SermonIndex Audio Sermons
Image Map
SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER VI THE BOOK OF THE CROSS

Understanding The Scriptures by Francis McConnell

CHAPTER VI THE BOOK OF THE CROSS

If the central feature of the Scriptures is their idea of God, and if the climax of the biblical revelation is Christ, the greatest fact about Christ from the point of view of the Bible is his cross. We say fact advisedly, for we are not dealing with the theories that have sprung up to interpret the meaning of the cross. We are trying to deal solely with the direct impressions which seem to have been made upon the scriptural writers as to the place of the cross in the revealing movement.

We said in the last chapter that the Scriptures reach their climax in the doctrine that God is in Christ. The cross of Christ carries to most effective revelation the Christlike character of God. While we are not treating now the various creedal dogmas as to the person of Christ, we must not forget that those dogmas have essayed as part of their task the bringing of God close to men. The truth embodied in the text that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world is essential to knowing the Scriptures. We have seen that even as a warrior Jehovah was thought of as willing to bear his part of the burdens of the chosen people. We have seen growing the idea that Jehovah was under moral obligation to carry through the uplifting work which he had begun. We have seen prophets attain to glimpses of the meaning of suffering for the divine life, and we have beheld the culmination in the suffering of Christ. In those perplexing phrases of the creeds like, |Very God of very God,| the aim of the church has been perfectly clear -- to guard the scriptural idea that God was so truly in Christ that the sufferings of Christ were the sufferings of God. Even when least intelligible the pain of men becomes more easily borne if men can believe that in some real sense their pain is also the pain of God. That God is Christlike in capacity to suffer is in itself a revelation of no small consequence.

In the cross of Christ we see exalted with surpassing power the belief that God acts out of righteousness in his relation to the universe and to men. It must needs be that Christ suffer. The writers seem unable to escape the conviction that they are beholding the working of divinely inevitable moral necessities. These moral obligations are not to be conceived of as external to God or imposed on him from outside of himself. In the Scriptures they seem, rather, to be expressions of his own nature. When the writers of theories about the cross lay stress on those profound obligations of God toward moral law which must be discharged in the work of redemption, the Scriptural basis underneath such theories is the implication that God, by the very fact of what he is, must act righteously. His power is not his own in such sense that he can act from arbitrary or self-centered motives. The Judge of all the earth must do right, at whatever cost to himself. The Scriptures keep close to the thought of God as a supremely powerful Being under supreme responsibility in the use of his power. If we can believe the Scripture that in Christ we see God, and that the bearing, of Christ during his suffering reveals really and uniquely the bearing of God himself, we have a revelation of the grasp with which moral responsibility holds the Almighty against even any momentary slip into arbitrariness. Sometimes we hear the sufferings of Christ preached as a pattern of nonresistance for men. It is permissible thus to interpret the cross within limitations; but this is not the essential aspect of the cross, as explaining its hold on men. The all-important doctrine as to the use of power is hinted at in the Master's word that he had but to call for legions of angels if he so chose. Under most extreme provocation the forces of the Almighty held to their appointed task. If the Almighty had been conceived of as a Despot or an Egotist, he would have been expected to resort at once to revengeful violence in the presence of such insults as those of the persecutors of the Son of God. The Source of all activity can hardly be conceived of as passive; but the passivity of the Christ of the cross suggests that no outrage by men can divert the almighty power from its moral purpose. This is really a gathering together and lifting on high of the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount, that God maketh the sun to shine upon the just and the unjust, and causeth his rain to fall on the evil and the good. That is to say, while the Bible thinks of the cross as laying bare the Almighty's reaction against evil, it also thinks of that cross as showing a God who will not be disturbed by any merely |personal| considerations. We behold the Almighty's use of power for the advance of a moral kingdom. The Almighty is set before us as exerting all his power for the relief of men. The cross makes the profoundest revelation of the moral fixedness and self- control of God so long as we hold to the scriptural representation. It is to be regretted that many theological theories break away from the Scripture basis and build upon assumptions which are artificial, not to say unmoral: or, rather, in their striving after system they get away from the atmosphere of moral suggestiveness with which the Gospels and Epistles surround the cross. That God will do his part in the redemption of men is set before us in the cross. That part can be nothing short of making men yearn to be like Christ and of aiding them in their struggle for the Christlike character. It will be remembered that in the last chapter we called attention to the hopelessness of the Christian ideal viewed as an ideal in itself without a dynamic to help men to realize the ideal. If Christ is only to reveal to us the character toward which men are to strive, we are in despair. That one man has reached such perfection is in itself no promise that other men may reach that perfection. Moreover, the excellence of Christ is not only a moral excellence; or if it is moral excellence, that excellence involves a balance of intellectual attributes which is for us practically out of reach. Now, Christ is the ideal, but the ideal is one toward which we not only labor in our own strength, but one whose attainment by us is an object of solicitude for God himself. And so we see in the cross a patience which will bear with men to the utmost, and which will reenforce them as they press toward the goal. The glory of Christianity is largely hi the paradox that it sets before men an unattainable ideal and then commands them to attain the ideal. If the cross is nothing but a revelation of an ideal for men, this paradox is insoluble and intolerable. In the scriptural light of the cross, however, we catch the glory not of an abstract ideal, but of a Father's love for his children -- not of the commands of conscience in the abstract, but of the desires of a personal Friend who will lift men as they stumble and fall. The ground for this patience seems as we read to be in the very nature of God himself. God has brought men into this world without consulting them, he has dowered them with the terrific boon of freedom, he has set them in hard places; but he has done this out of a moral and loving purpose. He therefore makes more allowances for men than exacting men ever can make for themselves. He puts at the service of men so much of his power as they can appropriate by their moral effort. The Christ of the cross is taught as the truth about God -- the God who is at once the supremely real and the supremely ideal places his powers at the service of men who would make their Christ-ideal progressively real in themselves.

