Silhouette of Jesus teaching the disciples with the text “The Gospel-Centered Life” and "The Danger of Shrinking the Cross: Pretending and Performing".

The Danger of Shrinking the Cross: Pretending and Performing

You might be wondering what “shrinking the cross” means. It’s not about physically making the cross smaller or denying the event of the crucifixion. Instead, it’s about how sometimes, maybe without realizing it, we lessen what Jesus’ sacrifice means in our day-to-day lives.

Understanding the Concept

The cross, where Jesus died for our sins, stands as a monumental testament to God’s love and grace. When we talk about “shrinking the cross,” we’re pointing to those times when we, intentionally or unintentionally, reduce the depth and breadth of that love and grace. Why do we do this? There can be many reasons, but two common ways are through pretending and performing.

Pretending and Performing Defined

  • Pretending: Here’s the hard truth. We all mess up. We all have moments we’re not proud of. Pretending is when we act like we’ve got it all together, hiding our flaws and acting like we’re sin-free. But remember what the Bible tells us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
  • Performing: Then there’s performing. This is when we try to earn God’s favor by what we do. Instead of understanding that God’s love isn’t something we can earn, we act like if we do enough good things, He’ll owe us. But God’s love isn’t like that. The Bible is clear about it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

By pretending or performing, we might think we’re getting closer to God. In reality, we’re missing the point of the Gospel.

The gospel is not about us; it’s about Jesus. If we really want to understand the cross, we need to get past pretending and performing and focus on Him.

As we move forward, we’ll dig deeper into how these habits play out in our lives and how we can better grasp the true message of the Gospel.

Understanding the Gospel-Centered Life Model

Living a Gospel-centered life isn’t about one transformative moment but a continuous journey, a daily deepening understanding and experience. Let’s unpack this further.

Growing Awareness of God’s Holiness

First and foremost, as believers, we should develop an ever-increasing recognition of God’s holiness. When we say “God’s holiness,” we mean His absolute purity, perfection, and separation from sin. It’s God’s distinct and unique quality. This isn’t just about acknowledging that God is good; it’s realizing that He is perfectly good, infinitely pure.

The Bible reminds us of His holiness in passages like Isaiah 6:3, where the seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”. The more we meditate on this truth, the clearer our perspective becomes about everything else.

Understanding Our Growing Awareness of Sinfulness

As our understanding of God’s holiness deepens, so does our awareness of our own sinfulness. This isn’t a cause for despair but rather an opportunity for growth. When we’re genuinely aware of our flaws and mistakes, it makes the grace of Jesus all the more amazing and necessary.

Paul’s own words in Romans 7:15 resonate with this sentiment: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Recognizing our own sin isn’t about self-condemnation; it’s about being honest with ourselves, leading us to greater reliance on Christ.

Expanding Experience of the Cross in Our Lives

The more we grasp God’s holiness and our own sinfulness, the larger the cross becomes in our lives. Not in a literal sense, of course, but in its significance. The cross isn’t just a past event—it’s an ongoing experience of God’s love, mercy, and grace towards us. The cross stands as a bridge, constantly reminding us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

John Calvin once said, “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.” As our perspective on the cross expands, we dig deeper into these treasures, discovering more of God’s love and grace every day.

Embracing the Gospel-centered life model means being in a constant state of growth. It’s about returning to the cross daily, remembering God’s holiness, recognizing our need for His grace, and celebrating the unending love poured out for us.

The Reality of Our Indwelling Sin

It’s an unsettling thought but a necessary one to confront: even as believers, sin remains a part of our nature. This indwelling sin isn’t about our occasional slip-ups or mistakes; it’s a deeper, intrinsic pull away from the truths of the gospel.

Tendencies to Drift from the Gospel Truths

We are not immune to the drift. Like a boat in open water without an anchor, our hearts can often be swayed by the currents of worldly temptations, pride, or self-reliance. These aren’t always overt rebellions against God. Sometimes, they’re subtle: the slow prioritization of self over service, or the creeping embrace of worldly values over Godly ones. Such drifts are manifestations of our indwelling sin, a somber reminder of our fallibility.

Bible Verses Reminding Us to Remain Rooted in the Gospel

However, the Bible is replete with verses urging us to guard against this drift and to remain steadfast in the gospel:

  • Colossians 2:6-7: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
    This verse speaks to the continual journey of our faith. It’s not enough to merely receive Jesus; we must continue walking in His path, staying firmly rooted in His teachings.
  • Hebrews 2:1: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”
    A powerful warning about the dangers of becoming complacent in our faith. We are urged to stay vigilant, always focusing on the teachings of Christ.
  • James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
    It’s not enough to simply hear the gospel; we must live it. This verse challenges us to actively apply God’s Word in our lives, not just passively listen to it.

