Why I am a Christian is the Cross of Christ by John Stott
The passages below are taken from John Stott’s book “Why I Am A Christian,” published in 2003 by Inter-Varsity Press.
The claims of Jesus relate not only to who he was but also to what he came into the world to do; not only to his person but to his mission; not only to his life but to his death.
Anybody who investigates Christianity for the first time will be struck by the extraordinary stress his followers put on his death. In the case of all other great spiritual leaders their death is lamented as terminating their career. It is of no importance in itself; what matters is their life, their teaching and the inspiration of their example.
With Jesus, however, it is the other way round. His teaching and example were indeed incomparable, but from the beginning his followers laid their emphasis on his death. Take his three greatest apostles, Paul, Peter and John:
Paul: ‘I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV).
Peter: ‘For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 3:18 NIV).
John: ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (I John 4:10 NIV).
Moreover, when the Gospels came to be written, the four Gospel-writers devoted a disproportionate amount of space to the last week of his life on earth—in the case of Luke a quarter, of Matthew and Mark about a third, and of John as much as a half.
And the reason for this emphasis by the apostles is that they had seen it in the mind of Jesus himself. It set him apart from the other religious leaders in history. They died of natural causes in a good old age, having successfully completed their mission. Muhammad was sixty-two, Confucius seventy-two, the Buddha eighty; and Moses 120. But Jesus died the horrible death of crucifixion in his early thirties, repudiated by his own people, apparently a complete failure, yet claiming to fulfil his mission by his death. Indeed, during his last few days on earth, he was still looking forward to the accomplishment of his work.
It is clear, then, that Jesus’ death was central to his own self-understanding. On three separate and solemn occasions he predicted his death, saying that ‘the Son of Man must suffer many things … and … be killed’ (Mark 8:31; cf. 9:31; 10:32—34 NIV). He saw his mission as being completed by his death, and therefore his death as inevitable. It must take place, he said. He also referred to his death as the ‘hour’ for which he had come into the world. At first this ‘hour’ kept being delayed, but at last he could say, ‘The hour has come’ (John 12:23—24 NIV). And finally, during the Thursday evening, while he was taking supper with the Twelve, he deliberately made provision for his own memorial service. They were to take, break and eat bread in memory of his body given for them, and to drink wine in memory of his blood poured out for them. Death speaks to us from both the elements—the broken bread and the poured-out wine. No symbolism could be more dramatic. Thus Jesus gave clear instructions as to how he wished to be remembered: it was for his death.
So the church has been right to choose the cross as its symbol for Christianity. It could have chosen the crib in which the baby Jesus was laid (as an emblem of the incarnation), or the carpenter’s bench (affirming the dignity of manual labour), or the boat from which he taught the people, or the towel with which he washed and wiped the disciples’ feet (as symbols of humble service), or the tomb from which he rose again, or the throne he occupies today (representing his sovereignty), or the dove or the fire (emblems of the Holy Spirit). Any one of these could have been an appropriate symbol of the Christian faith. But the church passed them all by in favour of the cross, which stands for the necessity and centrality of his death.
