Spiritual Formation & the Cross

lens of the cross

       This discussion board will use the information from Wilhoit’s Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered, to evaluate this writer’s experience and dependence on the Cross, for salvation and sanctification. Secondly, it will show how the view of the necessity of the Cross has changed over time and what specifically influenced that view. Lastly, by knowing that dependence on the Cross is the fundamental factor of spiritual growth, this forum will discuss ways that church leaders can inspire greater dependence on the grace of Christ in the lives of believers?

Dependence on Cross for Salvation and Sanctification

            Ever since humanity was exiled from Eden, they lived in a state of brokenness and as James Wilhoit illustrates, “Unless the brokenness is a prominent orientation, we will not catch the truth that the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”[1] Sin separates humanity from God, creating a spiritual chasm that cannot be crossed without divine influence, which came in the form of the cross, allowing humanity to bridge the gap, once they received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, there was a constant movement to the east, and this migration away from God carries on through much of the Old Testament narrative.

       The cross can be best described as a bridge back to God and without it, there would be no salvation or sanctification. The remission of sin required the shedding of blood and Jesus Christ became the spotless lamb, thus taking on the entirety of humanity’s sins and curses. Jesus voluntarily paid the ultimate sacrifice, He lived a sinless life, and He experienced the death that every human deserved. This writer is eternally grateful for what Christ did and he lives each day with the ethos that everyday is God’s gift to us and what we choose to do with it is our gift back to Him.

How Views of the Cross Have Changed Over Time and Influences

            The history of the cross and crucifixion has deep roots that can be traced back to the Old Testament and was one of the primary reasons many Jews did not believe Jesus could possibly be the Messiah; in fact, a crucified Messiah to the majority of Jews was an impossibility. From the Dead Sea Scrolls and some other early writings, there was a precedent that the one hanged on the tree to die is a traitor or a blasphemer, so to be hung on the cross came to mean they were also accursed by God and men. In Deuteronomy 21:22-23, there is a great example of why the Jews believed a man hanged on a tree is cursed by God, as Peter C. Craigie illustrates:

To break the law of God and live as though he did not matter or exist was in effect to curse him; and he who cursed God would be accursed of God. To break the law of God and incur thereby the penalty of death was to die the worst possible kind of death, for the means of death was a formal and terminal separation from the community of God’s people. Hence the use of this verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is very forceful. Christ took upon himself the curse of the law, the penalty of death, thereby redeeming us from the curse of the law. The manner of his death, crucifixion, symbolized dramatically the meaning of his death. His separation from the family of God made possible our admission to the family of God, because the curse of the broken law—which would have permanently barred admission—had been removed.[2]

            To die by crucifixion was one of the worst ways to die and the Romans had perfected this barbaric and tortuous means of death as they conquered the known empire. It served as a compelling reason not to go against the Romans or break the law. The cross also became closely associated with immense suffering, which points to Jesus being the suffering servant.[3] In fact, John N. Oswalt, demonstrates, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is not accidental that the only extended metaphor in Isaiah 53 involves sheep, the primary animals of sacrifice. The Servant is to be struck down on account of the rebellions of his people (v. 8), and he will go as a lamb to the slaughter. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’”[4] [5] While believers are encouraged to boldly approach the throne of grace,[6] they should humbly approach the cross, because through it, Jesus became the final Passover lamb.

How Dependence on the Cross Leads to Spiritual Growth

       As Wilhoit explains, “Much of our failure in conceptualizing spiritual formation comes from our failure to keep the gospel central to our ministry.”[7] Jerry Bridges explains, “Our first problem is that our attitude toward sin is more self-centered than God-centered.” Viewing others through the lens of the cross serves as a reminder that Jesus has become the mediator between God and believers. As this perception of others and their circumstances becomes the norm, it will lead to closer fellowship with God, as well as being able to speak into the lives of the lost and hurting. As Wilhoit demonstrates, “[Dependence] on the cross seems to become a means of transportation rather than God’s means of transformation.”[8] He shows, because of our blindness and self-justifying behavior, we can only perceive a small cross. This causes the perceived need for grace to fall drastically short of one’s actual need for grace, which is infinite.[9]

