How Do You Spell LOVE? (Jan – Jun 1995)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rubel Shelly
January – June, 1995

The love of God is seen most perfectly in the cross of Jesus Christ. Not in the miracles, awe-inspiring as they were. Not in the sermons or parables, insightful and kingdom-illuminating as they were. Not in acts of compassion for the poor and outcast, compelling as they were. But in the cross. The Cross!

Augustine insisted that the cross was a pulpit from which Christ preached the love of God to the world. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). “For God so loved the world that he gave his incomparable Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

It is certainly true that God’s love is disclosed in creation and throughout history. After all, he has created us in his own image and made it possible for us to live with him forever. But divine love is sometimes rather obscure in human experience. We live at considerable distance from God in this world. His real presence and loving nature do not overwhelm us to the degree that we simply cannot fail to perceive them. There are killer earthquakes as well as nourishing showers, painful sickness as well as radiant health. It is only at the cross that God’s love is seen exhaustively and without ambiguity.

A young man I will call Ron was diagnosed with leukemia at Vanderbilt Hospital. There was immediate treatment with chemotherapy, and he improved enough that he was able to return to school. Before he completed two semesters, however, he was desperately ill again. This time his only hope was a bone marrow transplant, with all the risk and pain involved in it.

Drugs and radiation were used to kill his own bone marrow. He was pitifully ill during the process. Vomiting. Chills. Painful ulcerations in his mouth. Then he was given bone marrow from a close relative. The hope was that the drugs and radiation would kill the diseased cells and that he could generate new bone marrow—and get well.

Days became weeks, and nothing worked. He suffered horribly. Over and over, as I visited him in the hospital, his mother would follow me into the hall as I left and sob, “How I wish it could be me instead!” On the day Ron died, she was still telling me, “I wish it could have been me.”

When love sees a crisis in the one who is its object, the immediate impulse is to want to stand in the loved one’s place. So a mother would gladly substitute herself for a son dying painfully from leukemia. A father will push his little girl out of harm’s way and put himself between her and what is threatening her. Did you catch the critical terms? Stand in. Substitute. Put himself in harm’s way. This is what happened when Jesus died on the cross.

In the death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross, God took our place. Justice required that sin be punished. The full weight of judgment had to come down. When it happened, the spotless Lamb of God stood in our place, became our substitute, and put himself on the altar of sacrifice.

Jesus was not being punished for anything he had done wrong that day. He endured a judgment he did not deserve so we can have salvation we do not deserve. In that awful cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), you and I hear Jesus saying that he had taken our place and experienced the agony of God-forsakenness that we should have to experience for eternity.

The highest and purest love of all is at the center of the gospel. That is why his death is called vicarious and substitutionary.

God did not stand in our place that day because we had pleaded for him to do so. We had not changed our attitude toward him or our behavior in relation to his will. God’s decision to save us by taking the penalty for our sins onto himself was not based on the cosmic calculations of the probability that we would one day change for the better. It was an act of grace. Undeserved kindness. Pure love. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

In this issue of Wineskins, we focus again (as we shall repeatedly and without apology!) on the central event of Christian faith. We tell the story of the cross. And we focus particularly on the three historical means employed by the church and ordained of God for its communication. Along with other articles of special importance in this issue, three have been written to develop the idea that Christ’s church exists to present the message of God’s love at the cross through both word (i.e., preaching) and event (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

First, Milton Jones focuses on the cross as the heart of preaching. He calls all who claim to “proclaim the gospel” to be sure we are faithful to our claim. Not ourselves as pulpit stars. Not the rightness of our church. But the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ.

Second, Bob Hendren leads us from the shallow water of understanding baptism as “the final step in the plan of salvation” to the deep, biblical water of regarding it as an embrace of grace through faith in the death of Jesus. He exposes the heresy of seeing baptism as our contribution to the salvation process and proclaims the New Testament doctrine of baptism as response (not addition) to the cross.

Third, David Wead teaches the wonderful truth of the Lord’s Supper as a proclamation of the death of Christ until his return. He explains in a compelling manner why this event among believers is not merely our compliance with duty but the church’s ongoing experience of Christ and a bold statement about its expectation of eternity.

If anyone understands the true meaning of the love of God, he or she has discovered the love that is spelled J-e-s-u-s. We hope you will share our delight in exploring the gospel again in this issue.FREE Access!

Rubel Shelly

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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