Last Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, marked the beginning of the Fifth Week in Lent, or Judica — sometimes also called “Passion Week” or “Passiontide.” Today, unlike we have for the past five Wednesdays, we hear from Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann (LCMS), as he tells us about The Power of the Cross
As the late-Renaissance/early-Baroque era painting at left depicts, the Cross of Christ, though once a symbol of ignominy, has, by Christ’s Victory on the Cross become the symbol of Salvation throughout the World, for on the Cross, the entire work of man’s Redemption was accomplished by Jesus. Thus have men through millenia since been drawn to the Cross of Christ, confidently trusting in the completed work of Christ for their eternal Salvation. That is The Power of the Cross, that through it the work of man’s Salvation was completed in Christ, and that by it God continues to draw men to Himself. In the following sermon, Dr. Kretzmann explains.
A Sermon for Judica
The Power of the Cross
by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann1
(Introit, Ps. 43:1)
- Text: And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die. (John 12:32-33)
Yet, as said before, the cross of Jesus has become the emblem of faith to millions of people. It was carried as the symbol of salvation from Jerusalem through Samaria and Galilee, through Asia Minor and Europe, through the Americas and Australia, through Africa and Asia, and through the islands of the great seas of the world. It is displayed on innumerable churches, as well as on the church appointments, such as altars, lecterns, and baptismal fonts. It is used as a pendant on ornaments and on lapel pins; it is printed on millions of books and magazines. In short, wherever Christians are found, there the cross is the most prominent symbol of their faith in the crucified Savior. The cross has successfully withstood the onslaught of the Mohammedan half-moon, the star and the crescent, and it is proudly displayed in opposition to the star of David. To this day and hour the cross is proving the symbol of victory even against the hosts of paganism in every continent of the globe.
In this connection we cannot but take note of the fact that the cross, as the emblem of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ, is mentioned time and again in the Scriptures of the New Testament. If we look at the Epistles of St. Paul, for example, we find him cautioning himself, as it were, against preaching with “wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (1 Cor. 1:17-18). At the same time he openly states that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” The same Apostle refers to the “offense of the cross”, for well he knew that the natural man stumbles at this sign of disgrace and shame (Gal. 5:11). He refers to the fact that there is such a thing as a “persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6:12). Yet in the same connection he boldly writes: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). So also the Letter to the Hebrews admonishes all men to look “unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
All this is in keeping with prophecy which Jesus uttered in our text, a prophecy which sets before us, in golden letters
Let us, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, examine this somewhat more closely.
Wherein does the power of the cross consist? What has made it the symbol of a world-conquering faith? Jesus says in our text: “If I be lifted up from the earth.” This is stated, not as a suggested possibility, as though it were an event which might, and then again might not take place. No, it is the statement of an event definitely expected, one that was certain to be fulfilled in the immediate future. Jesus was looking forward to it, He saw in spirit the cross being lifted up in view of the city which had rejected its Saviour. He had, just a few days before, wept bitter tears over the city, because its inhabitants had refused to acknowledge what pertained to their peace (Luke 19:29-44; cf. Luke 13:34-35, Matt. 23:37-39). And His tears had not been the evidence of a shallow sentimentality, of a pity which even a heathen might feel over the trouble that might befall a friend. No, the tears of Jesus, shed as He looked upon the city which would so soon reject Him, were an evidence of His eternal love for all mankind, a love whose unexampled fervor would drive Him even to the cruel cross.
Thus the power of the cross rests upon God’s eternal counsel of love. He had foreseen the fall of men and the terrible power which sin would exert over mankind, the rule of Satan as the prince of this world. But, from eternity also, His love had found a way to break the power of sin and of the devil by sending a Saviour who, as true man, could be under the Law and suffer death, while, at the same time, as true God, He could conquer sin and death.
The fact that God’s eternal counsel of love found its fulfillment in His death on the cross is brought out even in the many passages of the Old Testament which, directly or indirectly, speak of the Messiah’s work. The very first promise which God gave to men after the Fall brought the Gospel news that the Seed of the Woman would crush the head of the serpent at the very time that the serpent would crush the heel of the Victor (Gen. 3:15). In the 22nd Psalm the Messiah, speaking through the mouth and pen of David, cries out: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death” (vs. 15). And in Isaiah 55 the sufferings which led to the climax of the crucifixion are pictured: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities... He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (vv. 3-7).
This fact of the eternal counsel of love giving power to the cross of Christ is brought out also in the various prophecies which Christ Himself uttered in the course of His ministry, when He spoke of His sufferings and death (i.e., John 3:14; Mark 8:31,9:12; Luke 9:22; etc.). It was indicated even in the conversation of Christ with Nicodemus in that beautiful saying: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son” (John 3:16). And who will not immediately be reminded of the various passages in which Jesus tells His disciples that the divine obligation was resting upon Him to go up to Jerusalem, to be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles, to suffer unspeakable agony and shame, and finally to be crucified? (i.e., Mark 10:33; Matt. 20:17-19; etc.) – All these facts are the background of this present meditation: they are necessary for the proper understanding of the power of the cross.
