THE ‘OFFENSE’ OF THE CROSS
To the unregenerate mind the Cross will always be an offense. But for man to bypass that which was to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness is to bypass the way of salvation itself.
Wherein lies the offense of the Cross?
The offense of the Cross centers in the fact that the sin with which all men are infected is so serious in nature and in effect that nothing less than the death of the Son of God could have made atonement for that sin.
Paul tells us that the preaching of the Cross, with its full implications, is to those who are perishing folly, but to those who are saved the power of God.
He further tells us that the meaning of the Cross must be preached in simplicity so that the Holy Spirit may take this “foolish” message and lead men to faith in the wisdom and power of God.
When we strip away the unbelievable wordiness of theological controversy today, we find that the burning issue has to do with man’s attempt to bypass the offense of the Cross.
This “offense” is variously translated. In the King James Version we read: “the offense of the cross”; while Phillips speaks of “the hostility which preaching the cross provokes.” The Berkeley Version has it “the offensiveness of the cross.” In the RSV we read: “the stumbling block of the cross”; in the Amplified New Testament, “the cross … a stumbling block”; and Williams translates it “the hindrance done by the cross.” The word used in the Chinese is “t’ao ien”—“disturbing,” “offensive.”
The love of God, as revealed in the Cross, can never be overstated. At the same time this love can never be apprehended until we explore the reason for the Cross, namely, that man’s condition is one of such complete alienation from God because of sin that nothing less than the suffering, blood, and death of God’s Son could provide the remedy.
We rejoice in the wonder of John 3:16. But we are prone to overlook the words should not perish which are a part of that marvelous declaration. For man the alternative to Christ’s atoning death is to perish.
But this has always been offensive to the unregenerate heart. Even within the Church there are those who, stumbling over the Cross, emphasize only one aspect of God’s love and try to lead men to Him without their facing up to the iniquity of their own hearts which separates them from God. This approach only too often leads us to the attitude that we are doing God a favor by joining the Church and sharing in its program.
There needs to be a renewed emphasis on this matter of sin and our salvation from it. I do not imply that any of us can fully perceive our sins as God sees them; but unless the prospective church member is confronted with the reason for the Cross (the enormity of sin and the price of redemption), the condition of his heart, if he is unregenerate, continues as a barrier to God.
There are two “prices” which every man must understand—the price which Christ paid for our salvation, and the price or cost of discipleship. Only as man realizes the first in some measure, can the second become to him a vital reality.
To approach the Cross with philosophical concepts alone makes for problems, for the Cross cannot be explained in these terms. Only the Holy Spirit can reveal the spiritual truths that lie at the heart of this central event of all history. Without the Holy Spirit, the offense of the Cross remains. It is the Spirit-filled witness and the Spirit-directed decision that transforms the folly of the Cross into the most glorious event of time, and is the only way man can stand unashamed in God’s holy presence.
Groups, techniques, study classes, and discussions have eternal relevance only as they cut through the objections, reservations, and evasions of human pride and confront the sinner with his lost condition out of Christ. The temptation to win others to ourselves or our own man-made concepts is a very real one. Our task as Christians is to bring others to the One who alone can make them whole.
There is a theory on the part of some that the Gospel should never be used to produce guilt complexes in people. Why not? It was because of our guilt that Christ died. The Cross can only be explained in terms of guilt and penalty. True, there are some who try to do otherwise, but wherever its offense is explained away, the witness of the Church is thereby weakened.
Not for one moment do we suggest that effective Christian witness consists in dangling sinners over the brink of an eternity separated from God. But to point up man’s lost condition is certainly part of the Christian witness. Without this there is no meaning to the Cross and no Gospel to preach. The love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness of God are indeed constraining influences, but God is also holy and just. He is of purer eyes than to behold evil. Nothing unclean can ever come into his glorious presence.
Unregenerate man is already lost; he is condemned already, and he needs to know it. Then, and only then, can the height and depth of the love of God come into clear relief. Then only can we understand the wonder of the Cross. Only as we understand the depths from which we are saved, can we appreciate the steps God took to make our salvation possible.
David expresses this thought in these words: He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God. Accept the offense of the Cross and this too becomes our song.
How easy it is to bypass the offense of the Cross in pastoral psychology, counseling, evangelism, and education! How great is the temptation to try to make the way of salvation palatable to man! The danger of ignoring the Cross and the reason for it because it is foolish or offensive is very great.
There is today a rightful emphasis on “identification” as a means of winning men to Christ. This is good, provided the one doing personal work identifies himself as a sinner saved by God’s grace. But identification can become a handicap where unconsciously or otherwise the prospect is won to faith in another individual and not in the living Christ.
It is natural to recoil from hostility. We want to be liked and controversy is unpleasant. In most areas of life hostility and controversy can and should be avoided. But when it comes to the cross of Jesus Christ, both will always be present, for here we have the ever-recurring conflict between darkness and light, between good and evil.
At the cross of Christ man makes a momentous decision; either he accepts and rejoices in the “foolishness of God,” or he rejects that in favor of the wisdom of this world.
L. NELSON BELL
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