Chapter OneThe Climax and
Why the Cross Should Define Our Lives
The gospel cannot be preached and heard enough,
for it cannot be grasped well enough
Moreover, our greatest task is to keep you faithful to this
article and to bequeath this treasure to you when we die.
Imagine yourself at Timothy's side as he receives a letter from
the apostle Paul-the letter that will be Paul's last.
You notice Timothy's hands slightly trembling as he breaks
the seal and opens the parchment to read. He almost cradles the
letter, as though his gentleness with it will somehow be conveyed
to its author, now chained in a cold Roman dungeon.
These are written words that Timothy knows he'll return to
often in order to carefully obey the apostle's guidance, but for
now he reads quickly, hungering especially for personal news
from his father in the faith.
A Final Affirmation
Near the end of the letter, Timothy slows his pace. He can
almost hear the encouraging voice of Paul: "As for you, always
be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist,
fulfill your ministry."
Then his eyes take in this line: "For I am already being
poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has
For years Timothy has pushed aside the thought of losing
Paul-this man who has been like a father, this friend and mentor
who has guided and instructed the young leader. How could
Timothy go on ministering without Paul's reassuring words, his
confidence, his prayers?
Timothy stops reading to brush away his tears. How can he
wallow in grief when his old friend faces death so boldly? "I
have fought the good fight," Paul writes; "I have finished the
race, I have kept the faith."
After staring up from the page for several moments,
Timothy sits down to begin reading again from the beginning,
slowly and deliberately. His eyes bore into each word, each sentence.
With Paul's life drawing to a close, what special insight has
God given him to pass on? Timothy's heart pounds as the truth
hits him with piercing clarity: There's no new secret revealed
here, no previously hidden knowledge, but simply a stirring
affirmation of the one truth Paul has lived for daily these past
three decades, and soon will die for. It's the same truth for
which Timothy, too, must spend himself: the gospel of Jesus
Christ and Him crucified.
The words seem to shout from the letter:
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the
dead, the offspring of David, as
preached in my gospel .
Timothy can almost see Paul's fiery
eyes blazing into his own, can almost feel
his gnarled fingers gripping his arm:
Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have
heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ
Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard
the good deposit entrusted to you.
"You don't need a new truth," he hears his old friend saying.
"But you do need to guard the one truth. Keep the one
Paul simply refused to be pulled away from the gospel. The
cross wasn't merely one of Paul's messages; it was the message.
He taught about other things as well, but whatever he taught
was always derived from, and related to, the foundational reality
that Jesus Christ died so that sinners would be reconciled to God.
D. A. Carson writes of Paul, "He cannot long talk about
Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the
Christian doctrine of God, or anything else, without finally tying
it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross centered."
John Piper agrees: "Paul was utterly mastered, held captive,
by one great scene in history: a cross on Golgotha and on it the
Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us."
In every epistle, Paul kept the atoning death and resurrection
of Jesus at the center-just as he did in his personal
preaching and teaching: "I decided to know nothing among
you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
Even Christ's resurrection was, for Paul, perpetually linked
to the cross. Teacher and theologian Knox Chamblin explains:
His gospel is "the word of the cross" (1 Cor. 1:17-18);
nowhere is there a comparable reference to "the word
of the resurrection." In 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 it is
"Christ crucified" who is identified as "the power of
God and the wisdom of God," not, as might have
[been] expected (especially in the case of "power"),
Both the cross and the resurrection of Christ are "of
first importance" in Paul's gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Unless Christ has risen from the dead, the preaching of
the cross (and of the resurrection) is a waste of time
(15:14); but once the resurrection has occurred, the
cross remains central.
For Paul, the gospel-this "word of the cross"-was no
cold theological formula. Paul lived a cross centered life because
the cross had saved and transformed his own life. Paul never
forgot what he once had been, or the mercy and grace God
showed him. This remained at the forefront of his mind. As he
wrote on another occasion to Timothy, "Though formerly I was
a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent I received
mercy . and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the
faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."
