I had an interesting conversation with a friend here at Cedarville recently. It was primarily focused on the doctrine of imputation, and whether we reformed folk are faithfully interpreting Phillipians 4, Romans 5 and especially Romans 4.
The conversation drifted a bit (as they often do in college), and we started talking about the Gospels, and Luke’s Gospel in particular. I was trying to point out the implications of Jesus’ doctrine of justification in Luke 18 (the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector), and demonstrate that this passage was clearly alluding to the cross…and Jesus did so intentionally.
At that point, my friend said to me, “I’m don’t like how you always make Jesus’ ministry about the cross. Sure it’s a big part, but that’s hardly the main point of Jesus’ life on earth.” Knowing what I know about him, I assume my friend would have said Jesus’ purpose was to “bring in the new kingdom” or “declare Jesus as Lord over all.” He actually said it was to “oppose Rome,” but that’s a pretty easy one to refute so I’ll let it go.
Is this true? Is the cross “hardly the main point of Jesus’ life on earth”? Gordon Cheng of the Sola Panel provides some good thoughts on this. He quotes John Stott to say while we can’t overemphazise the cross, we can jump to it too quickly. Read a part for yourself:
Translated into English from the English, Stott is saying, “Preach the cross as much as you like. But it is just a piece of stupidity in a distant historical context unless we understand why it is there. It’s as ridiculous as taking a pill the doctor offers, without understanding that I’m sick—no, really sick.”
Until I understand that I am a sinner, that God really hates me for it, and that I really am going to the place where the fire burns without being extinguished and the worm does not die, I can’t begin understand the love he showed me when his Son died in my place for my sins, bearing the full weight of his Father’s wrath against me.
This is an important lesson for we reformed people. The cross absolutely cannot be overemphasized, but if we get to the cross without encountering our sinfulness, it’s bad news. Personally, I think this is one of the weaknesses of N.T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul. If the main point of Jesus’ ministry, and of the cross itself, is to “declare Jesus as Lord over all,” that doesn’t mean it’s good news for us. In fact, considering that God is holy and righteous, the cross could then become terrible news. But we do well to remember I Tim. 1:15, that “Christ died to save sinners.” This is good news…primarily for sinners. According to Rom. 5:6, Christ died for the ungodly. This is critical. Our depravity should drive us to the forgiveness found in the cross.
Now, it’s true that the Gospels do find their center at the cross–and more than just thematically but exegetically too. Half of the book of Mark is the Passion narrative. Jesus foretells his death and resurrection three different times in Matthew. And then there’s John 2, when Mary asks Jesus during a Cana wedding if he can do something about the wine shortage. Jesus’ reply is interesting: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” This important phrase, “my hour,” pretty much exclusively refers to Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospels. The cross is at the center, not just for Paul (countless passages can be used as evidence–> Rom. 3:24-26; Eph. 2:13-16; Col. 2:13-14; Heb. 9; Rev. 5:9), but especially for Jesus.
So, back to my friend. First, I thank the Lord for the grace to engage this question with care, and not respond (as I often do) with incredulity: “what do you mean the cross isn’t the center of Jesus’ ministry?!?!”
Second, I thank Him for the clarity of His Word, and the gift of the Spirit to help us study it and know it. And third, I pray for the humility to submit to the text in every sense. In this case, as I stand on the shoulders of brilliant but humble interpreters and Greek experts, I think traditional reformed readings still stand as accurate.
And do we emphasize the cross too much? Only if we don’t biblically lead people to its shadow. There’s a reason Rom. 1-3:20 come before Rom. 3:21, and there is a reason Eph. 2:1-3 come before verse 4. There is always a before story, and we need to know that before we come and cling to the cross. Ultimately, that perspective will help us love it all the more.