Taking Up the CrossLuke 9:23-26Theme: Self-denial.This week’s lessons teach us how to die to our selfishness so that we can live for Christ.
LessonWalter 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.1 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.
In my judgment, the real reason why so many people do not talk about self-denial and cross-bearing as essential ingredients of Christianity is that we just do not like these ingredients. We like having our sins forgiven, at least if excess sin is destroying our lives and weighing on our consciences. We like the promises of Christianity. We want to be told that God will heal our broken relationships (especially if we do not have to do anything about them), resolve our inner conflicts (if it does not require discipline), and prosper our work. Some forms of gospel preaching actually promise prosperity. We like that. But denial? Taking up a cross? Suffering? We dislike that teaching. We refuse to hear it. So a preacher who wants to see his church grow and his ministry prosper soon learns to stop talking about it. Instead he tells people things that will build up their self-esteem.
So the cross is neglected, and professing Christians are allowed to go their own ways, live for self and, at best, miss the fullness of the gospel. At the worst, such persons are allowed to think they are saved when actually they may not be Christians at all.
One of the most important things to be said about Christ’s stringent definition of discipleship in Luke 9:23 is that the elements he mentions cannot be separated from each other, even less made progressive steps in the Christian life. That should be obvious from the way Christ states his demand. If he had intended a progression, at the very least we would have expected him to put “follow me” first, then the matter of self-denial, and perhaps lastly the matter of taking up one’s cross. But that is not what he does. Jesus first speaks of anyone who might want to come after him or be his disciple, then he spells out what coming after him entails. It entails: (1) self-denial, (2) taking up one’s cross, and (3) following – all three. Moreover, the following verses show that a person who rejects those elements of discipleship may be trying to “save his or her life” and “gain the world,” but the result will be the losing of his or her very self. That person will be rejected by Christ when he returns in glory with his holy angels.
It is evident why this must be true as soon as we think about these terms. When we think about what it means to deny oneself, we are at once brought to the radical distinction between a God-oriented life and a life of unrepentant self-seeking or sin.
1 Walter J. Chantry, The Shadow of the Cross: Studies in Self-Denial (Edinburg and Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981).
How has the need for self-denial been undercut in past periods of church history?
In what way does the holiness movement, which teaches a “second work of grace,” differ from what Jesus taught about discipleship?
ApplicationAre you pursuing all three of the necessary elements of true discipleship? Examine your heart to make sure, and if something is amiss, set concrete steps for repentance. Commit to necessary changes beginning today.