Our message is not you can do it.
It’s not you’re good enough, smart enough, and people like you.
What we preach is that you are a glorious creature gone tragically bad, that you have rebelled against the God who made you, but that he did the most difficult thing imaginable to win you back and lavish you with his eternal goodness.
It is wondrously good news. But unavoidable is the offense, that insulting supposition, that bad news that sets up the good. Did you catch it? You’ve gone tragically bad. You’re a foolhardy rebel against the most powerful person in the universe. There’s nothing you can do to save yourself, earn God’s favor, or get yourself out of the cosmic pit you’re in — the pit you dug and can’t climb out of.
The offense is that the magnitude of God’s solution — the slaughter of his own Son — shows the magnitude of our wickedness and frailty and utter inability. Yes, the gospel says you’re more loved than you ever could have dreamed, but as Jack Miller and Tim Keller have noted, at the same time it says you’re more sinful than you ever imagined. And that’s repugnant to the natural palate.
If you’ve never tasted the cross as offensive, you’ve missed something essential.
Why the Cross Offends
Talking about the cross as an “offense” comes from Galatians 5:11: “If I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.” Why it is that the cross would be seen as an offense? What’s offensive about the crucifixion?
The cross declares how dire is our condition apart from Jesus. It announces how deep the sin goes, how profound the rebellion is, how impossible is our plight apart from Help from the outside. There’s nothing we can do, no effort we can exert, no law we can follow.
The message of Christ crucified says you’re an absolute failure in relation to what’s most important. The horror of killing the Son of God points to the horror of our condition. The badness of Good Friday is a tribute to the badness in us.
The cross embodies some of the most offensive things possible you could say about someone in relation to God and eternity. This gruesome death Jesus died, you earned it. The hell Jesus endured, you deserved it, forever. The shame he underwent, the scorn, the disrespect, the hurt — all these are as suitable to us sinners as they’re unsuitable to the sinless one.
God’s Offensive Plan
And it’s not that it just turned out this way, but God planned it. He designed the offense. Seven hundred years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah called it — he will be “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Isaiah 8:14). And such he was, and continues to be. Both Peter and Paul pick up on the theme (Romans 9:32–33; 1 Peter 2:7–8).
Jesus himself, in John 6, challenges his disciples with the offense. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). You can’t do it. You’re not good enough or smart enough. And perhaps most offensive of all: You are lifeless. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
The offense is not mainly his mention of eating flesh and drinking blood, but the accusation of deep depravity and spiritual inability. As the crowds retreat at his forthrightness, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you take offense at this?” (John 6:61). More unnerving than taking his plainly figurative language in a literal sense is hearing that you are powerless and lifeless where it matters most. This is as offensive as it gets.
Remember the Right Offense
Typically we get antsy about speaking the gospel to someone who doesn’t already believe. Some of our fear, of course, is unwarranted. But some of it is for good reason. In communicating the gospel, one of the essential things we must at least imply, if not make explicit, is the most offensive truth possible: you are powerless precisely where it matters most. You are dead to what truly is life.
Don’t take it too far. We don’t gloat in giving offense. We labor to remove every possible barrier. May the offense not be our personality or carelessness or quirkiness or arrogance. Like Paul, let’s “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12). Let’s strain to “become all things to all people, that by all means [we] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Let’s do everything in our power to “give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32).
But this one offense — the offense of the cross — we cannot remove. We dare not.