But, we find, in the second place, that the power of the cross is so amazingly great and wonderful because His being lifted up from the earth signifying what death He should die, includes the entire work of redemption. Over the cross we might write the words which Jesus Himself spoke on the afternoon of the resurrection day: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). It is by the way of the cross that the way to heaven is open to us through His blood.
Is it forgiveness of sins that we need? The Bible tells us: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
Is it justification before the righteous God that we are looking for? The Bible tells us: “Being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Rom. 5:9).
Do we need the peace of a good conscience? The Bible tells us: “Having made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
Do we want to be sure that we are purchased from the power of sin and Satan? The Bible tells us: “The church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Do we want to be certain of our redemption? The Bible tells us: “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Do we want to be sure that we are really clean from the filth of sin? The Bible tells us: “The blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Do we need white raiment to stand in the presence of the holy God? The Bible tells us: “They... have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14).
Do we want to be sure of access to the throne? The Bible tells us: “Having... boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19).
Thus was the power of the cross exerted; thus was the blood of the cross the agency through which redemption was gained for all mankind. The cross of Christ signifies and includes the entire work of redemption. So the cross is the symbol of the Christian faith, of Christianity itself; thus it was that St. Paul could declare: “I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). And even more emphatically he writes, in a later letter; “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Phil. 3:8-10).
But now we ask: What has the power of the cross to do with you and me in the present meditation? We know that it is not a mere head knowledge, a mere comprehension of historical acts which will avail us, in view of the greatest tragedy and the most astounding miracle which the world has ever seen. Thousands and millions have known the story of the cross of Christ, but this cross was to them an object of scorn and derision, and therefore a delusion and a snare. To them the wonderful message of the Gospel has become as the Apostle Paul so sorrowfully puts it, “a savour of death unto death” (2 Cor. 2:14-16).
Nor is it sufficient to have the cross, the entire suffering of Christ, a mere matter of contemplation, of something to be interested in as an account of the possibilities which reside in the human mind, that a man will readily become a martyr of the cause in which he believes. Thousands and millions of people have regarded with amazement the miracle of Calvary, and as many thousands and millions have shed tears of sympathy over the fate of One whose love should have convinced even the most hardhearted enemy of the truth of His cause. No mere contemplation of Christ’s sufferings will bring the power of the cross into the hearts of men.
For that reason there is only one fact which gives us sublime confidence whenever we study the story of the cross, and that is the fact of Christ’s statement in our text: “I will draw all men unto me.” This is in the most wonderful agreement with His oft-repeated declaration that He came into the world to seek and to save that which was lost, that He came down from heaven, not to do His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him. “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me” the Saviour cries out, “that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (John 6:39). And we should note, in particular, that this majestic statement is followed by the promise: “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). This declaration shows how close is the relation of the cross, the work of redemption, to the lives of all men.
Let us keep this in mind, for the power of the cross applied in the lives of men is due to the fact that Christ’s redemption was gained for all men. It was the world which God loved, for which He gave His only-begotten Son. “God... will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Christ stretched out His hands even to the rebellious inhabitants of Jerusalem. He is today calling to all men: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Is. 45:22).
Thus the power of the cross draws men to Christ, for whosoever believeth on Him shall not perish. As men, in studying the miracle of the cross, realize their own sinfulness, their guilt in the eyes of the holy God, which will bring them down into everlasting damnation unless they turn to Him, then, by the grace of God, they lift up their arms to Him in an appeal for mercy, then the power of the cross draws them to Christ as their one and only Saviour, who loved them and gave Himself for them. Thus is established the fellowship of heart and mind with Christ and God, thus the power of the cross is exerted in time for eternity. For this reason the song of every believer can be that of Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (vv. 1-4). Truly, we can sing, with hearts uplifted to Him:
- Thou cross of Calvary,
Thou dark and blood-stained tree!
Where blackest night prevailed
When Jesus was assailed
By all the powers of evil,
The forces of the devil,
When He hung on the cursed tree
To give Himself for me.
Thou cross of Calvary,
Where Jesus died for me;
In my stead there He bled
From wounded hands and head;
In Him is my reliance,
To death I bid defiance;
With faith’s full confidence I sing:
“O death, where is thy sting?”
- Kretzmann, P. (1956). Jesus Only: A series of Lenten and post-Easter Sermons. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. pp. 46-54.
For more information about Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, see the Intrepid Lutheran post, Dr. P. E. Kretzmann: Standing on God’s Word when the World opposes us