The Message of the Cross

Feeling burdened by guilt and searching for forgiveness? This Sunday, learn how the cross offers a pardon for our sins and a chance to exchange our guilt for His innocence. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to experience the life-changing power of Jesus’ sacrificial love.

In our day, you don’t have read to far in the news to find stories of violence and death that are happening all around the world — whether it’s crime, or gang violence, or mass shootings, or war.

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And in addition to very important questions that are often raised in polarizing ways about the need for armed security, the death penalty, or gun control, there are other questions that are more timeless and, I think, more troubling because they remind us in our common humanity — we are up against something that human ingenuity, politics or ideology cannot seem to fix.

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An author named Fleming Rutledge put it like this:

Something is terribly wrong with the world and needs to be set right.

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We wonder when stories of war gain our attention, which they do more frequently than we would like these days, we wonder, “Where is God?”

We wonder if life can be snuffed out so suddenly, with so much hatred, and so unfairly — “Does life actually mean anything? Will there ever be justice?”

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For people who follow Jesus, these questions always lead (oddly) to the cross where Jesus died — to the place where we believe somehow suffering and death and God have met.

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People have died every day of recorded history. Yet, one death stands out in a unique way.

One day a man died and ever since then time has been divided up into people who lived before him and people who lived after him.

The life of every human being is now dated from the death of this one man.

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Every day in our world people die — about 150,000 every day, 105 every minute, 2 every second.

56 million people die every year in every way imaginable (death, violence, disaster, old age).

In the last ten years, 400 people have died of selfie related accidents. That’s ten times the number of people who died from shark attacks.

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But one day one man died for no other reason than his love for you.

The best man died the most excruciating death — the worst death — out of love for you.

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In our day, there’s a big question about whether we live in a story, whether our universe has meaning, or is it just a cosmic accident — whether you were made by God as the object of his self-sacrificing love or whether that idea is just foolishness.

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Well, one day, the apostle Paul was writing to the church at Corinth. We’re looking at this letter as a church.

He put it like this:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)

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Here, Paul divides all of humanity into two groups of people.

He says — there are those “who are perishing,” and there are those “who are being saved.”

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Understand, this is not a crude threat to get people to endorse a particular religion. It’s not a way to manipulate people to make some kind of an emotional commitment.

It’s an observation that you and I are unceasing spiritual beings, and we will either move toward God in all that’s good, noble and holy or we will move the other way.

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Paul says the ones who are being saved are being saved not by themselves but by the power of God.

And that power comes unexpectedly through a cross — through THE cross.

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You know, it’s the measure of the significance of the death of Jesus that we would never refer to any other means of death that way.

We would never talk about “THE gun” or “THE knife” or “THE gallows” because no one would know which one we mean.

But if we say, “The cross,” even though hundreds of thousands of people have died on hundreds of thousands of crosses, everyone knows exactly whose cross we’re talking about.

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Now, Jesus was a good man. I don’t know anyone who would argue about this.

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Much of what we’ve come to admire in our world about humility, or about the virtue of forgiveness, or about love — particularly love for the marginalized, for the vulnerable, for the beggar, and for the sinner — comes to us primarily through the life and teaching of Jesus.

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He was not political. He was not even religious in the conventional sense, but his message of devotion to God threatened both institutions, as he knew it would.

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Ironically, it was Rome, the worlds greatest form of government, that elected to crucify him.

Rome was good at teaching people how to die, but what’s crucial is this (all four gospels record this) — Jesus himself insisted that crucifixion was not something anyone was doing to him, but rather, it was something he himself chose.

He said:

No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father. (John 10:18)

No one has ever said anything like that.

Jesus was executed by the Romans on a cross on a Friday, and that was the end of his story.

Until three days later when it was not.

And word got around that Jesus had failed at death.

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And his followers started to go back and rethink what he had taught and how he had lived.

And they started to ask God for guidance.

And they began to realize that the cross which, of course, at first looked like humiliation, failure, disaster, and the end, was instead kind of like the missing piece of a puzzle. In an odd kind of way it made sense of everything.

No one could have ever predicted it. Yet, once you got it, it was inevitable.

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Through his own life and teaching, Jesus was what might be described as the great reversal:

Blessed are those who the world thinks are not blessed — the first are the last, the best are the least, the rich are the poor.

Life is found through death.
Strength is found through weakness.
Greatness is found through serving.

The cross has now become this great exchange — where this reversal happens, where it can happen for any human being, for you and for me.

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I come to the cross where I can exchange my guilt for his innocence.
I can exchange my woundedness for his healing.
I can exchange my weakness for his strength.
My brokenness for his wholeness.
My death for his life.

