The Glory of the Cross
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The Glory of the Cross

The apostle Paul boldly proclaimed a crucified, risen Savior and rested in the surety of His love. In this message, Alistair Begg points out three essential elements of Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross—namely, that He went willingly, obediently, and savingly. When we look to Christ in trust and acknowledge His sacrifice on behalf of our sin, we look away from ourselves and to the grace and goodness of God.

Series Containing This Sermon

Some Strange Ideas

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25801

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our Old Testament reading is Isaiah 53. In our New Testament reading, it’s Galatians chapter 1, and it’s page 823 in the church Bibles, if you care to turn there. I just want to read the first four verses:

“Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers with me,

“To the churches in Galatia:

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

On one occasion, the celebrated German academic theologian Karl Barth was conducting a speaking tour, and on each occasion when he spoke, he gave an opportunity for questions to be addressed to him and answers to be provided by him. And it’s recorded that on one of these occasions, when everything had been swirling around at a very high level academically and theologically, someone posed this question: “Professor Barth,” they said, “would you be able to tell us what is the most profound thought, the most profound theological thought, that you have ever had, that you have ever pondered?” And Barth paused for just a moment, and then he said, “Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”[1]

If the apostle Paul were to have been confronted by the same or a similar question, I think that there is a very good chance that he would have replied in words that come from the second chapter of Galatians—words that we haven’t read. They’re found in 2:20; they’re part of the verse. And I think if we would have asked Paul, this would certainly have been in the top half dozen. And the phrase that he might have used to reply would have been this: “The Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me.” “The Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me.”

The driving force of Paul’s life and ministry is found in this. And what you have in that phraseology is essentially Paul’s personal testimony. When he wrote to the Corinthians, he spoke in third-person terms, but he applied it always to his own life. And for him to write as he does in this way is to understand that Paul knew that God had not counted Paul’s sins against Paul,[2] because Paul had discovered that God had counted Paul’s sins against Jesus.

And it is with this immense truth that Paul writes to these Galatian people—people who have made a good beginning in their understanding of the good news of Jesus but who are being tested and tried and pulled away by some who are suggesting that to base your hope of heaven and eternity and new life simply and solely on the death of Jesus of Nazareth is a forlorn idea and that what you really need is something more than that. “It’s a good start,” they were saying, “but you need to apply your own observance of the Jewish law. You need to make sure that you’re able to add your own merit to what is going on.”

And Paul is about to, in this letter, speak in no uncertain terms concerning these individuals. And the reason he’s so concerned is because he is so clear and so sure about the nature of the good news itself. And that’s why we read these verses. In verse 3 and in verse 4 and in 5: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”—now, notice his terminology—“who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever”—three simple and important observations concerning what Jesus does in the cross. I’ll give you three words, and then I’ll go through the words. We won’t spend long on the last one, and less on the second, and most on the first. What we see here is that Jesus goes to the cross willingly, obediently, and savingly. Willingly, obediently, and savingly. That does not give us a comprehensive understanding of things, but it does give to us three essential elements.

Jesus Goes to the Cross Willingly

First of all, to notice what it says: Paul says of Jesus that he “gave himself.” He “gave himself.” If we have ever been tempted to see Jesus as a helpless victim, then we have never understood this vital fact. If as a result of our reading, perhaps as a result of sentimental portrayals of the Gospel record, or perhaps as a result of what we’ve seen on film we have tended to think of Jesus as a helpless victim, then we have gone immediately wrong.

Remind yourself if you know this, and discover it if you don’t: that Jesus had overcome temptation in the wilderness—a temptation presented to him by the Evil One to establish a kingdom without a cross. And he had resisted that. He had resisted the dissuasion of his friends, who had said to him, “Jesus, you don’t need to go up to Jerusalem and die. There must be another way for this to be accomplished.” And he had also come through the agony of Gethsemane, where once again all of the onslaught of hell had moved against him. And he emerges from that scene going willingly to the cross.