In the words of the Charles Spurgeon, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” Engaging with Scripture, meditating on its truths, and applying them in our lives is our best defense against the tendencies of our indwelling sin. Let’s remain anchored to the gospel, so our faith may be unshakeable and our lives a testament to God’s grace.

The Illusion of Pretending

In the landscape of our faith, as we tread deeper into the understanding of God’s holiness, we’re confronted with a mirror reflecting our own sinfulness. It’s challenging, sometimes overwhelming, to recognize this. Yet, instead of facing this reality head-on, there’s a tendency for many of us to don a mask—a veil of pretending.

Challenges of Growing in Awareness of Our Sinfulness

As we grow in our faith and as God’s light shines brighter, every imperfection and hidden sin is illuminated. This growing awareness isn’t a sign of failing faith but rather a deepening relationship with God. The more intimate our relationship with Him, the more our sin stands out. This can be uncomfortable, and that discomfort can push us toward pretense, rather than repentance.

Different Manifestations of Pretending

  • Dishonesty: Whether it’s being untruthful about our actions, thoughts, or feelings, dishonesty keeps us from being transparent before God and our community.
  • Comparison: By comparing our sins or virtues to others, we can justify or diminish our own shortcomings. “At least I’m not as bad as him” or “I’m more spiritual than her” are silent thoughts that creep into our mindset.
  • Excuse Making: Rationalizing our sins or blaming others keeps us from owning our mistakes and turning to God for forgiveness and transformation.
  • False Righteousness: This is perhaps the most subtle. It’s when we rely on our own actions or perceptions of goodness instead of God’s grace.

Practical Examples of “Functional Righteousness”

  • Job Righteousness: This is the belief that our professional success or the nature of our job makes us more righteous. For instance, believing that because we’re in a ministry or a charitable profession, we’re inherently closer to God.
  • Family Righteousness: Thinking that because we come from a ‘good Christian family’ or because we raise our children in a certain way, we’re more favored by God.
  • Theological Righteousness: Holding the belief that because we adhere to certain doctrines or because our theology is ‘sound,’ we’re superior to other believers.
  • Intellectual Righteousness: Relying on our knowledge, perhaps of the Scriptures or Christian literature, and believing that this knowledge alone brings us closer to God, rather than a personal relationship with Him.

And the list goes on: social righteousness, cultural righteousness, and so forth. Each form of “functional righteousness” shifts our reliance from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to our own perceived achievements or qualities.

John Calvin once remarked, “For there is no one so great or mighty that he can avoid the misery that will rise up against him when he resists and strives against God.” Let’s remember that no form of functional righteousness can replace or supersede the righteousness we receive through faith in Christ alone. The challenge is to strip away the masks, confront our own shortcomings, and rest solely on His grace.

The Trap of Performance

In the pilgrimage of our faith, an ever-deepening understanding of God’s holiness can be both illuminating and unsettling. As we draw closer to the light, our imperfections are accentuated. Yet, in the midst of our vulnerability, a snare awaits: the trap of performance.

Challenges of Growing in Our Awareness of God’s Holiness

As we grow closer to God, His grandeur becomes more evident. With this magnified vision of His holiness, our insufficiencies become starkly apparent. This can be disconcerting. In our discomfort, we might mistakenly believe that if we can just “do” more, we can bridge this evident gap between our imperfections and His perfection. Thus begins the precarious dance of performance.

Pitfalls of Performance-Driven Christianity

Performance-driven Christianity subtly convinces us that God’s favor is something to be earned. Here are some of its illusions:

  • Merit-Based Relationship: The erroneous belief that our standing with God improves with our deeds or diminishes with our failures.
  • Endless Cycle of Doing: Feeling that we must constantly be engaged in ‘big’ acts of faith to be seen as genuine believers.
  • Fear of Insufficiency: Worrying that if we don’t do enough, we will be less loved or less saved. This fear can rob us of the joy and freedom found in Christ.

The Gospel Truth of God’s Satisfaction with Us

In the midst of these pitfalls, the gospel speaks a liberating truth: God’s satisfaction with us is not based on our performance, but on Jesus’ perfect sacrifice.

Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We cannot earn what has already been given freely.

Charles Spurgeon, once said, “When you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.” Our reverence for God’s holiness should not lead us into the trap of performance but should ground us in the realization of His profound love.

In our journey, let’s remember that God doesn’t ask for our performances; He desires our hearts. In Christ, we are seen, loved, and accepted—not because of what we do, but because of what He has done.

