“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NKJV).
In the days of Jesus, the most powerful symbol of God’s presence was hidden behind a curtain. The temple of Jerusalem towered over a 40 acre complex. That temple was sacred, and every part of it held meaning.
The most sacred space was buried deep within a room, within a room, within a room. The size of a large closet, it was called the Holiest Place, or the Holy of Holies. In this room, the Jews believed, God would show His presence. Here was only one item: the sacred Ark of the Covenant — a three-dimensional object lesson of the Holy Presence of God.
Only one person was permitted to enter this holiest place: the high priest. And he went in only one time per year.
Imagine through the centuries, as the people of God made their pilgrimage to the sacred site year after year, on the Day of Atonement. They would stand in silent awe as the
High priest performed the day’s ritual. They would confess their sins. They would hope against hope that God would accept their sacrifice and bless their land.
And they would watch as the High Priest disappeared into the Temple. The people could not go in. The way to God was not open to them. The way to God was blocked.
The Holiest Place and the Ark within were screened off by a veil. One thousand five hundred years before Christ, the Law of Moses required this veil. It was to be woven of various colors. Thread of gold were interlaced.
In the days of Jesus, this veil was massive.
The veil rose up 82 feet tall. It hung 24 feet wide. Its thickness was described as a hand’s-breadth. Thicker than any carpet today, taller than an eight story building, the veil in the temple sanctuary blocked the way. Impassible. Impossible. The way to God was barred against every sinful soul.
“The Veil of the Temple in History and Legend,” Daniel M. Gurtner, JETS 49/1 (March 2006) 97-114.
There hung the veil, a brooding sentinel, keeping undefiled the presence of a pure and holy God. The finite must not presume to approach the infinite. The imperfect has no communion with divine perfection. The sinner must not defile the presence of infinite holiness — and no fallen human could look into the face of a God who is a consuming fire and survive.
The veil was an impenetrable barrier, and sensitive souls conscious of guilt, owning their own sins, cognizant of an impenetrable darkness between them and the God who made them, could only shiver in the cold distance, blockaded by this woven barrier, anxious, afraid, permanently barred from the God whose embrace they craved.
The Cross is the solution to that barrier. It is the only solution. It is the perfect solution. It is the God-given everlasting solution.
- Without the Cross, the Bible is a dark book.
- Without the Cross, the cosmos is broken beyond repair.
- Without the Cross, the devil gets the last laugh.
- Without the Cross, the world of men is lost.
God forbid, said Paul, that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Galatians 6:14)
Do you glory in the Cross? It means to make something a big deal. What’s a big deal to you?
In 34 years of preaching ministry I don’t think I have ever preached a series of messages as important as this one. It makes me nervous even to say it, because I do not feel up to the task. But my subject matter is endless, and its truth is raw power, so I take my stand on Scripture, and leave the rest to God. I also know that by saying this, I set you up for disappointment. I say it’s going to be my most important series, but what if it isn’t exciting? Or fun? Or scintillating? Or our attendance goes down?
The Holy Spirit tells me:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, NKJV).
So I say that if I labor to present the Scripture on the Cross, and it doesn’t resonate, then the soil is rocky, and I have discharged my obligation.
I would preach this message to empty seats if I had to.
The Cross is the title of a set of Biblical teachings. These teachings are called doctrines. Like spokes radiating from a central hub, the doctrines of the Cross are related yet distinct.
Jesus Christ is the hub. Everything converges upon Him; everything radiates from Him.
I am operating in this series from an unshakeable conviction as your pastor: The doctrines of the Cross of Christ should be crystal clear to every child of God.
So, are you ready?
I want to go back the idea of that great veil in the temple sanctuary.
It stands for everything that blockaded us from the presence of God. This veil is mankind’s great problem. Actually, it’s not just one problem; it’s a set of interrelated problems.
There are seven of them, like seven massive stones of the pyramids:
- Sin — the one we’re all familiar with.
- The Penalty of Sin — even if we erased our sins we wouldn’t erase our guilt.
- No Righteousness — even if we erased our sins and our guilt heaven has moral height requirements, and we’re too short.
- The Holiness of God — the Bible says God is consuming fire, and that’s a problem for us.
- Spiritual Death — you are born physically alive, and spiritually dead — out of touch with God.
- Spiritual Bondage — by our sin we have been taken hostage by the world’s dark forces: Satan, sin, death, and hell. We need to be set free.
- Alienation — we have divorced ourselves from the love of God and remain estranged from Him.
You’re a mess! So am I. No wonder the Bible says,
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31, NKJV).
When I was a kid in Sunday School, we had a little chorus that talked about this barrier. We sang that the barrier was:
So high, you can’t get over it.
So low, you can’t get under it.
So wide, you can’t get around it.
You gotta go through that door.
And the door was a reference to Christ and His Cross.
No human being can solve the problems of the barrier.
No good works will bring you to God.