I think it is the old Scottish Presbyterian who, in a memorable phrase, says what we have in this is “a willing passion of self-identifying love.”[3] “A willing passion of self-identifying love.” How else would we explain his very straightforward appearance out of the garden when those who were opposed to him came, knowing that they came to take him to his death? How would we explain why it is that he turns to his disciple, and he says, “Put away your sword; it’s futility; there is no reason for a sword”? And Matthew records that he says to the disciple, “Do you not realize that I could call to my Father, and he could put at my disposal legions of angels? He could actually dispatch here an angelic host that would take hold of this whole circumstance.”[4] And even the disciples themselves were not clear concerning this. But we need to be clear. When we commemorate the death of Jesus, as we do in celebrating Communion together, Jesus is not going to the cross as a result of some cruel twist of fate, nor does Jesus go to the cross because he is unable to superimpose his will on those who are his antagonists.

In the Gospel of John, we have recorded for us Jesus’ own statement regarding this. Let me read it to you—not in its entirety. These are the words of Jesus. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … I lay down my life—only to take it up again.”[5] In other words, “I’m going to lay it down on Friday. I’m going to take it up on Sunday morning.” “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”[6] Is there anyone else in the entire universe who has ever said such a thing concerning death? “No one takes my life from me. I have all authority. I will lay it down, and I will take it back up again.”

Jesus does not go to the cross as a result of some cruel twist of fate, nor does Jesus go to the cross because he is unable to superimpose his will on those who are his antagonists.

The claims of Jesus of Nazareth cannot simply be sidestepped, pushed away somewhere at the back of a bookshelf, as if they argue for their place on the stage of history. No, they are so… So difficult. (Preposterous. That was the word that was there. Why use a big word if there’s an easy word?) They’re so demanding. So demanding.

Jesus Goes to the Cross Purposefully

Willingly. Secondly, purposefully. Purposefully.

What’s happening on the cross? What is Jesus doing up on that cross? Why did Jesus go to the cross? Why would we even be here this evening on account of the fact that a Galilean carpenter was nailed to a cross? After all, lots of people were nailed to crosses. The Romans crucified people all the time. What is it that makes the death of this one individual so significant? That’s the question that any inquirer needs to come up with. If we’re thinking at all, we need to recognize that something was happening there. Otherwise, the thing is a total fiction. Of course, you may believe that it is.

No, Paul tells us exactly what was happening—that what was taking place was that he “gave himself” willingly, and here’s the purpose statement: “for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age”; in other words, to take us from the domain in which we all live by nature and put us in an entirely different place; not to take us from time and put us in eternity, not to take us from earth and put us into heaven, but to take us from the realm in which we live by nature and put us in a new realm.

He did it all the time. He did it with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus lived in shady world. Zacchaeus lived in the world of cheats. And he took him from the world of cheats, and he put him in the world of the generous. And when people said, “What has happened there?” Jesus explained. He said, “Zacchaeus has not decided, as an irreligious little man, to become a religious little man. No, salvation today has come to this house. Zacchaeus has moved.”[7] “Oh, but,” his friends would have said, “no, I saw him in his garden just this afternoon.” No, no, no, no. He’s still in his same house, but he has been moved. He has been rescued “from this present evil age.”

Eventually, of course, that will come to a great fulfillment when, in a new heaven and in a new earth, God has prepared for those who come to meet him, and we will all enjoy that. But in the time, in the short term, it is a transformation. It is a rescue. And it is a rescue from the realm of our own sin. We read the chapter, didn’t we, in Isaiah 53? And you said together as a congregation, “[All] we … like sheep, have gone astray.” I heard you. I was here. Isn’t that what you just said? What were you saying? “[All] we … like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.”[8] Do you know what you were saying? You were saying, “We are, by nature, in the wrong with God. We are, by nature, on a broad road that leads to destruction.[9] We are, by nature, turned in upon ourselves, and a thousand ways every day, we like to make ourselves the center of the universe. And we’re just like sheep. And we’re unable to get on that narrow path by our own devising. We need somebody.” You mean like a Good Shepherd? A Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep? “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”[10]

You see, what the Bible tells us is this: that in the cross, Jesus took the place of sinners. All of God’s necessary judgment upon sin—necessary judgment, because of his nature and his being, because of his perfect holiness, because of the immensity of his love. Because he loves so much, sin must be punished. Because he is so pure, he must turn his face away from sin. Therefore, the predicament of men and women without Jesus is that we are alienated from God on two sides: one, we are alienated from him by our own turned-in-upon-ourselfness, our own sin, and we are alienated from him on account of his wrath. Therefore, unless someone is able to stand in that place, our position is absolutely hopeless.