The power of the Bible over men centers around the teaching that the cross not only reveals God as morally bound to redeem men, but that it also shows us the divine aim in redemption. Men are to be redeemed by seeking for forgiveness in the name of the moral life set on high by the cross, but the repentant soul is to show its sincerity by devotion to the task and spirit of cross-bearing. The aim of the cross is to bring men together into a fellowship of the cross, in a fellowship of suffering for the sake of the moral triumph to be won at the end. We are accustomed to think of suffering as implying the possibility of joy. The man who can feel keen sorrow can feel keen joy; they who have the power to weep have also the power to laugh. In the final kingdom the weeping shall be turned into joy. But, according to the Scriptures, it is not necessary for the disciples to wait until the consummation before entering into the joy of their Lord. There is an entrance to the divine mind through bearing the cross. Those who desired to learn of Christ as true disciples were expected to take up the cross and carry it daily. The Master also declared that the disciples were to think of themselves as blessed when they endured persecution for righteousness' sake, for men had persecuted the prophets in all ages. The implication is that knowledge of and sympathy with the prophets came out of cross-bearing like that of the prophets. To use a simple illustration: a student of the careers of the leaders of any reform might gather a mass of information about the reformers in an outside kind of fashion, as by the study of books, or by visits to the scenes of their struggles. Such a student, however, could not master the inner spirit of a reformer's life until he himself had battled for some cause at risk to himself. So the man who seeks to bear the cross of Christ is on the path to sympathetic inner knowledge of the spirit of Christ. In our second chapter we called attention to the truth that approach to knowledge of God is through the doing of the will of God. Doing of the will, according to Jesus, means much more than just a round of good deeds. It means carrying the burdens which are inevitable in cross-bearing. There is good reason for believing that the very highest step in spiritual learning is taken only through the willingness to bear the cross. In our modern educational systems we lay varying degrees of stress upon the importance of different methods of acquiring knowledge. There is at the bottom of the scale the method of mastering the instruction of the teacher by attention and reflection. There is, next, the method of learning through one's own experiment -- through using microscope or telescope or textbook for oneself. There are, further, the social aids to the quickening of the mind as groups of students study and discuss together. But the deepest knowledge comes as the student feels his sympathy and feeling involved. If he must pay himself out for the acquisition of the truth, or if he must defend his conclusions at great cost to himself, this experience which involves the feeling involves also the sharpening of the intellect. The eyes of the soul are opened to the subtler intuitions. Thus it is in the revelations of the divine purpose in the Scriptures. It is hard to make out how anybody can hope to master a revelation of a cross-bearing God without himself being a cross-bearer. In the New Testament narratives of Passion Week the Master is reported as winning his surest convictions of the presence of God and of the victory of his truth at the very instant when he entered into the extreme depths of suffering. In the after days it was when the saints faced stoning that they saw the heavens opening; it was the apostle who had suffered hardships almost too numerous to mention who got the most positive conviction of the reward which awaited him. In the school of Christ the very heaviest stress must fall upon the indispensability of cross-bearing as a means to understanding.

