How Much Does the Cross Really Matter?
The cross is as foolishness and weakness to nonbelievers, but Paul wrote that to those who are being saved it is both “the power” and “wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18, 24). In sharp contrast to the controlling power and wisdom that has been ascribed to God or the gods throughout history—including in much of the OT and, unfortunately, throughout most of church history—Paul allowed the humble love expressed on the cross to completely reframe his understanding of God’s power and wisdom. It is apparent that for Paul, the cross is not merely “God’s means of achieving salvation” but also “a paradigm for God’s action in the world,” as Graham Tomlin notes. “God gets things done not by a conventional human use of power, by displays of force,” but by the kind of self-giving love expressed on Calvary.
N.T. Wright captures the supreme importance of the cross for Paul’s theology, and therefore the central place it ought to have for our theology, when he states that, if we allow it to, Paul’s confession that the crucified Christ is Lord “will strain all our categories [for thinking and speaking about God] to the breaking point and beyond.” For in light of this central revelation, “the meaning of the word ‘God’ includes not only Jesus, but, specifically, the crucified Jesus.” Indeed, when God’s omnipotence and wisdom are most unambiguously put on display, according to Paul, they look like the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross (1 Cor 1:18, 22-5). And, to stretch conventional ways of conceiving of God “to the breaking point and beyond,” this entails that any conception of divine power and wisdom that is contrary to the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross—viz. any conception that characterizes God’s power in terms of control rather than self-sacrificial love—must be identified as essentially pagan.
Reflecting this same cross-centered focus, Paul instructs disciples to imitate (mimetai) God, which he not surprisingly defines as walking “in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2, emphasis added). To imitate God, clearly, is to live in a way that reflects the self-sacrificial love displayed on Calvary. According to Paul, the command to reflect this kind of love is to be placed “above” every other command (Col 3:13). Hence, everything we do is to reflect God’s cruciform, agape love (1 Cor 16:14).
What is more, in strict accordance with the teachings of Jesus (Lk 6:26-35), Paul taught that this kind of love was to be extended even to enemies. Paul instructed disciples to “[b]less those who persecute you” (Rom 12:14) and to never “repay anyone evil for evil” (12:17). In this way they will “not be overcome by evil,” but will instead “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). So too, Paul says followers of Jesus are to never “take revenge.” Instead, he writes: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Rom 12:19-20). It is evident from Paul as well as from Jesus that the defining call of a disciple is to manifest the loving, cruciform character of God revealed on the cross to all people at all times, both within the church and without, including life-threatening enemies.
As is true throughout the NT, Paul assumes that embracing a cross-centered lifestyle implies that disciples must be willing to endure persecution, and perhaps even martyrdom, for the sake of Christ. Indeed, for Paul, disciples are not only to suffer for Christ (Phil 1:29); we are called to suffer with Christ (2 Cor 1:5; Phil 3:10; Col 1:24). This, in fact, is a precondition for sharing in Christ’s eschatological glory (Rom 8:17).
Paul is well aware that disciples cannot live this cruciform life and share in Christ’s suffering by their own power. It is only by means of the Spirit of the crucified and risen Lord working in us that this is possible (Gal 2:19-20; Phil 3:10; 1 Tim 1:8). Indeed, Paul declares that the same “incomparably great power” that raised “Christ from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in heavenly realms” is now available “for us who believe” (Eph 1:19-20).
Image by Christopher JL via Flickr.