I grew up in a church that had a steady weekly rhythm of three meetings. There was the Sunday morning service where communion was the main and central feature – different folks sharing thoughts, songs and prayers that generally pointed us back to Calvary. Then there were the other two meetings: one was a Gospel presentation that always seemed to be targeted at unbelievers, the other was a Bible study that was definitely for believers. These were all good meetings and I am thankful for how much I benefited from all of these as I grew up. However, there was an implicit, though unintended, contradiction in this set of meetings.
The communion time kept new believer and seasoned saint together at the foot of the cross every Sunday morning. However, the other two meetings gave the distinct impression that the cross was for unbelievers who needed to get saved, but for believers there was a Bible study that could be anywhere in the Bible … almost as if we had moved on from the cross.
As we approach Easter again this year, do we see it as a season for evangelism, or as a season for personal renewal? Hopefully both. After all, the cross is not just for conversion. In fact, if we reflect on the teaching of Scripture we will recognize that we not only come to faith at the foot of the cross, but we also become mature in its shadow.
Consider the explosive book of Galatians. Paul was deeply bothered to hear that this new group of believers were being troubled by false teachers. These imposters wanted to supplement the Gospel of God’s grace that Paul had brought to them with an apparently “more complete” teaching. What was this more complete gospel? It was one that made the Law a central feature of both conversion (circumcision) and Christian growth (law-keeping effort). Paul was desperate to save the church from this error.
At the end of chapter two he gives the main thrust of his letter from verses 15-21. Notice how he refers to justification four times, followed by references to life six times. He is concerned about both – how do sinners get justified, and how do believers then live? Galatians 2:20 is a synopsis worthy of planting in our hearts:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
His death was my death. When Jesus died I co-died with him. Now it is the resurrected life of Christ that is vibrant within me. So how do I live in this flesh? I live by looking to the one who loved me and gave himself for me – I live my life by a cross-focused faith.
Then we come to chapter three of Galatians, and the first three verses challenge our human tendency to move beyond the cross, thinking we are becoming somehow more sophisticated.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Paul describes his ministry amongst them as one of placarding the cross. His phrase “publicly portrayed as crucified” is meaning that he painted a vivid and bold picture of the death of Christ as the overwhelming focus of his ministry. He had clearly “preached Christ and him crucified” (see 1Cor.2:1-5) and they had responded to that message.
But now Paul was shocked that they felt they could move on to a more sophisticated spirituality that fixed its gaze not on the cross of Christ, but onto their own flesh-driven efforts to mature (“being perfected”). During the next couple of chapters Paul pursues his powerful contrast between the gift of the New Covenant – wherein believers have a close relationship with God by looking to Christ and receiving the Spirit – and turning back to the Old Covenant that was never intended to save, but only point them to their need of Christ. Our flesh has an infinite capacity to think we can somehow go it alone, by our own efforts.
Galatians is just one place where we see this critical tension in life. We will always be pulled away from God’s salvation and life plan towards a self-reliant alternative. We may be more familiar with the rebellion version – that fleshly tendency to indulge in sin and go it alone in the realms of temptation. But there is a religious version too – a fleshly tendency to indulge in the sin of self-reliance where we start to go it alone in the realms of self-righteousness. For example, how easily do we fall into the default “try harder” approach to life when seeking to overcome temptation, or when sensing a need for a closer walk with Christ?
God wants us to mature, to grow more and more into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Easter is a great time to be reminded that our growing to maturity is not about our venturing out into various levels of academic or experiential sophistication, nor is it about gritting our teeth and simply trying harder as we look to our own resources. True Christian growth will always be nurtured in the shadow of the cross.