The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Those who heard T. Austin-Sparks give his talks on the cross at an Honor Oak Easter Conference during World War II must have been familiar with some of his views. He talked about “the objective and the subjective work of the cross”, “the natural man in the Christian” and “an open heaven” as if everybody immediately knew what he meant. But his terminology and interpretations are not all that evident. Let us give some background information for these three examples, so that what brother Sparks was trying to communicate becomes clearer to those who are not so familiar with his language.

The subjective work of the cross
The use of the term “subjective work of the cross” must be seen in the light of Honor Oak’s ideal to lift Christianity to a higher level, suggesting that its general superficiality was due to an acceptance of the cross of Christ as a mere fact that justifies the believer before God, without his life being radically changed by it. Honor Oak felt it necessary to emphasize that God allows difficulties in the Christian’s life to make him more aware of the tremendous significance and practical implications of identification with the death of Christ. This emphasis was needed, it was felt, on the one hand, to counterbalance the teaching of Higher Life, and on the other hand to teach a sounder variety of a mystic approach of sanctification, in which the human soul is to be gradually destroyed by the subjective work of the cross (i.e. suffering) in favour of the spirit (this sounds more like yoga than Christian doctrine!). Higher Life teaching had the danger to make the believer passive. Mystic sanctification had the danger to blame demonic forces for every failure. The soul was considered to be the “gate” through which they try to disturb pure spiritual fellowship with God. T. Austin-Sparks’ approach may be seen as a middle road between the two extremes. He does not teach a “second blessing” but points to necessary crises in the Christian life for spiritual advance (“enlargement through adversity”).

The natural man in a Christian
T. Austin-Spark’s view on “the natural man” is quite unique; he uses the term, as it seems, as an equivalent for “the flesh” or “the old man”. According to him the Christian has two natures. This is, by the way, not so unique. But what is quite unique is that he names these two natures natural man and spiritual man. He does not divide Christians into two categories (natural and spiritual), as does Higher Life teaching mistakingly, but says that the Holy Spirit will bring the believer through periods of crises. By means of these crises the natural man is being broken, so that the spiritual man will come to the forefront more and more in his behaviour and character.
Brother Sparks does not say that believers in Corinth are natural instead of spiritual people, but that they, and with them all Christians, have to be delivered from “the natural man” if ever they want to please God and serve Him effectively.

An open heaven
To know what T. Austin-Sparks means by “an open heaven” we may best refer to his book “The School of Christ”. What is important is that — again — he does not imply the need for a “second blessing”, but he does point to the need for Christians to go through crises. It is God who allows or orchestrates these crises. This may make the teaching a bit difficult to follow, because it remains unclear what is the believer’s responsibility. The apostel Paul’s teaching is clear on this matter: indeed, God allows difficulties, not to break the soul or to deliver the believer from the natural man, but to glorify Himself. At the same time, for the Christian suffering is something he can even rejoice in, because it produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope (Rom. 5:1-5). God sees to it that spiritual advance and the furtherance of the Gospel is solely His work and at the same time the message and the messenger become one. So, no boasting, only worship (see 2 Cor. 3-4:15). The believer’s responsibility is cooperation with the Holy Spirit (3:18) and obedience (Rom. 1:5, 6:16, 16:19,26).