There is a disconnect going on in many of our Christian lives. On one hand, we know the gospel– the good news that because Jesus died and rose to forgive our sins, all who trust in him receive eternal life. We know the gospel is how we “get saved;” we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, and we are “in,” so to speak.
On the other hand, however, we know that there are things that Christians are supposed to do. We’re saved by grace, but once we’re in the door, we find out that Christians are supposed to love each other, and forgive grievances, and be humble, and thankful, and joyful, etc etc.
So in one hand, there’s free grace, forgiveness, and eternal life. In the other hand is duty and obedience and holiness and sanctification. Do you feel the tension? Once you believe in Jesus, how are you supposed to live? You’re told that there is a difference in how you’re supposed to live now, and you feel the difference in your own soul; God has changed you, and you’re not the same person you used to be. But now that you’ve been saved by grace, it’s up to you to “live it out,” right?
This is the great disconnect in our Christian lives- the two halves of the Christian life, in each of our hands, and we don’t know how they go together. And when we don’t know how the two halves go together, we usually end up emphasizing one over the other. Different people do this; different churches do this; I do this. It’s natural. And it’s deadly wrong.
There are three mistakes you can make with how the two halves of the Christian lif relate, and two of them are very common. Some people, in their zeal to preserve and uphold the good news of the gospel and the free gift of God’s grace, emphasize the first part of the Christian life- the gospel. They emphasize grace, grace, grace. They love the cross. They love that all their sins have been forgiven. But then they sort of just… stop. The Bible talks about growing in godliness, growing in the knowledge of God, growing in personal holiness. But they just sort of stay at the front door, saying, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and they never start doing the hard work of discipline and discipleship that Jesus calls us to.
Or even worse, sometimes the emphasis on free grace subtly turns into a free pass to sin. “If God will just forgive me, then it doesn’t matter what I do,” is how it usually goes. Even if they don’t come out and say it like that, it’s generally how they operate: God always forgives me, so sin must not be that big of a deal. They’ve forgotten what Paul says in Romans 6, after spending the first 5 chapters extolling the free grace of God: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? By no means!”
There’s another mistake, however, on the other end of the spectrum. These people love obedience. Following God’s commands and growing in holiness is important to them. They want to please God in their daily lives. And so… they work really hard. They deny themselves. They read their Bibles and go to church. But in the process, they don’t think too much about grace and the cross. They prayed that prayer when they were six, but now the Christian life is about obedience. But now, they have a tendency to rest in their own achievements, to be secure in God’s love because they’ve obeyed him (or conversely, deeply shaken when they mess up), and to measure their worth primarily by how they’ve measured up.
But just like the first group of people, it can get worse on this end of the spectrum too. It’s possible to pay so much attention to the “duty” side of the Christian life that you can completely forget about grace. Salvation becomes about works. You have to measure up to God, and other people have to measure up to you. You tend to look down on other, “weaker” people, and shake your head and cluck your tongue at “those people” who do the things you would never do. But in falling off the “legalism” end of the spectrum, these people end up becoming the very thing that Jesus railed against: pharisees. He said of them, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move the with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”
So on one end of the spectrum, you get “Christians” who look just like the rest of the world- they sin just as much, but pat themselves on the back and say, “But God forgives me.” On the other end of the spectrum, you get “Christians” who are legalistic, uptight hypocrites who look down on everyone else. Neither extreme is what we’re aiming for. But that fuzzy area of leaning one way or another is where most of us live.
There is another mistake people make in trying to hold both halves of the Christian life together. This one gets closer at the truth but still misses it. These Christians, on one hand, want to love the gospel, always remember the cross, and be ever-mindful of God’s mercy to them. On the other hand, they want to grow in personal holiness and godliness. So… they try to do both. They get up early and read their Bibles and go to church and try to do the right thing. And when they fail, they remind themselves of grace and forgiveness, and then try again.
You can see why this is a lot closer to the truth. Of course we should hold fast to the gospel. And of course we should strive for personal holiness. And yet, it doesn’t really get rid of the error of either approach: your personal holiness is still primarily effort-based, and the gospel is basically your fall-back. “I’m going to try really hard to obey God, but I know grace will catch me when I fall.” It sounds good. It’s so close to being right. But it’s still dangerously wrong.