No religious observance can shatter these bricks — you can’t pray them away, you can’t obey them away, you can’t confess them away, you can’t perm them away.
No amount of self-improvement will topple the barrier.
One of the lost truths of our generation is that human nature is utterly fallen, and broken, and alienated from God without remedy and without hope. Prayer won’t fix it. Ushering in God’s kingdom won’t fix it. Changing the world simply will not fix broken human nature.
We need a Savior. The Cross of Christ is not optional: it is an absolute, non-negotiable, irreplaceable, most urgent necessity.
So we start with sin. I don’t know what comes to mind when you hear this word. Here’s what comes to mind for me:
God hates the dark forces that break your heart.
There’s not a person hearing my voice who has not been a victim of other people’s sin. People have hurt you. People have messed with you. People have disrespected you, or called you names, exploited you, or have taken advantage of you.
Sin is just the name for that collection of dark forces that trample the dignity of a sacred person created in God’s image.
Every one of us has been a victim of other people’s sins.
And the sad flipside is that other people have been the victim of your sins, too. You have messed with somebody. You have disrespected somebody. You have called names, you have exploited, you have taken advantage of another sacred person created in the image of God.
And it is the heart of God to rise up in righteous judgment against all sin.
Like the veil in the sanctuary, your sin blocks you from God.
But I’ll bet you don’t get it. I’ll bet you don’t understand what a sewer your sin really is, even if you’ve been a Christian for fifty years, and even if you’ve been coming to church since only sailors and bikers wore tattoos.
Do you want to know what most Christians — true believers — feel when they hear the word sin? NOTHING. They feel indifferent.
And I get it; it’s an overused word. It’s a cliché. Who cares?
So let me swap it out for a minute. Instead of sin, how about talking about Character Deficiency Disorder. Character Deficiency Disorder is the problem behind every other problem in your life.
And what I want to say is that apart from the medical and chemical disorders in your physiology, mental health and moral health are identical.
- Sin is not a disease. There is no therapy for it. You can’t counsel it away.
- Sin is not a social problem. No program will alleviate its effects. No government spending can transform it into holiness.
- Sin is not just antisocial behavior. No court can stamp it out.
- Sin is the willful defiance of the standards of God that comes from a freely embraced corruption in your very being.
Whatever happened to sin? Sin is the elephant in the room in every conversation about every problem of human life.
Have you ever realized the direct link between the relational breakdowns in your life and your own sin?
Mom, it’s that demeaning and controlling way you treat your son that makes him break all ties with you.
Dad, it’s that extra drink that turns you into an emotional monster that makes your weekends so painfully empty.
Men, it’s that laziness, it’s that pile of excuses keeping you from working your butt off to get good grades and launch a respectable career; it’s that societally acceptable perpetual adolescence that makes you a boy instead of a man.
Ladies, it’s that series of sex partners that’s deepening the depression you’re seeking counseling for.
Church person, it’s that gossip, that slander, that critical spirit that is demolishing your evangelistic effectiveness. It’s that disrespect for the pastoral mantle that is bringing chronic chastisement from God into your finances.
Employee, it’s that entitled and arrogant spirit by which you perform at the most minimal level yet still whine at how little you’re paid.
Young person, it’s your self-indulgent sluggishness that makes you settle into a half-life of living off the sweat of another person’s brow, and calling it your right and feeling sorry for yourself for having to sponge off other people’s money.
Boss, it’s that greedy, hands off policy that makes you take advantage of good workers in desperate times, disturbing your sleep at night.
Child of God, it’s your bitterness that defiles everything (Heb 12:15). It’s your anger at God, your anger at your parents, your anger at the Man, your anger at the world, that turns you into a self-indulgent monster who dreams of hurting as many people as you can on your way out.
Christian, it’s that delusion that you can navigate your way in this world without the guidance of Scripture, without this book of wisdom from above, the false imagination that this life is a self-guided tour, and that if you follow your heart you’ll do okay.
Listen, your heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. You’re a sinner from a long line of sinners.
“You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting.” (Daniel 5:27, NKJV).
Whatever happened to sin? We have defined out of existence. We have run too quickly to a meaningless, mushy forgiveness, divorced from the agonies of a crucified Savior. We have invented a god too wimpy to care and a fake-forgiveness too costless to mean anything.
And I know what you’re thinking. Some of you are thinking, “Give it to them, Bill!”
No. I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to you. You are the biggest problem in your life. Your own refusal to own up to Character Deficit Disorder. Your own hubris making you locate the problem in the other person again and again and again. Your own rationalizations, putting your faults behind your back.
I am not denying that idiot people have sinned against you. I’m just asking you to set that aside long enough to look into the mirror of your own moral truth.
You have sinned by your deeds. You have sinned by your words. You have sinned by your thoughts. You defy God, and take it lightly. You ignore His laws and excuse yourself. You are guilty. Your sin is your own fault.
