The cross of Jesus. It’s a familiar scene, especially this time of year. It marks our church buildings, ornaments our jewelry and decorates our homes. But what do we see when we look upon the cross of Jesus?
JC Ryle was a 19th century English pastor and writer. One of his works, The Cross, was first published as a tract defending the Christian faith. Yet his words offer a fresh perspective to see the glories of the cross that are often hidden behind the fog of familiarity. Piercingly, Ryle notes that we first must see the just wrath of God again sin:
Would I know how exceedingly sinful and abominable sin is in the sight of God? Where shall I see that most fully brought out? Shall I turn to the history of the flood, and read how sin drowned the world? Shall I go to the shore of the Dead Sea, and mark what sin brought on Sodom and Gomorrah? Shall I turn to the wandering Jews, and observe how sin has scattered them over the face of the earth? No: I can find a clearer proof still! I look at the cross of Christ. There I see that sin is so black and damnable, that nothing but the blood of God’s own Son can wash it away. There I see that sin has so separated me from my holy Maker, that all the angels in heaven could never have made peace between us. Nothing could reconcile us, short of the death of Christ. Ah, if I listened to the wretched talk of proud men, I might sometimes fancy sin was not so very sinful! But I cannot think little of sin, when I look at the cross of Christ.
To reduce the horror of sin or to deny the necessity of God’s wrathful judgement against sin is to deny the cross altogether. If the cross is to be salvation for sinners, it must also be judgement of sin. The good news of the gospel is that God fully and justly executed judgment again our sin in Jesus, the sinless one, so that we might be freed from judgement of God against sin. “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, God condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8.3). “He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God” is the mysteriously wonderful transaction of the cross. It is when we see the wrath of God due sin that we see the love of God in brighter radiance. Again, Ryle writes:
Would I know the length and breadth of God the Father’s love towards a sinful world? Where shall I see it most displayed? Shall I look at His glorious sun, shining down daily on the unthankful and evil? Shall I look at seed-time and harvest, returning in regular yearly succession? Oh, no! I can find a stronger proof of love than anything of this sort. I look at the cross of Christ. I see in it not the cause of the Father’s love, but the effect. There I see that God so loved this wicked world, that He gave His only begotten Son,—gave Him to suffer and die,—that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. I know that the Father loves us, because He did not withhold from us His Son, His only Son. Ah, reader, I might sometimes fancy that God the Father is too high and holy to care for such miserable, corrupt creatures as we are! But I cannot, must not, dare not think it, when I look at the cross of Christ.
Is this not wonder of all wonders—that the eternal, holy God has shown love to unworthy, undeserving sinners by sending his Son to suffer and die?! What more could be said of the sincerity or the degree of God’s love? What more could be said of the unconstrained display or the free offer of God’s love? What more could be said because God has given us his Son! And he has done so while we were sinners!
The cross is both the chief evidence of God’s hatred of sin and his love for his people. And in the sovereign wisdom of God, the cross is also the final proof of God’s commitment to uphold both while fashioning the salvation of sinful men. Welshman William Rees summed it up well in his hymn, Here is Love:
Here is love, vast as the ocean,
Lovingkindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten,
Throughout Heav’n’s eternal days.
On the mount of crucifixion,
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.