Read: Matthew 16
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
Does Christ’s call to discipleship seem a little extreme in comparison to the “easy believism” that passes for much of what we would call discipleship today? You will likely hear a lot more from spiritual leaders these days about a life of comfort, security and success that following Jesus brings than straight talk on self-denial and cross bearing.
Jesus made no promises of an easy, breezy, carefree Christianity. Rather, he demanded complete obedience, costly sacrifice, and selfless servanthood from those who would follow him. He told them that they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood if they wanted a part in him. He said people would hate them, misunderstand them, reject them, persecute them, and put them out of the synagogues. And he even promised that misguided religious fanatics would kill them, believing that in so doing they were helping God out.
Yet the eleven disciples (one of them, Judas, got cold feet) fully bought into Christ’s call to costly discipleship. They left everything they had and everything they knew for a life that promised nothing except a chance to advance God’s kingdom in a resistant, hostile world. They fully understood that the overwhelming bulk of their rewards would come only afterwards, in the afterlife. And, despite Christ’s less than appealing recruitment campaign, these first disciples, followed in the years to come by countless thousands of other hungry seekers, flocked to this self-denying, cross-bearing brand of Christianity. Jesus was a tough act to follow, to say the least, but these disciples eagerly signed up—and they changed the world.
How did they manage such a small task of world change? Simply by doing what Jesus had asked: They denied themselves, took up their crosses, and laid down their lives for his sake. Without a political voice, financial resources, social standing, and military might, this unlikely ragtag band of followers conquered the Roman Empire in less than three hundred years.
Such was the radical, transformative power of this brand of fully devoted discipleship.
Do you worry, as I do, that Christ’s call to costly discipleship would empty most churches of its people in our day if it were preached unapologetically like Jesus taught it in his day? Though most believers give mental assent to cross-bearing and self-denial, in reality there is very little evidence of it in their lives, or in their churches.
If Jesus rebuked Peter (verse 23) — “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” — for suggesting Christianity without a cross (verse 24), what do you suppose he would say to us who have suggested Christian discipleship without cross-bearing?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” We need to remind ourselves of that truth, because you likely won’t hear it from too many pulpits today. A.W. Tozer commented that “it has become popular to preach a painless Christianity and automatic saintliness. It has become part of our ‘instant’ culture. ‘Just pour a little water on it, stir mildly, pick up a gospel tract, and you are on your Christian way.’”
We must aggressively and boldly reject that brand of faith, because that is not the discipleship to which Jesus has called us. And that is not the discipleship that I want for my life.
How about you?
“Salvation is free … but discipleship will cost you your life.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What If God Took Over?
If you are serious about Christ’s call to discipleship, then why not offer this radical prayer: “Jesus, though my flesh from the inside and my culture from the outside are constantly calling me along the path of easy spirituality, deep in my heart I want to take up my cross and follow you. Enable me by your indwelling Spirit to die to myself so that I might live unto you—at all costs!”