But there is a fourth approach, and I believe that this is the approach that the Bible itself calls for. In short, the gospel in one hand is supposed to motivate and empower the obedience in the other hand. That sounds great of course; but practically speaking, how does that work?
The key lies in what I call “cross connections;” lines of motivation drawn between the gospel in one hand and obedience in the other hand. You see, most people see the cross over on one side, and all of our obedience over on the other side, like this:
There’s the gospel, and there’s an unrelated constellation of different things we’re supposed to do. What we so often fail to realize, however, is that the Bible itself doesn’t look at things like that. The obedience over on the right is never disconnected from the cross over on the left. In fact, over and over again, the biblical authors draw lines straight from the cross over to specific acts of obedience. So the drawing should look more like this:
For example, here’s a relatively obvious one (that will be unpacked more later): “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Do you see how it works? There’s the gospel and the cross- God so loved us. And there’s our obedience- love one another. And there’s the connection- if God loved us like this, then we have an obligation to love each other the same way.
These are what I call “cross connections,” and once you start to notice them, you’ll quickly realize that they’re everywhere. And I really mean everywhere. Back in college, when I was first discovering these things in the Bible for myself, I got rather overexcited and made a rash, sweeping declaration: “Every single thing that Christians are called to do, believe, or be, is somewhere in a verse or passage explicitly tied to the cross.”
Now, that’s the kind of wild, universally sweeping declaration that college students like to make. But here’s the thing. In the years since then, as I’ve continued to search the Scriptures, I haven’t been able to prove myself wrong. It really does seem like everything- absolutely everything- that Christian are called to do, believe, or be is explicitly linked to the atonement, to the cross, just like in 1 John 4:11.
“Everything?” you say. “Surely you can’t mean everything.” Well, until I find an exception, I mean everything. Here’s an abbreviated list of things that Christians are called to do that I’ve found are linked to the cross (this isn’t exhaustive; it’s just long enough to make you see that I’m serious):
Every single one of those things is explicitly and specifically tied logically or motivationally to the fact that Jesus died for you. Every single one. Once you see this for yourself, everything changes. Because the Christian life was not designed to be lived, on one hand, as pure obedience. But the Christian life was not designed to be lived simply resting in the gospel either. The Christian life was designed to be lived in these cross connections. God’s will for you is to live your life in these connections– “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us;” “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you;” “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
These cross connections are the high voltage power lines connecting from the gospel (which is “the power of God”– Romans 1:16) to the efforts of holiness in your life. Our problem has been that we’ve been trying to plug the various appliances of obedience into outlets other than the gospel– outlets like duty (“this is what you’re commanded to do”) or guilt (“you should do better!”) or people pleasing (“everyone will see what a good Christian you are”) or emotions (“I really love Jesus today, so I’m going to try harder”). But these outlets don’t provide enough power to fuel our obedience. But once these cross connections are made to specific areas in your life, the gospel will start functioning the way God intended it to– driving and motivating and empowering and leading and shaping all of your obedience.
Before we launch into the rest of this study and start looking at these specific cross connections, I want to do three more things in this two-part introduction. First I want to show you, from the Bible, why I believe that this is how God intends for the gospel to function in our lives. Then, in the second part of the introduction, I want to give you a crucial piece of advice to help you start seeing these Cross Connections for yourself in the Bible. And third, I want to unpack how exactly these Cross Connections work, so that you’ll be prepared to start applying them.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE CROSS
At the outset of this study, I don’t want you to take my word for any of this. If this isn’t how God’s Word portrays the gospel and the Christian life, then this is just another error to add to the pile. But I do believe that this is how the Bible links the gospel and the Christian life, and I want to show you one text in particular that makes this case.