So we see it everywhere. In many churches candidates for baptism are signed with the sign of the cross. And if after our death we are buried, our family and friends will probably erect a tombstone over our grave, on which they will have had a cross inscribed. In the Middle Ages the great cathedrals of Europe were deliberately built on a cruciform ground-plan, the nave and transepts forming a massive cross. And many church members like to declare their Christian identity by wearing a cross—women on a necklace or pendant, and men on their lapel. Indeed, to do so is a challenge to one’s own Christian commitment. One such was Malcolm Muggeridge:
I would catch a glimpse of a cross [he wrote in later life], not necessarily a crucifix; maybe two pieces of wood accidentally nailed together, on a telegraph pole, for instance—and suddenly my heart would stand still. In an instinctive, intuitive way I understood that something more important, more tumultuous, more passionate, was at issue than our good causes, however admirable they might be … It was, I know, an obsessive interest … I might fasten bits of wood together myself, or doodle it. This symbol, which was considered to be derisory in my home, was yet also the focus of inconceivable hopes and desires … As I remember this, a sense of my own failure lies leadenly upon me. I should have worn it over my heart; carried it, a precious standard never to be wrested out of my hands; even though I fell, still borne aloft. It should have been my cult, my uniform, my language, my life. I shall have no excuse; I can’t say I didn’t know. I knew from the beginning and turned away.1
The choice of the cross as the supreme Christian symbol was all the more remarkable because in Greco-Roman culture the cross was an emblem of shame. The Romans reserved the painful and humiliating death by crucifixion for their worst criminals and most dangerous traitors. No Roman citizen was ever crucified. Cicero condemned it as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’.2 And in his famous defence of an elderly senator he insisted that ‘the very word “cross” should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears’.3
Why then this relentless emphasis on the cross? Why did Christ die? Many have no difficulty in giving their answer to these questions. He died, they say, because he was a preacher of subversive doctrines. He was a revolutionary thinker who so disturbed the prejudices of his contemporaries that they had to get rid of him. He died as the victim of small minds, as a martyr to his own greatness.
This martyr-theory is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It ignores the fact (which the narratives make plain) that he went to the cross of his own free will. ‘I am the good shepherd,’ he said. ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again’ (John 10:11, 18 NIV).
But why did he go voluntarily and deliberately to the cross? Why did he lay down his life for us? Several reasons could be given, for the cross is too rich an event to be given a single explanation. I will select the three major ones the Bible gives:
First, Christ died to atone for our sins.
Second, Christ died to reveal the character of God.
Third, Christ died to conquer the powers of evil.
Or, to use a single word for each explanation, the death of Christ was an atonement, a revelation and a conquest—an atonement for sin, a revelation of God and a conquest of evil.
1. CHRIST DIED TO ATONE FOR OUR SINS
The cross of Christ is the only basis on which God can forgive sins.
But why, an impatient critic will immediately object, should our forgiveness depend on Christ’s death? Why does God not simply forgive us, without the necessity of the cross? ‘God will pardon me’, Heinrich Heine protested. ‘That’s his métier [his job, his speciality].‘4 After all, the objector might continue, if we sin against each other, we are required to forgive each other. So why should God not practise what he preaches? Why should he not be as generous as he expects us to be?
Two answers need to be given to these questions. The first was given at the end of the eleventh century by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote in his magnificent book Why God Became Man: ‘You have not yet considered the seriousness of sin.’5 The second answer might be: ‘You have not yet considered the majesty of God.’ To draw an analogy between our forgiveness of each other and God’s forgiveness of us is very superficial. We are not God but private individuals, while he is the maker of heaven and earth, Creator of the very laws we break. Our sins are not purely personal injuries but a wilful rebellion against him. It is when we begin to see the gravity of sin and the majesty of God that our questions change. No longer do we ask why God finds it difficult to forgive sins, but how he finds it possible. As one writer has put it, ‘forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems’6
Why may forgiveness be described as a ‘problem’ to God? Because of who he is in his innermost being. Of course he is love (1 John 4:8, 16 NIV), but his love is not sentimental love; it is holy love. How then could God punish sin (as in justice he must) without contradicting his love? Or how could God pardon sin (as in love he yearned to do) without compromising his justice? How, confronted by human evil, could God be true to himself as holy love? How could he act simultaneously to express his holiness and his love?
This is the divine dilemma that God resolved on the cross. For on the cross, when Jesus died, God himself in Christ bore the judgment we deserved, in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve. The full penalty of sin was borne—not, however, by us, but by God in Christ. On the cross divine love and justice were reconciled.
All this wonderful truth is encapsulated in the Bible’s simple, often repeated statement, ‘Christ died for our sins.’ Sin and death are constantly bracketed, even riveted, through the pages of the Bible. From Genesis 2:17 NIV) to Revelation 21:8 NIV) the same truth is hammered home that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23 NIV), that is, that they separate us from God. Normally, the sin and the death are ours. We sin, and we die. But when the apostles are writing about the cross, they make the amazing statement that Christ died for our sins. That is, the sin was ours, but now the death (or alienation from God), which is the penalty for sin, was his. This is what is meant by a ‘substitutionary’ atonement. He took our place, bore our sin, paid our debt and died our death. And if we ask how Christ died our death, we can only point to those three hours of God-forsaken darkness in which Christ tasted the desolation of hell in our place, that we might be spared it.
