Theme: Self-Esteem or Self-Denial?
This week’s lessons teach us that Jesus’ command for Christians to take up their cross is not something that happens later in the Christian life, but at the very beginning. Indeed it is a critical idea of discipleship itself.
Scripture: Luke 9:23-26
At the beginning of these studies I wrote that there is a fatal flaw in the professing church today, a lack of true discipleship. Discipleship is talked about, of course. There are scores of books about it, particularly about what is called “discipling” other people. Words are not the problem. It is the lack of the thing itself. But what are we to say about this next theme of the need for self-denial, expressed as taking up the cross? In this area it is not only the thing that is lacking; it is an area about which we do not even speak.
This would be puzzling to the saints who have lived before us. If they could observe us today, they would never understand how we can profess to follow Jesus and at the same time ignore self-denial, for self-denial would be seen as the very essence of what it means to be Christ’s. Today some argue about the essential marks of the church. It is customary to speak about faithful preaching of the Word and faithful administration of the sacraments as marks. To these some would add church discipline. What a shock it would be to many who pause at this point to learn that Martin Luther, among others, considered suffering to be a mark of the church and a badge of true discipleship. One of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the drafting of the Augsburg Confession, the chief doctrinal statement of the Lutheran communions, defines the church as the community of those “who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake.”1 The definition seems extreme to easy-going, materialistic Christians. But it is not extreme in view of Christ’s words to those whom He challenged to come after Him. To these He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
This is the great “hard” saying of Jesus about discipleship. We can perhaps handle the call to follow Him—the saying with which I began this book—particularly if we do not think too deeply about what following the Lord Jesus Christ means. We can perhaps even handle the thought of being in Christ’s school and taking on His yoke. That at least seems only to involve hard work. But a cross? Self-denial? A cross means death—death to self, and that is not an easy thought to contemplate. No one wants to die. Yet that is what Jesus said each of His followers is to do daily.
Why do we not hear more about self-denial? The demand to take up the cross is not an isolated saying in the Bible. The theme is everywhere in Scripture. The command to “take up” or “bear” the cross occurs five times in Christ’s teaching (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27). Some of these passages actually strengthen Luke 9:23. Matthew 10:38 says, “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” This last text teaches that there is no salvation apart from cross-bearing. Yet it is an extremely rare matter to hear any of these texts spoken of forcefully.
Walter J. Chantry, pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is an exception to this sad state, and he has written a powerful book about cross-bearing entitled The Shadow of the Cross: Studies in Self-Denial.2 At the beginning of this book he too notes today’s neglect of these essential gospel elements and searches for explanations.
One explanation is the perversion of these doctrines in the past. Past periods of church history have witnessed fanatic bursts of asceticism in which peace with God or sanctification was thought to be found in cutting oneself off from most normal contacts with the world. Monasticism is illustrative of this, but there have been other expressions.
A second explanation Chantry gives for today’s lack of teaching about the need to take up the cross is the holiness movement which speaks of self-denial as a step to “a second work of grace.” It has been popularized by a host of books that speak about “the surrendered life” or “the secret of a happy life.” According to this teaching, the Christian begins by simple faith, but then progresses to growth or happiness by learning to give up self for Jesus. This teaching has a striking, though generally unnoticed, similarity to monasticism, in that it upholds two levels or degrees of Christianity. There is ordinary Christianity. Then there is a superior Christianity which is marked by self-surrender, self-denial, and discipleship.
Why is suffering hardly ever thought of as a mark of the church? What two possible explanations does Chantry give for this? What other factors contribute to this observation?
What Bible references can you find that speak of self-denial?
1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966), pp. 100, 101. Original edition 1937.
2Walter J. Chantry, The Shadow of the Cross: Studies in Self-Denial (Edinburgh, UK and Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981).