       Real spiritual formation and growth is possible; the problem, as Wilhoit highlights, is “Culture and sadly many churches seek to squeeze believers into a mold of simply being nice and seeking a sensible consumer-oriented faith that meets our needs and avoids offending anyone else.”[10] Paul, in his letter to the Romans tells them not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their mind.[11] God calls His children to be in this world, but not of it. Douglas Moo demonstrates: “For while belonging to the new realm, we continue to live, as people still in the “body,” in the old realm. Paul’s command that we “not conform to this world,” then, builds on the theology of Rom. 5-8 (and of Rom. 6 especially) and calls on us to resist the pressure to “be squeezed into the mold” of this world and the “pattern” of behavior that typifies it (see 1 Cor. 7:31).”[12]

How to Inspire Greater Dependence on the Grace of Christ

            Wilhoit contends, “From personal brokenness and reflection I have come to see that the gospel is not simply the door of faith; it must also be a compass I daily use to orient my life and a salve I apply for the healing of my soul. It is in returning again and again to the cross that we receive the grace that transforms us.”[13] Greater dependence on the grace of Christ is best explained as a transformation that is never-ending. From the moment of salvation, the believer is made new, but that is only the beginning of the metamorphosis. The longer one walks with Christ, the more they should embody His likeness. Andrew Murray said it best, “The fruit of a life in Christ is a life like Christ.”

       The local church plays a huge role in spiritual development, but over the last few decades, most have lost their way. Instead of teaching sound doctrine based on the promises of God, many churches have instead strived to become the most hip or cutting edge church focused on flair and not real life change. Instead of preaching messages that would initially convict and allow a deeper and closer relationship with God, they preach messages centered on naming and proclaiming or feel-good messages. These churches would rather their people wear smiles on their faces, so the offering plate is full, even if every part of the attender’s life is falling apart and their smile is a mere façade. Wilhoit illuminates that personal loss, tragedies, changes, and disruption can contribute to spiritual formation. He says, “We need to put structures in place that emphasize deep compassion, care, and empathy as well as formative guidance.”[14] He also says, “We are formed to serve and we are formed by serving, so cultivating the instinct to act on the gospel teaching is crucial to our transformation.”[15] David Henderson best illustrates, “As our hearts are transformed by faith, we will then move to conformity with God.”[16] The more one serves, the greater their dependence upon the grace of Christ becomes.

            All spiritual growth springs forth from God’s grace, which leads to Wilhoit’s premise that, “We are all born homesick, longing for a land and a way of life we have never directly experienced, but which we know is somewhere, or at least ought to exist.”[17] This notion rings more true as each generation emerges feeling less a part of society and being ostracized for their differences. Carol Lakey Hess illustrates: “If we are centered in ourselves, we experience the strangeness and restlessness of the homeless human spirit that yearns for God. Even if we are centered in God, we groan at the brokenness of creation and yearn for redemption.” Our brokenness leaves us empty, broken, and thirsty. Jerry Sittser then demonstrates, “[Our] brokenness forces us to find a source of love outside ourselves and that source is God.” Without God in our lives we will never find meaning or purpose in life. He is the source of all our longings.

Bibliography

Craigie, Peter C. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Moo, Douglas J. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Oswalt, John N. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Wilhoit, James C. Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2008.


[1] James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2008), 58.

[2] Peter C. Craigie, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Deuteronomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 284.

[3] Isaiah 53

[4] John 1:29

[5] John N. Oswalt, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 391.

[6] Hebrews 4:16

[7] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 27.

[8] Ibid., 28.

[9] Ibid., 107.

[10] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 33.

[11] Romans 12:2

[12] Douglas J. Moo, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 754.

[13] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 29.

[14] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 122..

[15] Ibid., 149.

[16] Ibid., 159.

[17] Ibid., 64.

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