Blogging Through the Golden Book: Bearing the Cross

“Life will get worse.” What if that were one half of a ubiquitous Christian bumper sticker? “Follow me to Jesus. Life will get worse.” Maybe a little tacky, but it would be truth in advertising. To follow the Man of sorrows is to enter a life of sorrows.

It is this lesson Calvin works out his chapter, “Of Bearing the Cross – One Branch of Self-Denial.” Calvin exposits our Lord's own invitation to become a Christian: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24).

He opens his study by cutting straight to the point: “For those whom the Lord has chosen and condescended to welcome into fellowship with Him should prepare themselves for a life that is hard, laborious, troubled, and full of many and various kinds of evil”

The Christian gets no exemption from a life of grief. This is the way the Savior hath trod. The Head travelled to glory by way of affliction, so must the body. Bearing the misery and bitterness of the cross, the Son of God was obedient to his Father. We now follow, not to atone for our sins, but to walk in the freedom of a full and finished atonement.

Calvin provides several “reasons why we ourselves must spend our lives subject to a constant cross.” The first, he says, is because we are prone to overestimate our own virtue.

By this he means we are easily puffed up, thinking we have in ourselves the strength to withstand life’s little difficulties. We think our own courage explains how we easily endure a little conflict, a little loss, a little disappointment. To deflate this pride, God puts us under not-so-little crosses: “He afflicts us with disgrace, poverty, childlessness, illness, and other troubles. And we, for our part, quickly crumble before such blows, being far from able to withstand them.”

By God’s testing we learn to cry out for God’s strength. The Father will not have his children build with earthly toothpicks what can only stand by heavenly beams of grace. He must bring us to despair of our natural abilities. By these operations of grace we are taught to reach for the gifts and powers of heaven in the risen Christ. God knows we must cling to God alone on the narrow way.

Another reason God lays a cross on us, says Calvin, is to test our endurance and train our obedience.

Endurance is tested when God “excites the virtues He has given to believers.” A cross pains us, but it also summons the graces of the new man. If those graces remain hidden and idle, if they remain unused, they will waste away, says Calvin. Crosses employ them and we learn whether or not we have any endurance. What is that in the fire, gold or dried-up branches?

Obedience is also trained by crosses. Too often we turn away from God in times of ease. As Calvin said elsewhere, commenting on Isaiah 32:11, “Men are undoubtedly more in danger from prosperity than from adversity. For when matters go smoothly, they flatter themselves and are intoxicated by their success.” To cure this disease, our heavenly Doctor prescribes crosses.

Lastly, Calvin shows that crosses are a particular consolation to the child of God. He urges us all to believe Matthew 5:10 which says: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This is light by which to see your life rightly, especially when you are hurt by persecuting crosses. As Calvin says, “We shouldn’t judge ourselves miserable, when by His own mouth He has pronounced us blessed.” By faith the hurting saint declares, “I am blessed!”

Not all crosses, of course, are persecuting crosses, but many are. Calvin distinguishes them this way: “When I speak of suffering for righteousness’ sake, I have in mind not just those who are oppressed for their defense of the gospel, but also those who encounter oppression for whatever way they defend righteousness.”

Let us not be ashamed of such oppression. It is a sign on the road to glory, the same way Christ has already passed. Let us not crave the worldling’s hope: “Give me a life free of misery and oppression!” No. God has visited and blessed you whenever you encounter oppression in defense of righteousness for the honor of Christ. Whether it be in your marriage, your family, your workplace, your community, or your country.

As a cross rests heavy you, understand, says Calvin, God does not wish to see your stiff upper lip: “The gladness that is required of us in the midst of persecution doesn’t destroy every feeling of anguish and sorrow.” We must not drive away natural feelings of sorrow. By such sorrow we come to share in the Savior’s sufferings, know the power of his resurrection, and enlarge a hope that will not disappoint.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.