The message of the cross says that something is terribly wrong with the world and needs to be set right.

And only God can do it.

And he does it, strangely, at the cross.

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These last several weeks, in 1 Corinthians, we’ve been trying to examine our lives, our world, and our faith in light of the cross.

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All I want to do today is tell you the message and the meaning of the cross as best I can.

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Then, I want to invite you to make this great exchange.

Today I want to invite you to come to the cross and give your life to this man, Jesus.

I want to invite you to lay your life down, to let it go, to follow Jesus with everything you’ve got so you will be one of those who are being saved and not one of those who are perishing.

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Alright, so I want to give you several points about the message of the cross, the meaning of the cross.

Point number one is this:

At the cross, our guilt is declared pardoned.

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Jesus’ friend, Peter, who knew a lot about guilt and knew a lot about the cross, said this about the crucifixion:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:23-24)

Like Peter, we all know about guilt. We don’t like to think about it, but we all know.

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One day I was late for a meeting and I was driving a little too fast, and then I saw flashing red and blue lights in the rearview mirror of my car.

A police officer pulled me over to the side of the road.

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I felt guilty for speeding. And I felt guilty for being late for my meeting.

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And he just sat in his car for the longest time.

I thought, “Well, I’ll expedite the process a little bit.”

So I got out of my car and started walking back to his car so that we could just move things along.

He didn’t like that at all.

He got on his intercom, “GET BACK IN THE CAR OR ELSE.”

So I didn’t have to think about that one too long. I went back and got in my car and waited a while longer.

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Then, finally, he came over to my car. I rolled down the window, and he just stood there for the longest time without saying a word.

So, finally, just to break the silence and get the process moving, I said:

“Officer, look, I don’t want to waste your time. I know I’m guilty. I feel badly about this. I’m guilty.

“I don’t want to argue with you. So whatever it is that you have to do, just go ahead and do it. I’m guilty and I know it, and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. I’m guilty, I’m guilty, I’m guilty.”

And he just stood there and looked at me for a few moments and then he said, “Well, that’s very interesting. You keep telling me how guilty you are, and I haven’t even told you why I pulled you over. I haven’t even said anything yet, and all you can say is, ‘I’m guilty, I’m guilty, I’m guilty.’

“I wonder why that is,” he said. “What exactly is it that you’re guilty of?”

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So I said, “Well, officer, I’m a pastor. I’m on my way to a church meeting. I’m late for it. And I’m feeling bad about that.

“I’m a pastor, (did I mention that) so when I say I’m guilty, I’m speaking theologically. You know, I’m guilty, you’re guilty, we’re all guilty really when it comes right down to it. Don’t you think?”

So I explained my situation and then he said to me, “Have you got anything to substantiate this ‘pastor bit’?”

I wanted so badly to say, “No, do you have anything to substantiate this ‘police officer bit’?”

But I thought that wouldn’t be a good idea.

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So I rummaged through the car for something to substantiate the fact that I worked as a pastor and gave him the only thing I could find which was an invitation to one of our church services.

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And he did an amazing thing. He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what.”

The reason he had actually stopped me was that the taillight in my car wasn’t working.

The taillight! I’d confessed to all this stuff and it was just a taillight that wasn’t working.

He said, “Probably… I wasn’t monitoring it, but probably you were going a little too fast. But,” he said, “I’m just going to let you go free.”

He said he had never had an encounter like this with anyone he had pulled over before, and it was probably a story he could share around the station.

He said, “I’m just going to let you go free. You’re not guilty in my book. You can go free.”

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The message of the cross is that our guilt is declared pardoned.

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We all know there’s something wrong with this world and it needs to be set right.

But that something is not outside of us — it’s not politics, or economics, or ideology. It’s not biological or technological.

It’s wrongness. It’s moral failure. It’s ill-will that’s inside me and you.

We know this, and it’s not just breaking driving laws. It’s deceit. It’s turning a blind eye to the poor day after day. It’s cruelty. It’s lust. It’s gossip, judgment, racial injustice, hate.

And it’s not just out in our world. It’s inside me. It’s inside you.

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Which leads us to the second point:

At the cross, God did something no one had ever expected.

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Followers of Jesus realized something as they reflected on the cross.

When Jesus was crucified, everyone was guilty.

Pilate was guilty of a great injustice.
The Pharisees were guilty of envy.
The soldiers were guilty of cruelty.
The crowd was guilty of mockery.
Even the disciples were guilty of cowardness, denial and betrayal.

Everyone was guilty, guilty, guilty. Jesus was the only innocent one.

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If Jesus chose to avoid the cross, if he chose to lead the crowds in a great revolution, or if he simply ran away and they all got mad and revolted, Rome would have come down with an iron fist, and blood would have been everywhere.

