The cross of Christ is the center of salvation. It is the crucial point, the place of convergence where everything about the gospel comes together. If you interrogate Christian faith and ask, “In one word, how does God save sinners?” the response of a healthy faith will be instantly and confidently to pick out the Cross.
Of course a healthy faith will also ask, “Please, may I have more words than one?” The Cross is meaningfully central only when it is recognized as the center of something vaster. Salvation in seven terms might include, along with the Cross, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Ascension, not to mention the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Salvation in 20 words could be explicit about even more ideas that are presupposed in a shorter answer. O for a thousand words to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, to paraphrase Charles Wesley! Christian faith is fluent and eloquent when it comes to salvation; speaking as a theologian, I would love to tell you about salvation in as many words as you will permit me. But just as strong as the impulse to elaborate on the greatness of God in the work of salvation is the impulse to condense the whole message to the key point.
Yet the condensed statement is always meant to call to mind the larger reality. Whenever we say anything about the Cross, we are almost always using a figure of speech called metonymy. A word functions as a metonym when we use it to refer to something else, usually something larger to which it is closely related. When Paul says he boasts only “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14), he is using one thing (a large, wooden object used for executions) to refer to something else: the death of Jesus and its effect in reconciling us to God. Similarly, when Christians sing songs about the wooden object itself, we are well aware that what we cherish is not just “the old rugged cross” as such, but the Son of God who used that cross in his work of seeking and saving. The Cross means Christ crucified. All of this flashes across the Christian mind in an instant when the Cross is mentioned.
Now think vaster: When we speak of Christ crucified, something else also flashes across the Christian mind: the presence of Christ risen and ascended, in whose almighty presence I am writing these words and you are reading them. The One who says, “I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!” (Rev. 1:18). And behind that risen One is the infinite depth of his eternal personhood as the Son of the Father in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in the perfect life of the blessed Trinity. All of this is implicit in what Christians say about the death of Jesus. We never mean just the death of Christ in an isolated way, as if it were cut off from his entire life, his preexistence and exaltation, or the Father and Holy Spirit with whom he indivisibly accomplished our salvation.
The apostle Paul knew this. When he said he “resolved to know nothing ... except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), he meant he was focusing on the central point, not that he was ignoring the Resurrection or the Holy Spirit (both of which he goes on to say much about in 1 Corinthians). But Paul leads with the Cross: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). Paul started his world-changing message with the Cross and centered his life-transforming message on the Cross. He knew how to indicate the total reality of God’s salvation, but he also knew how to focus.
The early church knew it. The Apostles’ Creed tells a very short version of the life of Jesus, jumping straight from “born of the Virgin Mary” over 33 years of life to the final days: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.” For a short creed, that is a lot of emphasis to put in one place. Yet this focus on Jesus’ death falls right in the middle of a creed that teaches the full counsel of the Trinity and of God’s work from Creation to “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The creed has the Cross at its center but all things at its circumference.
Charles Wesley knew it. His hymn “And Can It Be” rivets our attention on the sacrificial death of Christ: “How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” But that astonishing death in the foreground has an entire world of doctrine as its background, from the immortal Son who, out of free and infinite grace, “left his Father’s throne above,” to glorified believers “clothed in righteousness divine” and approaching “th’eternal throne.” This is a hymn about the death of Christ that somehow also celebrates all the works and ways of God and invokes God himself.
Paul knew it, the early church knew it, Wesley knew it, and we know it today. Recognizing the centrality of the Cross is not just an exercise in precisely calibrating our doctrinal emphases or of taking care to be theologically correct. It is a matter of deep, spiritual reality.
The centrality of the Cross changes everything. When you receive the Good News that Jesus died for you, the result is like dropping a rock in a smooth pond: The ripples radiate outward to the farthest edges of reality. It is the death of Christ that enables us to die to ourselves. It is his death that justifies us before God’s perfect righteousness, that sets us free, that gives us courage to face persecution. The community centered on the Cross is a great company of people reconciled to God and each other through the Cross. People centered on the Cross know how to die, learn how to live, and love like they’ve been forever changed by the love they’ve received.
This is the open secret of how Christians attend to the death of Christ. All through the season leading up to Easter, we get a series of reminders of the Crucifixion, and we all know that it means more. The Cross reminds us of the entire sweep of salvation, and the sweep of salvation reminds us of the infinite love of God. When we see the cross, we recognize instantly that it stands for the death of Jesus, which stands in the center of the perfect incarnate life and glorious resurrection of the eternal Son of the almighty Father. It’s never the Cross by itself but the Cross as the center. Christian faith knows this: It knows to emphasize the Cross. But emphasizing it means lifting it up for special notice, never isolating it.
Fred Sanders is a theologian who teaches in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He has written, edited, or contributed to several books, including The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. He blogs at ScriptoriumDaily.com.
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