Why the Story of Jesus’ Cross Has the Power to Change Us

My Story

I grew up in a Christian home, but I was far from God until I read the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. Then, everything changed. I tell about it here.

I had known a lot about God and the Bible, but my knowledge had not changed me. In fact, while outwardly religious, I was moving farther and farther away from God, all the time feeling better than others because of what little good I was and did.

But sin and my human nature were constantly getting the better of me, until, as I tell in the link above, the death of my sister plunged me into an existential crisis of grief and meaning. Looking for comfort and hope, I began to read the Bible for answers.

His Story

Reading one night after work, I came to the story of Jesus’ Passion in the Gospel of John. As I read, His story came alive in a way it never had before. If you had asked me before that night why Jesus died on the cross, I could have given you a factual answer.

But this night, God opened my eyes to see how much Jesus (and the Father) loved the world, and how much they loved me personally. I have often said that it was like a floodlight shining into my heart and mind.

Suddenly, the immensity of God’s love and Jesus’ willingness to suffer for our sins became crystal clear to me. Their love was so amazing, I immediately knew I needed to make a choice of whether to follow Jesus, or not. Getting down on my knees, I said, “Jesus, I don’t know how to follow you; but if you will accept me, I will.”

I know He accepted me and changed my heart because in the days and weeks that followed, many things changed in my life–my desires, my motives, what I enjoyed, how I lived. It was a change from the inside out. I did not become perfect, but my heart was changed. I began to love what I had no interest in before and dislike the sin I loved before.

The Power of the Cross

Why does the story of Jesus’ death have this power to change our lives? I didn’t know much about why Jesus died back then. All I knew was that He suffered and died because He loved us and that He died for sin. But that was enough.

The reason it was enough for God to accept me and change my heart is what I am going to explore in several blog posts over the next few weeks. But here is why God can exercise His power to save through Christ’s death:

He Earned the Right. Jesus died for all human sin (1 John 2:2), and by doing this He earned the right to forgive, accept, and change us. He (Jesus) has died as a ransom to set (us) free from. . .sins” (Hebrews 9:15).

He Gained the Authority. Through Jesus’ suffering and death, He defeated Satan. How? He resisted the devil’s efforts to get Jesus to sin in His humanity, and He showed that Satan’s arguments that it was impossible to obey, were false. God helped Jesus be faithful. So now Jesus has authority to help us too. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil. . .Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:14, 18 NIV).

The Cross is His Power Station. So much happened at the cross that allows Jesus authority and power to change our lives when we turn and put our trust in Him. Workmen are installing towers and high voltage power lines near our neighborhood. When they are finished, they will charge the lines and power will flow for miles to meet the needs of thousands. When Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” on the cross (John 19:30), He meant that God’s plan to provide forgiveness and salvation was completed. At that point, the power of the Spirit was released to change people through the story of Jesus’ death. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).

“The message of the cross. . .is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV

Come to Jesus’ Cross

The cross is especially where God gets access to our hearts to change and empower us. That is so because He earned the right there. This is why the Bible calls us consider the cross, teach about it, and meet Jesus there, as these verses show:

“‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” John 12:32-33 NIV

“We preach Christ crucified: . . .the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:23, 24 NIV

“Christ (sent me) to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 1 Corinthians 1:17 NIV

Will You Consider Jesus’ Cross with Me?

Would you like to experience more of God’s power in your life? Would you like to know and love Him more? I would like to invite you to consider Jesus’ cross with me as I blog about it over the next few weeks.

I have learned so much more about why Jesus died than I knew at first, and because of that, I love Him even more. I want to share these amazing things with you. The more we see and understand, the more we will love Him; and the less power sin and Satan will have over our lives.

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Jesus is inviting us to come to Him through His death on the cross.

How Much Do You Need to Know to be Saved?

A few days ago, I wrote about “Why Religious Knowledge Alone Won’t Save You–And What You Can Do About It.” However, I realized that more needs to be said. How much do you need to know to be accepted by God and begin a relationship with Him?

