The Cross-Bearing Life

Then He said to them all, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me."

Following Jesus requires a commitment to lifelong self-denial. Anything less falls short of biblical religion. The Lord made this exceedingly clear immediately after Peter confessed that he was the Christ of God (Luke 9:20-23). There is no Christianity without a cross.

Disciples of Jesus need a clear understanding of this central feature of the Christian life. What does it mean to bear the cross and follow Jesus in this way? 

A cross-bearing life does not look for needless suffering. Rather, it is a life so committed to Jesus that suffering is no deterrent to obedience. Such a life is not always pleasant, but it is always good. By faith the cross becomes a blessed burden, the Christian assured of God’s kind intentions for his beloved children. That pathway, though moistened with tears, is one on which the disciple of Christ will find the Lord’s promises more nearly felt and increasingly precious.

Difficulties along the Way

The road of self-denial contains many difficulties that run contrary to natural desire. The first serious obstacle is sin. Anyone acquainted with his own heart knows both how vehement his desires are toward sin and how sluggish toward holiness. Thomas Boston once described this lamentable condition:

“It is in sin that the only delight of natural men is; but in holiness they have no more delight than a fish upon the earth or a sow in a palace. Oh, the woeful case of a natural man!”[1]

Saints desperately need the Holy Spirit’s power to mortify sinful desires, avoid sinful deeds, and wage that irreconcilable war against the power of indwelling sin (Romans 8:13, see also WCF 13.2). In that great struggle, dear saint, take heart, for in this manner the Christian must and will triumph by the grace of God.

Self-denial also involves foregoing things that are apparently neutral—or even good—if obedience requires it. Here the Lord himself stands as the preeminent example. He who was rich for our sakes became poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). He who was the Bread of Life became emaciated during his forty days of temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). Astonishingly, the Lord of Life would endure death, that those deserving of death might obtain life. Was it wrong for him to be rich, full, and full of life? Of course not! What motivated Jesus as he willingly carried out these stunning acts of self-denial? It was loving obedience to the command of his Father. Jesus impoverished himself, made himself of no reputation, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:7-8). This reveals that the substance of self-denial is not needless asceticism, but rather heartfelt devotion. To deny self means to embrace Jesus Christ and walk willingly upon the path that God the Father has ordained to fashion his dear children into the image of Christ.

Contours of Cross-Bearing Life

Having considered some basic principles of self-denial, turn now to Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23. With God’s help, we will learn seven things about this central call of Christian discipleship. Taking up the cross is…

...a universal necessity. Jesus said, “If anyone…” There are no exceptions. Jesus did not call only ministers, officers, or missionaries. Young and old, male and female, weak or strong—all must follow him in this way. Just as all must look to Jesus, trusting in his blood and righteousness, so all must heed this call.

...an act of the renewed will. Jesus directed these words immediately at the will. Would anyone ever obey such a command? It is the Holy Spirit’s work to show sinners the misery of sin, the glory of Christ, and to renew the will. The effect of the Spirit’s work is that sinners on the path to destruction are persuaded and enabled to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered in the gospel (WSC 31). The reason a sinner would willingly sign up to die is due to the sovereign operation of the Spirit who gives light and life! Yet his sovereign operation does not minimize the solemn obligation in Christ’s call: you must respond!

...a basic of discipleship. Cross-bearing stands at the threshold of the Christian life. All disciples must go where their master goes. For that reason, Christians must repudiate any attempt to soften this call of Christ. Perversions of the true gospel put the cross in the shadows instead of calling sinners to live in the shadow of the cross. Make no mistake, Christ’s way is one of suffering and self-denial, and the Lord Himself places this call on the entry-level floor of Christian faithfulness.

...a required and willing sacrifice. The words let him deny…and take up his cross do not communicate the strength of these words very well. These words are imperatives that require sincere obedience. Consider how willingly Jesus obeyed the command of his Father as he gave himself. No one took his life from him, but he laid it down of his own authority (John 10:18). As he prayed and agonized in Gethsemane, he cried out, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). When the mob surrounded him, they could not avoid falling to the ground before the glorious I AM (John 18:5-6). In like manner, disciples must willingly walk that road as the Savior did (Ephesians 5:2).

...a lifelong obligation. Jesus highlights the regularity of cross-bearing in the Christian life with the little word daily. There are no vacations from bearing the cross. While there are seasons during which the burden may feel lighter, we must never lay it down. Every day, the believer must be willing to endure loss of possessions or opportunities if obedience requires it. Every day, saints must be willing to bear reproach for Christ’s sake, suffer strained or broken relationships, or endure the pain of sullied reputation. As one writer has said, “There is but one depository of the cross, that is the cemetery.”[2]

...a commitment to action. Sometimes believers refer to hard providences as crosses to bear. While that can be true, it is a different sense from what the Lord Jesus intends in this passage. The focus here is the conscious act of devotion that requires bearing the cross. Disciples must positively take up the cross and deny self in every area. This is necessary in prayer, cultivating heavenly-mindedness, taking sinful thoughts captive, giving sacrificially for Kingdom work, keeping the Lord’s Day holy, or witnessing for Christ. Jesus calls his beloved sheep to follow him, and that is a life of positive, forward movement.

...a Christ-focused burden. The last word in this text deserves a place of prominence: me. The cross-bearing life is one that focuses not upon the suffering to be endured, not upon the hardship of the action, but upon the glory of Jesus himself. His disciples follow him, remembering his life, sufferings, sighs, tears, death, and resurrection. This replicates the very life of the one who calls. What did he have in mind as he endured the cross and despised the shame? It was the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). Now he is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, having by himself purged our sins (Hebrews 1:3).

* * *

Samuel Rutherford was intimately acquainted with the school of the cross. Reflecting upon God’s purposes for those under the cross, Rutherford wrote,

“I find crosses Christ’s carved work that he makes out for us, and that with crosses he figures and portrays us to his own image, cutting away pieces of our ill and corruption. Lord cut, Lord carve, Lord wound, Lord do anything that may perfect thy Father's image in us, and make us meet for glory.”[3]

God will give grace for his children to view taking up the cross, not as a fearful thing, but as the most honorable endeavor on this side of glory.

Dear saint, though you tremble, take up your cross, looking always to Him who endured it for our sake.[4]


Related Links

"The Way of the Cross" by James Boice

"Cruciform Suffering" by Daniel Trimmer

"The Master Idol" by Samuel Rutherford

Holiness; Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J. C. Ryle 

PCRT '19: Redemption Accomplished and Applied, with D.A. Carson, Kevin DeYoung, Richard Phillips, and more. [ Download ]  [ MP3 Disc ]


Notes

[1] Thomas Boston, The Art of Man-Fishing, (Fearn: Christian Heritage, 1998), 31.

[2] Walter J. Chantry, The Shadow of the Cross (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 23.

[3] Samuel Rutherford, The Loveliness of Christ: Extracts from the Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 7.

[4] Listen to this sermon for more on this theme.