The Way of the Cross

By K. Morgan Edwards

Good News Archive
1970 Good News Convocation

The word out of the New Testament is that God seeks to redeem us. This is what Paul said, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).

To make sure that we understand what this transformation is supposed to do within us, Paul continues, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (vs. 12-13).

What Paul is saying is that God offers newness of life to us by the quickening of his Spirit. He offers to us moral control and moral recovery. Paul further describes the God who offers us these things. “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness” (Romans 11:22).

If there is any nation under heaven which needs moral recovery, it is the people of America. If ever there was a time when America needed this word, it is now.

Jonathan Edwards believed that the grace of God always came to the listener after self-centeredness was shattered by the fear of God. Now most of us don’t understand Edwards. We remember only the caricature of one who thundered about the horrors of hell, so that his congregation clutched the pillars in the church to keep from slipping into the yawning chasm of hell which that old near-sighted preacher was describing by candlelight.

Have you heard any sermons like that lately? Yet this is exactly the word we need to hear. In our arrogance and self-righteousness, we need to hear about the severity of God.

Two Laws. Jesus insisted that everything hangs on two laws. First, love God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Second, love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Jesus knew that the center of sin – the sinfulness from which everything else springs – is that we love ourselves when we should be loving God, and our neighbors. There won’t be any revival in America, and there won’t be any change in the world, unless you and I allow God to hold up the mirror of his severe demands before our own souls. We must allow God to shine the search light of his own penetration into our hearts, so that we recognize the selfishness which Paul is talking about. Until we cast ourselves down and ask for mercy, there can be no beginning of renewal within the Church.

Six years after his Aldersgate experience, John Wesley took his second round at preaching at Oxford. He made the mistake of telling the people the truth about themselves. Before that, he was telling them the polite things that audiences want to hear. They thought he was great; and they kept inviting him back. Then, six years after Aldersgate, he forgot to ask somebody – such as the Countess of Huntington, Selina Hastings – to look over his notes before he preached. Instead of saying to that assembled congregation at St. Mary’s Church at Oxford: My, what a wonderful company of people you are. How proud God must be, Wesley lifted his eyes heavenward and said, “It is time for thee, Lord, to lay thine hand” upon this place.

It is time for God to lay his hand upon this Church. And upon this nation. If that is a word of severity, so be it. Better that we should survive as servants of God, than perish by our own gluttony. The purpose of lifting up the severity of God is to prepare the way for the glorious and remarkable transformation of the grace of God. That’s the heart of the Gospel. But we must first be torn apart in order to know how desperately we need God’s pardoning and restoring grace.

Heart wound. Nathan Cole, a Connecticut farmer, described listening to George Whitefield preach. “My hearing him preach gave me a heart wound,” Cole said. “By God’s blessing, my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.”

Our old foundations must be broken up. I must be taken out of the center of this one-passenger heart. There’s only room for one. Either Christ or myself – not for both.

There will be no evangelical reawakening until you and I receive this experience at the hand of the Lord. First, God’s severity which gives us the heart wound and destroys our foundation. Then we are ready to receive the assurance of his grace: no matter what we’ve done or what kind of person we’ve been, he longs to forgive, pardon, and restore. And God stands ready to give us the assurance that we are forgiven if we will but trust him.

Just a few days before John Wesley had his Aldersgate experience, his brother Charles had an encounter with a man named Holland, who gave him Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians. They sat down and read it together.

After Holland left, Charles Wesley, who was very uncertain in his inner life, read it himself. In his reading, Charles came to Galatians 2:20: “the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.” And he read Martin Luther’s words about that verse: “Who is this me? Even I, wretched and damnable sinner, was so dearly beloved of the Son of God that he gave himself for me.”

Have you ever faced that about yourself? Do you feel uncomfortable saying that? Are you and I willing to admit that we are wretched and damnable sinners for whom Christ died? Unless we can get to that point, we cannot receive the peace of forgiveness.

Luther goes on, “Read the words ‘me’ and ‘for me’ with great emphasis. Print this ‘me’ with capital letters in your heart, and do not ever doubt that you belong to the number of those who are meant by this ‘me.’ Christ did not only love Peter and Paul. The same love he felt for them he feels for us. If we cannot deny that we are sinners, we cannot deny that Christ died for our sins.”

We cannot deny that we are all sinners. When I feel and confess myself a sinner through Adam’s transgression, why should I not say that I am made righteous through the righteousness of Christ! Especially when I hear that he loves me and gave himself for me.

Jesus died for you. Power first came to the Methodist movement on the day Charles Wesley suddenly realized that Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the whole world. That’s too abstract. But when Charles suddenly recognized that Jesus gave himself for ME, Charles Wesley.

Charles Wesley went home, sat down, and wrote his first hymn. He’d written verse for years. But he wrote the first of more than 5,000 hymns after that experience of pardon. It is back in the Methodist hymnal after years of absence.

O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel my sins forgiven,
Blest with this antepast of heaven.

