From Russell Moore’s Christianity Today cover story, “The Gospel at Ground Zero“:

The full force of the trauma from events like September 11 doesn’t come from contemplating the violence done to strangers or even “the nation.” Only when we envision ourselves and our loved ones on the scene, as children transplant themselves into nightmare stories, does the severity hit home. We imagine hearing those jihadists screaming prayers as the plane plummets from the sky, or being trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell, or leaping from a window in terror. The phenomenon here is precisely what causes us to flinch when we see blood on the pavement after a car accident. We are reminded of what scares us, of what could happen to us, too.

And so it is with the gospel. The story of Jesus records a persistent strain of denial in the life of Simon Peter. Virtually every time Jesus speaks of his impending execution, Peter insists that such trauma will never happen on his watch (Matt. 16:22; John 13:37). Of course, this not only suggests Peter’s empathy with his teacher. It also demonstrates the apostle’s refusal to face up to his fear that he might be tempted to protect his own skin.

Though he doesn’t unveil it all at once, Jesus refuses to shield Peter from the awful truth. In one of the Bible’s most pitiful narratives (John 13:36-38), Peter ostentatiously promises to protect the Messiah from harm. “I will lay down my life for you,” he blusters.

Jesus responds: “Really? You’re going to fight for me? Before the rooster crows, you will deny you even know me—not once but three times.”

Jesus revisits the trauma on Peter. When the rooster crows, Jesus happens to be passing by, and he looks at his friend, prompting Peter to cry bitterly (Luke 22:60-62). Even in the famous restoration of Peter, after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus seems eager to remind Peter of his previous denial. He questions his disciple’s love three times. He meets with him around a charcoal fire (John 21:9), precisely the setting of the denial itself (John 18:18).

Then Jesus presses the trauma further. What Peter fears most—the shame and torture of crucifixion—is exactly what Jesus assures him will happen. He will stretch out his hands and be led where he doesn’t want to go (John 21:18). Peter will have the kingdom he so longs for—with all of its glory and peace—but his immediate future is skull-shaped.

The ugly reality of crucifixion looms over the lives of Christ’s followers today, as it did Peter’s life. In the gospel, we are confronted with the unvarnished horror of ourselves—damned and cursed and exiled. We find ourselves ensnared in the curse itself—in Jesus, writhing in torture on a stake (John 3:14).

Gathering each week, we reenact the horror of Jesus’ sacrificial death. In baptism, we see the flood of God’s judgment against sin (1 Pet. 3:20-21). At the Lord’s Table, we swallow and digest the sign of our Lord’s torn skin and spattered blood.

The preaching of sin and judgment is traumatic, to be sure. There’s some danger of presenting the gospel as mere condemnation—exactly what Jesus says it’s not (John 3:17). And an overwhelming emphasis on sin can breed a morbid obsession with one’s own wickedness. This, of course, leads not to repentance but to despair, which is exactly where the satanic powers want us.

At the same time, censoring the gospel’s painful realities doesn’t lead to tranquility. Like our children with the wild things out there, we know intuitively that a Day of Judgment is coming, even as we try to keep the fear submerged. The Scriptures tell of an unholy spirit who accuses our consciences, and whose accusations resonate with us because they are accurate (Rev. 12:10). The Devil holds us in captivity through our innate fear of death and judgment (Heb. 2:14-15). That pretty well sums up the classic definition of “terrorism.” And the only thing that can free us from our enslavement to Satan, and to our sin, is blood (Rev. 12:11).

In the word of the Cross, God tells us he knows all our traumas, our insurgencies, our secrets—and that he has already executed them at Golgotha. We need not fear hell, then, not because there isn’t one, but because—if we are found in Christ—we have already been through all of that. We are free. And whenever our consciences accuse, the gospel takes us away from denial or preoccupation and right back to Ground Zero—to the Cross.

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