2. CHRIST DIED TO REVEAL THE CHARACTER OF GOD
If Christ died to atone for our sins, he also died to reveal the character of God. For just as we human beings disclose our character by our actions, so does God. He has shown himself to us supremely by giving his Son to die for us.
Twice in his great letter to the Romans, Paul wrote of the demonstration, even the vindication, of God’s character of justice and love in the cross. It may be helpful, before we study these two key texts separately, to set them side by side:
God … did this [i.e. presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement] to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25—26 NIV).
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 NIV).
In these two texts Paul declares that in and through the death of Jesus Christ God has given a clear, public demonstration of both his justice and his love.
I take God’s justice first. Men and women of moral sensitivity have always been perplexed by the seeming injustices of God’s providence. It is one of the recurring themes of the biblical wisdom literature, and it dominates the book of Job. Why do the wicked flourish, and why do the innocent suffer? There is evidently need for a ‘theodicy’, that is, a vindication of the justice of God, a justification to humankind of the apparently unjust ways of God.
The Bible responds to this need in two ways. First, it points us to the future final judgment, when all wrongs will be righted, and meanwhile it points us back to the decisive judgment that took place on the cross. For there God himself in Christ bore the penalty of our sins. Thus the reason for God’s previous inaction in the face of evil was not his moral indifference but his patient forbearance until Christ should come and deal with it by his death. No-one can now accuse God of condoning evil and so of injustice.
But what about God’s love? How can we believe in the love of God when there seems to be so much evidence against it? I am thinking of personal tragedies and natural disasters, worldwide poverty and hunger, tyranny and torture, disease and death. How can the sum total of human misery be reconciled with a God of love?
Christianity offers no glib answer to these agonized questions. But it does offer evidence of God’s love, which is just as historical and objective as the evidence that seems to deny it, namely the cross. The cross does not explain calamity, but it gives us a vantage ground from which to view it and bear it.
In order to understand this, we need to return to Romans 5:8 and the demonstration of God’s love: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ This demonstration is of ‘his own love for us’. It is unique, for there is no other love like it. It has three parts, which together build a convincing case.
Firstly, God gave his Son for us. True, in Romans 5:8 Paul affirms simply that ‘Christ’ died for us. But the context tells us who this Christ, the Messiah, was. According to verse 10, Christ’s death was ‘the death of his [God’s] Son’. So in sending Christ God was not sending someone else, a creature, a third party. No, in sending his own Son he was giving himself.
Secondly, God gave his Son to die for us. It would still have been wonderful if God had given his Son, and so himself, only to become a human being for us. But he went further, ‘even to death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:7—8 NIV), to the torture of crucifixion and to the horror of sin-bearing and God-forsakenness. We have no means of imagining the appalling pain involved in such experiences.
Thirdly, God gave his Son to die for us, that is, for people Paul goes on to describe as ‘sinners’, ‘ungodly’, ‘enemies’ and ‘powerless’ (Romans 5:6—10). Very rarely, Paul continues, somebody may be willing to die for a ‘righteous’ man (whose righteousness is cold, austere and forbidding), though for a ‘good’ man (whose goodness is warm, friendly and attractive) somebody might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own unique love for us in this: that he died for sinful, godless, rebellious and helpless people like us.
The value of a love-gift is assessed both by what it costs the giver and by the degree to which the recipient may be held to deserve it. A young man in love will give his beloved expensive presents because he considers that she deserves them. But God, in giving his Son, gave himself to die for his enemies. He gave everything for those who deserved nothing from him. And that is God’s own proof of his love for us. So what we have been given in the sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ is not a solution to the problem of pain, but sure and solid evidence of both the justice and the love of God, in the light of which we may learn to live and love, to serve, to suffer and to die.
