Today, September 14, is Holy Cross Day. It's a good day to remember that there’s a woodworker inside us who won’t let the cross of Jesus remain the cross of Jesus. It’s raw material for a new, “improved” creation. And here are two of his favorites.
This woodworker within us unfastens the two beams, takes his hammer and saw, and goes to work. Soon the cross has been transformed into a ladder. Jesus is on top and we’re on bottom. And all we must do is climb up to him. Hand over hand, one rung at a time, we move up from a life of rebellion to an obedient life of discipleship. One rung at a time, we ascend from being immoral to moral, bad to good, unholy to holy. The closer we climb to Jesus on the cross-ladder, the more he blesses us. All he asks is that we give it our best shot. Climb slowly or climb quickly; it doesn’t matter. Just set your heart on the climb to Christ. He’s standing up top, cheering us on, shouting down advice and encouragement.
But that’s not all our woodworker likes to do with the cross. Sometimes, when he’s finished sawing and carving and hammering, the cross has been transformed into a pair of crutches. We know that none of us are perfect. All of us, in various ways, wind up wounded and broken. But we must somehow stumble our way along the path of life. And the cross-crutches are there to help us on the limping walk of faith. We can’t support our whole weight; we need help. The cross becomes that help, that stability, that pair of crutches. We do our best; that’s all anyone can ask. Life is a long pilgrimage toward God. And whatever we’re lacking in strength for this pilgrimage is made up for in the cross. Jesus and his cross fill in the gaps. But someday, when we reach Christ, we’ll throw those crutches away and be complete in him.
There’s something very attractive about both the cross-ladder and the cross-crutches. In fact, there’s something about both of them that the woodworker within us finds eminently more appealing than the simple cross of Jesus. Both the ladder and the crutches let us keep skin in the game. They both include us in the process of salvation.
Even if I’m climbing slowly up the rungs to Jesus, at least I’m the one doing it. God is helping me, but it’s still me doing it. Christ assists me in salvation; he doesn’t take it over and do it himself. I climb to him, he doesn’t come down to me. Similarly, even if I’m stumbling along the pathway of life with the cross as my crutches, I’m the one limping. It’s a long road to heaven, but I’ll get there, with God’s help. All I have to do is try my hardest; he’ll make up for any of my deficiencies. Both the ladder and the crutches keep me in control. Ultimately, if I try hard enough, make myself good enough, then I’ll make my goal. And I’ll be sure to give glory to God for helping me achieve success.
The cross of Jesus, however, calls the lie on both these fabrications. It will tolerate neither the ladder nor the crutches. The cross will be the cross, and only the cross of Jesus. It refuses to assist us in our labor. It refuses to lend us a hand as we limp. The cross is there for one reason and one reason only: for us to die on it with Christ.
“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says. Sinners don’t need help; they need to die. The sinful nature within us—that cross-hating woodworker who dwells in our hearts—doesn’t need assistance or improvement or encouragement. He needs death. He needs the nails and thorns and blood of the cross of Jesus. This is why we revolt against the cross and try to make it something else. We don’t want to relinquish control, admit there's nothing we can do. We don’t want to die. But death, death with Christ, is the only way.
And it is the best way. When we die with Christ, we die to ourselves and live in him. We are given what we always lacked. He fills us with the peace of knowing that God is happy with us as a father is pleased with his children. He adopts us into the divine family and bids us call him Abba, Father. All the stupid mistakes we’ve made, the evil we have participated in, the shame we feel for what we’ve done—all of that dies on the cross as well. Jesus takes it away. He wraps us around himself. We are clothed with him. We wear Jesus. His name and identity become ours. We are no longer alone; we are his family.
The cross is not a ladder by which we climb up to heaven; Jesus came down from heaven and climbed onto the cross to give us everything we need and more. The cross is not a pair of crutches by which we hobble our way toward salvation; on the cross, Christ won our salvation perfectly.
The cross is the cross. It will be nothing else. It cannot be improved. For on it the Lord of life gave us himself, and gives us to himself for eternity.