At the core of Christianity stands the cross. It’s no wonder the cross has become the symbol of our faith.
Here are four truths of the cross that show why the atonement is central to our faith:
1. At the cross, we see God’s clearest revelation of Himself.
Too often we approach Scripture as a divine encyclopedia. If I want to know what the Bible says about pride, marriage, suffering, or election I simply open my Bible, highlight a number of verses and suddenly I know what the Bible says about a given subject.
This can be a dangerous and misguided approach. We rightly believe that the entire Bible is God’s special revelation to man, but the purpose and climax of Scripture is the Creator’s redemption of cursed humanity and cosmos.
Thus the cross stands as the central message of Scripture and is itself a divine act of revelation. We see God most clearly through the lens of the cross. The cross reveals His sovereignty, providence, benevolence, justice, power, holiness, mercy, glory, and victory. Any study of God, therefore, would be incomplete without a study of the cross, for it is there that God has made Himself known.
2. The cross personifies God’s love.
Though highlighted above, the subject of the cross and God’s love deserves special attention. In Scripture, we find that God’s love is often written in the past tense or indirect reference to the cross. Consider the following examples:
- John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…
- Romans 5:8 – But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
- Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
- Ephesians 5:2 – Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us…
- Titus 3:4-5 – But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared…
- 1 John 3:16 – We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us…
- 1 John 4:19 – We love because He first loved us.
This subtle difference between the past and present tense is important. The apostles are not saying that God’s love has ceased but that it is continually demonstrated by the cross. God is love because God loved.
3. The cross is the means by which God saves sinners.
The New Testament authors utilize a number of images of salvation. Here are a few of those motif’s and what redemptive doctrine is associated with them:
- The Court (justification)
- The Shrine (propitiation/expiation)
- The Home (reconciliation)
- The Orphanage (adoption)
- The Battlefield (Liberation)
- The Market (redemption)
These are not theories but actual images frequently used throughout the New Testament of the atonement. All of them point to the central theme of Scripture that God has come down to save sinners. He is the justifier of the guilty, the liberator of slaves, and the adopted Father of spiritual orphans. He pays our ransom, redeems us of our sins, and reconciles us to Himself. There is no salvation, therefore, outside of the cross.
4. The cross is the standard of what it means to be a Christian.
In Matthew 16, Jesus says He must go to the cross. In verse 24 Jesus adds that if He must go to the cross, then anyone who wishes to follow Him must likewise pick up their cross and follow Him.
Thus, for Jesus, Christianity is summarized in the cross. A Christian is a follower of Christ who has counted the cost, picked up their cross, and died with their Savior. Christians are described as having crucified the flesh (Galatians 5:24), died to their sin (Romans 6:1; 1 Corinthians 15:31; 1 Peter 2:24), and are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).
The only saving Christ, then, is a dying one. The only living Christian is a crucified one.
The cross is at the center of God’s redemptive work. Preachers must, therefore, preach the cross as their only strength. Sinners must embrace the cross as their only hope. And church members must pick up their cross as their only way to life.
Christianity, major religion stemming from the life, teachings, and death of Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ, or the Anointed One of God) in the 1st century CE. It has become the largest of the world’s religions and, geographically, the most widely diffused of all faiths. It has a constituency of more than two billion believers. Its largest groups are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, and the Protestant churches. The Oriental Orthodox churches constitute one of the oldest branches of the tradition but had been out of contact with Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy from the middle of the 5th century until the late 20th century because of a dispute over Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ’s nature and significance). Significant movements within the broader Christian world and sometimes transcending denominational boundaries are Pentecostalism, Charismatic Christianity, Evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. In addition, there are numerous independent churches throughout the world. See also Anglicanism; Baptist; Calvinism; Congregationalism; Evangelical church; Lutheranism; Oriental Orthodoxy; presbyterian; Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
This article first considers the nature and development of the Christian religion, its ideas, and its institutions. This is followed by an examination of several intellectual manifestations of Christianity. Finally, the position of Christianity in the world, the relations among its divisions and denominations, its missionary outreach to other peoples, and its relations with other world religions are discussed. For supporting material on various topics, see angel and demon; Bible; biblical literature; canon law; creed; Christology; doctrine and dogma; ecumenism; eschatology; exegesis; faith; grace; heaven; hell; heresy; Jesus Christ; liturgical movement; millennialism; miracle; monasticism; monotheism; New Testament; Old Testament; original sin; papacy; prayer; priesthood; purgatory; sacrament; salvation; schism; scripture; theism; theology; and worship.
