It is Really Finished
Today is Good Friday—the day that Christians all over the world consider the cross of Jesus in an amplified way. Christians love the cross because it is there where our rescue was realized, where our salvation was secured. It is there where God’s one-way love was put on display for the whole world to see.
“The cross was a pulpit in which Christ preached his love to the world.” (Augustine)
Today we will talk about the cross, write about the cross, hear about the cross, and sing about the cross. But, while the cross may be what we focus on the most today, we actually like something better—we prefer ladders.
My life typically reflects a ladder-centered version of the Christian faith rather than a cross-centered one. Maybe yours does too. We like our Christianity to be muscular, triumphant. We’ve come to believe that the Christian life is a progression from weakness to strength. “Started from the bottom, now we’re here” (Drake) seems to be the victory chant of modern Christianity.
Of course, that’s not the way we started off. We began our Christian life keenly aware of our desperation and need. We knew we were bad and weak—we knew we couldn’t save ourselves. But then something happened along the way. We traded Christ’s cross for our ladder. My friend Chad Bird puts it this way:
Soon the cross has been transformed into a ladder. Jesus is on top and we’re on bottom. And all we must do is climb up to him. Hand over hand, one rung at a time, we move up from a life of rebellion to an obedient life of discipleship. One rung at a time, we ascend from being immoral to moral, bad to good, unholy to holy. The closer we climb to Jesus on the cross-ladder, the more he blesses us. All he asks is that we give it our best shot. Climb slowly or climb quickly; it doesn’t matter. Just set your heart on the climb to Christ. He’s standing up top, cheering us on, shouting down advice and encouragement.
As we make this trade—Christ’s cross for our ladder—Jesus goes from being our Savior to being our life-coach. This foolish and fatal mistake reveals that we are all by nature, in the terminology of Martin Luther, “Theologians of Glory”—not God’s glory, but our own.
The hope of the Christian faith, however, is dependent on God’s strength, not ours. God is in the business of destroying our idol of self-sufficiency in order to reveal himself as our sole sufficiency. This is God’s way—he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes. He lays us flat on our backs so that we’re forced to look up. God’s office of grace is located at the end of our rope. The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we are weak.
If we were all being brutally honest, though, we would admit that deep down we know we are weak and needy, insecure and inadequate. We struggle to put our best foot forward and to conceal our faults and flaws, our deficiencies and defects. We do everything we can to hide our imperfections. One young mother poignantly put it this way: "Deep down, I know I should be perfect and I’m not. I feel it when someone comes into my house unannounced and there’s a mess in every corner. I know it when my children misbehave in public and I just want to hide. I can tell it when that empty feeling rises after I’ve spoken in haste, said too much, or raised my voice. There’s the feeling in my stomach that I just can’t shake when I know I’ve missed the mark of perfection."
The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong. Counter-intuitively, admission of weakness is our greatest strength.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.“ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
So, the Christian life is a progression. But it’s not an upward progression on a ladder in which we start with weakness and climb toward strength—it’s a downward progression from strength to weakness. And this is good news because ladder-Christianity is exhausting and enslaving. Each rung on that ladder is another shackle on our soul.
What we need is not the wood of a ladder so we can climb to God, but the wood of the cross on which God climbed down to us.
The good news is that the strength of God alone can liberate us from the burden of needing to be strong—the omni-competence of God alone can relieve us of the weight we feel to be competent.
As I said in my previous post…
Christian growth is not “I’m becoming stronger and stronger, more and more competent every day.” Rather it is, “I’m becoming increasingly aware of how weak and incompetent I am and how strong and competent Jesus is, and was, and continues to be for me” (Revelation 1:8).
Because Jesus paid it all, we are set free from the pressure of having to do it all. We are weak. He is strong.
This confession unlocks the freedom Jesus said he came to deliver.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)