The Cross as a Symbol

Cross and sunset

It is common to see the image of a cross being used as a symbol – a symbol of “Christianity,” an image in art and jewelry, and so on. However, that is not what we will be discussing here. A Christian does not need a cross around his neck, nor does a church need a cross on its building. Instead, we will be talking about “the word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) – the message of the gospel.

In the gospel, the cross is shown as a symbol representing some fundamental concepts. In following Christ, we are to take up our cross (Luke 9:23), making the same traits which are symbolized by the cross manifested in our lives.

So what does the cross symbolize?

The Cross Is a Symbol of Love

In one of the most well-known verses in the Bible, Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God willingly let Jesus suffer on the cross for us (1 John 4:9-10) and Jesus willingly laid down His life for us (John 10:17-18). This was an act of love. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). As Paul explained to the saints in Rome, man was in a helpless and sinful condition before Jesus died on the cross (Romans 5:6-11). We certainly did not deserve God’s goodness, but God demonstrated His love in the sacrifice of Christ.

As we take up our cross, we must have an attitude of love. This includes love for the Lord and for others (John 14:15; 1 Corinthians 16:14). Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

The Cross Is a Symbol of Grace

Forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ is “according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7). It is of grace because we did not deserve the salvation offered to us. Paul wrote, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5). He told the saints in Rome, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We deserved the wages of sin (death), but can receive eternal life as a free gift (Romans 6:23).

As we take up our cross, we must show grace. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We must also respond to God’s grace properly – not “to continue in sin,” but by being “buried with [Christ] through baptism” and being raised to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-5).

The Cross Is a Symbol of Faith

When Jesus went to the cross, He showed an example of trust in and reliance upon God. Before the cross, He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44). While on the cross, He prayed, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). His example should strengthen our faith. For us, faith involves the unseen (Hebrews 11:1). However, Jesus knew and had seen the Father and heaven (John 1:1-2, 18). The Hebrew writer explained His attitude while sacrificing His life: “Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Enduring the cross in order to get back to the Father in heaven shows us just how great this is.

As we take up our cross, we must have faith in God and His promises. The Hebrew writer said, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Paul explained that we are to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

The Cross Is a Symbol of Obedience

Jesus showed an example of obedience by going to the cross: “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). He took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8) – not by forfeiting His deity, but by submitting to the Father.

Many believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross guarantees our salvation (Calvinism teaches this for the “elect”) and that this salvation is unconditional. However, this idea goes against what we have discussed throughout this article. Remember, we are to take up our cross (Luke 9:23). Just as Jesus showed an example of obedience through the cross (Hebrews 5:8), we will be saved if we obey: “And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:9).

Also keep in mind the following points about obedience that relate to what we have already discussed:

  • Obedience is an act of love – Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
  • Obedience is the response to grace – Paul wrote, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age… [Jesus] gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:11-14).
  • Obedience is the result of true faith – James wrote, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:17-18).

As we take up our cross, let us “observe all that [He] commanded” (Matthew 28:20) and be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers” (James 1:22).


The cross of Christ is a symbol of love, grace, faith, and obedience. God loves us and extended His grace to us. Jesus trusted the Father’s plan and obeyed to the point of death.

We must take up our cross – also a symbol of love, grace, faith, and obedience. We must love God (the highest motivation), receive and show grace, walk by faith, and be obedient to the Lord.

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  1. Ihuoma Julie says

    I really love this!!!!. A deeper study of the cross.. I’m learning a lot. I really pray for God’s blessings & more wisdom on you you!!

  2. Wayne D. Teel says

    Thanks, Andy! It seems to me the symbol of the cross to many people is very shallow. Just a piece of jewelry to wear. I often see women wear a cross on a chain around their neck and I have to look away as the jewelry cross is displayed clearly in their lack of decency and immodesty. The symbol of the cross is just something that many people use as a talisman to “protect” them from the evil one but they don’t recognize the evil they are showing to the world—their indecent undress! How can you point out to them their lack of understanding of what the cross truly symbolizes?

  3. Hi Wayne, good question! How can we point that out to them? My initial thought is maybe to adapt the approach of Philip when he met with the eunuch: “Do you understand what you are reading?” Maybe ask, “Do you understand what you are wearing?” If they don’t truly understand Jesus and the cross, they won’t understand how or why their dress is immodest.