The essence and identity of Christianity
At its most basic, Christianity is the faith tradition that focuses on the figure of Jesus Christ. In this context, faith refers both to the believers’ act of trust and to the content of their faith. As a tradition, Christianity is more than a system of religious belief. It also has generated a culture, a set of ideas and ways of life, practices, and artifacts that have been handed down from generation to generation since Jesus first became the object of faith. Christianity is thus both a living tradition of faith and the culture that the faith leaves behind. The agent of Christianity is the church, the community of people who make up the body of believers.
While there is something simple about this focus on Jesus as the central figure, there is also something very complicated. That complexity is revealed by the thousands of separate churches, sects, and denominations that make up the modern Christian tradition. To project these separate bodies against the background of their development in the nations of the world is to suggest the bewildering variety. To picture people expressing their adherence to that tradition in their prayer life and church-building, in their quiet worship or their strenuous efforts to change the world, is to suggest even more of the variety.
Modern scholars have located the focus of this faith tradition in the context of monotheistic religions. Christianity addresses the historical figure of Jesus Christ against the background of, and while seeking to remain faithful to, the experience of one God. It has consistently rejected polytheism and atheism.
A second element of the faith tradition of Christianity, with rare exceptions, is a plan of salvation or redemption. That is to say, the believers in the church picture themselves as in a plight from which they need rescue. For whatever reason, they have been distanced from God and need to be saved. Christianity is based on a particular experience or scheme directed to the act of saving—that is, of bringing or “buying back,” which is part of what redemption means, these creatures of God to their source in God. The agent of that redemption is Jesus Christ.
It is possible that through the centuries the vast majority of believers have not used the term essence to describe the central focus of their faith. The term is itself of Greek origin and thus represents only one part of the tradition, one element in the terms that have gone into making up Christianity. Essence refers to those qualities that give something its identity and are at the centre of what makes that thing different from everything else. To Greek philosophers it meant something intrinsic to and inherent in a thing or category of things, which gave it its character and thus separated it from everything of different character. Thus, Jesus Christ belongs to the essential character of Christianity and gives it a unique identity.
If most people are not concerned with defining the essence of Christianity, in practice they must come to terms with what the word essence implies. Whether they are engaged in being saved or redeemed on the one hand, or thinking and speaking about that redemption, its agent, and its meaning on the other, they are concentrating on the essence of their experience. Those who have concentrated from within the faith tradition have also helped to give it its identity. It is not possible to speak of the essence of a historical tradition without referring to how its ideal qualities have been discussed through the ages. Yet one can take up the separate subjects of essence and identity in sequence, being always aware of how they interrelate.
Jesus and the earliest members of the Christian faith tradition were Jews, and thus they stood in the faith tradition inherited by Hebrew people in Israel and the lands of the Diaspora. They were monotheists, devoted to the God of Israel. When they claimed that Jesus was divine, they had to do so in ways that would not challenge monotheism.
Insofar as they began to separate or be separated from Judaism, which did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, the earliest Christians expressed certain ideas about the one on whom their faith focused. As with other religious people, they became involved in a search for truth. God, in the very nature of things, was necessarily the final truth. In a reference preserved in the Gospel According to John, however, Jesus refers to himself not only as “the way” and “the life” but also as “the truth.” Roughly, this meant “all the reality there is” and was a reference to Jesus’ participation in the reality of the one God.
From the beginning there were Christians who may not have seen Jesus as the truth or as a unique participant in the reality of God. There have been “humanist” devotees of Jesus, modernist adapters of the truth about the Christ, but even in the act of adapting him to humanist concepts in their day they have contributed to the debate of the essence of Christianity and brought it back to the issues of monotheism and a way of salvation.
It has been suggested that the best way to preserve the essence of Christianity is to look at the earliest documents—the four Gospels and the letters that make up much of the New Testament—which contain the best account of what the earliest Christians remembered, taught, or believed about Jesus Christ. It is presumed that “the simple Jesus” and the “primitive faith” emerge from these documents as the core of the essence. This view has been challenged, however, by the view that the writings that make up the New Testament themselves reflect Jewish and Greek ways of thinking about Jesus and God. They are seen through the experience of different personalities, such as St. Paul the Apostle or the nameless composers—traditionally identified as St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John—of documents that came to be edited as the Gospels. Indeed, there are not only diverse ways of worship, of polity or governance of the Christian community, and of behaviour pictured or prescribed in the New Testament but also diverse theologies, or interpretations of the heart of the faith. Most believers see these diversities as complementing each other and leave to scholars the argument that the primal documents may compete with and even contradict each other.
Yet there is a core of ideas that all New Testament scholars and believers would agree are central to ancient Christian beliefs. One British scholar, James G. Dunn, for example, says they would all agree that “the Risen Jesus is the Ascended Lord.” That is to say, there would have been no faith tradition and no scriptures had not the early believers thought that Jesus was “Risen,” raised from the dead, and, “Ascended,” somehow above the ordinary plane of mortal and temporal experience. From that simple assertion early Christians could begin to complicate the search for essence.
