Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Cross and Swine Flu

The swine flu reference was only for the headline, as a way to draw you into this post. Sorry. I don't have much to say about it except that I have enjoyed and benefited from humorous, and profound, commentary on it from others more witty and intelligent than myself. Perhaps you will also.

By way of transition, what I hoped to do was consider the message of the Cross of Jesus Christ in the complex culture we live in that talks more about illness than it does about cures, and is more concerned (at least right now) about staying away from people who are hurting than of loving them in community and offering them help and healing. Say what you will about the seriousness or danger of swine flu, but you have to admit that the current buzz is an interesting statement about the way our culture approaches and talks about sickness and healing.

With that said, I wonder if I can ask you to follow the analogy of sickness as representing sin and healing as representing the Cross (which the Bible essentially teaches), and with that in mind reflect on this presentation of the centrality and necessity of the Cross of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, as power to save not only from physical sickness (eventually), but also from much worse.


Without the message of the Cross, or outside of the truth of Christ’s substitutionary atoning death for us on the Cross, there is no hope or counsel or ultimate love we can give to any person or that we can bring to any community. Without it, all we have is Christ as our example (He is that!), but which is not only insufficient for the life to come, but also is incomplete for our lives now, because we could never expect to completely live up to His example. Thinking we can will always inevitably lead us to either legalism or license. Or, without it, all we have is a vague, impersonal, big picture story of creation and restoration that while true and absolutely crucial to clarify, is not sufficient without the spoken word about the centrality of the Cross for individual salvation.

Unregenerate people doing life together in a loving community, identified as Christian, is not enough, and is actually borderline dishonoring to God. And no unregenerate person becomes regenerate (saved by grace through faith, born again in Christ) without the proclamation and understanding of the Gospel of the Cross. This by no means implies that people can’t become saved in community, or through countless other ways by the unpredictable and spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit, who is present in every fabric of this world. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. But the Gospel is a word, and it must be spoken and heard for the Spirit to move and for people to be saved. Why then is there so much hesitation to be clear about the nature, accomplishment, and necessity of the message of the Cross?

Is it offensive? Jesus warns and guarantees us that it will be, and through Paul instructs and commands us to proclaim and preserve it anyway. Is it difficult to relate to? I don't think so. Who couldn’t relate to the ultimate satisfaction of their deepest longings that is found in the crucified and resurrected Christ? Is it ineffective? Such a notion is altogether ridiculous, as history has shown us quite the opposite. Martin Luther, among others, immediately comes to mind.

But, the message of the Cross, this substitutionary atonement message - that Jesus absorbed the wrath of God that we deserve as our substitute on the Cross, accomplished for us forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to the Father, and made us clean in Christ - does not make any sense without the knowledge of the wrath of God, which does not make any sense outside of the holiness of God. So at some point in community, there has to be a clear communication and deep understanding of the holiness of God for the Cross to make any sense, and therefore for any balanced Christian love to minister to, or have any impact on, people.

This does not mean that our proclamation of the Gospel, in word and deed, has to begin with a hell-fire declaration of the wrath of God and the reality of hell. You do not wake someone up by shining a flashlight in their face (you could, but it is not recommended). It does mean we should start with who God is, what His holiness means, and then allow that to apply to our condition. We shouldn't start with who we are without first identifying who God is. If we expect in Christian community to show people Jesus, and bring people into the experience of His grace and the authentic reconciliation with Him that will enter them into the abundant life He created them for and the restoration of a new heaven and new earth - if we expect to do this without ever communicating the reality of the wrath and holiness of God, and in turn the centrality of the Cross for the hope of their souls and the hope of the eternal community within the kingdom of God that they can become a part of through repentance, than we are kidding ourselves and ultimately replacing the saving power of the Gospel with the condemning power of a non-Gospel.


Taking the advice of a trusted friend, as I discern how best to be a force for the Gospel, I want to labor and pray and balance my vigor for truth with the grace of Jesus. Call me out if my approach or words are in any way unloving or inconsistent with the Sovereign and unfailing grace of Jesus Christ. Please. I need you.

These categories of people are not exhaustive, and may or may not apply to you. Some are extreme, and Death by Love by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears was the origin of some of these points. Hopefully, the ministry of the Cross in them is helpful and convicting to you. And hopefully they are exhaustive enough for you to see that the message of the Cross is able and has power to minister to whatever category of suffering or life you would place yourself. I promise it is. If you can relate, I pray that the grace of Jesus lands on your through them in a life-changing way.