And that is the story of the gospel. That is what got Paul up in the morning. “The Lord loved me?” (Question mark.) “And gave himself for me!” (Exclamation mark.) Can it possibly be that Jesus, when he died upon the cross, took all of Saul of Tarsus’s sins? That when he died upon the cross, everything sinful and rotten in us was imputed to Christ, and everything that is lacking in us, that was necessary, was given to us in Christ? So that what you have in the cross is the appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God—that here God determines how it will be that sinful people may be declared righteous in his holy presence: not as a result of their endeavors, not as a result of the observance of the law, not as a result of all of their triumphs put together, but as a result of Christ’s death on the cross.

And in the cross, Jesus stood in for us. In the cross, Jesus we find bearing what was ours and giving us what was his. Why, if there was no deceit in his mouth; why, if he never committed any violence; why did he die? It is a moral outrage! The death of Christ is outrageous! That he who is sinless should die? Isn’t death the penalty for sin? So why would the sinless bear the penalty? Answer: on behalf of sinners. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believe[s] in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”[11] And the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which we commemorate and millions around the world today commemorate, is a sacrifice that needs no repetition, and it is a sacrifice that needs no supplement. There is nothing that can be added to it. There is nothing that need be added to it. There is no need for its reenaction or its replacement or its repetition.

And in one of the classic hymns that many of us have known, mainly through the Billy Graham crusade, you have it in a nutshell, don’t you? “Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me.”[12] In other words, there is no other plea that I can offer in my defense. I won’t be able to offer in my defense, “Well, I attended a lot of services at Parkside Church.” I won’t be able to say I preached a lot of sermons at Parkside Church. I won’t be able to say I gave to a lot of poor people or all of these things. There’s only one plea in our defense, and it’s got nothing to do with us and all to do with Christ.

In the cross, we find Jesus bearing what was ours and giving us what was his.

You see, without sin, there’s no need for this. And without grace, there’s no possibility of this. Martin Luther, the great champion of justification, on one occasion, trying to encourage one of his monks along these lines, wrote him a note. The monk was in despair over the sinfulness of his own soul, and Luther wrote to the monk, “Learn to know Christ and him crucified. Learn to sing to him and say, ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You took on … what was mine; yet set on me what was yours. You became what you were not, that I might become what I [am] not.’”[13]

Jesus Goes to the Cross Obediently

The glory of the cross is seen in the fact that Jesus goes there willingly, savingly, and finally, in a word or two, obediently—“who gave himself” (willingly) “for our sins to rescue us” (savingly or purposefully), and notice the little phrase that concludes verse 4: “according to the will of our God and Father.”

Did you catch that in Isaiah 53—that God was sovereignly predisposing these circumstances?[14] Could it possibly be anything other than that? That God, in the great mystery of his electing love, would fashion a plan from all of eternity whereby rebellious people like you and me could be brought back, even though we’re guilty sinners with our deeds upon our hands and on our consciences, even with all of our messed-up past and our disappointing frameworks? This was “according to the will of our God and Father.” In fact, in John 10, in the passage we read—the Good Shepherd passage—Jesus says of that, he says, “I have this command from God.”[15] And that’s how we explain what’s going on in Gethsemane as he sweats, as it were, “great drops of blood.”[16] That’s how we understand his cry as he finally says to his Father, “Father, if you’re willing, let this cup pass from me; but nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”[17]

And my dear friends, you need to know tonight—and you can see this in your Bible if it’s open before you—that if there were any other way for us to be accepted by God, then Christ died for nothing. If there were any other way for us to be accepted by God, then Christ died for nothing. That is the end of Galatians chapter 2: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”[18]

So, you see, there’s no half measures. There’s no half measures. It’s either all Christ or it’s not. It’s not a little bit of Christ and a little bit of me. It’s not a little bit of what Jesus accomplished and a little bit of what I am able to do. No, it is one or the other. Tonight, as God looks into our hearts, we’re actually trusting in ourselves alone, or we are trusting in Christ alone.

