Why Christianity Has a Cross

June 8, 1997 / Romans 6:5-8

A six-pointed star for modern Judaism, a crescent moon for Islam, a lotus blossom for Buddhism ó these symbols of the other so-called "world religions" suggest charm and attractiveness, radiance and light. Yet the universally known visual symbol for Christianity is an instrument of death. Does that strike you as strange?

Romans put thousands and thousands of people to death on crosses. Jesus of Nazareth was, of course, one of those victims. But memorializing him and representing the movement he founded under the symbol of a cross is strange, to say the least. Unless there is a good reason for choosing that symbol, putting it in front of a building or around oneís neck on a chain makes no more sense than engraving a guillotine, hangmanís noose, or electric chair on my business card or grave marker. Yet we put crosses even in those places!

Why, then, does Christianity have a cross?

Struggling to Find a Symbol

As a matter of fact, the cross is not the most ancient visual symbol of Christianity. During the late first and early second centuries, the simple outline of a fish was commonly used by Christians to identify themselves to one another. Theirs was an illegal religion at the time, and they used the sign of the fish to identify themselves to one another in undercover fashion.

Only an insider would grasp that _cq_V ó the Greek word for "fish" ó was an acronym for _hso_V Crist_V Qeo_ u__V swt_r (i.e., Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). Just as a modern company uses IBM to stand for International Business Machines or the U.S. Postal Service uses ZIP to stand for "Zone Improvement Program," those early believers knew what _cq_V signified.

But that word worked in only one language. In English, the outline of a fish is just that ó the outline of a fish. The word f-i-s-h just doesnít work very well as an acronym for anything distinctly Christian. First in serving humankind/hearts? Faithful in sharing help/humanity? Fat in smokey hamburgers? See, I told you it didnít work in English!

From the second century forward, Christians drew, engraved, and painted the cross as the universal symbol of their faith. Not a crucifix ó a cross to which a figure of Christ is attached ó but a cross. They did not see their Savior perpetually nailed to the cross. They knew that both his cross and tomb were empty and abandoned! So the empty cross signified death to believers, but it simultaneously signified the hope of death conquered.

But we are still left with the original why question? Why does Christianity have a cross? Why has this visual image remained central to the identity of Jesusí followers? Why preserve the memory of so awful an event as crucifixion? Why remind ourselves that all we are in focused on the death of Jesus of Nazareth?

Here are four things the cross suggests to this believer. By telling you what it signifies to me personally, I both expect to speak for millions of other Christians and intend to explain some very basic truths of our common beliefs.

To Remind Us How Bad Sin Is

First, the cross reminds us how bad sin is.

One hundred sixty-eight people died when Timothy McVeigh parked a truck that he had converted into a bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. In the sentencing phase of McVeighís trial, jurors told how his evil sense of vengeance against the federal government left their lives in shambles.

Sharon Coyne told the court how guilty she felt about going home that night while her only daughter, Jaci Rae, remained trapped in the day-care center that was in the bombed building. "Sheíd been there for twelve hours, she was in a dirty diaper, she didnít have a bottle, she didnít have me to hold her, and she was afraid, " Coyne told the jury. "And I could picture her just saying ĎMama,í and I felt so guilty leaving this place." Seven days later, rescuers found the fourteen-month-old girl dead. "I got to hold her wrapped in a beautiful receiving blanket made by my friend, Joyce," she said. "And thatís the last thing that I held." Does listening in on Sharonís heartache tell you something of how awful sin is?

Twenty-six-year-old Carrie Lenzí husband told jurors that he and his wife learned the day before the bombing that the child they were expecting was a boy. They gave their son a name, and the next morning the mother-to-be left for work at the Drug Enforcement Administration office ó anxious to show co-workers the ultrasound pictures and to tell them her babyís name. "We were ready to raise a child. It was going our way. And in one fell swoop, I went from being a husband and a daddy to . . . realizing that everything Iíd worked for was gone. There was nobody coming home. There was nobody going to be in the driveway," Mr. Lenz said. And his days grew darker. He started drinking too much. So he pulled out his pistol and put it in his mouth. Then he put it back. "There is nothing, nothing more dangerous than a man who has no reason to live," Lenz told the jury. "Iíve been there." Does that tell you something of how bad evil is in this world?