Not only does the biblical revelation see in the cross of Christ the culminating manifestation of the character of God, and of the purpose of God in redemption, but it also shows to us the divine method in helping men. We have spoken of those who dwell upon the Master's nonresistance as a model of passivity in the presence of evil. The example of Christ when thus treated is in danger of being misinterpreted. The Christ of the cross was passive so far as physical force was concerned; but he was never more intensely active in the higher ranges of his faculties -- in self-control and in alertness to the finer whisperings of the spirit. The Christ's non-resistance to the physical might of evil is not to be interpreted as acquiescence on the part of the Divine toward the ravages of evil, but, rather, as the divine method of thwarting evil by allowing it to reveal itself. No amount of preaching about the nature of evil can equal in eloquence the self-revelations of that nature as it works itself out into expression. While in a degree the self-revelation of evil put forth against Christ was unique, yet we must remember that the sins which put Christ to death are just those commonest in all time. Judas was disappointed. He carried spite no more tenaciously than the ordinary heart is capable of treasuring it. Caiaphas desired simply to hold his own position and preserve the peace of his nation. Very likely the type of opinion in the midst of which Caiaphas moved would have pronounced that he rendered a disagreeable, but nevertheless necessary patriotic service in his condemnation of Christ. Pilate too meant well, but was afraid of the crowd. His friends may have commended his administrative wisdom in allowing the people to have their own way. It was the play of just such ordinary forces of sin against an extraordinary holiness that made it impossible for the mightiest revelation ever vouchsafed to man to work through the earthly activity of Jesus for more than a few months. The Scripture does not have much to do with abstract sins; with concrete sins of men as we actually find them, it has much to do.

The Scriptures make it very clear that there is something which satisfies God himself in the work of redemption. God acts out of moral obligation, out of self-respect, out of love. But he acts always in respect for men as free moral beings. The cross appeals to the free spirit of men to behold the nature of evil, and to flee from that evil toward their redeeming God. If the redemption is to be a moral redemption, the last detail of the method must be moral. The power of the Almighty must not be used to break down freedom of men. It would be theoretically possible for an almighty power to bring to bear such pressures upon human wills as to crush them, but the strongest representation of the power of God in the New Testament does not go to the length of hinting at interference with the freedom of men. Men are to be saved as free men or not at all. We might conceivably imagine the Almighty as granting such indubitable vision of the material rewards of righteousness and the material loss of unrighteousness as would irresistibly draw masses of a certain grade of men into the Kingdom without a morally free consent to righteousness. Or we might conceive of the Almighty as so weighing this or that factor of environment as to diminish almost to the vanishing point the free choice of men. This kind of compulsion would not be moral. The only compulsions of the cross are those of a moral God splendidly attractive on his own account.

