Back to the Cross – Part 1

René Malgo and Samuel Rindlisbacher

We do not know what the year will bring. We do not know when the Lord will come. We do not know how often we will weep. But one thing we do know and can hold on to: Jesus died for me on Calvary’s cross, and so I can confidently look to the future.

The year 2017 is the year of the Reformation, 500 years after Martin Luther led the Europe-wide movement. It was he who “rediscovered” the Gospel in the letters of the apostle Paul to the Romans and the Galatians, and thereby he could defy the worldly and official church powers and the evil spirit of that time. Today, a new “rediscovery” of this gospel appears to be more necessary than ever before. Protestant theologians are calling for a dialogue with Islam; evangelicals are making pilgrimages “back to Rome,” because the superficiality and lack of committal in Protestantism repels them; various Bible-believing preachers who refer to one and the same Lord, contradict one another in the pulpit and on the Internet. Simultaneously, the moral and social downfall in the supposedly Christian West is proving to be inevitable. Where can a believer find support today?

The answer is the same one that Luther gave 500 years ago: in the gospel, or more exactly, in the Person of the gospel, Jesus Christ Himself. It is necessary that we Protestant Christians come back to the cross and become “foolish” again, by clinging to the “foolishness” of the word of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18).

For Martin Luther, one of the central statements in this context is to be found in Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”

For years, Luther had tried to live a pure life, to satisfy God, but although he made an effort, chastised his body, went without food and fasted for days, the inner plight and the consciousness increased: I cannot do it! But then it became clear to him: “the just shall live by faith.” It is not our achievement that God wants, not our prayers, not our “holy” life that brings us closer to God: it is not the spiritual exercises that God demands. It is rather the simple: “The just shall live by faith.” Faith is the way out of our plight, our lost nature, our entanglement in sin, and our distance from God.

Just suppose you were in a doctor’s practice and waiting for urgent, life-saving treatment. Before the doctor gives you his diagnosis, however, and begins the treatment, he promises you healing. Before you have even taken the medicine, he promises you one  hundred percent healing. You would call such a doctor a charlatan. This is just what God does. He gives us a guarantee of success. Before God gives a sinner His diagnosis (Romans 1:18—3:21), He promises every believer healing with the simple words, “The just shall live by faith.” This means for us, justified by faith; no more condemnation by faith; free from the weight of sin by faith; accepted by God by faith; assurance of salvation by faith.

This is the tremendous message of the gospel. Even if I am not able to understand the word of the cross in all its depth but believe it, I am called just by God. Even if I do not understand the whole dimensions of divine grace but believe, I am looked upon as just. Even if I am not able to measure my sinfulness or lost nature, but cling to the work of redemption of Jesus Christ, I am reconciled with God. This is the gospel which Paul is speaking of.

He testified: in the gospel is the power to make a man just and to lead him to life. Whoever believes the gospel comes into contact with the greatest power in the universe, the power of God. Gospel means “glad tidings” or “good news.” The gospel really is the best news that was ever proclaimed in the world. The gospel of God is nothing and no one other than Jesus Himself. He is a person. He is the power of eternal life, the power of almighty will, and the power of unending love. It would be logical if Paul would begin to explain this gospel, this power of God, in the following verses in Romans 1. But he does not do this, or not as we would maybe expect. Only in chapter 3, verse 21 does he speak again about the gospel. Before this he explains why the gospel is necessary. He shows why nothing other than the power of God can make a man just and lead him to life.

Paul speaks from Romans 1:18 about a characteristic, a side of God, which is not very popular in our post-modern Christianity, our culture and society: the wrath of God. Without the wrath of God, however, the gospel would not make sense. In Romans 1:18-23, Paul explains that God is angry with godless and unjust people, because they could recognize the truth about Him in the nature He created; instead, they worshiped the creature and not the Creator. In their godlessness they preferred all kinds of evil. Paul shows that no one can stand before God, and everyone has incurred His wrath. 

Before we come to the liberating power of the gospel, we must understand that we can never measure up to God’s standard. For the Reformer Luther, it was very important to preach the law of God first and then the gospel, the cross. When we consider ourselves in light of the commandments, we have to see and admit that we are incapable of keeping them. No one will get to heaven on the grounds of his own works. Our own works and efforts may be sincere, but they can never suffice. “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6).

Jesus Christ Himself quoted from the Ten Commandments, when someone asked Him what good thing he should do to have eternal life (Matthew 19:16-30). These basic rules of God show us in a particular way how hopelessly lost we are. It is as if a bright light would fall on a dark background. This is how it is with our lost nature. We only really recognize it in the bright light of the holy commandments of God.

The first commandment is, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus Christ explained the first commandment as follows, “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5). Martin Luther came to the following conclusion: if it is the first and great commandment to love God with all our hearts, then it is the greatest sin not to love Him with all our hearts. This thought almost drove Martin Luther mad. How can a man love God with all his heart, with all his thoughts and feelings?

There is not room in this article to go into every commandment and its principles in detail, but it will soon be clear that we cannot stand before God when we measure ourselves by the standard of Jesus Christ. The sixth commandment, for instance, says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Our Lord emphasized this demand with the clear words, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). Or the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Here too Jesus Christ comes to the point. “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Mathew 5:28). Every kind of sexual activity or lustful look that is not directed at the spouse is already adultery—whether we are married or not. This divine standard applies to everyone.

The first and highest commandment is to love God with all our hearts. The comparable commandment is, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). To be as polite toward our neighbors as we are to ourselves? This is impossible. The sobering facet of Paul is that all people are “…under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:9-12).

What is sin? The conscious or unconscious breaking of God’s commandments—whether through our deeds, neglecting to do things, or in our thoughts. No one can stand before God. No one can keep His commandments. Everyone who is judged before the judgment seat of Christ will deserve hell (Matthew 10:28; Mark 9:43-44; cf. Revelation 20:10-15; 21:8).

When Luther was a Catholic monk and teacher, he saw that he could never keep God’s commandments, try as he might. He beat himself, slept on a cold floor, spent five hours sometimes in the confessional, and nearly went insane at the idea that he could not stand before God. Yet Luther was by no means a man who was tongue-tied. Sometimes he would utter things like, “Love God? Sometimes I hate Him!” These are strong words. Or, “Sometimes Christ seems to me like a strict judge who comes to me with a sword in His hand.” Or, “To hell with Moses!” With these words he was referring to the law. Luther saw quite clearly that he could not measure up to God’s standard. “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified” (Romans 3:20). He thought he was going mad, until he began to read the epistle to the Romans…

Here is where the gospel comes in, the good news. God confronts our impotence and lost nature with His gospel, our sins with His forgiveness and His salvation. It is the gospel of which Paul says, “It is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). This gospel is a historical event. “In due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6; cf. Galatians 4:4). God revealed Himself to man in His eternal Son, Jesus Christ, by whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16). He became a man, born of a virgin, conceived through the Holy Spirit—and for this reason He was unspoiled by the original sin of Adam (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:35; Romans 5; Galatians 4:4). He lived a sinless, perfect life as wholly man and wholly God. He was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament and King of the Jews. The majority of the Jews, however, rejected Him. He was betrayed, tortured and nailed to the cross. On the third day after His death on the cross, He rose from the dead and thereby proved His deity and that He really was the Messiah, the Redeemer (Romans 1:4). He ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the Father (Mark 16:19), and from there He will return to earth to rule in Israel (Acts 1:11).

Midnight Call - 05/2017

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