  • Implications of Our Tendencies

In the path of our faith, understanding our inner struggles is vital. At times, it might seem like we’re just battling external issues, but often, it’s our tendencies towards pretending and performing that are the real culprits. These internal battles have a ripple effect, leading to a myriad of observable sins.

Root of Many Observable Sins

  • Pride: When we pretend, we might become prideful, believing our facade is the genuine article. Conversely, when we perform, our accomplishments might puff us up, making us think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
  • Envy: Comparison is a natural byproduct of pretending. We envy others, desiring their seemingly perfect lives, while feeling insecure about our own.
  • Dishonesty: Pretending often leads to lies. We become adept at hiding our true selves, even from those closest to us.
  • Burnout: Performance-driven Christianity can be exhausting. We push ourselves to the brink, always striving, rarely resting in the peace of Jesus.
  • Isolation: When we’re locked in the patterns of pretending and performing, genuine community becomes challenging. Fearful of exposing our inadequacies, we isolate from others.

The Promise of True Joy and Freedom in Jesus

But there’s hope. The Bible doesn’t merely expose our tendencies; it points us to a solution. Galatians 5:1 proclaims, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

True joy and freedom aren’t found in our performances or facades. They’re found in resting in the finished work of Jesus. John Piper once remarked, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” The true essence of Christianity isn’t about putting on a show or climbing a spiritual ladder; it’s about being satisfied in Jesus, knowing He is enough, and living in the liberating truth that in Him, we are enough too.

In Jesus, the exhausting cycle of pretending and performing is broken. In Him, we find our worth, our identity, and our rest. And as we cling to this truth, our actions align not out of obligation, but out of overflowing gratitude and love.

Practical Application – Right & Wrong

Navigating the Christian life is about more than just following rules. It’s about a heart that beats in sync with God’s desires. But sometimes, our human tendencies can muddle the waters. We create our own rules, thinking they draw us closer to God. But do they?

Our Human-Made Rules and Their Deviation from God’s Laws

  • Traditions over Truth: Over time, traditions can sometimes be elevated to the level of God’s commandments. But as Jesus reminded the Pharisees in Mark 7:8, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
  • External Appearances: Focusing on outward expressions, like dress codes or specific behaviors during worship, can sometimes overshadow the heart’s posture.

Examples of Rules We Make for Ourselves

  • “Real Christians don’t listen to secular music.” While wisdom in media consumption is crucial, blanket rules can limit our ability to engage with culture meaningfully.
  • “To be a good Christian, I must read the Bible every single day.” While daily scripture reading is a commendable habit, it’s the heart’s posture, not the consistency alone, that brings us closer to God.
  • “Attending every church activity means I’m growing spiritually.” Participation is important, but attending without a heart genuinely seeking God might lead to burnout and superficial faith.

The Impact of Rule-Keeping

  • Self-Righteousness: Rigorous rule-keeping can make us feel superior to others. We begin to measure spirituality by a checklist rather than genuine relationship with God.
  • Strained Relationships: When we elevate our rules to the level of God’s commandments, we might judge others who don’t conform, leading to divisions.

In the wise words of R.C. Sproul, “The essence of theology is grace; the essence of Christian ethics is gratitude.” Our actions, no matter how noble, should spring from a heart of gratitude for God’s grace, not a self-imposed standard we hope will earn His favor.

Final Reflections

As we journey on the path of faith, it’s crucial to remain vigilant against the pitfalls of pretending and performing. Such traps divert us from the simple, powerful truth of the gospel.

The call is clear: let’s embrace a life centered on the gospel’s truth, free from the burdens of self-imposed righteousness. In doing so, we find the deepest joy, the truest freedom, and the genuine relationship with God our hearts have always longed for. Remember, as John 8:36 assures us, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Sermon & Sandwiches

Reflecting on a sermon allows it to take root in our hearts, fostering growth and transformation. When shared with others, this reflection deepens, leading to richer understanding and application. Below are some conversation starters to help you unpack the message and see how it speaks into your life.

  • Discussing Personal Rules: “You know, I’ve been pondering on certain rules or habits I’ve set for myself over the years. Do you think they line up with what the Bible teaches? Have you noticed any in your life?”
  • Reflection on Feelings of Superiority: “There were times I felt a bit proud for sticking to certain practices or rules. How do you think that affects the way I relate to others, or even how I see myself?”
  • Relying on Rules for Spiritual Connection: “Sometimes I wonder if I lean on certain habits or rules thinking they make me closer to God. How can we ensure our focus is on a genuine heart relationship with Him rather than just external actions?”
  • The Heart Behind the Action: “How do you balance doing good things without letting them become a checklist or a source of pride? How can we remind ourselves that it’s the heart’s intent that matters most?”
  • The Role of Grace: “With all the do’s and don’ts, it’s easy to get lost. How do we consistently bring ourselves back to the truth that it’s God’s grace, and not our actions, that defines our relationship with Him?”

