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The Centrality of the Cross

Category Articles
Date January 22, 2004


One of the Sovereign Grace Union’s current pamphlets bears the title The Centrality of the Cross. It bears witness to the solemn truth that the religion of our Lord Jesus Christ is the religion of redemption by His crucifixion. In the words of Herman Bavinck: "the cross of Christ is the focal point" of all New Testament preaching, both as the sole source of salvation and as the sum of Christianity.

We who claim to derive our religion from the Word of God would do well to ponder this point and examine ourselves by it. For even if we are not guilty of adulterating the pure Gospel with worldly wisdom or of blurring its unique testimony with ambiguous language, we may easily be guilty of forgetting its central truth. Issue after issue of certain ‘Reformed’ magazines or journals appear with barely a mention of the cross, while a certain ‘Reformed’ minister once preached seven sermons on faith without even referring to it! The fact is, as the old Covenanter verse has it:

Folks dinna want the cross, lassie,
They’ve cutten doon the tree,
And naebody believes in’t
But fules like you an’ me.

The Cross in the New Testament

The whole New Testament sets forth the saving significance of the death of Christ. Our Lord Himself set the precedent by speaking often of His impending death (Mark 7.31 -38; 9.30-32), His use of the imperfect tense clearly indicating that He repeatedly dwelt on it. He described Himself as the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep (John 10.11-18); as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (Luke 22.37) and as the One in whom all Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled (Luke 24.6-8, 26, 46). How lovingly too did He dwell on the substitutionary significance of His death: "the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Matt 20.28) And is not the Lord’s Supper, the great connecting link between His First and Second Coming, the commemoration of His atoning death? (Mark 14.24; Matt 26.28) His herald John the Baptist pointed inquiring sinners to Him as the sacrificial Lamb of God (John 1.29, 36), and on average a quarter of the Gospel narratives are devoted to His final sufferings and death.

The book of Acts is full of the cross of Christ (2.36; 3.18; 8.32-35; 10.39-40; 13.28-30; 17.31; 20.28; 25.19; 26.22-23), while both Paul (1 Cor 15.3) and Peter (1 Pet 1.2) make His atoning death one of the first principles of the doctrine of Christ. The apostle Paul speaks for all when he says: "we preach Christ crucified", and "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Cor 1.23 and 2.2)

Comments Charles Hodge: "Paul’s only design in going to Corinth was to preach Christ; and Christ not as a teacher, or as an example, or as a perfect man, or as a new starting point in the development of the race – all this would be mere philosophy; but Christ as crucified, i.e. as dying for our sins." Further illustration is needless. The cross permeates the entire New Testament, both as the foundation of our faith and as the model for our service and suffering.

The Cross in the Early Church

The faith of the post-apostolic church is indicated in the so-called Apostles’ Creed and the writings of the Fathers.

With masterly condensation, the Creed shows us that Christ was born to die when it leaps over all the intervening facts of His life in the statement: "conceived by the Holy Ghost born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried."

Amidst heaps of controversial polemic the Church Fathers too recognise the fundamental importance of our Saviour’s atoning death. For example, Clement bids us “fix our gaze on the blood of Christ, and know that it is precious to His Father, because it was poured out for our salvation." Similarly, the martyr Polycarp exhorts us to hold steadfastly to Him "who bore our sins in His own body on the tree, who . . suffered all for us that we might live through Him." Athanasius presents the cross as "the sum of our faith", while Augustine affectionately acknowledges: "All my hope is in the death of my Lord. His death is my merit, my refuge, my salvation, my life and my resurrection . . . the certainty of our whole confidence consists in the blood of Christ." From these and many other witnesses George Smeaton concludes: "From the first, the doctrine of the atonement by the death of God’s Son was a central article never impugned. The whole worship was based upon it."

The Cross in the Mediaeval Period

The centuries between Gregory and Anselm "did not contribute much to the development of the doctrine of the atonement." (Louis Berkhof) Until the appearance of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? = Why did God become Man? little of value was said about the cross of Christ. But with his high view of God, serious belief in the infinite demerit of sin and teaching on the absolute need of a vicarious atonement, Anselm showed dying men how to place the death of Christ between themselves and their sins, the wrath of God and the punishment they deserved, as the sole source of their hope for eternity. In so doing, he opened the way for the full-orbed presentation of the Reformers.

The Cross in the Protestant Reformation

In the mercy of God the cross of Christ occupied a more central place in the writings of the Reformers than in those of anyone since the apostles. The great Reformation truth of justification by faith alone, by which millions were freed from Mediaeval reliance on works, rested wholly on the absolute sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Faith alone is sufficient to justify us before God simply because Christ’s atoning death for us is sufficient before Him. When He cried: "It is finished", He opened the door of salvation to all believers. On this crucial point all the leading Reformers were agreed.

Says John Knox: "Paul and Barnabas . . . taught amongst the Gentiles that only faith in Christ’s blood justifies; and a great multitude of Gentiles by their doctrine embraced Jesus Christ, and by Him truly worshipped God . . . And thereto testifies Jesus Christ Himself upon the cross, saying, Consummatum est (It is finished): that is, whatever is required for pacifying my Father’s wrath justly moved against sin, whatever is necessary for reconciliation of mankind to the favour of my eternal Father, and whatever the purgation of the sins of the whole world required, is now completed and ended, so that no further sacrifice rests for sin . . . He was wounded and plagued for our transgressions; He being the clean and innocent Lamb of God, was damned in the presence of an earthly judge that we might be absolved before the tribunal of God."

Similarly, Ulrich Zwingli tells us how Thomas Wyttenbach taught him that the death of Christ was the sole price of the remission of sins, and that faith is the key that unlocks this remission to every soul who believes.

Martin Luther’s insistence that Christian theology is a theology of the cross, rather than a theology of glory, is well known. There is enough in the cross of Christ, he says, to last a man all his life. "Therefore this text, ‘He bore our sins’, must be understood particularly thoroughly, as the foundation upon which stands the whole of the New Testament or the Gospel, as that which alone distinguishes us and our religion from all other religions." "All the saints have served God by their suffering, and have set a good example by it, but not one of them shed a drop of blood or sweat for us . . . This only Christ did. Therefore His Passion is not merely an example, as is that of the saints; but it is a treasure and the price paid for our redemption."

John Calvin speaks of the cross of Christ in the most exalted terms: "There is no tribunal so magnificent, no throne so stately, no show of triumph so distinguished, no chariot so elevated, as is the gibbet on which Christ has subdued death and the devil." "Our salvation consists in the doctrine of the cross." "In the cross of Christ, as in a magnificent theatre, the inestimable goodness of God is displayed before the whole world." "Whoever builds an altar for himself subverts the cross of Christ, on which He offered the only true and perpetual sacrifice." "All the wisdom of believers is comprehended in the cross of Christ."

Thus in the death of Christ our Reformers found the death of sin, death and Satan; the adequate payment of our deserved penalty; the sole sufficient cause of our reconciliation with God; and the meritorious ground of our eternal life.


Perhaps an extract from a letter of Daniel Baker highlights the major reason why so much professedly Reformed preaching today is so ineffective. When asked by his son why his preaching was so much blessed, he replied: "If it will throw any light upon the subject, I will tell you that my plan is incessantly to preach Christ and Him crucified."

Peace and Truth The Magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union 2004:1 By permission

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