The Foolish Cross That Saves

For Christians, this is the most important weekend of the year. On Good Friday, we remember Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross for our sins. Then on Easter Sunday, we celebrate the historically reliable fact that Jesus rose again, appeared to many, and is alive today in heaven.

With all this talk of the cross, we can forget just how offensive the cross really is. In the Western world, the cross is more of a household knicknack than a torture device. Apart from a church or cemetery, you’re likely to see crosses in jewelry, tattoos, and windshield decals.

For people of the first century, however, there was no such confusion. Everyone in the Roman Empire knew what a cross was, and had probably seen someone crucified. The Romans made sure to perform these executions publicly, as if to say, “this is what happens to those who defy Rome.” Apart from grim curiosity, you steered clear of crosses.

Jews have their star of David. Muslims have their crescent and star. Eastern religions favor the yin-yang. And then there are Christians. The only world religion that finds its identity in an execution device.

The Apostle Paul explains just how strange this was to Jews and Greeks of his time: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God…For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:18, 22-23; cf. 2:2).

The word “folly” (Gk. μωρία, vv. 18, 23) is the source for our word “moron” today. It speaks of something stupid, irrational, idiotic. God engages in a bit of sarcasm here. He says, “You call me foolish. Fine. I’m going to use this foolish message to show how empty your so-called wisdom is.”

From a human perspective, the preaching of the cross is “moronic.” But from  spiritual perspective, it is beautiful beyond measure.

“Wait!” you reply. “Are you saying you’re going to put your faith in a savior who was stripped naked and publicly executed on a pole in the middle east two thousand years ago?!”

Yep. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I will gladly stake my eternity on Jesus Christ the Son of God who came to earth and died on a cross in my place, forgiving me of sin and then rising again. It may sound foolish, but “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1:25). Folly? Yes. And I invite you to join me.

For those of us in ministry, there’s another application here.  When ministry does not produce the kind of immediate results we expect, we will be tempted to make the message more palatable.

Borrowing from the entrepreneurial playbook, we try a more market-driven, seeker-driven approach to ministry. Find what people want, then give it to them! Shorten the sermon. Sprinkle in videos. Focus on felt needs. Preach on practically relevant topics. Use pop culture references. Get a little edgy. People’s attention spans are short, so make the service more like a variety show. Build a playland for the kids. Avoid talk of God’s holiness, the reality of hell, or that Jesus is the only way. This is the type of advice many church growth experts propound today.

A few months back, I attended a workshop on “Reaching Generation Z.” While the speaker gave some very interesting demographic data, there was very little talk of the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17). He did, however, encourage us to visit Las Vegas to learn about their production values and special effects. The implication was that this is what will help draw sinners and save souls.

Most of us would never deliberately change the message. But subtly, we can shift the focus away from Christ to other things, and the folly of the cross has been lost. Inadvertently, we strip the gospel of its very essence.

Believe me, we are not the first generation to struggle with reaching our audience. There were some pretty effective artists and entertainers in Paul’s day. Paul could have resorted to their kind of methods to draw a crowd. But instead, he chose to preach a bloody cross.

God delights in using what is weak, because then he gets the glory. This Easter weekend, may we, like the Apostle Paul, preach Christ crucified and risen (1 Cor. 1:23; 15:3-4).

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The Spirit of Adoption

Have you ever had a change in relationship that made you think differently about yourself? I’ll never forget the privilege of introducing Natalie as my “wife” for the first time. She was no longer just my girlfriend, or even fiancee, but she was my wife! And I was her husband. This identify shift brought with it a new sense of joy and purpose in life.

Imagine how an orphan must feel when he first learns he has been adopted. When the parents arrive at the orphanage and take him home, everything changes. He no longer needs to fear being lost, alone, or forgotten. At first the change may be overwhelming. But over time, the child begins to appreciate his newfound identity and enjoy the gift of a loving family.

The Bible even uses adoption language to describe our relationship to God through Christ. By the power of the gospel, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. No matter what trials we face, or temptations we endure, we can rest in the fact God is now our Father.

Paul describes this tender reality in Romans 8:15b-16: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

Adoption brings not only a new identity, but also a new inheritance. We are now co-heirs of Christ and will reign with him in his coming kingdom. Paul says in verse 17, “and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…”

The Scottish Pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne explains it this way: “God is as much your Father as He is Christ’s Father, your God as Christ’s God. Oh, what a change! for an heir of hell to become an heir of God, and joint–heir with Christ; to inherit God; to have a son’s interest in God! Eternity alone will teach you what is in that word, ‘heir of God.’”