Remember, these conversations are an invitation to dive deeper into understanding God’s heart and the grace-filled life He offers. As you chat, allow the Holy Spirit to guide and reveal truth in a way that leads to transformation.

The Daily Devotion

Monday: Exploring God’s Holiness
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8
Reflection: Dive into this passage where Isaiah witnesses the sheer holiness of God. Reflect on your own perception of God’s holiness. How does understanding His perfect holiness shape your view of grace and the cross?
Prayer Focus: Ask God to deepen your appreciation for His holiness, and thank Him for the grace that covers our imperfections.

Tuesday: Recognizing Our Sinfulness
Scripture Reading: Romans 7:15-25
Reflection: Paul shares about the struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Have you experienced this inner tug-of-war? How does recognizing your own sinfulness make the gospel message even more precious?
Prayer Focus: Confess areas where you’ve felt this struggle and thank Jesus for His sacrifice that bridges the gap between our sinfulness and God’s holiness.

Wednesday: The Illusion of Pretending
Scripture Reading: Luke 18:9-14
Reflection: This parable highlights the contrast between self-righteousness and true humility before God. How do you see the tendencies of both the Pharisee and the tax collector in your life? How does the gospel free us from the need to pretend?
Prayer Focus: Ask God to reveal areas where you might be “pretending” and seek His guidance to live in authenticity and humility.

Thursday: Breaking Free from Performance
Scripture Reading: Ephesians 2:8-9
Reflection: Reflect on how salvation is a gift, not something we earn. How can you rest in the assurance that God’s love and acceptance aren’t based on your performance? How does this truth reshape daily pressures or self-imposed expectations?
Prayer Focus: Thank God for His gift of salvation and ask Him to help you live in the freedom that it’s not about our deeds, but Jesus’s sacrifice.

Friday: The Joy and Freedom in Jesus
Scripture Reading: Galatians 5:1-6
Reflection: This passage speaks of the freedom we have in Christ. How can you move away from a life of “obligation” to one of “celebration” in the gospel? How does this shift impact your day-to-day life?
Prayer Focus: Thank the Lord for the freedom you have in Him. Pray for the strength and wisdom to live in that freedom, anchored in His grace and not in human efforts.

Kids’ Connection: Understanding God’s Grace

It’s essential for our kids to understand the gospel, not as a list of rules but as the story of God’s love and grace. This guide will help you talk with your children about God’s grace, our natural tendencies to try and “earn” love, and how Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross changed everything.

1. The Great Gift (Ages 3-5)
Explanation: God loves us so much that He gave us a special gift – Jesus. Just like when we get a gift on our birthday without having to earn it, God’s love is free.

Activity: Wrap a small toy or treat and let your child unwrap it.

  • How did it feel to receive a gift?
  • Did you do anything to earn the gift?

2. Pretend Play vs. Real Play (Ages 6-8)
Explanation: Sometimes we pretend to be someone else when we play, like superheroes or princesses. But God wants us to be ourselves because He made and loves the real us.

Activity: Act out a small play or story, first with masks on, then without.

  • Why did we take off the masks?
  • How does God feel about the “real” us?

3. Not About the Gold Stars (Ages 9-11)
Explanation: Sometimes at school, you might get gold stars or stickers for good behavior. But God’s love isn’t like that. He loves us, not because of what we do, but because of who we are – His children.

Activity: Draw a big heart and put it on the wall. Inside, write “God’s Love”. Around it, place empty star stickers.

  • Can we add stars to make God love us more?
  • How do we know God loves us?

4. The Best Story Ever (Ages 12+)
Explanation: Jesus came to earth, not to give us a list of rules, but to show us how much God loves us. He died on the cross, not because we earned it, but because He wanted to save us.

Activity: Together, read the crucifixion story in one of the Gospels.

  • Why did Jesus die on the cross?
  • How does knowing this change how we live?

End with a simple prayer, thanking God for His love and grace. Encourage your child, no matter their age, to ask questions and to seek the truth in Jesus.

Remember, we’re planting seeds. It’s God who gives the growth. Let’s consistently point our children to the cross, the ultimate symbol of God’s grace and love.

Remember, each day is an invitation to explore and deepen your relationship with Jesus. Allow these devotions to stir your heart and lead you to the cross, where grace and truth meet.