The Cross of Christ is their propitiation and justification. The guilt, shame, and punishment they feel they deserve was accomplished and wiped away in Jesus Christ. The righteousness of Jesus that they are far from is accounted to them freely in Christ by faith.


The Cross of Christ is their expiation. The dirtiness they feel about themselves is wiped clean in the expiation achieved by the death of Jesus Christ. They are clean in Christ. White as snow.


God intends for the physical, mental, emotional, psychological, or material suffering we experience in this life to be a representation (a small glimpse) of the horror of sin. We should feel the same way about our sin that we do about the suffering in our lives; the same anger, pain, sadness, frustration, confusion, and hatred. But in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, we see one who suffered more uniquely, severely, and terribly than anything we could ever imagine or experience, and not only did He overcome it by ultimately overcoming death, but also He did it all so that we would not have to, and so that we would be reconciled to God the Father. The anger and pain we feel toward our suffering, and which God feels toward sin, and which we deserve, was absorbed in Jesus Christ. It is gone. And now He promised that these light and momentary afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, and that He works all things together for good for those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose.

The “love requires free will” defense doesn’t suffice for me as an explanation to the existence of evil and suffering, and in my opinion doesn't minister that well. I believe in love and I believe in free will. But the little it does to explain the existence of suffering does not make up for the even less it offers as to an explanation of its purpose. We, as Christians, have a more complete, helpful, and hopeful answer to suffering that we should be faithful to in our apologetics, love, and proclamation of truth. And it centers entirely on the Cross of Christ.


Our sufferings are to the world a personal presentation of the sufferings of Christ. In our suffering, we fill up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions; not by way of accomplishment, but by way of presentation. If we suffer well, we show to the world that the most precious thing in the universe to us is not our job, or our possessions, or even our family or our life – the most precious thing is Christ, and like Him, for the joy set before us we will endure our suffering, knowing we can never lose Christ. Jesus endured the most terrible and unique suffering that we ever could and He did it by focusing on the joy set before Him, namely, reconciliation with His father and His children. By our suffering, we offer a personal presentation of this most severe and important suffering to those who would not otherwise have seen it (except in the Bible, which is powerful, but not personally visible). We show its power to save, to strengthen, to comfort, and to love. And by so doing we satisfy our deepest joys, we witness to the salvation that we have into a kingdom community of love, and we bring ultimate glory to the God of the universe, who is seen as infinitely more precious than anything we could lose in this life, and anything that our temporary suffering could take.


Those who are healthy, wealthy, and living the American dream, whether they know it or not, are paralyzed and controlled by idols in their lives. These idols may come in the form of personal idols like money, romance, or children; religious idols like truth, gifts, or morality; or cultural idols like reason, family, or ideology. Good things, that are made to be ultimate things. Whatever they are, idolatry in any of these forms is promising affluent people in America salvation, social order, and joy that it can never give them. None of their idols can die for their sins. If we take the Gospel to the culture of idols, in entertainment, academia, media, and business and show that only in Jesus can the powers and principalities that control us through idols be ultimately defeated, we can turn the world upside down. How could He do this in a way that both punishes our idolatry and reconciles us to Him?

As Tim Keller says, at the Cross Jesus defeated our idols objectively, by paying the punishment for our spiritual adultery and reconciling His bride to himself, becoming both just and the justifier for those who have faith in Him; and He did it subjectively, by being a personal Savior who did what no idol could ever do - die for our sins - and who will outlast all the idols in our life (even our family). If we take this Gospel to the idols of our culture, we will turn the world upside down and free people from a power that they don't even know is controlling them and waiting to crush them eternally, if it is what they have their ultimate hope in.


As Andy Stanley wisely points out in his sermon series Defining Moments, we often get preoccupied with our temporal needs and neglect our eternal need. In other words, we often come to Jesus (or some other personal quasi-savior in our life) like the men in Mark 2 who desired to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be physically healed. And Jesus tells us, as He told the paralyzed friend, that our sins are forgiven on account of His name. And we wonder why He doesn’t just address our temporary, physical need. That is, until we realize that we have a more profound and lasting need, and that His temporary miracles are evidence of His authority to perform the eternal miracle in our lives. In His life He spoke the forgiveness of sins, in His death He accomplished it, and in His resurrection He confirmed it and made it eternal.