In our newest podcast, we look more in depth at this doctrine of adoption from Romans 8:12-17 and celebrate the eternal inheritance that is ours through Christ Jesus.

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The Beautiful Feet of Billy Graham

Graham preaches in Tallahassee, Florida (1961)

Today, our nation grieves the loss of Baptist evangelist Billy Graham, who went home to be with the Lord Wednesday morning at the age of 99.

Dr. Graham was a towering figure during the second half of the 20th century, even playing an advisory role to many of our Presidents. As President George H.W. Bush said, “Billy Graham was America’s pastor. His faith in Christ and his totally honest evangelical spirit inspired people across the country and around the world.”

Dr. Graham had a direct impact on my life as well. He was the instrument God used to lead my dad to Christ back in 1969. Were it not for Graham’s ministry, perhaps my dad would have never heard the gospel and I wouldn’t know Jesus today.

In 2004, my wife and I had the privilege of attending Billy Graham’s last crusade on the west coast — at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It was like a step back in time to the old tent revival days, complete with George Beverly Shea singing “I’d Rather Have Jesus” at age 95. What a voice!

As we waited for the evening’s festivities to begin, I marveled at the massive crowd and variety of cultures assembled in the name of Jesus. I was reminded several times of the scene in Revelation 5 where we are told “myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands,” indeed, “every created thing” (Rev. 5:11, 13) will gather together to worship our blessed Lord.

Natalie and I were particularly impressed how Dr. Graham’s sermon was saturated with scripture throughout. I will forever be indebted to this man, and praise God he has now entered his heavenly reward. Here is an article by Steve Lawson with much more on the man and his ministry.

Dr. Graham finished his race, and over the next few days, we will hear stories of his legacy. Now it is our turn to carry the powerful torch of the gospel to a whole new generation, “that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD” (Psalm 102:18).

Another great evangelist, the Apostle Paul, said it best of Billy Graham: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:15)

If You Don’t Have Something Nice To Say…

“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Seems like good advice at first. We certainly don’t want to open our big mouths and say something  we’ll later regret.

In the book War on Words, Paul David Tripp suggests, “Listen to the talk that goes on in your home. How much of it is impatient or unkind? How often are words spoken out of selfishness and personal desire? How easily do outbursts of anger occur?”

Most of us would have to admit we have a lot of room for improvement. It’s true we need to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you” (Eph. 4:31). That’s a challenge in itself.

But for the Christian, the standard goes even higher. When frustrated or angry, we don’t have the option of just biting our lip and saying nothing.

Paul also gives a positive command regarding our speech in Ephesians 4. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Then down a little further, he says our talk is to be “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (v. 29).

In communication, step one is to “put off” words that bring harm and destruction. Step two is to “put on” words of edification in their place. Unless you’ve done both, you have not completed the cycle of sanctification. It would be like hitting a baseball, running to second base, then just walking back to the dugout instead of continuing on to home plate.

Being slow to speak is a sign of wisdom (James 1:19). But how can you then “put on” words that will build others up? Here are five ways you can start today…

  • Learn to say “thanks” for little acts of service or kindness. There’s always something we can be thankful for.
  • Instead of being nit picky, find ways to commend a person’s character, their beauty, their gifts, and a  job well done.
  • Ask questions with a sincere desire to know others better and to serve them.
  • Be willing to ask for help or advice. It’s one of the best ways we can say, “You are important. Your opinion matters to me.”
  • Look for ways to talk about Scripture – what you’ve been learning, what you’ve been reading, and what issues you’d like to understand better.

In light of Ephesians 4, I propose a new motto. “If you don’t have something nice to say, keep thinking until you have something nice to say. Then say it!”

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Photo credit: Rebecca Barray

Under New Management

Struggling with a bad habit? Maybe it’s alcohol, or gambling, or pornography, or an out-of-control temper.

Many professing Christians assume that having been saved, the battle with sin is now over. Sure, they try to avoid a few “really bad” sins. But exempt from eternal punishment, they are pretty much free to live however they want.

This is a serious misunderstanding of God’s grace, leading to many bad habits. It gives Satan a foothold into our lives and lets sin ascend back onto the throne of our hearts.

In our latest podcast, we learn from Romans 6:12-19 that salvation is not so much a declaration of independence (allowing us to live however we want) as it is a transfer of ownership (from the bondage of sin to the righteous rule of Christ). Only when we view ourselves as slaves of Christ will we be able to overcome the bondage of sin.

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