In 1 Corinthians 15, after 14 chapters of working with the wayward church in Corinth, Paul wants to remind them of the gospel. That in and of itself is important to note- coming to the end of 14 chapters of urgent exhortation on sin and holiness, Paul didn’t want to remind them of their duty to God; he wanted to remind them of God’s grace. But the way that he reminds them of the gospel connects back to everything he said in the first 14 chapters.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved. ~1 Corinthians 15:1-2
He said, “Corinthians, I want to remind you of the gospel”- and then reminded them of three specific things about their relationship with that gospel. It was the gospel “which you received,” “in which you stand,” and “by which you are being saved.” Those three ways that Christians are to relate to the gospel are the foundation of the Christian life. Let’s take each of them one by one.
THE GOSPEL WHICH YOU RECEIVED
Paul reminds these struggling Christians that the good news of free grace purchased by Jesus’ death and resurrection was something they had received. Before the gospel is anything else to us, it is first news to be received and believed. If you haven’t received the gospel– that is, if you haven’t responded to the grace of God by turning from your sin and trusting in Jesus– then you’re not yet a Christian. You might have gone to church every Sunday for your entire life, but that doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than going to a garage makes you a car. Where you go on Sunday isn’t what’s ultimately important; what you receive is.
“The gospel which you received” is how most Christians think of the gospel: news to be received and believed. Perhaps it’s what you heard when you were eight years old in Sunday School, and God’s Spirit moved on you and you prayed and asked Jesus to come into your heart. Perhaps, like me, you received it for the first time as a twelve-year-old in confirmation class as the Holy Spirit opened your eyes to see that Jesus is more than a historical footnote, but is a beautiful, compelling, living, saving Savior. Maybe you heard the gospel from a friend in college, and as God opened your heart to respond, suddenly the Bible wasn’t foolishness but was urgent and true and real. Maybe you had a spectacular conversion story like the apostle Paul. Maybe your conversion was more like the lights slowly coming on. Either way, the gospel is what you first received.
The moment you trusted Christ and received the gospel, something incredible happened to you: the God of the universe, the Holy King and Righteous Judge, declared you “not guilty” with all of your sin nailed to the cross of Christ, counted you as righteous and blameless in Christ, and gave you his Holy Spirit to take up residence inside of you, changing you from the inside out and guaranteeing a future inheritance of breathtaking glory and joy. He threw open the doors of heaven and invited you into his throne room, into his presence, to approach him in bold prayer, confident in his grace given to you in Jesus. He adopted you as his child- a son or daughter of the King of Kings!- and made you the recipient of all of his promises to strengthen you and guide you and forgive you and protect you and bless you and change you and use you. Oh Christian, know what happened to you because of the gospel which you received!
We can, and should, continue unpacking this glorious gospel which you received. Make it one of your central life ambitions to better know and love the gospel which you received. After all, the central theme of heaven’s will be “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” Learning to love the gospel here will be a great rehearsal for loving the gospel there.
THE GOSPEL IN WHICH YOU STAND
But don’t stop with just learning to appreciate the gospel which you received, because Paul didn’t stop there. He continued: the gospel is not just what you received at the outset of your Christian life; it is the gospel “in which you stand.”
That means that every day of the Christian life is a day in which we must stand in the good of the gospel. Standing in the gospel means daily- hourly, even- appropriating the good of the gospel, the promises of the gospel, the comforts of the gospel, and applying them to every need which arises. When you stumble into sin, standing in the gospel means coming with brokenness and boldness to the throne of grace to find assurance once again that the blood of Jesus does indeed cleanse us from every sin (1 John 1:7). When you are anxious, standing in the gospel means reminding yourself that, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). When you are tired of warring against your sin, standing in the gospel means “fixing your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2), and finding in him strength to continue running the race with endurance. When you are struggling to forgive someone who has hurt you, standing in the gospel means preaching Colossians 3:13 to your unruly heart: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive!”