And tonight—Communion service, Good Friday 2009—given what I said by way of introduction, if you would trust in Christ just where you’re seated and say, “I get it now, Lord Jesus Christ: no helpless victim you but a willing sacrifice. I get it now: not simply an emblem of your love for us but your dying in the place of us. I get it now: you, the obedient Son of the Father, bearing in your own body all of my sin and imputing to my account all of your righteousness so that all of my acceptance with God is to be found in Jesus. And when I take this bread and put it in my mouth, I am remembering not only what Christ has done for me, but I am remembering the day when this truth dawned on me and I entrusted my life to Christ; I asked Christ to save me; I gave up any other plan of salvation and rested in Christ. And this going into my mouth is a reminder. As I accept it into my mouth, I remember that Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life, and he who eats of me will never hunger.’[19] And I ate of Christ. I accepted, I trusted in Christ.”

Have you trusted in Christ? Do you have that day? Do you have that time? Do you have that place, that period? Do you know this? It is not this which makes that; it is that which makes this. And in the same way, when we take this cup and drink it together, we’re saying, “What an amazing thing that a bunch of willful sinners like us could be put in such a position as to know the grace and goodness of God!” And it is an expression of all that we share in the Lord Jesus Christ.

As a boy in Scotland, in my Sunday afternoon class to which I was sent, which was after my Sunday morning class and before my Sunday evening class, we used to sing… It’s a miracle that I survived, isn’t it? But people say, “How do you know all those hymns? How do you know all those verses?” Well, you don’t know them by chance, dear ones. Your grandchildren will not learn them by gazing up at the wall or becoming a baseball superstar or the next swimming genius. You better choose what you want for your kids.

And this is what we sang:

Wounded for me, wounded for me,
There on the cross, [Christ] was wounded for me;
[And] gone my transgressions, and now I am free,
All because Jesus was wounded for me.[20]

Do you get it?

You see, Luther was right in this respect: that the Christian life is really all outside of us. “Wounded for me, wounded for me.” “Because I did this, because I did that, because I did…” No, none of that! There on the cross, outside of me, he was “wounded for me.” So “gone my transgressions, and now I am free.” How? “All because Jesus was wounded for me.”

Well, just a prayer together:

Father, bring your truth to bear upon our hearts and minds, we pray. There are boys and girls here who have been kept buoyant on the spiritual welfare of their parents. There are folks who are here who have been resting in a steady dose of good endeavors and religious hope. And we want, Lord, to be brought to a place where we are able to acknowledge the depth of your love for us. How else could you turn your face away from us, except that you turned your face away from Christ? How could you speak so kindly to us, except that you were silent when Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[21] Teach us these things, we pray. For Christ’s sake. Amen.

[1] Anna Bartlett Warner, “Jesus Loves Me” (1860).

[2] See 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[3] James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim (New York: Scribner, 1953), 91.

[4] Matthew 26:52–53 (paraphrased).

[5] John 10:11, 17 (NIV 1984).

[6] John 10:18 (NIV 1984).

[7] Luke 19:9 (paraphrased).

[8] Isaiah 53:6 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Matthew 7:13.

[10] Isaiah 53:6 (NIV 1984).

[11] John 3:16 (KJV).

[12] Charlotte Elliot, “Just as I Am” (1835).

[13] Martin Luther to George Spenlein, April 8, 1516, quoted in John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 200.

[14] See Isaiah 53:10.

[15] John 10:18 (paraphrased).

[16] Luke 22:44 (KJV).

[17] Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42 (paraphrased).

[18] Galatians 2:21 (NIV 1984).

[19] John 6:35 (paraphrased).

[20] William G. J. Ovens, “Wounded for Me.”

[21] Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.