Living the Cross Centered Life: Keeping the gospel the main thing
Multnomah, Sisters, 2006. 176pp.
Is there anything more important than the cross of Christ? Each of the Gospels centres on Jesus’ journey to the cross. Jesus’ wonderful mission statement in Mark 10:45 describes the goal of his ministry as the giving of his life as “a ransom for many”. The Apostle Paul resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). The cross is the centre of God’s plan for humanity.
For many evangelical Christians, two books in particular have been a wonderful help in understanding the cross: The Cross of Christ (John Stott) and The Death of Christ (James Denney). Stott’s book has been my standard recommendation to those wanting to grapple more with what Jesus’ death achieved, and its significance for faith and life. Stott opens up the Scriptures to show us that the cross is only understood properly when we see it as the amazing “self-substitution of God”.1 To understand the cross, we must understand the depths of our sin and the utter impossibility of justifying ourselves. At the cross, God’s righteous anger was turned aside by his own act of substitution. Here’s my favourite passage from the book:
But we cannot escape the embarrassment of standing stark naked before God. It is no use our trying to cover up like Adam and Eve in the garden. Our attempts at self-justification are as ineffectual as their fig-leaves. We have to acknowledge our nakedness, see the divine substitute wearing our filthy rags instead of us, and allow him to clothe us with his own righteousness.2
Stott also helped me to see that we never move on from the cross. It is not that we are saved by the death of Jesus and then move on to other teaching to find out how to live; the Christian self-understanding, the Christian understanding of others and the Christian life all flow from the cross.3
So it was with some interest that I picked up Living the Cross Centered Life by CJ Mahaney. This book will not go down with Stott and Denney as a Christian classic. However, that is not a bad thing as this book serves a different purpose: to be read! Often I recommend Stott to a friend, but months later, they sheepishly admit that their bookmark is still only a couple of chapters in. Mahaney’s book is simply written and easy to read—in the style of Philip Yancey or Rick Warren. This is popular Christian writing. However, it is a wonderful corrective to much of that genre. Mahaney challenges us to stop thinking about peripherals (the things that much popular Christian writing focuses on) and calls upon us to ask ourselves, “What is my centre?” Then he urges us to make our centre the cross of Christ (p. 15).
Mahaney sets out in a simple and clear manner the biblical teaching of the cross (chapters 3-8). His explanation based on Isaiah 53 of what was happening at the cross is powerful. He does not shrink away from the full power and glory of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and shows that it is deeply grounded in Scripture. He doesn’t attempt to deal with the nuances of this doctrine or to defend it against its opponents; instead, he states it simply, boldly and scripturally. I found these chapters wonderfully refreshing, though I was reminded of the strength and rigour with which Stott and Denney dealt with the immediate challenges that spring to such a presentation.
Mahaney also seeks to deal with the dangers that might stop us from putting the cross at the centre of our lives. Rather than calling on his readers to make the cross the centre, he explains what might push the cross from its rightful place—for example, legalism (chapter 11), and guilt and shame (chapter 12). At the same time, he sets out the wonderful benefits of the cross that we enjoy here and now—for example, the fact that God understands our suffering (chapter 9) and the wonderful gift of assurance and joy (chapter 10).
However, the main point of Mahaney’s argument is found in his closing two chapters. His challenge is to never put the cross to one side. He calls upon the reader to avoid the temptation to assume the cross and move onto other things. Chapter 13 is full of helpful practical suggestions on how to focus on the cross daily. Chapter 14 then urges us to remember that all other doctrines flow on from the cross, and that we must never move on from that fundamental truth.
I have taken up one of Mahaney’s challenges: he suggests that all Christians should make it an annual goal to read or re-read at least one book on the cross. What a wonderful suggestion! Here we have one excellent book on the cross that every Christian can read. Then the following year, why not try The Cross of Christ?