A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 2/5/95
In our last study we saw the reason why all four Gospels include the Feeding of the Five Thousand: it is a turning point in the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. From this moment when his popularity was at its height, he began increasingly to focus with ever increasing insistence and clarity on the centrality of the Cross to his mission and his identity, a message that was increasingly met with stunned bewilderment and rejection. The familiar passage before us today is the first example of that new focus. Matthew's version of the story is fuller and more familiar. Luke leaves out Jesus' praise of Peter's confession, his renaming of Simon as Peter ("a stone") and the controversial promise to build his church upon the rock--a different word that clearly does not refer to Peter the pebble but to the boulder-like truth of his confession, which in its fuller form was "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Why does Luke leave out these important details? Because his more compact narration has the effect of bringing together in close proximity the two ideas of confession and cross-bearing, thus bringing out or highlighting the point that our confession of Christ has consequences. In this manner, Luke forces us to consider the question: What are the consequences of confession? What are the demands of discipleship? What is the follow-through that flows from faith? What is the cost of commitment? What is the price of receiving pardon? What is the responsibility that comes with redemption?
The answer to that question is the main thesis of our message today: It is that salvation is free, but it is not cheap. In other words, Christ has already purchased it with his own blood. Nothing could be less cheap than that! We have nothing we could give to obtain what he already gives us freely. But though salvation is free, it is not cheap; and part of the meaning of the not-cheapness is that accepting this free gift is going to cost you something. Does that sound like a paradox? A careful reading of Jesus' words here is the key to understanding it. For they all drive us--as his mission drove him--to the cross.
But let's get one question out of the way before we look at them. If a gift is really free, can it cost you something to receive it? Of course. When I was a poor pastor just out of grad school, one of our parishioners took pity on us and gave us an old bomb their family wasn't using as a second car so that my wife wouldn't be stuck at home when I was out doing hospital calls or something. The car was a completely free gift, with no strings attached. I never paid Edith Tippins one cent for it. But I actually had to count the cost of whether or not I could afford to accept this completely free gift. In the very first week I had to pay and pay again for a license tag, motor oil, gasoline, and insurance. None of these payments went to the giver; none of them compromised the completely free offer of the gift. I could have paid for all those things, and none of those payments would have given me a car apart from Mrs. Tippins's generosity. They were not made--could not have been made--to receive the gift. They were simply inherent in the very nature of the gift itself. It could be that salvation is that kind of free gift--and it could be that not understanding this principle has been the cause of much confusion, leading some (Roman Catholics, for example) to deny the completely gracious character of the gift, as if we had to do at least a little work for it, and leading others (Antinomians) to deny that there is any price for us to pay in any sense. Let's see if this perspective is consistent with what Jesus has to say to us here.I. THE NECESSITY OF CROSS BEARING
Jesus' words are clear and plain: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." They apply to anyone and therefore to everyone. They describe, not an optional, graduate level type of Christian life, but the Christian life, period. For no person who is not following Jesus can be said to be living the Christian life at all. Two facts about cross bearing bring its necessity into focus.A. Its Connection with Confession.
First is the intimate connection between cross bearing and confession of Christ. Jesus brings this hard saying up as part of his response to Peter's confession of his Messiahship. The obvious question is, why say all of this hard, unpopular stuff about denying oneself and taking up the cross now? And the obvious answer is, to be sure that the disciples understand what confessing Jesus as their Messiah means. For Jesus, it means being rejected and killed and rising the third day. For Jesus, in other words, it means the cross. And for the disciples, it means that they have a cross of their own to deal with. "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." Before you confess me as Messiah, in other words, you had better--in language the Lord uses elsewhere--count the cost.