Very little, as it turns out; but an essential minimum. Even if you believe a lot of wrong things, God can still accept you and do what He does best. We see this clearly in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.

A Canaanite Woman

Matthew and Mark tell us about a trip Jesus took from Jerusalem to the mostly gentile region of Tyre and Sidon where He met a woman who knew very little, but just enough to receive Jesus’ help.

This story actually begins in Jerusalem with a debate between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees about a technical question in their law. These leaders had a LOT of religious knowledge. They knew the Hebrew Bible back and forth, and volumes of theology too.

But Jesus ended up telling them: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:7-9). Jesus’ point is that we can have a lot of religious knowledge, but be far from God.

It is at this moment Jesus leaves the center of learning and culture and travels with his disciples to Tyre and Sidon (northern Syria today, quite a journey on foot). From the center of religious knowledge in Judaism, Jesus led His followers to an area known for its superstition and false gods. From great knowledge to little knowledge. It was a cross-cultural mission trip; and I think Jesus was trying to teach His disciples a lesson.

A Canaanite woman pleads for help

There, a Canaanite woman came begging Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). She cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” (Matthew 15:22).

A pathetic situation, one which should have aroused the disciples’ compassion. Instead, they complained to Jesus, “Send her away because she keeps crying out after us” (v. 23).

Their reaction is hardhearted, for sure. But a little background helps us understand their reaction from their perspective. Canaanites were gentiles, with very distorted views of God (from a Jewish viewpoint). They were the corrupt people of the land when Israel arrived centuries before, which God told Israel root out. In Jesus’ time, they were still seen as pagans, and under curse of God.

Unexpectedly and out of character, as the woman begs for help, Jesus ignores her. When He finally speaks, He tells her that it wouldn’t be right for Him to take the children’s (Jews’) bread and give it to their dogs (gentiles).

I can hear His disciples muttering, “Right!” Some Jews referred to gentiles as dogs in Jesus’ day. So Jesus is treating her as some of His people might do. He is giving His followers a lesson–one we also need today.

The woman’s desperate and persistent response is, “True Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27). Jesus immediately replied, “‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment” (v. 28)

What gave her this persistence? Was it Jesus’ expression of sympathy, His tone of concern, a twinkle in His eye? Was it her own desperation? Something made her keep trying.

How much did this woman know? Not much; but enough. When she first called on Jesus, she cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 22).

Clearly, she had heard of Jesus. She believed He was the Jewish Messiah, descended from David. Jesus had learned about His willingness to extend mercy and love to those who did not deserve it. She had heard of His miracles, and perhaps a few rumored teachings. Where had she gotten this sparse, but important information?

Much earlier Matthew reports that news about Jesus had “spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24).

The woman may have talked with some who heard Jesus teach or received His healing touch. Her knowledge was limited, but it was enough. She believed Jesus had come from God and that He extended grace and mercy to those who needed it. Putting her trust in Him, her daughter was healed.

Jesus disciples were amazed. God loves everyone the same? He has no favorites? He will love and give race and blessings to even the “heathen?”

The people God entrusts with a knowledge of Him are blessed so they can bless others, not horde His gifts. Jesus died for all, bearing the sins of every human on the cross, so all who wish may receive mercy. How much knowledge is necessary for that?

At Jesus’ Birth Too

We see this illustrated at the beginning of Jesus’ life. Poor shepherds, considered unclean and low class by the Jews, and the gentile Magi, both groups slim on Jewish religious knowledge, are the ones to come to the welcome Messiah. His own people who should know the prophecies, are oblivious, or preoccupied. Even at Jesus’ birth, God was signaling that His love and mercy were for everyone.

God calls high and low, shepherds and Wise Men.

First Sermon Nearly Ends in Death

Later, we observe it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In his first sermon at his home town of Nazareth, He reminds the worshipers that God’s heart is bigger than Israel. Elijah had been sent to provide food for a heathen widow in Zarephath. Namaan, an Aramaean (Syrian) army officer in the time of Elisha, had been healed of leprosy. God’s own people had not asked, but these “non-believers” had.