Mercy That Can't Be Forgotten
I can relate to Paul's amazement at being shown mercy and
overflowing grace. I've lived in the same part of Maryland since
I was a boy. Hardly a month goes by that I'm not reminded of
who I once was.
Before God saved me from His righteous wrath in 1972, I,
too, was a blasphemer. I lived for myself and my own pleasure.
I lived in rebellion against God and mocked those who followed
Him. I spent my high school and college years deeply
immersed in the drug culture.
Sometimes, late at night, my friends and I would seek out
quiet, isolated places where we could come down safely from
drug highs. On more than a few occasions it was a D.C. monument.
Other times a peaceful street under thick, deep trees. Or
even the terminal at what was then a little-used airport called
Dulles, where the doors stayed open long after the day's flights
had ceased and we could move through the nearly deserted
canyon of a building.
Someday soon I'll be near one of those places again, and
the memories will flood back in. I'll remember what I once
was . and be reminded of all I've received and experienced
Often my eyes fill with tears at the memories of my foolishness
and sin. And in the same instant,
my heart will be filled with an unspeakable,
holy joy. By the finished work of Jesus
Christ on the cross, I've been forgiven of
the countless sins I've committed.
"Blessed is the man," David wrote,
"against whom the Lord counts no iniquity."
This truth echoes through my soul, resonating in places
far deeper than any drug can go.
Many people today try to run from the past. I suppose I,
too, could try that by leaving the hometown that holds so many
reminders of my sinfulness. But I consider living here a gift from
God. The regular reminders of my past are precious to me.
Why? Because, like Paul, I never want to forget the great
mercy shown me.
A Young Man's Essential Training
If you're a Christian, you don't need to live in the same place all
your life to remember who you once were. And you don't need
a background in drugs, or any dramatic conversion experience,
for the cross to be dear to you.
Regardless of the differences in our backgrounds, we've all
sinned and fallen short of God's glory. My twelve-year-old
son Chad's life is very different from how mine was at his age.
He's being raised in a Christian home. He has been taught
God's Word. And unlike his father, he's surrounded by people
in a local church who respect godliness and humility, not
worldliness and pride.
But as Chad enters his teenage years and young adulthood,
the most important thing I can teach him is that, even though
he's being raised in a Christian family and is leading a moral life,
he's a sinner who desperately needs the substitutionary death of
Christ for God's forgiveness.
And so for years I've been teaching him the gospel, day by
day. I tell him that he's a sinner just like his dad, and that sin
is his most serious problem. I put it in words that his young
mind can understand, but I don't ignore or minimize the seriousness
of sin. Through his actions and attitudes he has
rebelled against his Maker. And this great God is perfectly holy
and must respond with fierce opposition to sin. He must punish
Some might find it surprising that I would teach a young
boy about God's wrath toward sin. But I find it surprising that
any loving person would withhold this truth from another person
they love. Because only when we understand God's wrath
toward sin can we realize that we need to be saved from it. Only
when we hear the bad news that we're deserving of judgment
can we appreciate the good news that God, through His Son,
has provided salvation and full, continuing forgiveness for our
sins. Only those who are aware of God's wrath are amazed at
This is what I hold out to my young son as the hope of his
life: that Jesus, God's perfect, righteous Son, died in his place
for his sins. Jesus took all the punishment; Jesus received all the
wrath as He hung on the cross, so people like Chad and his sinful
daddy could be completely forgiven.
I hope to teach my son many other things as well, but the
gospel is the one essential thing for him to know-as it is for us
The Climax and the Key
The cross climaxes the story line of the Bible-and it's the true
climax of the story line of all our lives as well. The gospel's truth
is to saturate our lives just as much as it saturates Paul's writings
and all of Scripture.
The message Paul had for Timothy is the same message
God has for you. You need to rediscover the truth. The key to
joy, to growth, to passion isn't hiding from you. It's right before
It's the gospel.