Now, our urgent needs (health, job, money, food) are a constant reminder of our ultimate need; our pressing needs are a constant reminder of our primary need; what we want always will remind us that He gave us what we really need. I think this presentation of the Cross is relevant and ministers powerfully to those who are struggling to pay the bills, may be out of work, needing health care, and just feel straight outta luck. Their ultimate need is accomplished in the Cross of Jesus Christ. And He might tell them to pick up their mat and walk also in this life – but if not, He will take care of them. Forever.


Cross-centered ministry is the only kind of ministry that inevitably leads to humility and sacrifice, instead of works-based righteousness, for those who minister to it. This reality should be exemplified in our proclamation of the Gospel to the poor, both in spoken word, and also in visible love and service. It is true that a person who is physically hungry will not have the same capacity to understand and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than those who are fed and physically and mentally attentive. So we should feed them. But after we feed them, we should not neglect to tell them the message of the Cross that will save them both from the hell on this earth (by showing them the authentic experience of love and community instead of loneliness and despair), and the hell to come (which is real, eternal, and conscious).


Recently Rob Bell was interviewed in Christianity Today, and asked the question (which is a great one): How would you present the Gospel on Twitter? His answer, in my opinion, was less than helpful:

I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.

While agreeing with Bell that it is hard (probably impossible) to present the whole Gospel on Twitter, my answer would have been different. Not just because I am not on Twitter and quite ignorant to the concept in general; but more so because I believe the Bible is more clear and specific and helpful and personal than what Bell describes. I hope the difference is clear and helpful to you, and honoring to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:

The Gospel is that the infinitely holy and all-powerful God of the Universe, who created everything that is, including us, came to earth as a child in a manger - fully God, yet fully man - and lived a sinless life providing for us an example and picture of the loving nature of Almighty God.

He suffered and died on a Cross, as a substitute for us, fulfilling the eternal plan of the Father, absorbing the wrath of God we deserve, applying to us justification and forgiveness of sins and eternal reconciliation with God Himself, the lover and ultimate desire of our souls.

He then literally and physically rose from the dead on the third day, overcoming sin and death and suffering forever, and will come again in glory to permanently establish His kingdom, which temporary resides in us through the Holy Spirit and the good deposit of the Gospel lived out in authentic community as the Church. He will bring forth this eternal kingdom once and for all in the form of a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more suffering, or tears, or pain, where He will be the light and center of our worship and everything in creation, and the Cross will forever be the representation of the love, justice, holiness, and power of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Is that too many characters for Twitter? Either way, I think it is what our sin sickness needs, and it is what will effectively, lovingly, and authentically bring people together in community centered on the Cross, for the glory of God - without the facial masks.


Brandon D. Straub said...

The video is highly interesting. I've seen others about the growth of Islam and people's uncertainties about what that will bring. It would be interesting to ask Rob Bell or others from the Emergent Church (can we call him that?) about how their theology has changed over the years (if it has).

Joey Elliott said...

Straub - thanks for the comments. Agree the video is very cool. My answer to the question that ends it (So what does all this mean?) is that people are seeking something, by all means. And we should respond by proclaiming and demonstrating the old Gospel to them in new ways.

I don't think Rob Bell considers himself part of the Emerging Church, but my guess is he would bog you down with the Emerging vs. Emergent distinction if you asked him.

Either way, my frustration with Bell (I have the same frustration with those in the Emergent Church) is that it’s impossible to know what his theology is because he's always asking questions. There is nothing wrong with asking questions, and seeking to gain a further knowledge of the truth, or admitting that we'll never ultimately understand everything.

But as a pastor, I think Bell does a great disservice to his people by making the implication that truth is so elusive, and by modeling uncertainty in his approach to faith. The disciples were sure about Jesus, and the proclamation of their assurance was the means by which the Holy Spirit saved souls and established kingdom community.

Lack of assurance of salvation and lack of certainty about truth in general is one of the major problems in the American church today, in my opinion, and it exists in no small part because of pastors and authors who communicate like Rob Bell.

As Christian leaders, we should ask questions and seek different perspectives – of course. But I think we should spend more of our time, energy, vocal cords, and written words confidently proclaiming the truth that we have no uncertainty about - namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ as explained in the Bible.