The Attraction of the Cross
Recently I came across a discussion forum online where people in my city were asked how they would like to be engaged by churches for the first time. The proposals ranged from such things as gift bags and receptions to personal time with the pastor after the service and follow-up visits. Incidentally, I had been meditating on a passage I had known theoretically from childhood but never really grasped. (There are verses in the Bible we know to be at the heart of the Christian faith, and we do well to memorize them and quote them on occasion. But I fear that we are heretofore inoculated from the sharp edge these verses have that give shape to the contours of the Christian faith and distinction from all other religions of the world). The passage to which my mind returned with was Matthew 16:24-26, which reads:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Here we have an open, universal appeal by Jesus for people to come to Him in order to become His disciples. This is an introduction to the Christian faith by the Author and Founder of Christianity. He invites people with the words, “Come after Me.” But what does that entail?
Jesus answers with three simple and yet seemingly impossible demands. You must first, deny yourself, second, take up your cross, and third, follow him. Jesus does not force these demands as though people could be a disciple by spiritual or or physical threat. Rather, Jesus simply expects (and even assumes) that those who come after Him will live lives marked by self-denial--in short, they will live cruciform lifestyles. When get Jesus that is simply what happens.
But that’s the key – you get Jesus. Focusing more on what you get in having Him as your Savior and treasure is what makes it possible to follow Jesus with self-denial and to live a cruciform lifestyle. I fear that many of us have tried to do the self-denial thing but have come up frustrated and disappointed with ourselves. A life of self-denial apart from treasuring Jesus is impossible to sustain, and more than that, it does not impress God. God is pleased when we see and savor Jesus Christ for the infinite worth that He is to us.
The same Jesus who said that He came to give us life, and to give it in full (John 10:10) is the same Jesus who said “whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” We reconcile these verses when we realize that the life we were meant to live is discovered in Christ. So ultimately self-denial is a giving up of lesser joys and lesser pursuit for a greater joy and greater pursuit. We deny ourselves as kings and queens of our own earthly domain whose rule has only brought destruction and despair to embrace King Jesus in whose kingdom is life, joy, peace, and true fulfillment.
What I find so disturbing about the way people are introduced to Christianity is how self-denial has been replaced with self-fulfillment. It is very possible to engineer preaching and church ministries so that people are trained to get what they want and need without coming to get Jesus. Consequently people are trained to have a flesh response that does not profit (John 6:63) rather than a faith response that brings life through repentance and faith. This kind of self-fulfillment is a sham of the true fulfillment that comes when you come after Jesus by faith to lay hold of all that God has provided for us in him.
An easy way to help people forfeit their own soul is by helping them treasure and seek fulfillment in the things of the world. To them Jesus asks, “What does it profit if you gain the whole world and forfeit your own soul?” Those who live a life of self-denial do so because of the eternal gain that far surpasses any profit the world could offer. Pursing Jesus by faith produces a pleasure that enables us to live a life of self-denial. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
In a day of supreme self-gratification, what we need more and more of is a clear picture of biblical Christianity. I can think of no clearer picture than seeing sinners come after Jesus by faith for the sake of gaining Jesus as Savior and Lord. When that happens, the invitation to self-denial makes perfect sense and inevitably follows as we have our senses and understanding calibrated by the Spirit of Christ who gives us life.
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