If you’ve read the story, you might have been shocked that Jesus home-town people tried to throw Him off a cliff when He said this. Why?

When we grow up in a religious community, it is easy to believe that God’s blessings are restricted to those who believe the right things, those who have the “correct” theology. It is possible to look down on others.

With that perspective, we may feel we don’t “know enough” for God to accept us. But God’s love and mercy and acceptance are as wide as the world, and He gives them freely to those who simple believe and ask.

At the Cross

We see this again at the cross.

A young man hangs from nailed wrists, mouth dry as cotton, flies buzzing, body and brain exploding with pain. He is in agony, slowly dying. He has lived a life of crime, led on by bad associates. A lapsed Jew, he may have had some religious knowledge, but he had tossed it aside like a crust of stale bread years ago. It was like a hazy memory now.

A criminal calls on Jesus

Yet strange, hopeful thoughts are going through his mind. He has heard Jesus’ followers say they had believed the crucified Man on the center cross was the one who was going to deliver Israel. He heard the religious leaders mock, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35).

He remembered his mother telling him about the sacrifices and how they pointed forward to a Messiah deliverer who would die for others. He watched Jesus’ behavior, heard His few words, and as the Spirit spoke to his heart, slowly the realization dawned on him that this was the Messiah, dying for the world’s sins, his sins. Did Isaiah 53, the prophecy of Messiah’s suffering and death come back to him?

This life held nothing for him now; it was almost over. But what about his eternity? In a parched voice, he called out from the depths of his heart, “Lord, will you remember me when you come in your kingdom?” (Luke 23:42). And immediately, Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).

This backslider, with faint religious memories, sees in Jesus a gracious, loving Savior, puts all his trust in Him, and is assured of eternity.

I have heard stories of addicts, incarcerated persons, and people from all walks of life who had little religious knowledge, but called out to God in their time of need; and God responded and gave them a new spiritual life. It turned their lives around. Why is this possible?

Because, simply, Jesus died for the whole world and every person in it. God’s love is not restricted to a chosen few; it is for everyone. That is wonderful news. God’s grace and love are as free and available as the air we breathe because of the cross. If you realize your need of God, you can call on Jesus today and put your faith in Him as your Savior. He will accept you because He paid for the right to do so.

A Place for Knowing More

I am not saying here that religious knowledge and education is unnecessary. It is extremely important. The Bible encourages parents and the church to teach this as the foundation of faith for children and believers. And once we come to faith, Peter says we should “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

The more we know about God and the One He sent, the more we love them. And the more we know about God, the more we can become like Him. Truth describes God’s will and path for us. It helps us avoid spiritual deceptions and stay in the center of God’s will.

What I am asserting is that it is wonderful news that God’s love is so broad and Christ’s grace is so free that anyone in the world can call on them, no matter how much or how little they know, and God will forgive and receive them as His children.

Jesus did the really hard work of overcoming Satan in our flesh and then dying for the sins of the world–so God can accept absolutely anyone who comes to Him in need and faith. Knowledge is no barrier. Your wandering, sinful past will not stop Him.

That is really good news. And so the saying is true, “It’s not how much you know, but Who you know, that counts.” “This is life eternal that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent” John 17:3.

Yes, Jesus accepts anyone, even me and you.

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Why Religious Knowledge Alone Won’t Save You – And What You Can Do About It

I grew up knowing a lot about God. My family attended church regularly. I was in children’s classes every week. My dad and mom were both Christians. Dad, especially seemed to have a personal relationship with his “heavenly Father,” as He called Him. I could tell by the way he talked about God and the way he prayed. He had grown up in the back alleys of Denver in a home where his dad was mean and abusive when he drank. It came as a relief to my dad when he learned about a heavenly Dad who was full of love and kindness.

