The Way of the Cross
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
The way of the cross is about Christian discipleship, and the problem is that there is very little actual following of Jesus Christ in our time. Discipleship means forsaking everything in order to follow Christ. But for many of today’s Christians, it is the case that, while there is much talk about Christ and even much furious activity that is supposedly done in his name, there is actually very little following of Christ himself. That means there is very little genuine Christianity.
The Lack of True Discipleship
In Jesus’s great sermon on the Mount of Olives uttered shortly before his crucifixion (Matthew 25), the Lord compared professing but unconverted Christians to women waiting for a bridegroom to appear for a wedding banquet. They were waiting faithfully and cried out fervently to him, but they were unprepared for his coming and were shut out of the wedding. They were not saved. Again, Jesus compared those who only profess to be Christians to a man who was given a talent to invest but who failed to use it and was condemned by his master on the day of reckoning. Jesus said that this man was thrown “into the dark- ness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30). In a third comparison, he described these people as failing to feed the hungry, give drink to those who were thirsting, receive strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those who were imprisoned. These apparent Christians called Jesus “Lord.” They considered themselves to be genuinely converted persons. But they were not Christians and perished utterly.
Defective theology. There are several reasons why a lack of true discipleship is common in today’s church, and the first is a defective theology. This theology separates faith from discipleship and grace from obedience. It teaches that Jesus can be received as one’s Savior without his being received as one’s Lord. It eliminates the cross.
This defect is common in easy times. In times of persecution, those who are becoming Christians count the cost carefully before taking up Christ’s cross. Preachers do not beguile them with false promises of an easy life or with the indulgence of their sins. But in easy times the cost does not seem to be so high, and people take the name of “Christ” without undergoing the radical transformation that a true conversion implies. In times like these, preachers often delude them with an easy faith in order to increase the numbers on their church rolls, whether or not such people are regenerate.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this erroneous theology “cheap grace,” saying, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness with- out requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace with- out the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.”
Another writer who saw the sad state of contemporary Christianity and bemoaned it was the pastor and devotional author A. W. Tozer. Tozer wrote about the state of the faith in his day, saying, “The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. Faith may now be exercised without a jar to the moral life and without embarrassment to the Adamic ego. Christ may be ‘received’ without creating any special love for him in the soul of the receiver. The man is ‘saved,’ but he is not hungry or thirsty after God. In fact, he is specifically taught to be satisfied and encouraged to be content with little.”
Lack of self-examination. It is not only a false theology that has encouraged this fatal lack of discipleship, however. To limit it to that is to excuse ourselves by blaming theologians. This defect also arises from the absence of what the older writers called the “self-examined life.”
Most Westerners live in a tragically mindless environment. Life is too fast for any serious reflection. Even in the church, we are far more often encouraged to join this committee, back that project, or serve on some board than we are counseled to examine our relationship to God and his Son Jesus Christ. So long as we are performing for the church, few will question whether our profession is genuine or spurious. How many sermons suggest that members of a church may not actually be saved, although they are members? Or that a personal, self-denying, costly, and persistent following of Christ is necessary if a person is to be acknowledged by Jesus at the final day? They don’t, and the result is that many people drift on in sad self-delusion.
Saying No to Self
One of the most important things to be said about Christ’s definition of discipleship in Luke 9:23 is that the elements he mentions cannot be divorced 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 his cross. But that is not what Jesus is doing. He is spelling out everything that being his disciple entails: (1) self-denial, (2) taking up the cross, and (3) following—all three. Moreover, as the next verses show, if a person rejects those elements of discipleship, he may be trying to “save his life” and “gain the whole world,” but the result will be the losing of his very self. He 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 one- self, we are at once brought to the radical distinction between a God-oriented life and a life of unrepentant self-seeking or sin.
Self-seeking is the opposite of self-denial, and the problem with self-seeking is that it has been the essence of sin from the beginning. It is what caused the fall of Satan. Satan said, “I want my way, and that means that I am going to displace God. I will rule the universe.” The key passage that expresses Satan’s thoughts is Isaiah 14:13–14, where Satan cried “I will” five times:
I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
in the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.
But those verses also explain that Satan will actually be brought low, “to the depths of the pit” (v. 15).
By contrast Jesus said, “I will humble myself in self-denial. I will abase myself in order that others, those the Father has given me and whom I love, might be lifted from sin to glory.” As a result of this attitude, God promised that Jesus Christ would be exalted. He would be given the name that is above every name, so that “every tongue [would] confess that Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:11).
Saying Yes to God
But it is not only that we are to say no to self, which is what denying self is all about. We are also to say yes to God. Some speak of cross-bearing as if it means enduring the inevitable, but that is not it at all. Real crosses involve the surrender of the will; they mean saying yes to some important thing for Jesus’s sake.
Cross-bearing involves prayer and Bible study. These necessary means of grace take time and must be voluntarily chosen and pursued, rather than other pastimes that we might humanly prefer.
Cross-bearing also involves the items Jesus listed in Matthew 25:31–46: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, receiving the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the one who is in prison. These things involve denying ourselves time, money, and convenience, even when our efforts seem utterly fruitless. Our gifts are abused; we are slighted even by the ones we help. And yet we are to live like this anyway, since doing so is saying yes to Jesus.
Taking up our cross also involves witnessing. It means putting oneself out for the sake of someone else who needs to hear the gospel.
Essentially, taking up our cross means accepting whatever God has given us or made us and then offering it back to him as “our reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1 KJV). That phrase describes us as priests making sacrifices that are pleasing to God. Priests offer what they have first received. They take the gifts of the worshiper and then offer them up. You and I are in that position. The gifts we receive are from God. We take these gifts—whatever they may be—and then offer them up to God with thanksgiving.
Keeping Our Eyes on Jesus
There is only one purpose for a cross, and that is to put the crucified person to death. Death on a cross is a slow death, but it is a certain one, and there is no escaping that for Christ’s true followers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died for his commitment to Christ, understood this principle. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”3
But if that is what “the way of the cross” means, why should anyone take up his or her cross and do it? Or even if a person might want to do it, how can he or she ever hope to stay on that hard path?
The only thing that will ever get us moving along this path of self-denial and discipleship is fixing our eyes on Jesus and what he has done for us, coming to love him as a result, and thus wanting also to be with him both now and always. Jesus is our only possible model for self-denial. He is the very image of cross-bearing. And it is for love of him and a desire to be like him that we take up our cross and willingly follow him.
This is what moves one to be a Christian in the first place. It’s not the promise of rewards (though there are rewards), nor an escape from hell (though following after Christ does mean deliverance from hell’s terrors). What moves one to be a Christian is the love of Jesus, for the sake of which he endured the cross. Those who have been won by that love will not allow anything to keep them from walking along that way.
Editor's Note: This post has been adapted from The Heart of the Cross(P&R, 2022), available now at ReformedResources.org.
James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) was the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 to 2000. He served as the chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), as assistant editor of Christianity Today, and as editor of Eternity Magazine. James Boice’s Bible teaching continues on The Bible Study Hour radio and internet program, which prepares listeners to think and act biblically.
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