I went to Oklahoma City and worked with some of the survivors of that terrible mass murder. I couldnít bring myself to go to the site of the still-standing Murrah Building. I saw enough of the devastation ó all I could stand to witness ó on the faces of the men and women with whom I spoke. I saw something of the awfulness of sin in Oklahoma City.

I have traveled in the infamous Lowero Triangle in Uganda. I walked through Ugandaís "killing fields" and saw the remains of hundreds of people who had been murdered during Idi Aminís reign of terror in that once-beautiful, once-thriving East African nation. I saw skulls stacked like cannon balls on an American Civil War battlefield. I saw how bad sin can be as I walked through those fields and felt the oppressive weight of evil that still hovered in the air.

I have gone to the ultimate modern monument to evil that is called Auschwitz. I went to the medical experiments building. I saw the piles of human hair and the gold fillings torn out of human teeth. I walked into the gas chambers and would have vowed to you that I could hear the screams of horrified men and women still bouncing off those concrete walls. I went to the crematoria. I saw how evil humans can be in practicing genocide against a whole race of people.

But the cross of Jesus Christ is the ultimate testimony to how bad sin is. For it is not simply a case of someone in the wrong place at the wrong time ó as with those innocent people in Oklahoma City. The cross is not a monument to a war casualty, a victim of a massacre, or even a fatality to genocide. The cross is the horrible death of historyís one innocent person being executed as a criminal against the Roman Empire. Jesus died because of human sinfulness. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). "After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (Jas. 1:15). But that leads us to a second reason why Christianity has a cross.

To Show Us How Great Love Is

Second, the cross shows how great love is.

Some people see the crucifixion of Jesus as the unfortunate ending to a once-promising career. Others see it as a great miscarriage of justice. And still others see it as a grand instance of martyrdom for the sake of oneís convictions. But Jesusí death on Calvary was neither unforeseen nor unexpected. As a matter of fact, it was the most prepared-for and well-announced event in history. Its meaning has to be found against the background of an event destined to take place.

Jesus came to Planet Earth to die on Calvary. He came knowing what lay ahead for him, for the awfulness of sin could be countered only by the infinity of divine love. Here are the words of Paul on this point: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless [note: our "powerless" state was due to sinís effects], Christ died for the ungodly [note: this is the critical point, that he died "for the ungodly"]. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:6-8).

Have you heard the story of the judge whose son appeared before him on a drunk-driving charge? Because he was sworn to uphold justice, the man behind the bench had to find him guilty; then he imposed the heaviest fine allowed under the law. But he immediately stepped down from his chair and paid the fine from his own pocket.

That's a tiny glimpse of what God has done for us. Unable to declare us innocent under the law and knowing we could not set right the wrongs we had done, he pronounced us "Guilty!" and imposed the law's full penalty ó death. Then Jesus Christ went to the cross and paid the penalty for us.

Jumping in front of a speeding car, taking the bullet meant for your heart, suffering your hell of rejection by God and man on the cross ó pick the metaphor that makes it meaningful to you. All point to the same marvelous fact of Godís grace. Jesus paid the debt we owed to sin by dying in our place on the cross.

During his own lifetime, Jesus quoted an aphorism of his day about friendship and love. To his own disciples, he said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Then he proceeded to falsify it by showing us a far greater love. The love that is greater than dying for oneís friends is the one that moves you to sacrifice your life for your enemies. And Christianity has a cross to remind us of a love so incredibly vast and encompassing.

To Show How Involved God Is

Third, the cross reveals how involved God is in our human predicament.