I went to Christian schools for fifteen years and denominational summer camps nearly every summer. Christian clubs and extracurricular activities added to my knowledge and religious acculturation. I knew a LOT about God and His Book and could answer many questions in a Bible trivia game. But I didn’t know either God or Jesus, personally. In fact, I didn’t feel a need because I somehow equated knowing “about” God and participating in religious services and activities with what I thought was real religion.

However, this did not “work” for me. Throughout my high school and college years, I struggled with personal sins, often violating what I knew was right. There were many cycles of giving in to temptations of various kinds, experiencing religious guilt, yet failing again. I seemed to have no power in areas where I was weak.

Yet, somehow, I thought of myself as quite a good person, better than some, maybe most, because of the right things I knew and did. . .and didn’t do (and that list was pretty long). I was sometimes miserable, and certainly self-deceived. But I didn’t know what to do about it.

In college (a Christian one), I majored in theology (because I liked my high school religion teacher, also my coach, and I wanted to “help people). I joined a summer ministry team and became religious vice president of our student association, all the time struggling privately with pride and sin. My religious pursuits and the good feelings that came from serving kept me from seeing my need, and the solution to my problems.

In my freshman year, some students on my campus began to talk a lot about having a personal relationship with Jesus. They had been trained at Campus Crusade for Christ, which made them a bit suspect in my mind, because Cru was a non-denominational ministry, and I almost equated salvation with being in the “right” church.

At the same time, I was intrigued and a bit troubled by what these young men were saying. The “relationship” they talked about seemed real. On one level, it reminded my of my dad. But, I didn’t have what they were describing. I was weirdly uncomfortable for a religious kid.

I went to their meetings, attended a prayer gathering or two in dorm rooms (where they prayed conversationally with God) and got to know some of the guys personally. What they were saying was shaking what I had been trusting in. They said religious knowledge and doctrinal beliefs were not enough. Knowing “about” Jesus was not the same as knowing Him personally, and good works could never “save” anyone for eternity. The foundation I had been trusting in for acceptance with God was getting rattled, but not enough to topple my house of cards yet.

In the meantime, a friend began asking me questions like, “Who do you think Jesus Christ was?” And, What do you think having eternal life means?” I could give theological answers, but not relational, experiential ones. Rick was finding a relationship with God and wanted to nudge me in that direction too.

Looking back, what was keeping me from trusting Jesus as a personal Savior was my false belief that religious knowledge and good works were enough to earn God’s favor. My pride and sins also got in the way too, though, as it turned out, they were the result of my condition, not the cause of it. The root cause was that I didn’t know how lost I was without Jesus as my personal Savior, and my failure to trust and surrender my life to Him.

In the summer of my Junior year, my sister Susan was killed in a car accident. She was a sunny, cheerful, likable girl of seventeen. This shattered my world. My deep grief led me to read the Bible. I had to see for myself if the things I had believed were true. Was there a heaven? Would there be a Second Coming of Christ and a resurrection from the dead? Would I get to see my sister again? I wrote the date of Susan’s death beside meaningful verses. At this point, I was seeking comfort and assurance about things I had only known in my head, not my heart.

One evening after work, I found my self reading John’s description of Jesus’ passion–His struggle to surrender in Gethsemane, His trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. I have often said it was like God shined a floodlight into my mind and heart, and I saw clearly, as I’d never seen before, how much He loved the world–and how much he loved me personally. Immediately, I knew I had a choice to make; it was clear and obvious: to give my life to Him and follow Him.

It was an easy choice in some ways. I saw a love like I’d never understood this deeply before, and Someone who loved me like I had never been loved. I wanted to follow this Jesus. I knelt down and prayed a ridiculously simple prayer for a third year theology student and life-long “religious” person: “Jesus, I don’t know how to follow you, but if you’ll accept me, I will.”

It was a prayer of repentance (turning to God), surrender, and desire–to know God personally in the way I had never known Him.

I know without any doubt that He accepted me and changed my life. I became voraciously hungry to read the Bible–to know as much about God and Jesus, and what they had to say,as I could. The power of sin was broken in my life, and my heart and behavior changed. I learned later, this was the new birth Jesus told Nicodemus about (John 3). Now I went to class and worship to know God better.

