I WAS CONVERTED DURING THE CHARISMATIC RENEWAL IN 1971. For that reason, spiritual experience was a big part of my Christianity. God also graciously gave me a hunger to know and love him, so I began reading the Bible an hour each morning. This went on for fifteen years. Although the teaching that I received through the Charismatic movement was rooted in scripture, it wasn’t very deep, especially when it came to the doctrine of God. “God is love” was about all we knew. But, because I regularly read my Bible, I knew that God was more complicated. I had unresolved questions that needed answers.
In 1986 I bought the two volume Works of Jonathan Edwards published by Banner of Truth. All I knew about Edwards was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God read in my High School English class. I began with his Dissertation On the End For Which God Created the World. It was a theological and spiritual wrecking ball. Here were answers to my theological questions. Most importantly, they were written by a man who was not content with theology for its own sake. For Edwards, theological knowledge was the conduit to a deeper experience of God in all of his majestic glory. I had a theological itch, and Edwards was scratching it.
For the next five years, I read Edwards treatises and sermons. During this time, two things happened. First, I began to understand the cross as an act of penal substitution. Second, because my church wasn’t willing to go there, Edwards ruined me for the charismatic world. I emerged from my study of Edwards, with a deep conviction that the cross, not the Holy Spirit, is the center of the Christian life.
Through Edwards I discovered three reasons to center on the cross. First, it tells us who we are. Second, it tells us what God is like, and third, it is the heart of our ethics. In theological language, the cross is our anthropology, our theology, and our ethics.
First, the cross proclaims how offensive sin is to God. Jesus died as our substitute. He took the judgment that our sins, and our sinful natures, deserve, and it was not pretty. He was crucified naked at Golgotha, which was probably the city garbage dump. Even worse, God abandoned him. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” Jesus cried as he received God’s wrath in our place. Edwards said it this way…
Never did God so manifest his hatred of sin as in the death of his only begotten Son. Hereby he showed himself unappeasable to sin, and that it was impossible for him to be at peace with it.[i]
But, the cross also displays how greatly God loves his image and likeness. Even though he hates our sins and our fallen natures, God loves sinners. How much? The cross is the measure of that love, and it is love for the undeserving. Here is how Edwards explains it—
Now God hath shown that he can…love sinners, who deserve his infinite hatred. And not only hath he shown that he can love them, but love them so as to give them more and do greater things for them than ever he did for the holy angels, that never sinned nor offended their Creator.[ii]
So, the cross simultaneously teaches that we are at once both abhorred and valued by God. In other words, the cross continually reminds us that Jesus died for his enemies (Romans 5:10). Most importantly, he did this to make us his friends.
But second, the cross paints a picture of what God is like. The cross is a display of God’s glory—his internal hidden nature. Although God told Moses that no one could see his glory and live” (Exodus 33:20, a few days before his death, Jesus made this amazing statement, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). In other words, Jesus anticipated that his death would display the internal workings of God’s glory in a way that his followers could see and survive. Here are just a few examples.
The cross glorifies God’s wrath. Jerry Bridges suggests that God’s wrath is his justice in action. God is not ashamed of his wrath. Just the opposite. It is an aspect of his goodness, so it must be displayed and glorified.
God’s wrath did not end with the beginning of the New Testament. In the Old Testament God exercised his wrath at Noah’s Flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the deportation of Jerusalem. But, it crescendoed on the cross, in the New Testament. There the Father poured out his wrath on his Son (Isaiah 53:10) in our place. The cross glorifies the wrath of God, and when we see what is happening, we are rightly disturbed and shaken.
The cross also glorifies God’s righteousness and justice. Because of his “divine forbearance” (Roman 3:25), God did not judge many Old Testament sins. For example, David committed adultery and murder—both capital crimes, but he wasn’t executed. Why? Was God changing his approach to justice? No! God showed David mercy because he put his faith in the Messiah who would be executed in his place.
On the contrary, Paul wrote that the cross was “to show God’s righteousness at the present time, (his total commitment to justice) so that he might be just and the justifier of those who put their faith in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:26). In other words, God’s commitment to his threat to punish sin was so important that he sent his Son to the cross to take that punishment so that no one would ever think that God didn’t take righteousness and justice seriously. In the words of Edwards,
“Justice should take place though it cost his infinitely dear Son his precious blood.”[iii]
The cross also glorifies God’s grace. Grace occurs when God rewards someone who deserves punishment. That is the case for every Christian. God loves grace, and he loves to exercise it. The cross was an exercise of amazing grace. Jesus took the punishment that we deserve, God’s wrath, so that we might enjoy the reward that he deserves—eternal glory.
Last, the cross glorifies the “breadth and length, and height and depth of God’s love which surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19). God’s love is his benevolent desire to bless and reward the undeserving—a desire so strong that Christ was willing to suffer eternal torments to dispense it. In the words of D. A. Carson—
Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move, from the Old Testament to the New. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax—the cross. Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.[iv]
Third, the cross is our ethics. Jesus summed up our moral duty with two great commandments. Love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and second, love your neighbor as you want to be loved (Matthew 22:36-40).
The cross is a picture of what loving God looks like. Jesus loved his Father so much that he humbled himself by becoming obedient, even unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). This means that love is more than an emotion or feeling. Love is an action. It is obedience! Agonizing over the cross to the point of sweating blood, Jesus begged his Father for another way. But, when his Father said, “no,” he arose, and motivated by love, joyfully embraced obedience. This changes everything. Loving God means pushing through pain, obstacles, suffering, rejection, or deprivation to do what pleases him. It means crucifying the fleshly love of ease and pleasure.
Second, the cross shows us what loving our neighbor looks like. It means loving enemies. As we have seen, Jesus didn’t die for friends. He died for enemies in order to make them friends (Romans 5:10). The cross also means repeatedly forgiving enemies. Jesus died to forgive enemies that only deserved his eternal condemnation.
The cross limits my options. I am no longer free to live by my feelings. I can’t disobey God because I don’t “feel like it.” I can’t cling to bitterness, no matter how undeserving the person who has hurt me. I can’t hate my enemies. The application of the cross heals marriages, resolves church splits, ends racism, and every other form of social discord.
Here is my point. If you were thrown in prison without a Bible, but really understood the cross, you would know all that you fundamentally need to know to understand who you are, who God is, and how to behave. This why Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “When I came to you brothers…I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).
It is also why Jonathan Edwards focused so clearly on penal substitution. It is the heart of the Christian message.
[i] Works, Vol 2, “Wisdom Of God Displayed In Salvation,” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1834, republ. 1976) pg. 145
[iii]Works, Vol 2, “Wisdom Displayed In Salvation,” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1834, repub. 1976) pg. 145
[iv]D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of The Love of God, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), pg. 70