The Controlling Power of the Cross (2 Cor. 5:14-15)
What gets you going in the morning? Aside from an alarm clock and the prospect of being fired from your job should you choose to remain in bed, what energizes you to face each day? How do you account for your decision to press on in life when there seem to be so many reasons to quit?
Do you find yourself coerced by an external force, perhaps a threat, a promise, or the hope of winning the lottery (that’s not an endorsement to purchase a ticket)? Is your life defined by the expectations of others or the fear of what may befall you should you choose to renege on your obligations?
The apostle Paul was a driven man, a man with seemingly endless energy, a man who gave every appearance to those who knew him of being impelled by an unseen power. How else do we explain his life, especially as it is portrayed in the book of 2 Corinthians?
I ask this question today in view of Paul’s own explicit word of testimony concerning the driving force of his daily existence. Read it closely:
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15; emphasis mine).
Quite clearly love is the power that accounts for Paul’s remarkable life and willing sacrifice for the church and the glory of God. But whose love, and for what? You don’t need to understand Greek to see that the phrase in question can be interpreted in one of two ways. Paul is either referring to his love for Christ or to Christ’s love for him (and some would argue that both are in mind!). I’m glad the ESV has chosen not to interpret the phrase for us. In my opinion, that is the task for the student of Scripture.
Although Paul’s personal love for the Lord Jesus Christ is passionate and unquestioned, I don’t think that is what he has in view. There are at least two reasons why I’m convinced that Paul is referring to the love and affection that Christ has for us.
First, in virtually every other instance where Paul uses this particular construction (a personal genitive [in this case, “of Christ”] after the word “love” [Greek, agape]), it refers to the love which that person has or demonstrates or manifests. Thus, when we read about “the love of God” in Romans 5:5 or “the love of Christ” in Romans 8:35 or “the love of the Spirit” in Romans 15:30, it is the Father’s love, the Son’s love, and the Spirit’s love for sinners that Paul has in view.
Second, and perhaps even more important, is the context. Clearly Paul has in mind Christ’s death for us (he “died for all”) as the preeminent expression of his love. As Paul reflects on the unfathomable sacrifice Christ made for sinners such as himself, he is gripped yet again with “the breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) of divine affection for hell-deserving transgressors. This, then, is the single reality that shapes and sustains and empowers his every breath, every decision, as well as every sacrifice he made.
The word translated control (ESV) or constrain literally means “hemmed in”. It is as if Paul says, “I'm on a road where I can veer neither to the right nor left. I can’t even retreat! I'm pushed forward by the transforming power of knowing that Jesus loved me to such an extent that he would give his life in my place on the cross.”
The water that flows in a river has no choice but to follow the direction set by its banks on the right and left. Such is how Paul feels. Thus the idea is far more than that of mere “moral influence” or “persuasion.” It’s as if Paul says, “If ever I should be tempted to think first of my own welfare, the love of Christ at the cross takes hold of my heart and liberates me from myself and for the service of others. If ever I should use my suffering as an excuse to slow down or back off or withdraw altogether, Christ’s willingness to endure the wrath of God on my behalf lights a flame in my soul that no amount of earthly comfort or promise of man’s praise can extinguish!”
Perhaps this doesn’t resonate with us as it did with Paul because we don’t understand the magnitude of what was entailed in Christ’s death for us. If that is true, let James Denney shed light on the significance of that powerful preposition translated “for”:
“Plainly, if Paul's conclusion is to be drawn, the 'for' must reach deeper than this mere suggestion of our advantage: if we all died, in that Christ died for us, there must be a sense in which that death of His is ours; He must be identified with us in it; there, on the cross, while we stand and gaze at Him, He is not simply a person doing us a service; He is a person doing us a service by filling our place and dying our death!”
This, says Paul, accounts for all that I am, all that I do, everything I endure, and everything for which I hope and live. Were it not for the amazing grace and undying love of Christ as manifest in his dying my death, I would degenerate into a self-absorbed solipsist. When I feel self-pity rising up in my heart, I’m reminded of the love of Christ and thereby empowered to slay it. When I find bitterness taking root in my soul, I’m reminded of the love of Christ and thereby impelled to renounce it. And when indifference threatens my commitment, the cross of Christ’s love ignites a zeal that sustains me through every trial.
Here is what controls, constrains, and impels me, says Paul: It is that Jesus chose not to hate me (though I was hateful), but to love me (though I was unlovely), and gave himself for me that I might now live for him.
Does the love of God revealed in the cross exert a similar power in your life, or in mine?
When long-held dreams are shattered against the rock of unexpected reality, do you find strength in the knowledge that he died your death so that you might live in the power of his resurrection life?
When others betray or abandon you, are you sustained by the assurance that the cross is the measure of his commitment to you and the pledge, in blood, that he will never leave you or forsake you (cf. Hebrews 13:5)?
Does the reminder that “he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for” your sake (Romans 8:32) prove adequate in times of despair and depression and confusion?
I ask you today (as I ask myself): What “constrains” your choices? What “controls” your mind? What animates your affections? What empowers your relationships? I pray that, together with Paul, you can say it is the glorious and incomparable assurance that he “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20b).