The Cross and Sanctification

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died …” Those familiar words are from a hymn by Isaac Watts that he initially entitled Crucifixion to the World By the Cross of Christ. Today we sing four of the original five stanzas, and few hymns are more beloved around the world.

What would it have been like to stand there that day and look upon the cross of Christ? Some of the people who were there wept at what they saw. Others mocked. The soldiers gambled to pass the time. I’ve often wondered if Barabbas was there that day. If he was, what did he think as he looked upon that middle cross? Did he say to himself, “That Man is dying in my place. I should’ve been there”? It would be one thing to be there as a bystander, simply witnessing the sufferings of Jesus, but how different it would be to realize that this Man was your substitute, dying in your place.

Sometimes we approach Calvary as mere bystanders – observing, discussing, learning about these events – but fail to go beyond that to appreciate how much we owe to the Man on the middle cross. In a way, we see ourselves in the story of Barabbas. His name means “son of the father” – and that’s where our problems began. Our forefather Adam disobeyed God in the garden. His transgression brought sin and death into the world and death passed upon all men, for all have sinned. As Adam’s sons and daughters, we received his sinful nature and thus became slaves of sin. The wages of our sin was death. Although God’s Law was holy and good, it couldn’t redeem us, because we were unable to keep it. It only exposed our sinfulness and helplessness. And so, we lived in the flesh, we walked after the flesh, and our minds were set on the things of the flesh.

What was God’s remedy for our condition? He sent His Son to suffer in our place. As our substitute, Jesus bore God’s wrath and paid our debt. His suffering at Calvary should’ve been our suffering, His death, our death, but He gave His life there for you and me. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my life, my all!”

Apprehending the Cross with My Mind

When we consider Calvary, it stirs a holy longing in our hearts to live a sanctified life, but where do we find the strength to live it out? We find it at that same place, the cross, as we begin to understand what happened there. When God saved me, He not only forgave my sins, but He linked me with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. My old identity was ended at the cross, breaking my link with Adam (Rom 5), and freeing me from both slavery to sin (Rom 6) and bondage to the Law (Rom 7). When He arose, I was raised with Him, as a new creation with a new identity in Christ. I was born again. The old “I” was done away with and a new “I” began to live. “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20 KJV).

Consider as an illustration one of Israel’s firstborn sons in Exodus 12. He was born into slavery because his father was a slave. All his life he lived under bondage to Egyptian law. When Pharaoh said, “Make bricks,” he made bricks. When Pharaoh said, “Gather straw,” he gathered straw. Every day his taskmasters forced him to do their will. All his weary labor was spent building Pharaoh’s treasure cities. No matter how hard he worked, he could never get free. His only hope of relief from this tyranny was death. But then two tremendous things happened. First, an innocent lamb gave its life for him at Passover. Many other young men died, but he was safely sheltered beneath the blood by faith. Then, he left his old life behind, following Moses down into the Red Sea and out the other side. Pharaoh and his armies tried to reclaim him, but they were drowned in that same sea. Their power over him was gone. He was no longer a slave, but a pilgrim. He no longer had a tyrant-master; now he followed a shepherd-leader, Moses. At last, he was free.

This pictures what happened to me at Calvary. First, I was delivered from the judgment of God by the shed blood of the Lamb. Also, my old identity in Adam was ended. I went down into death with Christ and arose with Him from the grave as a new man. Sin and the Law lost their claim on me. I received new life and a new federal head. This all happened the moment I was saved, and at my baptism I declared these truths to the world.

Applying the Cross to My Life

Let’s come back to Israel for a moment. Even though these former slaves were now free, some of the old habits from their years of slavery still lingered on. Occasionally they might yearn for the things of Egypt or feel the temptation to go back there. In those times of temptation, they needed to remember their deliverance and embrace their new identity by faith, as they continued following Moses. Their slavery was over. They weren’t in the realm of Egypt anymore or under its power. To keep living as slaves would be a contradiction of what God had done for them in redemption. That old life was past.

We also have a new life in Christ, but the old habits of the flesh are still with us, warring against the Spirit within. These “works of the flesh” are the clothing of the “old man,” who was put to death at Calvary. Just as Lazarus needed to lay aside his graveclothes so that he could walk freely in resurrection, so we also must put off the old habits of the flesh and put on the character of our new life in Christ (Col 3:8-14). We do this through faith in Him and by the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16,22-25).

The flesh within us is always tempting us to live self-reliant, self-centered lives. It loves to boast in human accomplishment, but by faith we see those things as rubbish compared to the treasure of knowing Christ and walking in fellowship with Him (Php 3:1-11). Our Savior calls us, as His disciples, to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Him, that is, to turn away from self as the center of our lives and follow His footsteps in the pathway of the cross (1Pe 2:21-24). As I follow Him, I fix my eyes on Him. As I fix my eyes on Him, the Holy Spirit conforms me to His image. Just as Christ set His eyes on a future joy that outweighed all the shame and suffering of the cross, so I do the same, setting my eyes on heaven and on Him. In the pathway of the cross I learn to love as He loved, to lay down my life as He laid down His life – to labor, so that others may rest; to sacrifice, for their eternal good; to pour myself out, as an offering to God. Just as at Calvary He took my suffering and shared with me His peace, so in following Him I learn to share the burdens and sorrows of others so that they can have comfort and hope. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”

Anticipating Conformity to Christ

One day this work of sanctification will be complete. I’m glad to know that our present experience is not the way that things will always be. “Beloved … it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1Jn 3:2 NKJV). What a joy it will be to not only see Him face to face but to awake with His likeness – to not only see Him clearly but to reflect Him perfectly (Psa 17:15). What a blessed hope this is!

The Bible closes with a glimpse into this glorious future. It will be our great privilege to share with Him in the day of His glory. He, who today washes us with His Word, will then present us to Himself a glorious church, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and without blemish (Eph 5:25-27). We will be clothed in spotless white, cleansed by His blood, with a holiness that will never tarnish or fade away. We will be like Him for all eternity, because of His cross. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

“Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1Jn 3:3 KJV).