Conformed to the Cross

The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7).

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he addressed the common spiritual assumptions of the world, found among the religious and the irreligious — both the Jews and the Gentiles. Contrary to self-centered and worldly theologies of glory that lift up human accomplishment, Paul spoke rather of what God is accomplishing in us through faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Paul insisted that, through the cross, God was and is actively at work in our lives of faith and all we do as disciples of Christ. This is to say: the source of discipleship is not in what we do for God but in what he does in us!

To describe how this works, Paul often drew upon the biblical image of the potter and us as the clay, used by the prophets of old. Understanding ourselves as earthen vessels in the hands of the Master Craftsman, Paul spoke of our lives of faith being molded and shaped by God himself, according to his purpose. As he wrote:

“Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29)

Paul knew that in matters of faith, the active power of God is the key to the Gospel. It is also key to how God is at work — in us and through us — as his disciples who are called to take up our cross and follow him. In terms of how we act toward God and our neighbors, the cross becomes the form of our lives.

So we might ask, if indeed God is at work in our lives through his Word, forming and shaping us according to the image of Christ, what does that “cross-shape” look like in terms of our faith relationships? Visualizing the beams of the cross as symbolizing the two chief directions in which our faith is lived out, we see that our lives of faith have both a vertical and a horizontal dimension.

The vertical dimension of faith (up and down) represents our relationship with God. This is the key and starting point. In Jesus Christ, God “comes down” to us through his Word, laying hold of our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the potter leaning over the clay, he works on us with his own hands. Sometimes he pinches and prods, other times he more gently massages and smooths, doing what it takes to shape us inside and out, according to his purpose. It is his work in us that makes us a useful and functional vessel in his service. This is the struggle we can expect in faith.

At the same time, the horizontal dimension of faith (side to side) represents our relationship with our neighbors. In Christ, God does not leave us like an empty cup on the shelf, but fills us and uses us as his vessel to serve those around us. He pours us out for the sake of our neighbor. In this, we recognize that the horizontal beam of faith rests on the vertical, not the other way around. Scripture makes the priority clear: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

As we have seen before, there is a Sacramental quality to our lives of discipleship in both our communion with God and with one another. The two come together in the cross. And so we can pray, in the words of the old gospel hymn:

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
     Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will!
     While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
     Hold o’er my being absolute sway!
Fill with Thy Spirit till all shall see
     Christ only, always, living in me.