [Hebrews 9:24]

There is blood in heaven! the blood of the Incarnate God! And because it pleads and prays, argues and intercedes, the voice of every sin is hushed, every accusation of Satan is met, every daily transgression is forgiven, every temptation of the adversary is repelled, every evil is warded, every need is supplied, and the present sanctification and the final glorification of the saints are secured.

“Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ who died, yes rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” [Romans 8:33–34]

Draw near, you Joshuas, accused by Satan!

Approach, you Peters, whose faith is sifted!

Come, you tried and disconsolate!

The mediatorial Angel, the pleading Advocate, the interceding High Priest, has passed into the heavens, and appears before the throne, for you.

If the principle of the spiritual life in your soul has decayed, if your grace has declined, if you have ‘left your first love,’ there is vitality in the interceding blood of Jesus, and it prays for your revival. If sin condemns, and danger threatens, and temptation assails, and affliction wounds, there is living power in the pleading blood of Immanuel, and it procures pardon, protection, and comfort.

Where’s the Cross in James?

It’s not there. Not explicitly. There’s no overt mention of the cross of Christ in the Epistle of James, nor of the resurrection for that matter (although the resurrection is clearly implied in 5:15).

The absence of the cross is striking and it led Martin Luther to degrade James to “strawy epistle” status. In Luther’s words, Paul, John, and Peter “show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know.” On the contrary, James “is really an epistle of straw compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

If the cross is so important why is it absent from the book of James? Is James deficient? Is my personal emphasis on the cross proven to be faulty by James? These are big questions, and they are big questions that get tackled in Richard Bauckham’s thoughtful commentary on James (pages 135–140), a book I read last week (occasionally I read commentaries cover-to-cover).

First off, Bauckham provides evidence that a substantial Christology undergirds the entire Epistle of James, an important point but one I will not detail here. It’s worth noting that he makes this conclusion:

James’ Christology is closer to Paul’s than first impressions might suggest.

His arguments are solid.


It remains the case that anything like the Pauline soteriological interpretation of and focus on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus is completely absent.

But a second consideration should be borne in mind at this point. James writes paraenesis. …

Pause for a moment. So what is paraenesis?

Paraenesis is defined as “a technical term for moral exhortation and advice. While catechesis is the form of teaching that tends to emphasize basic instruction in the content of the faith [like the theology of the cross and resurrection], paraenesis is the instructional model in which ethical counsel and moral education were provided in a pattern of exhortation applied to practical problems or issues of living” (DLNT). The book of James is largely paraenesis, it has even been called the Proverbs of the New Testament.

Okay, now back to Bauckham:

… An appropriate comparison is not with Pauline letters as such, but with the paraenetic sections of such letters. These may well be among the most traditional parts of Paul’s letters, drawing on common traditions and patterns of Christian ethical instruction.

Romans 12–13 are an extensive example, and are no less lacking in Christology than James is. In the 35 verses of these chapters, Paul refers to Jesus Christ only three times (12:5, 11; 13:14). The frequency is only a little greater than in James (7 references in 107 verses). Two of the references (Rom. 12:5; 13:14) have characteristically Pauline Christological features. Like James, Paul in these chapters probably reflects the teaching of Jesus, but only implicitly (12:14, 17; 13:9), and, again like James, he refers to the law and all of its commandments (13:8-10).

Here’s his point:

Surprising as it may be, it seems that early Christian paraenesis, even in Paul, generally lacked much Christological reference. So James is as Christological as we should expect the kind of Christian literature he writes to be.

Explicit references to the cross are absent in the Epistle of James, but that should not surprise us. This is not uncharacteristic for its genre, even in Paul. Catechesis and paraenesis serve unique functions, functions that complement one another (a point made obvious in the broader context of Romans).

“That there are very considerable differences between James and Paul is not in doubt,” he writes. Yet by looking at the distinct functions of genre, Bauckham helps us see the continuity between James and Paul and, to me at least, suggests one way to reconcile James with Scripture’s overall priority on the gospel.


The cross of Jesus Christ is at the center of the gospel message and defines what it means to be a Christian. For that reason alone it is a huge privilege traveling around the country with one of the most effective preachers of the cross. My boss does it about as well as anyone, especially when it comes to the frankness of the Savior’s cruel death (the cross is too easily sterilized in our modern context) and the saving results of the cross work of Christ that are now offered to ill-deserving sinners like me.

This week we flew to Palm Springs for the Resolved conference and during the flight I read Martin Hengel’s survey of crucifixion in the Greco-Roman world published in 1977 under the title Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. It is a technical book, but also brief, readable, and valuable. And while I don’t agree with all of his theological or political conclusions (clearly the author disagrees with any and all forms of capital punishment), I do agree with the author’s overarching purpose for writing it, which is stated in the final sentences of the book: “Reflection on the harsh reality of crucifixion in antiquity may help us to overcome the acute loss of reality which is to be found so often in present theology and preaching” (90). Doubtless it will have that effect.

