Is the way of the cross the way of cowardice and defeat?

Yesterday at South Point Presbyterian Church in McDonough, Georgia, I preached on Colossians 1:24-29, the stunning passage in which the Apostle Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” In the course of the sermon I show how Paul and his fellow apostles viewed their ministry to the nations as the fulfillment of the incomplete task of Isaiah’s suffering servant, who would bring good news to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47; [Isaiah 49:6] Cf. Acts 1:1,8).

It is a theme that is shot through the entire New Testament canon. The fundamental call of the church – and of Christians – is to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and in deed, and the basic context in which that necessarily occurs – a world that is fallen and hostile – is suffering. When Christians are repeatedly exhorted to be conformed to the image of Christ the point is not simply to conform to his righteousness but to conform to his willingness to be a suffering servant: to take up your cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 3:34; Luke 9:23). No doubt one of the classic passages pointing in this direction is Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

It’s sobering stuff. The life of Christian discipleship is not the American Dream and we should never, ever, fall into the mindset of thinking we can somehow follow Jesus and yet avoid the path of the cross.

It is understandable that many Christians would find this emphasis troubling. There is a reason why Jesus tells us to “count the cost” before we imagine that we are capable of following him. And so in some ways it is not surprising that a good number of people – even orthodox, Bible-believing Christians – find this perspective to be unduly pessimistic or defeatist. They see all the prophecies of victory and conquest in Scripture and think, this emphasis on suffering can’t really be what the faith is all about. And of course in an important sense they are right. Nearly all of the biblical passages that talk about the path of suffering do so while reminding us that in the end that path leads to victory and triumph. The only question is, when?

But while classic Christian theology has always read the great works of prophecy through the gospel of Jesus, interpreting the Old Testament by the New, many Christians decide instead to read the New Testament from the perspective of the Old. If the New Testament talks about the way of suffering and the cross, they reason, it must be speaking primarily in terms of a temporary state of affairs, one that by and large will end when Christianity spreads across the globe and Christians take dominion for the Lord Jesus in every area of life. At that point, surely Israel must once again be our model – albeit one that we need to apply globally and in a way suitable to modern times. They urge Christians not to resign themselves to the way of the cross, suggesting that this amounts to a failure to believe, to trust in God’s promises that the cause of Christ will triumph, that his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, even before Jesus’ return. Sometimes they even go so far as to call those who resign themselves to the path of suffering “cowardly.”

Of course, this sort of criticism rises not simply from the right. on the contrary, it is one of the basic motifs of feminism to claim that Christianity has encouraged a passive approach to suffering that has been particularly destructive for women and racial minorities. The way of the cross is a disastrous model for the Christian life, they insist, because it becomes a tool in the hands of oppressors, preventing the oppressed from being more assertive.

The problem with all of this is that despite all of the objections, the New Testament witness is still quite clear. While the kingdom will come in its fullness one day, its arrival is contingent on that great event the apostles constantly tell Christians to fix their hopes on – the return of Jesus. In the meantime one, of the most fundamental principles of Scripture – without which one cannot understand the Christian life – is that Christians live in conformity to Christ’s image, which means that they walk in the way of the cross before receiving the gift of glory. Christian obedience, therefore, is not the same thing as the fullness of the kingdom. That’s why Jesus broke up into two petitions what so many Christians misleadingly paraphrase as one (eliminating what I here italicize): Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

But what bothers me more than anything else is the assumption that Christians who recognize the call of the cross are somehow pessimistic, cowardly, or embracing a mindset of capitulation. Because we are talking about the cross of Jesus here, in fact, I am going to say outright that I think this borderlines on blasphemy. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – cowardly about going to the cross. As Revelation teaches us so clearly, it is the Lamb who was slain who conquers, and it is by his blood and suffering that he does so. Just as importantly, Christians conquer with the Lamb just to the extent that they live as faithful witnesses, martyrs, for the truth. As Revelation 12:10-11 declares,

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

For all the debates about various millennial views in the book of Revelation, New Testament scholars are strikingly agreed on this point. What the world derides as defeat and passivity is from the perspective of heaven (the perspective offered John in Revelation) the faithful testimony of Christ’s absolute victory, a victory that will be consummated with the new heavens and the new earth. As Scott Swanson writes in his excellent chapter on the book of Revelation in the volume Kingdoms Apart:

Revelation’s messages should also warn us against any triumphalistic overconfidence in Christian cultural transformation of the world. Nor does it encourage us to see our cultural engagements as in themselves advancing Christ’s kingdom. They can and must aim to be expressions of our faithful witness to that kingdom… However, Revelation makes absolutely clear that the beast, in all his embodiments, will not finally be defeated, nor will Babylon finally fall, before the end. Christ has ‘begun to reign,’ but we wait with perseverance in our testimony and commandment-keeping for God’s climactic intervention in history to finally bring in the new heaven and new earth…. We must recognize that our testimony in the world involves us in a life-or-death spiritual struggle, which can be won only as we conquer by the power and blood of Jesus (225-226).

In the meantime we refuse to consider the servant greater than his master (John 15:20). If Christ had to go to the cross before earning the crown, so will we, despising the devil’s temptation (Matthew 4:8-9) to view the way of Christ as the way of cowardice, capitulation, or defeat:

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets (Luke 6:22-23)

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 19, 2012, in Christian Life, Reconstructionism, Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is the way of the cross the way of cowardice and defeat?.

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