In explaining the meaning of the birth of Jesus, Matthew cites a text from the Hebrew Bible: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ĎThe virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuelí ó which means, ĎGod with usí " (Matt. 1:22-23; cf. Isa. 7:14).

Jesus Christ is God with us in our human predicament of vulnerability, pain, and mortality. He is God with us in the experience of being lied about or having your friends abandon you in a crisis. Have you ever experienced prejudice because of your race or religion? Jesus is God with you in that. What about injustice? Or whispers about the circumstances of your birth and your motherís character? Your refusal to conform to the norms of The Establishment? In all of these and more, I am in position to affirm that Jesus Christ is God with us.

The second daughter of Queen Victoria was Princess Alice. She had a four-year-old son who was the apple of her eye. When he came down with the disease known as "black diphtheria," Alice was overwhelmed with anxiety. The disease was highly contagious and very deadly. Because of her own frail health, nurses attending the child repeatedly warned the princess to stay away from her son.

One day as Princess Alice stood in a far corner of her sonís room to weep and pray for her beloved son, she heard him whisper to the nurse, "Why doesnít my mother kiss me any more?" The princess-mother could not stand such a thought in the mind of her dying child, so she raced to his bed, held him in her arms, and smothered him with kisses. Regrettably, they turned out to be kisses of death. The mother contracted the awful disease, and within a few days both mother and son were buried.

Was it a foolish thing for her to do? Should she have known the likely outcome? Did she seal her own fate? Even if the answer to all these questions is "Yes," who ever said the calculus of love is sensible? God loved us so deeply that he was required ó not by any external compulsion but by love alone ó to become God with us. To embrace us in our death throes. To be infected with our disease. To die and be buried for us.

This is an extremely important point to those who have had their heads turned by the problem of evil. How can God allow suffering, death, and injustice in the world he created? If God had kept himself distant and safe from those things, the argument might be unanswerable. But because of Calvary, the force of the objection is blunted. No one can raise an accusing fist at God and say, "You donít know what itís like!" No one can say, "You kept yourself above the fray!" God did not insulate himself from our predicament but came among us, took our sin to himself, and died for our redemption.

To Show How Sin Is Overcome

Fourth, the cross shows us how sin is overcome.

The ultimate human problem is sin. It separates us from God and makes it impossible for us to enter heaven. Nothing impure, defiled, or unholy can enter Godís heaven, so there is no way I can go there to be with him. No way, that is, unless my sin can be removed. And removing sin and its effects from a human heart is roughly analogous to removing a crack from a pane of glass. It canít be done!

On the day we moved into our new church building on Franklin Road, I was visiting with people out in the big open space that we call our "gathering area." I looked up in the direction of the west wall, and there was a crack in one of the panes of glass making that wall. It ran from the lower right-hand corner in the direction of the upper left-hand corner. I knew it would have to be replaced.

The next day, I pointed it out to the foreman who was still working on site and said, "That piece of glass will need to be replaced."

"But itís not shattered!" he protested. "It could stay there indefinitely and never fall out or let in the rain."

"What are you talking about?" I said. "It has to be replaced."

"But itís just a tiny crack," he replied. "And Iím sure the installer didnít mean to crack it. Canít you just ignore it?"

"But . . . but . . ."

"And how much of the morning had you already been here before you even noticed it? Did other people notice it? Maybe you were the only one critical enough to even catch the flaw!" he said.

Hold on, now. You know by now that something is wrong with my story. Indeed, the only thing factual about my story is that I saw that cracked glass as I was in the gathering area that Sunday morning. When I pointed it out to the construction people Monday morning, the immediate answer was, "Youíre right. It is cracked! I donít think it happened as it was being installed, but that doesnít matter. It has to be replaced." And it was.

