18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright (c)2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. http://www.esv.org
On the wall in my office hangs a small brown paper bag. It’s ordinary in most ways, and it had the very practical purpose of carrying my lunch one day about a year ago. But this bag is special to me because of what a friend wrote on it: “Discernment is not seeing the difference between good and bad; it is seeing the difference between good and almost good.” Attributed to the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon, this statement is more than a pithy proverb about a healthy diet. It has become a regular warning of how we are susceptible to a slow, often imperceptible drift towards mediocrity in the Christian life.
There are countless “almost good” things we can give our time and attention to as Christians. If an author, activity, or initiative relates to God or the Bible, it is fairly easy to believe they are acceptable. But just like not all that is edible is nutritious, not all that is acceptable is good. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). So for Paul, and for us, the question should not be, “Is this acceptable?” Rather, the question should be, “Is this helpful?” Or, better still, “Is this good?”
There are several good things that nourish us in the Christian life. In our tradition, we emphasize the “means of grace”: the Word, sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. But arrange those on a Venn diagram, and their common focus is the superfood of the Christian life: Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul made that the priority of His ministry to the Church, saying, “I resolved to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This was not a rhetorical flourish or simplistic philosophy of ministry; rather, this was Paul’s clear-sighted conviction that this is the bullseye of the Christian life. While other truths and practices matter, none is so central or so good as this.
There are countless reasons why Jesus Christ and Him crucified is the central focus and hope of the Christian life, but for now, consider just three.
First, the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified continually awakens us to the depths of our sinfulness and the heights of God’s holiness. By nature, we tend to minimize the problem of our guilt and have a hard time even imagining a being who is perfect. But our sin was so great and God’s holiness so perfect, that only a pure sacrifice in blood could provide atonement to bridge the once impassable gap. And in “the precious blood of Christ like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19), that sacrifice has been made for us.
Second, the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified continually refreshes us with God’s self-sacrificial love for us. Make no mistake, God was never obligated to atone for our sins; His holiness and justice could have been satisfied simply by punishing and condemning us. But as John 3:16 famously celebrates, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” And as 1 John 3:16 later echoes, “By this we know love: that He laid down His life for us.”
Third, the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified continually empowers us to be people of hope. Once hopeless slaves to sin, we have been set free and united to Jesus Christ. Our lives are no longer ruled by darkness, but bursting with the bright hope of obeying God from the heart and walking paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3; Romans 6:17-18). What is more, we also live in hope that the curse of death that once hung over us has been swallowed up in Christ’s victory on the cross, and will be forever removed from us at His return (Isaiah 25:7-8; 1 Corinthians 15:54-55). “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57)!
The world may see Christ and His cross as a weak or foolish thing. But to us it is the power of God. To us it is the greatest good. To us, every other good thing is merely, “almost good.”