It will have occurred to some readers by this time that we have said very little about the love of God in our discussion of the Scriptures, whereas that love is the outstanding feature of the biblical revelation. Our reply is that we have been trying to be true to the impression made by the Scriptures as to the kind of love which we must think of as expressing the deepest fact in God's life. We would not in the least minimize the truth that love is the last word of the scriptural revelation; but in our modern life we are apt to get away from the quality of the love revealed in the Bible. The love of the cross is built upon the righteousness which runs through the Sacred Book from the beginning to the end. A god of indifferent moral quality might love. The old Greek gods had favorites upon whom they lavished their affections. A god might be conceived of as an amiable and well-wishing father, foolishly indulgent toward his children. The love of the New Testament, however, is the love of a Father who dares to appeal to the children to make heroic response; and who shows his own love for them in the lengths to which he will go for them. Moral love will go the full length of heroic self-sacrifice. We cannot help believing that it is the quality of God's love, rather than the mere fact of that love, which is the explanation of the power of the biblical teaching.

A friend of mine many years ago wrote a book which he called The Hero God. The publishers objected to the title because they saw in it a touch of sensationalism. No title, however, could have more adequately set forth the biblical God. God is the hero of the Bible. His heroism appears in growing revelation from the beginning. It shows itself superbly in his willingness to bear the burdens of mankind and in the appeals which he makes for response from men. The picture is of a God who dares to believe in men and who dares to call on them for the extremes of self-sacrificing devotion, not to himself as an arbitrary Person, but to himself as the center of the moral life which is above all other life worth while. It is open to anyone to object that this biblical picture does not necessarily hold good for God; but it is hardly possible to object that the picture is not biblical. The picture stands in its own right and makes its own appeal. The only way to test it in life is to yield to its appeal.

