The truth that is built into the very nature of the universe is one of sacrifice. You will find it in every culture and in every nation and among every people. The principle is this: Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9:22). The Bible takes this cultural understanding and applies it to the reality of Christ: “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In other words, for some reason (and nobody knows why), God prepared the entire world for the understanding of the substitutionary atonement of Christ—on the cross—on our behalf.
Christ took your place. Christ took your punishment. Christ became your substitute.
The cross is a necessity.
“For while we were still weak…” (Romans 5:6).
Can we talk? I need a substitute…desperately. People are always writing me with the question, “Why do you ask God to forgive your sins in the prayer on the broadcast?” The reason I do that is twofold. First, it is a disclaimer. Some preachers say that they should never preach what they don’t live. If I did that I would have to cut out significant portions of Scripture. I wish I could tell you that I am the example of total obedience, total purity and total faith. The truth is that I’m a beggar telling other beggars where I found bread. The truth is that I place myself under the same authority you do: the authority of God’s inerrant Word in the Bible. The truth is that sometimes I am the right example…and sometimes I am not. So I ask forgiveness because I need forgiveness.
The second reason I pray that prayer is because I want to remind people that the Bible is true: “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). The truth is that when you and I stand before a righteous and holy God, we had better have something better than our own righteousness. We had better have a good lawyer…an advocate, if you will.
At that moment, there won’t be any excuses. At that moment, there won’t be any sham or pretense. Christ’s substitutionary atonement is necessary…because it is the only way we are going to make it.
At communion, when I was a pastor, I said, “You have to be perfect to receive communion. There are two ways to do that, one doesn’t work and the other always works. You can be perfect by obeying the law of God perfectly. Nobody can do that; only Jesus has. Or you can be perfect by being forgiven. That always works when you turn to Christ and you accept the substitutionary atonement for yourself.”
The cross is a surprise.
“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die…” (Romans 5:7).
I can understand a God who kicks the world to pieces. I can understand a sovereign God who is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, self-sufficient, eternal, immutable, infinite, holy and righteous. I can understand the God of lightning and thunder. What I cannot understand is God becoming man and hanging on a cross in my place.
I once spoke at a maximum-security prison on Good Friday and the bulletin had a picture of a man in prison garb kneeling before the cross of Christ. The caption read, “My God…I did that?”
The cross of Christ is a surprise. Sometimes I see my sin and am hesitant to come to God, fully expecting to have to face his wrath. Instead, he hugs me…and I can’t believe it…I still can’t believe it.
The cross is a demonstration.
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
A demonstration is the outworking of a stated reality in practical and real time. For example, I can say that I love my wife over and over again, but the demonstration comes in washing the dishes, showing sensitivity to her needs and being the kind of husband that Christ called me to be.
For thousands of years people looked into the sky and asked their many questions: Is there a God? If there is a God, what is he like? Is he kind or a monster? Does he demand my first born, the fruit of my body, for the sin of my soul? Does he care? Does he love? Then God demonstrated his love. He came. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:1,14).
Not only has God demonstrated his love toward us, he also demonstrates his love through us. He wants the world to see how he treats his children. Do you know what really bothers me? It is Christians who are miserable and bound trying to witness. I can understand the response they receive: “No way, life is hard enough as it is…I already have enough guilt, live by enough rules and am miserable enough without adding to it.” God demonstrates his love to us...that he might demonstrate his love through us.
The cross is a promise.
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9).
The promise is that God isn’t mad at you anymore.
I had a student in one of my classes whose father was a pastor. It was apparent just how much he loved his father. Then my student told me why. When he was in third grade or so, his father became quite angry with him. His father didn’t strike him, but held him and yelled at him. As a result, he thought that his father hated him. Later that same day, the school principal came into his class to tell him that his father was outside waiting to speak with him. He thought to himself, Did I do something else bad? He went downstairs where his father was waiting. To his great surprise and shock, his father got down on his knees in front of his son and asked for forgiveness. The son expected anger…yet received love.
That is true with us too. God isn’t angry at his people. God isn’t a policeman. God is your Father. That is the promise.
The cross is reality.
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).
Do you know the danger of teaching in a theological seminary? It is the danger of thinking all of doctrine is just that…doctrine. The only purpose of doctrine is to describe the reality of Christian experience.
We are saved continually by the life of Christ.
When you live in guilt, that guilt is a lie. The reality is that you are forgiven. Ask him. He will tell you. When you grow afraid of death and wonder if there is anything beyond the grave, that fear is a lie. You are going to live forever. Ask him. He will tell you. When you doubt God’s love for you and instead think that he is angry, that doubt is a lie. He loves you and isn’t angry. Ask him. He will tell you. When you fail and question if God will ever use you again, that question is a lie. He will use you again. Ask him. He will tell you.
The uniqueness of the Christian faith is this: God is alive.
The cross is a celebration.
“More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:11).
Some churches call their worship services “celebrations.” That used to bother me, but I’m a lot older and a lot wiser now. That is exactly what Christian worship is—a celebration by Christians of what God has done for us.
Tony Campolo says that the tithe given to the temple in Jerusalem was used for a party. I don’t know if that is entirely true, but there is certainly something to it.
I love the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. By the way, that story is not about the younger son who ate with the pigs; it is about the older son who stayed home. He was a good son who never did anything wrong…and was an angry Pharisee. You remember the story. A man had two sons and one asked for his inheritance early. His father gave him the money and he went away to a far country and wasted his inheritance. He ended up helpless, homeless and in great need, feeding the swine.
Then the story takes a turn: But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants’” (verses 17-19).
His daddy saw the younger son coming home, ran to him, hugged him and called the servants to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. He then held a party in honor of his returned son who was dead and now was alive.
But the other son was ticked about the whole thing. “I’ve stayed here,” the older son said, “I’ve served you faithfully and yet you never gave me a party. You never gave me a ring or rejoiced in my staying!” The father’s heart was broken.
When the prodigal son returned home, they had a party…but the older son refused to come and join the party. When the prodigal son returned home, there was a celebration…but the older son refused to celebrate. When the prodigal son returned home, he received a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet…but the older son was only angry.
That is what it is all about—singing, celebration, rejoicing.