So instead, Jesus went to the cross. He allowed himself to be judged guilty so the blow would fall on him alone.

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Over time, followers of Jesus came to see this had staggering implications.

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At the cross, we see the immense guilt of human sin, violence, injustice, hatred, and ugliness.

But we also see God’s determination in Jesus to offer forgiveness and mercy at the ultimate cost to himself.

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If you come to the cross and make this great exchange, you don’t have to go through your life, or face death, worrying about flashing lights in the rearview mirror.

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Paul said:

Therefore, there is now [after the cross] no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

One day, a man died because of his love for you. This is the message and the meaning of the cross.

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Alright, the third point is this:

At the cross, Jesus’ blood gives us life.

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His friend, John, wrote these words:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

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Now, that’s kind of a strange image to us, I know.

The New Testament is full of references to the blood of Jesus.

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Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, said the church was bought with his blood.

The apostle Paul said we’ve been reconciled to God and each other through his blood.

The writer of Hebrews said, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.”

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We live in a fairly bloodless world. We keep our distance from butcher shops and so on.

So in our day, people find the blood imagery to be gruesome or distasteful.

And I get it, but the ancient world was a bloody place.

They knew a lot about blood.

And they were vividly aware that it was because of death — through eating dead animals or dead plants, that they were given life.

They understood that life came through death.

They were well aware of this, so the practice of offering sacrifices to the gods was universal in the ancient world.

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One of the striking teachings that came through followers of Jesus, through Israel, and through the prophets, was that this ritual of sacrifice was not what God really wanted from the human race.

The psalmist said:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

That’s what God wants above all.

And at the cross that’s what Jesus offers.

At the cross, when the writers of Scripture say Jesus shed his blood, they mean he simply gave his life. — He was the sacrifice that would end all sacrifices.

At the cross, he became the Lamb that was slain.

Out of sacrifice comes life.

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I read a story about a man named Max who was a medic during World War II.

He would go onto battlefields where soldiers laid and tried to save them — often with blood transfusions as they laid there dying.

Medics like Max were required to do this not only with allied soldiers from the US, but also to save the lives of soldiers who were fighting for Nazi Germany that were dying.

They devised a system that was quite clever.

They would save blood that had been given to them by Jewish donors.

And when there was a Nazi soldier dying from the loss of blood, these medics would say, “You can be saved but only if you’re willing to receive blood from a Jewish donor.”

Sometimes soldiers in their stubbornness and pride would say, “No. I’d rather die.”

And these medics would let them pass out.

And then they would save them anyway.

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Followers of Jesus, as they reflected on the cross, came to realize that his blood poured out (his life poured out) was God’s sacrifice and God’s very costly promise to forgive and to cleanse.

It was, as a matter of history, in fact, the spread of the message of the cross that stopped the practice of the sacrifice of animals throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.

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One day, a man died because of his love for you. This is the message and the meaning of the cross.

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Alright, the fourth point is:

At the cross, death is defeated.

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Part of the message of the cross is that there’s a battle going on in our world among great powers, and in our heart somewhere we know this.

It’s good and evil
guilt and redemption
love and hate
heaven and hell

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And one of those powers is death.

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Death is a terrible thing.

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A few decades ago, there was a study done on sympathy cards.

Often, when someone dies, we send the family a sympathy card.

Well, when someone dies and we send a sympathy card, guess what word is never used on the card.

Death.

We never say, “I’m so sorry that so and so died,” because that word is just too ugly. We find nicer ways of saying it.

Because we all know in our hearts that death is just too much for us.

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Another power named by the writers of Scripture is sin.

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Sin is often trivialized in our day.

Lance Morrow wrote a fascinating essay on the difference between two words — wrong and evil.

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Confession time, just for a moment.

How many of you have ever told someone (a friend, sibling, parent, or boss) — “You’re wrong?”

Anyone?

How many of you have ever told someone — “You’re evil?”

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You see, wrong suggests something that can be fixed.

A phone goes wrong.
A meeting goes wrong.
A haircut goes wrong.

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Evil is different.

A phone doesn’t do evil. Only people do that.

Evil is just too much for us.

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The word evil reminds us of something we try to hide, but in our hearts we know — we live in a world where we are not in control.

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The killing of innocent people is not just wrong. It’s evil.
Genocide is not just wrong. It’s evil.

This is why Paul said, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.”

People keep getting this wrong — we think it is.

Your enemy, my enemy, is not people — whatever their race, or religion, or sexuality, or politics, or color, or behavior.

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Something is terribly wrong with the world and needs to be set right.