No more than you can uncrack glass can you undo sin! You canít turn back the clock. You canít remake a bad decision. You canít not do something youíve wished a million times you hadnít done! And in one sense, at least, it doesnít even matter that you promise never to do it again. The window pane to our souls is already cracked ó shattered in some cases! ó and the only cure is a new you.

One of my favorite movies is Regarding Henry. It is one of the cinemaís best jobs at doing theology ó without realizing it, of course! Harrison Ford plays Henry, and the movie addresses the question: "How can you fix a jerk?"

Henry is a lawyer who has no principles. He wants to win cases and cares nothing about justice or fairness. It is not beneath him to suppress evidence ó something he does in the case he is trying as the movie opens. Henry is married, but he is carrying on an affair with a woman in his office. And he has a daughter that he hardly knows. His only contribution to her life is to occasionally criticize her or scold her about something. Heís a Grade-A, certified jerk!

Henry goes into a convenience store to buy some cigarettes and walks in on a robbery. The nervous thief points a gun at him and fires off two rounds. One hits him in the chest, and the other hits him in the head and penetrates the frontal lobe of his brain. At the hospital, he lingers between life and death for days. He survives. But the blood loss and trauma to his brain have combined to wipe out his memory and destroy any connection with his previous life. As Henryís doctor says about him, "In some ways he starting from scratch.

Henry has to learn to talk again, to feed himself, to tie his shoes. He has to learn to live again. His daughter teaches him how to tie his shoes. She teaches him how to read childrenís books and product labels. And he learns to play with and enjoy her for the first time. He falls in love with his wife!

By the time the movie ends, Henry is as lovable as he was despicable at its beginning. The man you wouldnít have wanted to know and certainly would not have turned your back on two hours earlier is now the sort of fellow weíd all love to have as a neighbor and friend.

The point of the movie seems abundantly clear to me: Jerks canít be fixed. They can only be carried back zero and started over. They have to be killed and raised. They have to be put to death and miraculously reborn. But that has been the biblical message about jerks ó also known as "sinners" in Scripture ó all along. They canít be fixed. They have to die, be buried, and rise again from the dead!

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting menís sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christís ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christís behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

The cross tells us how our sin problem is overcome. We donít have to fix things, for God has taken the initiative and fixed them for us ó in Christ. Our problem has been taken care of in full at the cross. Jesus did everything necessary to make us new creations before God.


In Charles Dickensí A Tale of Two Cities, there are two characters who look very much alike. One is a nobleman, both as to title and character. The other is a rascal who has never had a passion larger than himself to live for. Both men fall in love with the same woman. The nobleman travels to France in the terrible time of the French Revolution and tries to save a number of innocent aristocrats. As fate would have it, though, he is arrested and consigned to the guillotine himself.

At this point in the story, the rascal begins to feel his nobler impulses stir ó largely because of his love for the beautiful woman who has treated him with such respect and dignity. Out of love for her and out of a desire to atone for the emptiness of his life to date, he makes his way to France and into the prison where the nobleman is being held. He shows him how to escape the prison. Then he takes the noblemanís place in the cell. The nobleman is whisked away to England and reunited with his beloved. All the while, he has no idea that his place had been taken in the jail by the man who had set him free.

Back in France, the now-imprisoned scoundrel has not been discovered. After all, the two men looked so much alike that only people who knew them well could distinguish them. So the day came for him to die ó no longer a rake and rascal, but a nobleman himself at heart. As he is about to die, he says: "It is a far, far greater thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." His love for the woman who had treated him with respect was so great that he was wiling to die for her fiancee so she could be happy.

It is a beautiful story. But it is, after all, only fiction. Imagine for a moment that it is a true story. Imagine further that you are the nobleman who has discovered now that someone has died in your place. How would you feel? What would you do? What would you do for the sake of that manís memory and legacy?

The love of Jesus Christ for you is real. He has died in your place, and you are offered eternal life in him. How could you not love him, accept him as your Savior, and dedicate your life to telling everyone why the Christian religion is symbolized by a cross?

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