In the Middle Ages, Christians built grand cathedrals in which to worship. “Everything about the way a cathedral was built . . . was designed to help folks discern, delight in, and declare the great, biblical doctrines concerning God and the gospel,” explains author Jimmy Davis (p. 7). They were works of art designed to communicate the message of the cross.
We need more cruciform churches today, says Davis. “Not lavish cathedrals but living communities of disciples being shaped by the cross into the shape of the cross for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors, the nations, and the next generation” (p. 8). That’s why he’s written Cruciform: Living the Cross-Shaped Life.
Many of us, particularly if we’ve come to faith as adults, struggle to clearly and practically define the Christian life. What does it look like? Is it a list of things we do or don’t do or is there more to it than that? But the underlying question—the question behind the question as it were—is not simply what does it look like, but why do we exist in the first place? Davis offers a very insightful answer: “We exist to exalt the glory of God and to help other people and all of creation do the same” (p. 15).
This understanding is essential for all who seek to live a cross-shaped life. If we do not understand why we have been created and for what purpose we have been redeemed by faith in Christ, we will flounder rather than flourish.
So what do cruciform disciples? Davis sums it up in two key points:
Cruciform disciples (imperfectly) resemble Jesus the Son. “The more we become like Jesus, the Beloved Son, the more we will fill up by faith on the love of the Father through the gospel as his beloved sons” (p. 37).
Cruciform disciples (imperfectly) resemble Jesus the Servant. “As we fill up by faith on the love of the Father as it is offered in the good news about Jesus and poured out by the Spirit, we overflow with love back to God and out to others, using the resources he has provided in the place he has put us. Our lives will take the form of a cross-shaped servant” (ibid).
These twin realities—that when we are redeemed God has adopted all of us as His sons (cf. Gal. 3:26-29) and out of our sonship, we respond in service—are at the heart of the Christian life. In the author’s words, we are embraced as sons and empowered and employed as servants. “Our service must also flow from sonship, for unless and until we are sons we can’t serve, won’t serve, and don’t want to serve. Without divine sonship, we are like the two lost sons in Luke 15:11-32 . . . [rejecting] the fellowship freely offered to us by the Father and instead embraced either pleasure (trying to escape God’s righteousness) or performance (trying to earn it)” (p. 54).
This understanding of service and sonship is incredibly liberating; it frees us from performance-based religiosity, moving our motivations from the “have to” to the “get to.” It’s funny, I wonder if many of the problems that churches face today in terms of lack of volunteers and even giving might be at least partly resolved by helping church members come to this kind of understanding? I know that the times when I’ve been least interested in serving or giving have been in seasons when I’ve been driven by performance, trying to “earn” my salvation rather than embracing the redefinition of my relationship with the Father as one of His sons. But whenever I’ve been in that mode, I always burn out. It’s not sustainable, nor is it God-honoring.
Davis unpacks each of these concepts in greater detail in chapters five and six. Particularly poignant for me in chapter five is the reminder that God has already provided every opportunity I need to serve Him in every sphere of my life—I just need to be considering and anticipating the needs of others, be willing to serve and welcoming of those opportunities. Again, this is something that is so easy for us all to forget; it’s easy to get caught up in the details of our own lives that we ignore everything around us.
But the cruciform life is others-centered; our attitude is to be “you first,” rather than “me first.” Paul wrote that we are to “count others more significant than yourselves. Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:3b-5a). Jesus was and is the greatest example of an others-mindset. Rather than counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, he emptied Himself took the form of a servant, humbling himself “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
The final two chapters of the book deal with embracing and expressing the gospel. Davis reminds us that our pursuit of spiritual disciplines—reading the Bible, praying, fasting, corporate worship—all of these are things we get to do, rather than things we “have” to do. The former brings life, making room for us to repent and believe the gospel; the latter leaves us spiritually exhausted as the mindset is that if I do XYZ, then God will approve of me. Instead, we need to get that God does approve of us in Christ, freeing us to do XYZ. I particularly appreciated Davis’ point that corporate worship is a discipline. It requires intentionality and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable in community, to come under authority and to partake of the sacraments. Because many of us, particularly in my generation, are so jaded when it comes to authority, this is an important challenge.
In the final chapter of the book, “Expressing the Gospel,” Davis shares a traumatic season of suffering in his and his wife’s lives together after she suffered serious burns across 38 percent of her body in a cooking related accident. Davis explains that this was a severe test of his faith—but ultimately one that solidified and gave both him and his wife opportunities to live truly cross-shaped lives. And that, ultimately, is the purpose of suffering, isn’t it? Despite how trite it can sound, especially in the moment, God is never absent in those moments; He is always intentionally doing something for our good and His glory. I know this from first-hand experience. And of all the ways that Davis could have ended Cruciform, this was the best way to do so.
If we follow Christ, we are not signing up for an easy life. We will suffer. We will face hardship. We will face devastating loss. But we will never be overcome—because God is working through all things for His purposes. While we should never be glib about pain, Romans 8:18 holds out a great promise, as “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Cruciform is a great encouragement and a bold challenge to believers to examine their lives, to create space for repentance and to live in such a way that, in word and deed, we are able to communicate the message of the cross. I would highly encourage you to read the book and see how God might use it to open your eyes to the opportunities He has already placed in your life to do exactly that.
Title: Cruciform: Living the Cross-Shaped Life
Author: Jimmy Davis
Publisher: Cruciform Press (2011)