You will answer to God for it. He hates it. He can’t stand it. He bars sin from His presence. You are accountable. He is not pleased. He will not let the guilty go unpunished. He will not let the slightest sinner past the veil of His holiness. There is not an atom of leniency in the heart of the Almighty.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31, NKJV).
“For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29, NKJV).
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts… (Isaiah 6:3).
What Church Am I At?
By now, I imagine the thought has crossed your mind, “What church am I at? Isn’t this the church that encourages? Isn’t this the church that emphasizes grace?”
You are at Neighborhood. And yes, we encourage. And yes, we emphasize grace.
But you can only appreciate grace to the degree that you appreciate your sin. You can only appreciate grace to the degree you feel the depths of your sin, to the degree you get what our grandparents called “the exceeding sinfulness of sin.”
Grace is the force in the heart of God that closes the gap between our sinfulness and God’s forgiveness.
When you minimize the gap, you minimize the grace.
No wonder grace is no longer amazing.
When you indulge your sinful side, you are as despicable as Gollum — only dressed better. And the fact that you won’t see it is the beginning of all your woes.
Sin means the bridge is out between you and God. He must condemn you or cease being God.
Enter the Cross
Enter the Cross, where Jesus died. The Cross towers above history as a monument to both the fierce wrath and invincible love of God. Take away either and the Cross makes no sense.
When Christ was nailed to the cross your sins were nailed to Christ.
God reached into you — long before you were born — and collected all your sins. Every failure, every loss, every hatred, every white lie, every immoral thought, every abuse, cruelty, and omission — every sin, past, present and future, God collected them all.
He then transferred your sins to Christ. So the Bible says,
Jesus “Himself bore our sins in His own body” on the cross (1 Peter 2:24).
…the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all”, said Isaiah (Isaiah 53:6).
In the language of theology, God imputed your sins to Christ, with all their guilt and shame. Christ hung on that cross as if He had done your crimes, committed your sins, and failed your failures.
Do you realize what that means?
It means your sins are gone.
“…For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.” (Isaiah 38:17, NKJV).
“He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19, NKJV).
“For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalms 103:11, 12, NKJV).
in Christ we have…the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:14, NKJV).
The New Testament word for forgiveness is aphesis (the noun, aphiemi, the verb). It means to send away. It means God has dismissed your sins from His presence forever. Forgiven.
For each problem in the barrier there is a solution. That solution will give us a chance to dig deep into a theological concept and vocabulary.
For the problem of sin, the solution is ATONEMENT. It’s a big word, it’s a blanket for all the saving work of Christ, but it means that God has At-One-Ment — The bringing together of the cleansed sinner and the Holy God.
The Day of Atonement
The best illustration I know happened in ancient Israel every year. The holiest day of the year was called the Day of Atonement. On that day, all the nation came together to the Temple for a sobering encounter with God.
Picture tens of thousands, gathered on a hillside.
They watch as the High priest selects two goats. He takes the first goat, which will be called the scapegoat.
The High priest laid his hands on the scapegoat’s head, and confessed the sins of the people. On and on he went — Oh Lord, we have taken your name in vain, we have not loved our neighbor, we have harbored vengeful thoughts, we have indulged our laziness and lusts — and on and on.
The people watched as the sins were symbolically transferred to the goat: imputed to him.
“Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21, 22, NKJV)
The sins were gone. Dismissed. Aphesis had happened. G-O-N-E, GONE! This is atonement — the sending away of sins by the sacrifice of Christ.
The Cost of Atonement
Do not underestimate the cost of that atonement.
- It was paid for at the price of blood.
- It cost Christ the thorns in His brow.
- It cost Him the scourging of His back.
- It cost Him the nails driven through hands and feet.
- It cost Him the humiliations and the tortures of the Romans and the Jews.
But most of all it cost Him alienation and condemnation from His own beloved Father.
My God, my God — why have you forsake me? He cried from the cross.\
Why? Because your sins were being placed on Him.
Though id was midday, it became as black as night.
Why? Because your sins were being imputed to Him.
There is no such thing as a Crossless forgiveness in the Bible.
Never let there be such a thing in your mind.
The Torn Veil
There hung the veil, a centuries old reminder of the barrier between God and fallen mankind. Impassible. Silent. Unmoving. Eighty-two feet high, twenty four feet wide, four inches thick.
When Christ died, He cried out IT IS FINISHED…
“Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split,” (Matthew 27:51, NKJV)
And the barrier of sin was shattered all because of a Savior who loved you and gave His life for you when you least deserved it.
Sin — Atonement — God took away my sins and made me one with Him forever when Jesus died on the Cross.
And so grace abounded — a legitimized grace — and the gospel has gone forth proclaiming forgiveness through the blood of His Cross. By grace you are loved, redeemed, adopted. By grace you are called, converted, reconciled, and justified.
Salvation is entirely of grace. The plan is grace. The process is grace. The completion is grace.
Sins forgiven, brought to God through the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.
For further study: