The Wood Between the Worlds

Back in February, 1979, I heard the Christian singer and songwriter Bob Ayala in concert. He told of being enthralled with the picture of the Wood Between the Worlds in C. S. Lewis’s book The Magician’s Nephew (one of the volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia series). The Wood Between the Worlds was how C. S. Lewis described a place of transition, like a forest glade, between the our world and other worlds such as Narnia. He mentioned how he said, in a conversation with a friend how much he wanted to do a song on the Wood Between the Worlds. His friend,who hadn’t read the book, asked, “What do you mean – the cross?”

Bob Ayala realized then that this turn of phrase was was even more descriptive of the cross of Jesus Christ. And this little turn of phrase describes how the cross itself stands between the believer in Christ and between the world as it is now. That piece of wood now stands between the person who has come to Christ and the world as it is now, and circumstances will never be the same for either of them.

This is what the apostle Paul declared in Galatians 6:14, of the eternal and irrevocable separation that the cross of Christ has laid down, between himself and the way things are now. And this is what is true of the believer in Christ, who has passed from death to life by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ: “May I never boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  

For the believer in Jesus Christ, ultimately, the cross of Christ is what matters most. This means that the highest joy will be in the cross of Christ, and that the cross will undercut and contradict whatever someone might have otherwise considered to his or her credit in this world. Above all, the cross of Christ cancels any joy in outward religious attainments; the religion of this world, of human effort, pride and self reliance, is turned upside down by the reality of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps less than twenty years after the death of Jesus on the cross Paul and Barnabas went to the area of Galatia – Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium and several of the other cities described in Acts 13 and 14. A problem cropped up when they had returned to their missionary base in Antioch in Syria. Supposedly converted Jews pounced upon the Gentile converts of Paul and Barnabas and told them that faith in Christ had to be supplemented with Jewish religiosity, namely, the initiation of circumcision and following Jewish commands, customs and traditions. So, at some time before Paul and Barnabas went to the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, to decide the question once for all in conjunction with Peter, John and James, Paul dashed off this letter to the Galatians to set the matter straight – therefore Galatians may well be the first written book in the New Testament.

So the problem in Galatia demonstrated the folly of attempting to live by human rules and regulations as a way of salvation, even if someone can seem to provide some scriptural justification for the rules. In the Galatian churches the rules were even based upon the Old Testament revelation of God, but they missed the whole point of the coming of Christ and the crucifixion of Christ. So perhaps even for those who came up with the rules, there was the good motive of attempting to protect the Galatian Christians from going back to their immoral past ways, but their rules distorted the truth of the power of the grace of God through the cross of Christ to deliver from the power of this world.  So, after dealing with the whole system of rules, Paul comes down to this sentence in the conclusion to the letter, which deals with his finding his glory in the cross of Christ.

This is what the apostle Paul started out with: “May I never boast . . .” His intended contrast is what he finds joy in compared with the joy of the apostle with that of the Judaizers. Paul stated in verse 13 that their goal in pushing initiation into Judaism was mere outward show and bragging rights over those who had come to Christ through the efforts and ministry of others. His assertion is that their goal in ministry was not from genuine love for Christ and zeal for the gospel, but rather to gain religious reputation while they were avoiding the rejection of those who did not serve Christ. So their motivation was an example of true worldliness. This was not worldliness not in doing or not doing certain specified actions, even where they might find some kind of support in the scriptures, but the unified rejection of God’s ways and the power of the gospel. This is characteristic of those who are under the sway of their own fallen human nature and not the power of the Spirit of Christ.

So then, worldliness is an attitude which can underlie human religion, even that which claims the name of Christian. It is demonstrated in an attitude which looks for self satisfaction and reputation among other people through the use of religious words and actions, and it is  demonstrated in the rejection of the full scriptural revelation of the gospel of God in the cross of Christ. It comes with an elevation of human religious traditions and actions above God’s way of salvation, which begins, continues and completes through the cross of Christ. So this is what can be called both unregenerate and backslidden religion based in the attitudes of fallen human nature, where it means taking pride in one’s own accomplishments in efforts rather than what God has accomplished through the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

Certainly many church people have this idea;  Catherine Marshall, wife of the onetime Senate chaplain Peter Marshall, and a considerable writer in her own right, once wrote about the misconception that many church people have that with Christ’s help they are to become ‘nice people,’ and that this means that with our self-effort and human endeavor we will be ‘man’s best with God’s help.’ And this may well be the impression that many, many are under who are in our evangelical churches have of what it means to be a Christian and what God expects of them.

So then, the joy of the believer in the cross is contrary to worldly joys; it’s contrary to what human nature would by itself normally find pride and self satisfaction in. God’s way of salvation through the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus is something contradictory to the human way of salvation, but it is the source of joy to the person who has received that salvation.

So the apostle continued to say the only thing that he would find glory in: ” . . except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. But the cross itself is a skandalon, a stumbling block to the people of this world, as the apostle found throughout his own preaching and teaching ministry. Yet he was finding joy in something that symbolized a curse to the Jews, the people of the Old Testament. They found only confusion of the Messiah conquering through his apparent weakness, shame and defeat by his suffering and death on the cross. Still the apostle was finding joy in something that exposed the utter sin and hopelessness of the world and the real need of each sinfully self reliant person. He was finding his pride and joy in the cross that declared the inability of each person to save himself. This was something so contrary to the way of this world that it demonstrates that the person who acts in this fashion is living by the standards of another world, and under the sway of a power greater than that of himself, namely, that of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

In every generation, then, the cross of Christ is in some sense a stumbling block to religion that comes from the fallen and prideful human heart. It is a stumbling block to all the religion that says that self improvement and not death is the answer to sin.  The cross of Christ is the ultimate conquest of worldliness at its most subtle place, of its defilement of the capacity of human beings for worship of the one true God to a trust in oneself and self congratulation for one’s own religious efforts and attainments. But the person in every generation that finds the cross to be the power of God for salvation will find no need for the religion of this world, but rather find his satisfaction and enjoyment in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

This then is the kind of joy that will lead people to sing such hymns as, “In Christ Alone,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed,” “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” and “The Old Rugged Cross” with joy, even if some may think that the subject matter is morbid and needs to be warmed and lightened up for the present generation. This is the kind of joy that can bring someone like Charles Wesley, on the day of his conversion, to write words like,

“His dying crimson like a robe
Spreads o’er his body on the Tree,
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.”

(This is what had been originally the 4th verse to the once well known hymn, “And Can It Be?” Many churches used to sing that at least once a quarter, but I must honestly say that it’s been years since I’ve sung it in a church service. I don’t remember where I found this verse; it’s in no hymnal that I’ve ever owned or used.)

Worldliness is therefore first of all a matter of love and affection. So abstention from certain socially and religiously disapproved actions may only be a mask for a heart still filled with self love, self reliance and self righteousness, and at the bottom disdainful of the salvation of God through the cross of Christ.  But the demonstration of the understanding and full appreciation of the cross of Jesus Christ brings his freedom from the bondage to self centered religion and the heart sold out to this world, to self satisfaction and pride, and a genuine, deep and lifelong appreciation and satisfaction in what God has done through the cross, and the cancellation of pride in human achievement and religion. But this separation from the world is not only a matter of a center of different affections and religious concern, though; it is a matter of a new identity and standing before God.

The cross of Christ separates a believer in Christ from the world through an impenetrable and irrevocable wall of death. This separation comes by a death and a judgment not that has nothing to do with anything that the believer can or has done on his or her own efforts or attainments. The judgment of God that decreed death meant separation, so the cross is the declaration of the legal standing of the world of mankind and the believer in Christ, of a wall of death between them.

The world has been separated from the believer by the cross of Christ. This is something stupendous that many never realize, but it is true in the declaration of God himself. The cross is itself where the judgment upon fallen mankind, of deserving death, shows the world of fallen humanity in its true light before God .

The apostle declares then one half of the truth of the separation of the believer from the world through death:  ” . . . through which the world has been crucified to me . .”. But the world is still alive, someone may say; but the world has been declared judicially dead to the believer through the reality of the cross, and the judicial death of the world separates the believer in Christ from the world. Again, the crucifixion of the world here is not its actual physical destruction. Paul was smart enough to know that the final judgment of the world and its transformation at the coming of Christ had not yet arrived. Rather, this is the crucifixion of his world rather as a power hostile to God and as a power that holds with dominion over those not in Christ. So the world, the corporation of sinful mankind in its self reliance and rebellion against God, has already ben judged and conquered in the cross.  (Here the world would be comparable to the term ‘the old Man’ of Romans 6:6, of referring to the legal entity of mankind as represented in Adam). So the conquest of the world for the believer comes through the cross of Christ, and it is conquered not by the imposition of rules and regulations with the threat of judgment but upon the basis of the judgment already demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ.

And certainly this is comparable to what Paul’s brother in Christ and personal acquaintance (Galatians 2:9 describes their acquaintance and handshake), the apostle John, wrote about the world (a passage rarely heard nowadays, when we hear more about David’s adultery, the woman at the well from the Gospel of  John chapter 4 and more recently the rich young ruler): “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because everything that is in the world, the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the boastful pride of human existence, is not from the Father but from the world. And the world passes away and the desire for it, but the one who does the will of God remains forever” (I John 2:15-17). 

So then, the judgment upon this world and its ways declared in the cross is the source of the believer’s lack of love and affection for this world and its ways.  The cross is the demonstration that God holds the ways of sinful mankind under his judgment. So the believer in Christ can cheerfully part with the ways of this world, its pride, self righteousness and self reliance, since there is absolutely no need to have one’s heart entangled with what is under judgment and is passing away. This reality of death bringing separation even in a previously affectionate relationship  underlies the true separation of the believer in Christ from the atmosphere and influence of this world. This world previously loved separated by a new relationship and a greater love that imposes the wall of death between the believer and this world.

Nathaniel Hawthorne described in one of his novels (The Blithedale Romance, one of his lesser known novels) the breaking of a relationship in terms of death. He described his character’s alienation from a charismatic leader of their 19th century commune like this: “On the doorstep I met Hollingsworth. I had a momentary impulse to hold out my hand, or at least to give a parting nod, but resisted both. When a real and strong affection has come to an end, it is not well to mock the past with any show of those commonplace civilities which belong to ordinary [human contact]. Being dead henceforth to him, and he to me, there could be no propriety in our chilling one another with the touch of two corpse-like hands or playing at looks of courtesy with eyes that were impenetrable beneath the glaze and the film. We passed, therefore, as if invisible.”

The believer has likewise been separated from the world through the cross of Christ. The separation of one, by that irrevocable and impenetrable wall, means the separation of the other. So the death of the believer with Christ has also imposed the barrier of judicial death between him and the world.

The apostle Paul then concluded this remarkable sentence: ” . . . and I to the world”.  His release from dominion and influence was not through anything that he had done, through an agonizing self effort of personal adherence to any set of rules or regulations, but through the separation of his judicial death with Christ. The believer in Christ is now part of another world, part of the corporation of the new Man (the new Mankind, rather) as represented in Christ. This separation had already been achieved through Christ, because apart from being in Christ, all people are part of the world are part of a corporate power in opposition to God through being in the flesh and therefore under the dominion of fallen human nature. The deliverance of the believer from the world comes first of all through being included in the death of Christ in the legal reckoning of God, and this has already been accomplished if the believer has come to faith in Christ.