If we are asked to account for the power of the Bible, we are at a loss for any one single statement. The most compendious reply is the magnetism of the love of God as revealed in Christ. This is so broad, however, that it may not make a direct and vivid impression. We may say, then, that one element of the magnetism of the biblical revelation is the magnetism of the appeal to the heroic. Whatever else the Bible may or may not be, it is not a book of soft and easy things. Breaths of the most rigorous life blow across every page. It is made for man in that it calls men to the service of the highest and best. The religious systems which make the fewest and least demands upon their followers most speedily fall away; those that call for the utmost are most likely to meet the enthusiastic response. There is a frank honesty about the biblical appeal which holds a charm for all men in whom there are any sparks of real manhood. The severities of the Christian life are nowhere disguised. Men are never lured on by false pretenses. The path is the path of cross-bearing, and the reward is the comradeship between God and man as they together work toward the highest goal, a comradeship which of itself brings relief to men burdened with the mystery of the universe and agonized by remorse over sin. This essay is quite as significant for what it has not said as for what it has said. In our omissions we have tried to keep clear the main outlines of scriptural revelation. We have sought to hold fast to principles rather than to discuss details. We have done this because we have believed that there is more value for religious understanding in pointing out the loftier biblical peaks which give the direction of the whole range than in tracing out pathways through detailed passages. Moreover, we have been afraid to employ many theoretical terms lest we blur the quick moral impressions made by the Scripture phrasings. For example, it may be objected that our treatment of the character of God is altogether inadequate. We have not thus far said a word about the Trinity, for example, or about atonement. The reason is that we believe that any theories about God must base themselves upon the moral suggestions of the Scriptures; and our business is with these rather than with the theories. The received revelation concerning God would warrant us in fashioning any theory as to the richness of his inner constitution which might even measurably satisfy our minds. The scriptural atmosphere as to the moral life in God must, however, be kept in the chief place in all of our theological theories. Atonement must be interpreted chiefly in terms of ethical steadiness if it is to build on a biblical foundation. But the instant we use formal terms like |Trinity| and |atonement| we have taken at least one step away from the Scriptures. Again, we have said nothing about Divine Providence. The Bible is full of instances of providences, but here also we have preferred to let the fundamental moral character of the biblical God speak for itself. We may have our own belief that there is no scriptural warrant for that separation which obtains in much theology between the processes of God and the processes of nature. We may admit that the Hebrew had no very systematically framed theory of the processes of nature, but he deemed God to be in such close touch with nature as easily to control its forces for a good end. In two accounts of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites we have an apparent contradiction which is at bottom not a contradiction. In one account God seems to cause the waters to wall up on both sides of the Israelites in defiance of the laws of nature. In another God accomplishes the drying of the path through the blowing of a strong east wind. The Hebrew would not have troubled himself much with the apparent contradiction, for he would have conceived of God as the chief factor in either event, and of his purpose as having the right of way. There is thus no great value in discussing specific instances as long as the care of God for his children is the animating purpose of the entire biblical content. So with answers to prayer -- the God who is willing to go for men to the lengths revealed in the cross will surely answer any prayer worth answering. The essential is to lift prayer up into harmony with the entire revealing and redeeming movement, and to conceive of it as a fitting of the whole life into the purposes of a moral God. Certain general requirements would always have to be met. Prayer would have really to deal with what is best for the individual, best for those around him, and most in harmony with the character of God himself. So, again, with the progress of the kingdom of God on earth -- the God of whose nature the cross is the final revelation can be trusted to do the best possible for the Kingdom here and now. Much debate about the second coming of Christ misses the great moral principles which are the heart of the Christian revelation and loses itself in the incidental forms in which those principles were declared. The best preparation for the coming of the kingdom of Christ is absorption in the principles of Christ and in the spirit of Christ. To get away from these in our search for external and material conditions which are the mere vehicle of the biblical thought is not only to pursue a will-o'-the-wisp, but to injure true spiritual progress. Jesus has given us the spiritual principles which must control the destiny of any society here and now. In the light of the Christ-faith revealed in the cross we must not despair of the redemption of men by the city-full and by the nation-full, for the greatest confidence ever placed in men is the implied trust of the cross of Christ. The Almighty at the beginning paid an immense tribute to the human race when he flung it out into the gale of this existence. In the light of the cross we cannot believe that He expected the race to sink. In the cross the Christ who revealed God's own mind showed the length he was willing to go in confidence that men would finally turn to him with all the powers of their lives. To throw up our hands and say that the world is getting worse and we can do nothing without a speedy physical return of the Christ is to overlook the spiritual forces of the cross.

We have said nothing about immortality. What the Scriptures themselves say is largely incidental. The Master did not allow himself to be drawn into any extended conversation about the details of a future life, but he did give us the God of the cross. In the presence of that cross we can profess the utmost confidence in the eternal life of the sons of God, while at the same time acknowledging the utmost ignorance as to any of the material conditions of the future life. It is commonly assumed that the resurrection of Christ proves that we shall likewise rise, but the rising of Christ does not of itself prove that others shall rise. The cross, however -- showing the extent to which the Divine is willing to go for men -- is the ground of our hope. God will not leave his loved ones to see corruption. In a word, the cross of Christ gathers up all the biblical truth. It is a revelation of God's own character, of his hope for men, of the methods by which he seeks to win men, and of the ground of our faith in a right outcome for men and for society.

We may be permitted to summarize by saying that scientific and historical biblical study is a preparation for the knowledge of the Scriptures; that it is exceedingly important that the student approach with the correct preliminary point of view. The revelation of the inner significance, however, does not dawn until there is recognition of the need of obedience to the principles laid down in the Scriptures. And this obedience must be broad enough to include zeal for the uplift of our fellow men in all phases of their lives. Out of righteous living the devoted life, we believe, will see that the greatest fact of the Bible is God; that the greatest fact of God is Christ; that the greatest fact of Christ is the cross.

<<  Contents 





©2002-2021 SermonIndex.net
Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Affiliate Disclosure | Privacy Policy