Do we want a renewal in the Church? We’ll only have a renewal in the tradition of our dynamic heritage when each of us comes to the place where we cannot understand what prompted God to give his Son for the likes of us. Incredible, unbelievable pardon! But that’s what it is. And that’s the beginning point – for each of us – to recognize that God has given himself “for ME.”

The promise of the New Testament and the witness of the Christian community for 2,000 years is that if you and I want moral recovery and a breaking of the chains of any habit, however severe, God in his grace through Christ will give it to us.

The kind promise of pardon is (1) the realization that Christ died for me, (2) the promise that the grace of God can make me new, and (3) that God can and will empower us to become the kind of loving human beings that church people so rarely are.

The real test of the authenticity of our conversion is whether or not it makes us loving human beings. If it doesn’t, we haven’t been converted, no matter what we think. This is what John Wesley learned. Four days after Charles had had his experience, John Wesley went “reluctantly” to a prayer meeting at Aldersgate. Perhaps he went reluctantly because he wasn’t going to preach.

At Aldersgate, John Wesley heard somebody read Luther’s Preface to Romans. Luther was explaining the heart of Christian obedience: “Doing the works of the law and fulfilling the law are two very different things. The work of the law is everything that one does or can do toward keeping of the law through his own free will. Since under all these works there remains dislike for the law, these works are all wasted. To fulfill the law is to live a godly and good life of one’s own accord, without compulsion. The pleasure and love for the law is put into the heart by the Holy Ghost.”

Compassion. Up until Aldersgate, Wesley had been a very obedient person, doing everything that he ought to do – but doing it for the wrong reason. He started back in Oxford going to the prisons. Eighteenth century British prisons were little more than abandoned cesspools. In the pre-Aldersgate days, Wesley came away holding his nose and saying, God you must be proud of me. After the awareness of his own forgiveness, Wesley came from the prisons crying out to England, How can you neglect these prisoners? They are the children of God.

He had the compassion in his heart.

Paul is sure that if you and I come to realize that Christ died for us, and if we bring to him our broken lives and enslavements and trustingly believe that he can break them, he will break them. And if we really live in gratitude for what he has done for us, it will be impossible for us not to do what we need to do for the human community in compassion and loving service. That’s the heart of the Gospel.

Need for redemption. If God can do this for us as individuals – redeem us, give us an assurance that the gap which we opened between God and ourselves has been closed by his bridging it in Christ, give us power over enslavements, release us to be loving and serving people – then the question remains: Can God do the same for our nation?

In the first American revival, Jonathan Edwards thought God could. In 1735 Jonathan Edwards was excited by the change that came about in his New England community where people began to love each other. Edwards said, I believe God has a plan for this nation. I believe God can redeem these people and make America an Israel here on earth. 

In 1865, 130 years later, Horace Bushnell said essentially the same thing. He looked at a nation torn by the Civil War, and said, God can save a nation. He may not save it through victory. He may have to save it through suffering and lives sacrificed. But by the suffering of Christian people, God can redeem a nation.

Less than a decade later, Dwight L. Moody was living in the middle of an ugly and wicked city. Moody saw that the rich were idle and drunken while the poor were starving. He saw the violence that you and I see in the cities of America today. Looking at his Bible, Moody asked, I wonder whether God really wants to save this nation? I wonder if God really can save a nation as wicked as we are? Moody decided that the Scriptures didn’t promise that God would save nations. So Moody decided that the earth was a sinking vessel. “God gave me a lifeboat,” said Moody and urged, “Save all you can.”

I think these are the two choices we have: see whether or not God can redeem a people and a nation or believe somehow that God will only save a remnant. (This traditional attitude is at least as old as Noah.)

Only Hitler was arrogant enough to say the Reich shall last forever. Churchill was less ambitious when he said, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: This was their finest hour.”

The Way of the Cross. The real consideration is not whether America will last for a few years longer, but whether the people in America will be sufficiently Christian to walk in the way of the cross, risk the fate of the Lord of the cross, and share in the Kingdom with the Lord of the cross. This is what we are called to do. Not to save a nation, but to call a nation to be subservient to the Lord of all the ages. Not to save ourselves or our privileges, but to allow ourselves to be called to the foot of the cross. We are called to acknowledge our sinfulness, to trust in his grace, to receive his transformation, and to be released to do his loving.

When historian Will Durant (1885-1981) closed his remarkable and exhaustive study of Christ and Caesar – The Story of Civilization, 1944 – he ended by talking about the contest which has already been carried out. “There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned and oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state history has ever known. Caesar and Christ met in the arena. And Christ won.”

And he will again. For he always does.

Dr. K. Morgan Edwards (1912-2003) was senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, California, (1951-1961). He was the Gerald Kennedy professor of preaching at the Claremont School of Theology from 1961 until his retirement in 1978. This sermon is condensed from his address at the first Good News convocation in 1970. It first appeared in the October/December 1970 issue of Good News.


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