What follows are a few excerpts I marked to share with you:

“The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’ (λόγος τοῦ σταυροῦ), ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.” (5)

“Even Paul’s Greek audience could hardly have approved of the λόγος τοῦ σταυροῦ, much less the Jews who could see the Roman crosses erected in Palestine, especially when they could hardly forget the saying about the curse laid upon anyone hanged on a tree (Deut. 21.23). A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish.” (10)

“For Paul and his contemporaries the cross of Jesus was not a didactic, symbolic or speculative element but a very specific and highly offensive matter which imposed a burden on the earliest Christian missionary preaching. No wonder that the young community in Corinth sought to escape from the crucified Christ into the enthusiastic life of the spirit, the enjoyment of heavenly revelations and an assurance of salvation connected with mysteries and sacraments. When in the face of this Paul points out to the community which he founded that his preaching of the crucified messiah is a religious ‘stumbling block’ for the Jews and ‘madness’ for his Greek hearers, we are hearing in his confession not least the twenty-year experience of the greatest Christian missionary, who had often reaped no more than mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the Lord Jesus, who had died a criminal’s death on the tree of shame.” (19)

“The passion narratives in the gospels are in fact the most detailed [crucifixion accounts] of all. No ancient writer wanted to dwell too long on this cruel procedure.” (25)

“Even in the Roman empire, where there might be said to be some kind of ‘norm’ for the course of the execution (it included a flogging beforehand, and the victim often carried the beam to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a small wooden peg), the form of the execution could vary considerably: crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein. All attempts to give a perfect description of the crucifixion in archeological terms are therefore in vain; there were too many different possibilities for the executioner.” (25)

“In terms of severity, crucifixion can only be compared with the ‘popular entertainment’ of throwing victims to the wild beasts (bestiis obici); however, this was not listed among the regular forms of execution because whether or not it was carried out depended on the chance circumstances that such a popular festival had been arranged. By comparison crucifixion was a much more common punishment; it could be carried out almost anywhere, whereas bestiis obici required a city arena and the necessary facilities. Of course, crucifixion too could serve as a ‘popular entertainment.'” (35)

“The relative scarcity of references to crucifixions in antiquity, and their fortuitousness, are less a historical problem than an aesthetic one, connected with the sociology of literature. Crucifixion was widespread and frequent, above all in Roman times, but the cultured literary world wanted to have nothing to do with it, and as a rule kept quiet about it.” (38)

“In most Roman writers crucifixion appears as the typical punishment for slaves. … This basic theme of the supplicium servile illuminates the hymn in Philippians 2.6–11. Anyone who was present at the worship of the churches founded by Paul in the course of his mission, in which this hymn was sung, and indeed any reader of Philippians in ancient times, would inevitably have seen a direct connection between the ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών) and the end of the first strophe: ‘he humbled himself and was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.” (51, 62)

“In the Greek world the cross is never, so far as I can see, used in a metaphorical sense. Presumably the word was too offensive for it to be used as a metaphor by the Greeks.” (68)

“The ‘word of the cross’ is the spearhead of [Paul's] message. And because Paul still understands the cross as the real, cruel instrument of execution, as the instrument of the bloody execution of Jesus, it is impossible to dissociate talk of the atoning death of Jesus or the blood of Jesus from this ‘word of the cross.’ The spearhead cannot be broken off the spear. Rather, the complex of the death of Jesus as a single entity for the apostle, in which he never forgets the fact that Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock, much less passing on ‘old and full of years’ like the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Rather, he died like a slave or a common criminal, in torment, on the tree of shame. Paul’s Jesus did not just die any death; he was ‘given up for us all’ on the cross, in a cruel and a contemptible way.” (89–90)

Severing Our Love Affairs

Thomas Schreiner, Galatians (Zondervan, 2010), 392:

The cross plays a bookends role in the letter [of Galatians], for just as Paul begins the letter by featuring the freedom won in the cross, so too he closes the letter by underlining the significance of the cross.

Paul’s only boast is in Christ’s cross, by which he is crucified to the world and the world is crucified to him (6:14). The cross and eschatology are inseparable. Just as the cross liberated believers from the present evil age (1:4), so too it crucifies attachment to this world (6:14). The opponents boasted in circumcising converts and took pleasure in external accomplishments because they lived to win the applause of others (6:12–13). They lived for comfort in order to avoid persecution.

The cross severs a love affair with the world and grants a person (by grace!) a desire to boast only in the cross. A new reality—a new age—has begun through the cross, and Paul summons the Galatians and all believers to find their joy only in the cross and to renounce any boasting in human accomplishments.


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