3. CHRIST DIED TO CONQUER THE POWERS OF EVIL
If Christ died to atone for our sins and to reveal the character of God, he also died to conquer the powers of evil. Indeed, it is impossible to read the New Testament without being struck by the atmosphere of joyful confidence that pervades it and that stands out in relief against the rather insipid religion that often passes for Christianity today. There was no defeatism about the early Christians; they spoke rather of victory. For example:
‘Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15:57 NIV); ‘In all these things [that is, adversities and dangers] we are more than conquerors’ (Romans 8:37 NIV).
Victory, conquest, triumph, overcoming—this was the vocabulary of those first followers of Jesus. They attributed this victory to the cross.
Yet any contemporary observer who saw Christ die would have listened with astonished incredulity to the claim that the Crucified was a Conqueror. Had he not been rejected by his own nation, betrayed, denied and deserted by his own disciples, and executed by authority of the Roman procurator? Look at him there, spread eagled and skewered on his cross, robbed of all freedom of movement, strung up with nails or ropes or both, pinned there and powerless. It appears to be total defeat. If there is victory, it is the victory of pride, prejudice, jealousy, hatred, cowardice and brutality.
Yet the Christian claim is that the reality is the opposite of the appearance. What looked like (and in one sense was) the defeat of goodness by evil, is also, and more certainly, the defeat of evil by goodness. Overcome there, he was himself overcoming. Crushed by the ruthless power of Rome, he was himself crushing the serpent’s head (as was predicted in Genesis 3:15 NIV). The victim was the victor, and the cross is still the throne from which he rules the world.
In vivid imagery the apostle Paul describes how the powers of evil surrounded Jesus and closed in round him on the cross, how he stripped them from himself, disarmed them and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:15 NIV). “What precise form this cosmic battle took is not explained. But we do know that Jesus resisted the temptation to avoid the cross, and instead became obedient to it; that, when provoked by insults and tortures, he absolutely refused to retaliate, thus overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21 NIV); and that, when the combined forces of Jerusalem and Rome were arrayed against him, he declined any resort to worldly power. Thus he refused to disobey God, to hate his enemies or to imitate the world’s use of power. By his obedience, love and meekness he won a decisive moral victory over the powers of darkness. He remained free, uncontaminated and uncompromised. This was his victory. The devil could gain no hold on him, and was obliged to concede defeat.
We are not, therefore, to regard the cross as defeat and the resurrection as victory: Rather, the cross was the victory won, and the resurrection the victory endorsed, proclaimed and demonstrated.
This theme of victory through the cross, which the ancient Greek fathers and later Latin fathers celebrated, was lost by some medieval theologians but recovered by Martin Luther at the Reformation. This was the thesis of Gustav Aulén, a Swedish theologian, in his influential book Christus Victor (1930). He was right to remind the church of this somewhat neglected motif. Yet we must not make the opposite mistake, so emphasizing the theme of triumph that we forget the themes of atonement and revelation. In any balanced understanding of the cross, we shall confess Christ as saviour (atoning for our sins), as teacher (disclosing the character of God) and as victor (overcoming the powers of evil).
Why am I a Christian? One reason is the cross of Christ.
Indeed, I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. It is the cross that gives God his credibility.
The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche (the nineteenth-century German philosopher) ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?
In the course of my travels I have entered a number of Buddhist temples in different Asian countries. I have stood respectfully before a statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, serene and silent, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after awhile I have had to turn away. And in my imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness.
The crucified one is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us, dying in our place in order that we might be forgiven. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question-mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross, which symbolizes divine suffering.
‘The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world’ as ours.7 (49-64)
1. Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered (Collins Fontana, 1969), pp. 24—25.
2. Cicero, Against Verres II.64.165.
3. Cicero, In Defence of Rabirius V.16.467.
4. ‘Le bon Dieu me pardonnera. C’est son métier.’ Said to have been spoken by Heine on his deathbed, and quoted in James Denney, The Death of Christ(1902; Tyndale Press, 1951), p. 186.
5. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo i.xxi.
6. Carnegie Simpson, The Fact of Christ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1900), p. 109.
7. P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God (Duckworth, 1916), p. 32.