In case you are wondering, did I ever struggle with temptation again? Did previous sinful patterns suddenly evaporate? No. I found that as time went along that there were areas God needed to address in my life, but this happened in a growing relationship with Him, over time–learning how the Christian life worked and what He offers to help. In a word, He offers the power of His Spirit and His work of grace in our hearts. This happens as we read and accept His words and walk in a trust relationship with Him.

Jesus offers us so much when we give up depending on ourselves and our own goodness and knowledge. He can do this because He died to earn the right, and He freely forgives and accepts whoever puts their trust fully in Him.

So, why won’t religious knowledge and good works save you, and what can you do about it?

  1. Knowledge and human goodness can be a trap. The biggest illusion in Jesus’ day was that religious knowledge and belonging to a certain group could save you. It felt so complete being full of information about God and worshiping with large groups of people. It felt so right to believe the “right” things. But theoretical knowledge is not enough. It is like describing the sun without moving into its light and warmth, or explaining a cold drink on a hot day without sipping it. Being a fine, upstanding person; having some morality and good works in your life; and being religious, can actually prevent you from feeling your need of God to rescue and change you. It is not even enough to see God’s love and believe it intellectually. Jesus came, lived, explained God, and died for our sins, then rose for one purpose: to make it possible for us to choose a relationship with Him. We must choose to trust in and follow Him in order to have a religion that really works. No Jesus, no life. Know Jesus, new life.
  2. Without Jesus, we’re dead. We are born with a nature that is dead to God, spiritually blind to our own need, and naturally resistant to God and the life of God. Romans 3:9-18 is a description of human nature. It is not hard to see oneself in the list. Galatians 5:19-21 has a similar list of what our natural sinful nature produces. Not only are we spiritually dead by nature, but sin in all its forms deadens our hearts and prevents us from seeing God clearly. “The god of this age (Satan) has blinded (us). . . , so that (we) cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). This is why we need the new birth, in which God supernaturally, through the Holy Spirit, gives us a new nature. We receive the new birth when we give up trying to be good in our own strength and trust Jesus to be our Savior from sin. When we do, He sends the Spirit to live in our hearts to rebirth us and change us over time. The veil which has been shrouding our minds is removed, and we see Jesus and His new life clearly (2 Corinthians 3:14).
  3. You can’t have a relationship without a relationship. A good mutual friend told me about the woman who is now my wife. The way he described her certainly made me interested in getting to know her. I emailed her, and we began a three month correspondence. We share many things about our life and got to know each other very well. Sending that first email opened the possibility of knowing her, and the more I knew her, the more I loved her. We were created for a relationship with God. There is a God-shaped vacuum in each of us, as one writer said. The First Sin changed human nature and separated us from God. Jesus came to show us what God is really like and to build a bridge (His death on the cross) to give us the right to be forgiven and have a personal relationship with God as our Father. Jesus died to pay the price for all human sin, and when we admit our need and trust Him to forgive and receive us, accepting Him as our personal Savior, our relationship with Him and heaven begins. Why not tell Him now that you would like to know Him? He will certainly take you up on it. Then begin reading things to help you know Him personally. The Gospel of John in the New Testament is a good place to begin. When you are ready, ask Him to be your Savior and God. He died for the privilege of accepting you. Don’t ever doubt He wants you and will be so glad to receive you.

An Appeal

I want to urge you not to take what I’ve written lightly. Accepting Jesus is the only way to the new life He offers. It is like being resurrected in this life. By the power of His Spirit He changes our hearts and raises us spiritually from the dead. The reason many people have no power over sin in their lives is that only Jesus can free us from our old nature and give us a new heart. He says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). To reject or delay turning to Jesus is to live defeated and miss the assurance and amazing love that come with surrendering to Him.

Please think deeply about what I’ve written. Talk it over with God. Tell Him your fears and concerns, and ask Him to help you to make this decision.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

John 1:12 NIV

“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

Psalm 36:9 NIV
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