Friday, March 25, 2016

The Offense of the Cross

Perpetua, Felicity, and others - Future Martyrs*    

And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased.
(Galatians 5:11)

As it is written: "BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STUMBLING STONE AND ROCK OF OFFENSE, AND WHOEVER BELIEVES ON HIM WILL NOT BE PUT TO SHAME."
(Romans 9:33)

In Christianity today there is a "war of affections" that is bringing much confusion into the arena of Christian thought and practice. The battle I speak of is one that rears itself in the deep emotional recesses of the human heart.1 It is the hardest battle one will ever fight. Although the occasional skirmish has always been a reality in many places around the earth, it becomes more visible when our precious faith is under fire. 

Perpetua's Story
"In A.D. 202, Emperor Septimius Severus disallowed conversions to Christianity. In the wake of that act, severe persecution broke out against Christians, particularly in North Africa. Living in Carthage at the time was Perpetua, a young noblewoman and new Christian who was preparing for baptism. Though Perpetua was only about 22 years old, and was still nursing her infant son, she (with four others) was arrested and thrown into prison.

While we were still under arrest, my father, out of love for me, was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. “Father,” I said, “do you see this vase here, for example, or water pot or whatever?”
“Yes, I do,” said he.
And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”
And he said: “No.”
“Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”
At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved toward me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.
 

Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child into their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else."2

Perpetua's story illustrates faith under fire when emotional affections are involved. No one would disagree that Perpetua had an emotional attachment to her father, mother, and brother, but then, there was also the attachment to her nursing infant. At anytime this young courageous witness for Christ could have forsaken her faith and been delivered from the mouth of the lion, but no, she chose the path to heavenly glory choosing death because of her faith as a greater prize than a temporary existence that would be filled anguished guilt over denying her Savior.

Vexed in Spirit
Will the Perpetua's of the twenty-first century please stand up? And as one recent film asked, "Where are you men of courage?"3 I must confess that I am vexed and in anguish when I read of pastors and churches that compromise the faith when faced with the "Offense of the Cross." They stumble at that great "Stone of Stumbling." When I see brothers and sisters in Christ forfeiting and twisting the words of the Bible in favor of appeasing those with whom they are close, in order to avoid offense, I sadly ask myself , do they know Who they are denying? Yes, it is true that we need to love all people in an attractive manner with the fruits of the Spirit on full display (Gal. 5:22, 23). I wholeheartedly concur. But even then, our love must be in "accordance with" or "in perfect harmony" with God's wordHis truth. Honestly, I can empathize with them. It's tough to make a stand on the side of Christ before those you love when you know they hold to a worldview that does not include Jesus. 

It is here, at this point, we are called to count the cost of following Jesus. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven He shared His will for the church. He said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all  nations" (Matt 28:19). But truth is, one cannot be a disciple of Jesus with out first counting the cost. "And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:27). The cross was an instrument of sacrifice as much as it was of torture. Jesus used it as a metaphor to illustrate that following Him would mean having to make tough choiceseven choices that will offend. His sold out obedience to the will of the Father placed Him upon a mocking cross. His cross too, must also become ours.

Defining a Disciple
A true disciple of Christ is one who directs his/her affections toward Christ first. By doing this we allow Him to take the reins of our affections and direct them back toward others where His love can be graciously reflected, because it comes from Him. In reality, it is an act of faithful devotion. 

If we could love all other people as Christ loved them we would find a greater acceptance by others. But we cannot do this in our own power. We first must give Him the sacrifices of our affectionWe must enable Him through full voluntary surrender to perfect our love toward others. Even then, the offense will still abound in some for there will still be those who will stumble at the "Stone of Stumbling," the "Rock of Offense."  
 
At all costs then, the believer should seek the Lord for strength and boldness to avoid the error of placing our clinging affections toward the things on earth at a greater value than the love shown to Jesus by sharing His truth. We must avoid the damning illusion that earthly relationships alone are what matter to God. No! He must increase in us that we may decrease to ourselves. We must avoid nullifying the work of the cross in others just to hold on to earthly attachments.  
Ask me and I will answer in the affirmative that relationships toward others do indeed matter in a great and powerful way. But they must be maintained with a firm footing on God's word. Our affections must never override sharing God's truth even if there is relational risk involved. Remember, we are to be the light shining into the darkness (Matt. 5:16). What's at stake in all a disciple practices is the salvation of souls, which I believe the Bible teaches to be the main reason Christ died for humanity and the preeminent mission of the Church. 

The Offense of the Cross
Many good theologians and pastors have brought forth their definitions of the "Offense of the Cross," the "Stumbling Stone," and the "Rock of Offense" I opened with. But no matter how deep you dive into the biblical text to grasp an understanding, the best definition is always the clear definition positioned within the context. In Galatians 5:11 the context is literally a struggle of wills. Darkness waging war with the light. The doctrine of the Enemy facing off against absolute truth. Jewish exclusivity versus Gentile inclusion. 

When examining the context we find there were those who argued that any who professed faith in Jesus Christ, i.e., those who trusted alone in the finished work of the Cross of Christ for salvation,4 could not be guaranteed a place in heaven unless they also adhered to certain works of the Jewish law as they had defined them. Center stage then was the battle of circumcision and works versus faith and grace. And wow...the eternal ramifications could be costly. If faith and grace were to fall in defeat to law and works then how could any be truly saved? The apostle Paul knew this and he was determined to make sure that grace was the victor. A looseness of absolute truth here would surely nullify the work of the cross.

Paul's rebuttal to their additional requirements of law was this: Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace (Galatians 5:1-4). Those are very strong an harsh words, but words of consecrated truth. Falling from grace would mean to achieve salvation in a manner that excluded the cross. For the cross of Christ is not the cross of Christ if it cannot not stand alone.
 

The apostle Paul's love for the truth found in Jesus Christ, and his love for the believers in Galatia was so strong that he was willing to suffer persecution to any extent if it meant the continuance of a defining and clear presentation of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Salvation was not acquired, nor has it ever been acquired, through any action of mankind in trying to appease God. The Judaizer's were mistaken in their belief that the works of the law was what saved them. And Paul was determined that under the direction of the Holy Spirit the truth would stand, even if it brought offense. 

Before the law ever appeared, as delivered to Moses at the direction of angels, salvation and righteousness was meted out by God because of individual faith, (cp. Gal. 3:19-29). "Just as Abraham "BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS ACCOUNTED TO HIM FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS." Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, "In you all the nations shall be blessed"" (Galatians 3:6-8).


1 - I write extensively about this topic in my book "The Sifted Generation.

2 - Perpetua and Polycarp—Two Heroic Martyrs. (1990). Christian History Magazine-Issue 27: Persecution in the Early Church. 

3 -Courageous. Dir. Alex Kendrick. Tri-Star and Sherwood Pictures, 2011. Film

4 - Salvation defined in Ephesians 2 is: But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:4-9)

John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.


* - Perpetua, Felicity, and others awaiting Martyrdom - taken from Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

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