It is said that when hymn pollsters report which hymn is most frequently requested, "The Old Rugged Cross" is hands-down the most popular. The author of that hymn, George Bennard, believed the cross wasn't just a symbol of Christianity, but the very heart of it.
In the days to come, Christians from all over the world will be celebrating the passion of Christ. It is indeed the focus of God's redemption. The cross speaks of so much we need to understand about God, ourselves, our need, our duty, and our hope.
While contemplating the cross recently, I jotted down seven ways the cross speaks.
1. The cross points to our sinful condition. We may think of ourselves as good and worthy persons, but the cross says we are all sinners and deserving of death and judgment. Moreover, it says our sin is so great it required the blood of God's own precious and innocent Son to atone for it. The suffering of Christ on the cross was the wrath we deserve for our many trespasses of God's law.
The Bible says, "For the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin" (II Cor. 5:21).
2. The cross speaks of God's incredible love and amazing grace. I must confess I might be willing to give my life for a good person. Nevertheless, I seriously doubt I would be willing to give the life of my own son or daughter to save an enemy. Yet, this is what God did when he gave Christ to save and provide us with the gift of eternal life. In our rejection of God's order for our lives, we are spiritual outlaws. But by the Cross, God pursues us and makes an offer of reconciliation not based in our merit, but based in his goodness.
The Bible says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (Jn. 3:16) "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
3. The cross shows how much God hates sin. Some mistake God's patience with sinful behavior for his approval. God is not willing, however, that any should perish in judgment. He waits and yearns for people to turn away from their sins. Still, the horrific scene on that cross demonstrates God's anger with every effort to usurp his sovereign authority. It is true that God is a loving God. Nevertheless, the cross reveals God is also just and will deal harshly with those who fail to accept his remedy over their rebellion. We either accept God's punishment for our sins via Christ on the cross, or face our own punishment.
The Bible says, "The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9). "God is a righteous judge, and a God who is indignant all the day" (Psalm 7:11). "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap" (Gal. 6:7).
4. The cross speaks of the putting away of guilt. Recently, a young woman who was a waitress in a restaurant confided in me that she had made a number of grievous errors in life. She said she had asked God for forgiveness, but she still felt guilty. I encouraged her to look to the cross every time she felt the sting of guilt, and then to tell herself, every one of my sins died with Jesus on that cross – my shame and guilt were put away there. Suddenly, her face beamed with misty eyes as she embraced the joy of knowing that because of the cross her reproach was already gone.
The Bible says, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).
5. The cross indicts the wisdom of men. Today, the so-called learned, the intellectual, the humanist, the atheist, deems the cross to be a matter of foolishness. But it is not through philosophy, psychology, science, technology, or similar disciplines of mankind that God has chosen to save the world; instead it's through the cross. The cross is sheer nonsense to many, but for those who have experienced its power first-hand, they know it's the only way the ills of the individual and the world can forever be changed. I think it's also significant that every major advancement of mankind in some way can be traced back to the church holding high the banner of the cross.
The Bible says, "Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…" (I Cor.1:20-23).
6. The cross speaks of the way we should live. We live in a time when we are told the way to fulfillment is to accumulate all you can, enjoy all the pleasure you can, don't deny yourself, for today you live and tomorrow you die. Be your own god and serve yourself is the message. But the cross instructs us that meaning comes to life by what we give and not what we get. Purpose is found in giving one's life away to God and one's fellowman, not by keeping it for ourselves. Furthermore, there is no redemption in any circumstance without sacrifice – without a cross. It is through the cross that real brotherhood is forged. The cross obligates each of us to treat others in the same self-sacrificial and gracious way God in Christ has related to us.
The Bible says, "And he [Jesus] said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me'" (Lk. 9;23). "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matt. 16:25).
7. The cross promises tragedy can be turned to triumph. What could be worse than God's own Son, innocent and just in all his ways, crucified upon a cruel cross? Yet, God took the greatest tragedy of human history and turned it into our salvation. Perhaps someone asks, what could be worse than what has happened to me? I've lost my job. I have cancer. I'm in prison. I just lost a loved one in death, etc. The cross tells us that God specializes in taking the worst of situations and turning them into something incredibly wonderful. We tap into that power of transformation when we listen to what the cross tells us and believe. We may not understand all the reasons why we suffer, but the cross says that God is not aloof from our sufferings. He participates with us in our pain and ultimately he will make right every wrong.
The Bible says, "What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:31,32)
Is there anything so blessed as the cross of Christ? I think not. Its message is the essence of Christianity. It speaks to our greatest questions – our greatest longings.
Therefore, I too, along with George Bennard and millions of others around the world, say,
So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.
I pray that you will do the same.
Rev. Mark H. Creech is executive director of the Raleigh-based Christian Action League of North Carolina Inc.