Notice two things about that paragraph. Firstly, what I just did was “cross connections”- drawing a line from the gospel to a specific area in your life (in this case, guilt, anxiety, weariness, and hurt). Secondly, I did that with Scripture. The power of the gospel lies in applying specific Scripture to specific needs, not just in general things like “Jesus loves me, this I know.” That’s true, but the Holy Spirit has only promised to work through his Word, not in generally true statements. This means that if we are to stand in the gospel, we’ve got to know our Bibles. When you’re angry at a remark that a co-worker made, you don’t have the time or wherewithal to go back to your desk and flip through your Bible hoping to find something useful. Standing in the gospel means equipping yourself with the sword of the Spirit- the Word of God- before the battle. I think that’s why Paul said, “stand in the gospel,” not just “stand on the gospel;” picture standing in a swimming pool and being completely immersed in it. Immerse yourself in God’s Word with a particular eye for the gospel and for cross connections, and use them as fuel for your fight. I would encourage you to commit the cross connection verses in this study to memory so that they are ready when you need them. That’s one of the primary ways God helps us to stand in the good of the gospel.
THE GOSPEL BY WHICH YOU ARE BEING SAVED
But there is also a third category of how we relate to the gospel. The gospel isn’t just what we received; it’s not even just what we stand in. The gospel is also the means by which we are “being saved.”
That present tense verb might be puzzling to you. We tend to think of “getting saved” as a one-time past event, as in, “I was saved when I was ten at summer camp.” And while that’s true, that’s only part of how the Bible talks about salvation. The Bible also talks about progressive and future salvation- that moment by moment we are being saved from sin and will ultimately be saved from the final judgment. Past, present, and future salvation are connected, obviously; you can’t have one without the other two. But biblically, they are distinct, and it’s helpful to see the distinction.
Here, Paul has already highlighted how the gospel saved us (past tense)- it was the gospel that we received. And he’s shown us how the gospel is currently saving us from sin (present tense)- it is the gospel in which we stand. But the gospel also has a future tense role- it is the gospel that will keep us believing, keep us holding to Christ and him holding onto us, and will usher us through the fires of final judgment into everlasting joy and peace.
The gospel does this in two ways: one, by making promises to you, and two, by keeping us believing them. 1 Corinthians 15:2 continues, “the gospel…by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you– otherwise you have believed in vain.” The gospel promises to save all who hold fast in faith until the end, and that it is only those who hold fast to the end that are truly saved (see Hebrews 3:14). The gospel promises, “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And then the gospel delivers on that promise, by God holding you through every stumble of sin and backsliding of unbelief, through every trial and storm, through everything present and yet to come, keeping you coming back to the cross, keeping you persevering in faith, keeping you dependent on grace, until the day you cross the finish line into glory.
This is really important to know and believe, because I believe that being confident in your future security is crucial to obeying God in the present. He promises to take care of us in the future, so we trust him and obey him and sacrifice for his kingdom in the present. But what if he doesn’t take care of you in the future? What if he lets you slip through his fingers, and you shipwreck your faith and sin so badly that he kicks you out of his family?
If you think that couldn’t happen to you, you’re naive. Do you think your willpower is strong enough to make sure you never turn away from Jesus? What assurance do you have that you’ll wake up tomorrow morning still believing in Jesus? If your confidence is in your own ability to keep believing, I’ve got news for you: your heart is way more fickle than you think it is. Or do you think salvation is some sort of one-and-done fire insurance policy that makes your ongoing trust in Jesus irrelevant? My confidence that I will be a believer tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, all the way to heaven, is not rooted in my ability to persevere in faith; it’s rooted in God’s ability to persevere in faithfulness to his promises, to never turn away from doing me good, and to keep me believing and coming back to him in repentance and trust day after day after day.
The gospel is that by which we are being saved. In the gospel, God promises to make you his child, and never disown you. He promises to give you faith to believe, and keep you believing all the way until glory. The gospel is not just the news of past grace; it is the promise of future grace. Knowing this will be the heart of several of the cross connections we’ll look at together, and will be a common thread running through all of them: God’s promises of future grace, bought by the blood of Jesus, are what sustain obedience and sacrifice.
These three categories of how the gospel functions in our lives- the gospel we receive, in which we stand, and by which we are being saved- are the connections from the cross to our lives. The cross wasn’t just an event two thousand years ago– it is news to be received, grace to be applied, and promises to be believed.