And the cross is where the great destructive powers (guilt, and sin, and death) sought to crush Jesus (and all that is good) through cruelty and hate.

But they didn’t realize that he — the carpenter, the rabbi, Jesus — could absorb all they had to give and triumph by loving and forgiving to the end.

They did their worst, and God defeated them, not through coercive power or hatred, but with suffering love.

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Paul said that Jesus:

having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:15)

The forces in this world are too much for any individual.

Political systems.
Broken cultures.
Idea systems.
The power of rampant addiction which is simply demonic in the destruction that it yields.
Idolatries.

And spiritual forces that are real but are difficult to name, and they get people to throw away and damn their own lives in the most trivial ways.

Watch too much TV.
Use porn.
Numb yourself with alcohol or drugs.
Worship money.
Tolerate deception.
Cherish bitterness.
Live a cynical life until you die a guilty parody of who you were supposed to be.

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But Paul says, “At the cross, these powers met their match.”

Jesus’ power to absorb suffering and still love was stronger than their power to inflict suffering and still hate.

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None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Who could make this up?

They could stop his lungs from breathing, but they couldn’t stop his heart from loving.

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They didn’t know. They didn’t know.

On the cross, really, death died.
Hate died.
Sin died.
Love won.

At the cross, I exchange all of my many defeats for this one great victory.

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One day, a man died because of his love for you. This is the message and the meaning of the cross.

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Alright, the fifth point is this:

At the cross, we see the extent of God’s love for us.

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We all love stories. This is what it means to be human.

The story we love the most — the one that keeps resurfacing over and over again, is the story of someone who died for someone else.

That’s the story of Saving Private Ryan, and A Tale of Two Cities, and Les Miserables, and a thousand other stories.

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I want to tell you a story I read recently from Ann LaMott:

An 8-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia. He was told that without a blood transfusion she would die.

His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor.

They asked him if they could test his blood. He said, “Sure.”

So they did, and it was a match.

Then they asked if he would be willing to give his sister a pint of his blood, which would be her only chance of living.

He said he would have to think about it overnight.

The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood.

So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his 6-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IV’s.

A nurse drew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV.

The boy laid on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister.

The doctor came over to see how he was doing.

The boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”

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What a story huh?

The reason we love that story is he was willing to give his life for his little sister.

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The message of the cross is the reason this kind of story gets told over and over and over. It’s embedded in our literature because it’s embedded in our universe and it is embedded in our hearts.

Paul said:

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person 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 8:7-8)

Jesus died for everyone.

Jesus died for the thousands of people who die everyday. Jesus died for the people who kill thousands of people every day. I don’t understand that love but it’s true.

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Wherever you are or wherever you think you are on the moral scale of humanity, he died out of love for you.

At the cross, he exchanged his death for your life.

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One day a man died because of his love for you. This is the message and meaning of the cross.

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Another unique thing about Jesus’ death, and the last thing I want to talk about today is:

At the cross, people are brought to a decision point.

For over 2,000 years now, people have been hearing the message of the cross, and unexpectedly it brings them to a decision.

How will I respond to this?
What will I do?
How will I live my life now?
What will my posture be toward this man?

Some people reject the message and call it foolishness.
Some people procrastinate.
Some people find ways to distract themselves (we’re really good at that).
But some people say, “Yes.” They come to the cross, they bend their knee, they give their heart, and they surrender their lives to this man.

I want to invite you to do that today, to meet him at the cross to make the great exchange (his life for yours).

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There’s a statement the apostle Paul made a couple thousand years ago. This can be your statement today.

He said:

I have been crucified with Christ and I [my ego, my selfish life] no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

This can be your day, like Paul, “to be crucified with Christ.”

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You simply make this commitment.

“I am no longer in charge of my own life. I identify with Jesus. I ask him to forgive me through the power of the cross and become my guide, companion and friend.”

You can do that today.

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Now, if you’ve already done this, you don’t need to do it again.

Some people in some churches get anxious about God and they keep making this decision just to be on the safe side. You don’t have to do that.

It’s kind of like getting married (once is enough).

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But you may want to ask for God’s help to renew your devotion and to renew your love. He would love to help with that.

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It may be that you’ve never made this great exchange, and today is your day, and if you’re willing to make this decision, I want to invite you to pray with me.

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If you want to give your life to Jesus today, you can simply say words like these words.

Jesus, today I meet you at the cross. I’m amazed at the cross. I lay down my sin, my guilt, my burden, and my old life at the cross.

I confess that I’ve done wrong, and I repent of my pride, and I ask you to forgive me and to heal me.

Jesus, I put you in charge of my life. And I will be your follower in this life as you enable me to.

And, then, I will be your friend forever in eternity. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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