“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his 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 discipleship today? You will likely hear a lot more about “God’s promise” of a life of comfort, security and success these days from spiritual leaders than straight talk on self-denial and cross bearing.
Jesus made no of 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” (John 6:53-55) 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 people 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, literally, but these first disciples eagerly signed up—and they changed the world.
How? 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 this brand of fully committed discipleship’s radical power!
Do you worry, as I do, that Christ’s call to costly discipleship would empty most churches in our day not only if it were demanded, but even if it were merely taught? 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 of this kind of full-throttle discipleship.
If Jesus rebuked Peter (Matthew 16:23) — “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 (Matthew 16:24), what do you suppose he would say to we 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?