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Why the Cross Should Define Our Lives
The gospel cannot be preached and heard enough, for it cannot be grasped well enough.... Moreover, our greatest task is to keep you faithful to this article and to bequeath this treasure to you when we die. Martin Luther
Imagine yourself at Timothy's side as he receives a letter from the apostle Paul-the letter that will be Paul's last.
You notice Timothy's hands slightly trembling as he breaks the seal and opens the parchment to read. He almost cradles the letter, as though his gentleness with it will somehow be conveyed to its author, now chained in a cold Roman dungeon.
These are written words that Timothy knows he'll return to often in order to carefully obey the apostle's guidance, but for now he reads quickly, hungering especially for personal news from his father in the faith.
A Final Affirmation
Near the end of the letter, Timothy slows his pace. He can almost hear the encouraging voice of Paul: "As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry."
Then his eyes take in this line: "For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure hascome."
For years Timothy has pushed aside the thought of losing Paul-this man who has been like a father, this friend and mentor who has guided and instructed the young leader. How could Timothy go on ministering without Paul's reassuring words, his confidence, his prayers?
Timothy stops reading to brush away his tears. How can he wallow in grief when his old friend faces death so boldly? "I have fought the good fight," Paul writes; "I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
After staring up from the page for several moments, Timothy sits down to begin reading again from the beginning, slowly and deliberately. His eyes bore into each word, each sentence.
With Paul's life drawing to a close, what special insight has God given him to pass on? Timothy's heart pounds as the truth hits him with piercing clarity: There's no new secret revealed here, no previously hidden knowledge, but simply a stirring affirmation of the one truth Paul has lived for daily these past three decades, and soon will die for. It's the same truth for which Timothy, too, must spend himself: the gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
The words seem to shout from the letter:
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel ...
Timothy can almost see Paul's fiery eyes blazing into his own, can almost feel his gnarled fingers gripping his arm:
Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
"You don't need a new truth," he hears his old friend saying. "But you do need to guard the one truth. Keep the one message."
Paul simply refused to be pulled away from the gospel. The cross wasn't merely one of Paul's messages; it was the message. He taught about other things as well, but whatever he taught was always derived from, and related to, the foundational reality that Jesus Christ died so that sinners would be reconciled to God.
D. A. Carson writes of Paul, "He cannot long talk about Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the Christian doctrine of God, or anything else, without finally tying it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross centered."
John Piper agrees: "Paul was utterly mastered, held captive, by one great scene in history: a cross on Golgotha and on it the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us."
In every epistle, Paul kept the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus at the center-just as he did in his personal preaching and teaching: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
Even Christ's resurrection was, for Paul, perpetually linked to the cross. Teacher and theologian Knox Chamblin explains:
His gospel is "the word of the cross" (1 Cor. 1:17-18); nowhere is there a comparable reference to "the word of the resurrection." In 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 it is "Christ crucified" who is identified as "the power of God and the wisdom of God," not, as might have [been] expected (especially in the case of "power"), Christ resurrected.... Both the cross and the resurrection of Christ are "of first importance" in Paul's gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Unless Christ has risen from the dead, the preaching of the cross (and of the resurrection) is a waste of time (15:14); but once the resurrection has occurred, the cross remains central.
For Paul, the gospel-this "word of the cross"-was no cold theological formula. Paul lived a cross centered life because the cross had saved and transformed his own life. Paul never forgot what he once had been, or the mercy and grace God showed him. This remained at the forefront of his mind. As he wrote on another occasion to Timothy, "Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.... I received mercy ... and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."
Mercy That Can't Be Forgotten
I can relate to Paul's amazement at being shown mercy and overflowing grace. I've lived in the same part of Maryland since I was a boy. Hardly a month goes by that I'm not reminded of who I once was.
Before God saved me from His righteous wrath in 1972, I, too, was a blasphemer. I lived for myself and my own pleasure. I lived in rebellion against God and mocked those who followed Him. I spent my high school and college years deeply immersed in the drug culture.
Sometimes, late at night, my friends and I would seek out quiet, isolated places where we could come down safely from drug highs. On more than a few occasions it was a D.C. monument. Other times a peaceful street under thick, deep trees. Or even the terminal at what was then a little-used airport called Dulles, where the doors stayed open long after the day's flights had ceased and we could move through the nearly deserted canyon of a building.
Someday soon I'll be near one of those places again, and the memories will flood back in. I'll remember what I once was ... and be reminded of all I've received and experienced since then.
Often my eyes fill with tears at the memories of my foolishness and sin. And in the same instant, my heart will be filled with an unspeakable, holy joy. By the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, I've been forgiven of the countless sins I've committed.
"Blessed is the man," David wrote, "against whom the Lord counts no iniquity." This truth echoes through my soul, resonating in places far deeper than any drug can go.
Many people today try to run from the past. I suppose I, too, could try that by leaving the hometown that holds so many reminders of my sinfulness. But I consider living here a gift from God. The regular reminders of my past are precious to me.
Why? Because, like Paul, I never want to forget the great mercy shown me.
A Young Man's Essential Training
If you're a Christian, you don't need to live in the same place all your life to remember who you once were. And you don't need a background in drugs, or any dramatic conversion experience, for the cross to be dear to you.
Regardless of the differences in our backgrounds, we've all sinned and fallen short of God's glory. My twelve-year-old son Chad's life is very different from how mine was at his age. He's being raised in a Christian home. He has been taught God's Word. And unlike his father, he's surrounded by people in a local church who respect godliness and humility, not worldliness and pride.
But as Chad enters his teenage years and young adulthood, the most important thing I can teach him is that, even though he's being raised in a Christian family and is leading a moral life, he's a sinner who desperately needs the substitutionary death of Christ for God's forgiveness.
And so for years I've been teaching him the gospel, day by day. I tell him that he's a sinner just like his dad, and that sin is his most serious problem. I put it in words that his young mind can understand, but I don't ignore or minimize the seriousness of sin. Through his actions and attitudes he has rebelled against his Maker. And this great God is perfectly holy and must respond with fierce opposition to sin. He must punish it.
Some might find it surprising that I would teach a young boy about God's wrath toward sin. But I find it surprising that any loving person would withhold this truth from another person they love. Because only when we understand God's wrath toward sin can we realize that we need to be saved from it. Only when we hear the bad news that we're deserving of judgment can we appreciate the good news that God, through His Son, has provided salvation and full, continuing forgiveness for our sins. Only those who are aware of God's wrath are amazed at God's grace.
This is what I hold out to my young son as the hope of his life: that Jesus, God's perfect, righteous Son, died in his place for his sins. Jesus took all the punishment; Jesus received all the wrath as He hung on the cross, so people like Chad and his sinful daddy could be completely forgiven.
I hope to teach my son many other things as well, but the gospel is the one essential thing for him to know-as it is for us all.
The Climax and the Key
The cross climaxes the story line of the Bible-and it's the true climax of the story line of all our lives as well. The gospel's truth is to saturate our lives just as much as it saturates Paul's writings and all of Scripture.
The message Paul had for Timothy is the same message God has for you. You need to rediscover the truth. The key to joy, to growth, to passion isn't hiding from you. It's right before your eyes.
It's the gospel.
Excerpted from Living the Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney Copyright © 2006 by Sovereign Grace Ministries. Excerpted by permission.
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