The separation of the believer from the world through death thus places him or her in a new relationship and association, that of being in Christ and therefore as part of a new Mankind and a new world as summed up in Christ. The believer is there not by a change of address but by a new relationship and by the declaration of the Word of God. This separation by death, by God having declared the believer in Christ to have been legally considered to have been crucified with Christ, means entrance into a new life in Christ. This means a separation from the world, and a new identity in Christ, and this new identity provides more than sufficient motivation and power to part with the ways and attitudes of this world.

In his book True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer described the spiritual crisis in his own life which came in 1951-1952. He became deeply troubled by the lack of spiritual reality in lives of others, and himself. He spent some time alone and reviewed all the reasons for being a Christian, and found that it was totally intellectually satisfying to believe in the God of the Bible and the reality of Jesus in all he said and did. But he then realized that the reason for his trouble and dissatisfaction was that he had heard little about what the Bible says about the finished work of Christ for his ongoing life as a Christian. He found the basis of going away from the presence or absence of a list of do’s and don’ts for being a believer is not the rightness of wrongness of the taboos, but the place of the heart. He found that the scriptural way not because of social pressure, but in the inward reality of new life and affections through what Christ had done for him on the cross.

I think that there may be many in our churches who are in the same place as Francis Schaeffer was then. They’re being faithful in attendance, but it’s become a religious treadmill. They may have heard about the struggle of the believer with the world, the flesh and the devil, but they have been pretty much at peace with all three for quite a while. They may have heard a lot of do’s and don’ts over their lifetimes – though I think that this was much more characteristic of believers who grew up in churches from the 1920s through the 1960s. But those who have come through our churches since the 1980s may not have heard much about what it means for them to be in Christ – but they hear a lot about the grace of God, and it’s in such a loosey-goosey manner that antinomianism – the fruit of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, ‘cheap grace’, without the cross of Christ — is much more of a problem among them.  So I think that there are many who are still waiting to hear and to understand the truth of who they are in Christ, of what it means to have been crucified with Christ – but they are not receiving it from our current preaching and teaching, and certainly not from so many of the current praise and worship songs.

The cross of Jesus Christ, then, cleaves a separation of the believer in from this world and of the world from the believer in Christ. The realization of the new standing in Christ makes the separation in practice more consistent and real. It means that doing or not doing certain things is not a matter of the fear of man or of threatened judgments, but of a judgment already demonstrated and a new relationship to God through the cross of Christ.

The true conquest of this world by the believer in Christ does not begin in anything that he or she does or does not do, but through what God has already done for him or her through the cross of Jesus Christ. This is how a believer in Christ can be, as Jesus once expressed it, in the world but not of the world. This is how a believer can avoid being squeezed into the spiritual and emotional bondage of this world, from the wonderful realization that God has already made you free through the cross of Christ. This is not something that comes from your own feelings or circumstances, but simply from realizing who you are in Christ upon the declaration of the Word of God.

The understanding of the true nature of separation from this world and the true nature of worldliness would end the self righteousness and shallow sense of personal sinfulness among many professed believers in Christ. This means that they would no longer live in complacency or in adherence to a certain list socially approved prohibitions — some of which may not even be legitimate temptations. Rather, it means living in truth, in the awareness of the truth of what one is apart from Christ — namely, the utter lack of righteousness apart from Christ, and being in with the wrong crowd of this world in the first place – and the utter necessity of Christ to be right before God, and the satisfaction in who one is through Jesus Christ.

Even more, the realization of the true nature of worldliness and the true basis of separation from this world through Christ would free believers from the fear of this world to become stronger and more forthright witnesses in this world. I think that many fear to engage this world with the gospel because of fear of the temptations of this world or that others will see them engaging the world with the gospel and judge them as having become worldly. Rather, they would come to this world with the news of its judgment in a loving fashion without a harsh and condemning attitude, because the judgment of this world through Christ means the opportunity for the redemption of those in this world through Christ. Understanding this would provide a tremendous freedom to have redemptive contact with the sinners of this world without fear of being entangled in the sins of this world.

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