An immediate question was how to combine the essential focus on Jesus with the essential monotheism. At various points in the New Testament and especially in the works of the Apologists, late 1st- and 2nd-century writers who sought to defend and explain the faith to members of Greco-Roman society, Jesus is identified as the “preexistent Logos.” That is, before there was a historical Jesus born of Mary and accessible to the sight and touch of Jews and others in his own day, there was a Logos—a principle of reason, an element of ordering, a “Word”—that participated in the Godhead and thus existed, but which only preexisted as far as the “incarnate” Logos, the Word that took on flesh and humanity (John 1:1–14), was concerned.
In searching for an essence of truth and the way of salvation, some primitive Jewish Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, and occasional theologians in later ages employed a metaphor of adoption. These theologians used as their source certain biblical passages (e.g., Acts 2:22). Much as an earthly parent might adopt a child, so the divine parent, the one Jesus called abba (Aramaic: “daddy,” or “father”), had adopted him and taken him into the heart of the nature of what it is to be God. There were countless variations of themes such as the preexistent Logos or the concept of adoption, but they provide some sense of the ways the early Apologists carried out their task of contributing to the definition of the essence of their Jesus-focused yet monotheistic faith.
While it is easier to point to diversity than to simplicity or clarity among those who early expressed faith, it must also be said that from the beginning the believers insisted that they were, or were intended to be, or were commanded and were striving to be, united in their devotion to the essence of their faith tradition. There could not have been many final truths, and there were not many legitimate ways of salvation. It was of the essence of their tradition to reject other gods and other ways, and most defining of essence and identity occurred as one set of Christians was concerned lest others might deviate from the essential faith and might, for example, be attracted to other gods or other ways.
While Jesus lived among his disciples and those who ignored or rejected him, to make him the focus of faith or denial presented one type of issue. After the “Risen Jesus” had become the “Ascended Lord” and was no longer a visible physical presence, those at the head of the tradition had a different problem. Jesus remained a present reality to them, and, when they gathered to worship, they believed that he was “in the midst of them.” He was present in their minds and hearts, in the spoken word that testified to him, and also present in some form when they had their sacred meal and ingested bread and wine as his “body and blood.” They created a reality around this experience; if once Judaism was that reality, now Christianity resulted.
The search for the essence of Christianity led people in the Greek world to concentrate on ideas. The focus on Jesus narrowed to ideas, to “beliefs about” and not only “belief in,” and to doctrines. The essence began to be cognitive, referring to what was known, or substantive. As debates over the cognitive or substantive aspects of Jesus’ participation in God became both intense and refined, the pursuit of essences became almost a matter of competition in the minds of the Apologists and the formulators of doctrines in the 3rd through the 6th century. During this time Christians met in council to develop statements of faith, confessions, and creeds. The claimed essence was used in conflict and rivalry with others. Christian Apologists began to speak, both to the Jews and to the other members of the Greco-Roman world, in terms that unfavourably compared their religions to Christianity. The essence also came to be a way to define who had the best credentials and was most faithful. The claim that one had discerned the essence of Christianity could be used to rule out the faithless, the apostate, or the heretic. The believers in the essential truth and way of salvation saw themselves as insiders and others as outsiders. This concept became important after the Christian movement had triumphed in the Roman Empire, which became officially Christian by the late 4th century. To fail to grasp or to misconceive what was believed to be the essence of faith might mean exile, harassment, or even death.
In the early stages of the development of their faith, Christians did something rare if not unique in the history of religion: they adopted the entire scriptural canon of what they now saw to be another faith, Judaism, and embraced the Hebrew Scriptures, which they called the Old Testament. But while doing so, they also incorporated the insistent monotheism of Judaism as part of the essence of their truth and way of salvation, just as they incorporated the Hebrew Scriptures’ story as part of their own identity-giving narrative and experience.
This narrowing of focus on Jesus Christ as truth meant also a complementary sharpening of focus on the way of salvation. There is no purpose in saving someone who does not need salvation. Christianity therefore began to make, through its councils and creeds, theologians and scholars, some attempts at definitive descriptions of what it is to be human. Later some of these descriptions were called “original sin,” the idea that all humans inherited from Adam, the first-created human, a condition that made it impossible for them to be perfect or to please a personal God on their own. While Christians never agreed on a specific teaching on original sin, they did describe as the essence of Christianity the fact that something limited humans and led them to need redemption. Yet the concentration always returned to Jesus Christ as belonging more to the essence of Christianity than did any statements about the human condition.