Confessing Christ as Lord is part of the very definition of what a Christian is, part of the very definition of how to be saved, in one of the most familiar summaries of the Gospel in all of Scripture. "That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. For with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation" (Rom. 10:9-10). This is really just a more elaborate version of the simpler "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31). This is so because "believe" never means just "entertain as an opinion" in the New Testament when salvation is in view. It means "place your trust in and therefore be committed to Christ as a person." A belief so timid and tentative as to remain unconfessed is hardly any ground for a warranted hope of salvation! Only God can judge the heart, and I will therefore not dogmatically deny that such people might be saved "yet so as by fire" or "by the skin of their teeth." But they do not represent the normative picture of saving faith we are presented in the New Testament.
All right, then: If we confess with our mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we shall be saved. Confession is simply that heart belief put into action. Confession is true heart faith made audible. It is not just saying the right words; it is the right words coming out of the mouth because first they are in the heart. Therefore, no one can legitimately claim to have saving faith who does not confess Jesus as Lord before men. And here's the connection. No one can truly confess Christ as Lord without denying himself, taking up his cross, and following him. Without this, what could the word "Lord" in our confession possibly mean?B. Its Character as Command.
Not only is cross bearing part of the very meaning of confessing Christ as Lord, it is also his commandment for all his disciples. In verse 23 he addresses anyone who would come after him. Anyone. This teaching is not just for super-spiritual "saints"; it is for all his disciples. And what does he say to this "anyone"? Let him take up his cross. "Let him" is a third-person imperative in Greek. It is a command. It is not optional; it is not avoidable; it is an absolute requirement for anyone who would follow Jesus. It is commanded because it is part of the very nature of what confessing Christ as Lord is.
The logic of Christ's words is inescapable once we stop to think about them. Imagine a person who says, "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Messiah, that is, as the divine Son of God who came to be my personal Savior and Lord--but I'm going to retain the right to be my own boss." Once the hidden caveat, the "fine print" in the second part of the sentence, is brought out into the open, we can only either confess it as sin and forsake it, or give up our claim to have accepted Christ at all. It is sheer absurdity. Both things cannot be meant simultaneously. You might as well say, "I'm a circle with four corners." "I'm a square with three sides." You can say such things with your mouth, but you cannot mean them. They are not mean-able. They are meaningless nonsense. No one can truly confess Christ as Lord without denying himself, taking up his cross, and following him. Doing this perfectly is not a requirement for salvation. No one in fact does it perfectly. But, however imperfectly, it must be what we are doing. Otherwise, what has become of our confession?
This is not adding some kind of works-righteousness requirement onto faith. It is what faith looks like. It is as much as to say that confessing Christ as Lord is confessing Christ as Lord--not as something else. The relationship to Christ that saves us, that in fact constitutes salvation, is given to us as a free gift. There is nothing we could do to earn it. But this is what the relationship is! Why, you might well ask, would anyone want such a relationship? For only one reason: because he is Jesus. Because, in other words, we love him, because he first love us and gave himself for us. If you are playing at Christianity for any other reason than that, you might as well stop wasting your time right now. There is no other reason. If we are not interested in this, there is nothing in the Christian faith that could possibly interest us. But if you love him . . . then you must be interested in the next point.II. THE NATURE OF CROSS BEARING
If cross bearing is an essential part of following Christ, we had better be sure we understand what it is. Our Lord uses two phrases to describe it that are both subject to much misunderstanding: deny yourself, and take up your cross.A. Deny Yourself.
People think this is a hard saying, but most of them have no idea how hard it actually is. They are worried that Christ might ask them to deny themselves some particular thing which they might find it hard to give up--like promiscuous sex, or money, or their comfortable lifestyle. I'm afraid it is much worse than that. What he asks is not that I deny myself some thing. What he asks is that I deny my self. It is the whole principle of me first that constitutes my sinful identity as a son of Adam that has to go. It is not my unique personality, created by God for his glory, that must be denied. Ironically, the denial of self is the only way in which that "self" can truly be affirmed. What I must deny is the sovereignty of self, the primacy of self. Whether or not the self thus denied gets to hang on to this or that tid-bit that it was formerly in the habit of calling its own is hardly the issue. Once self has been denied, that will no longer be an issue. We are being asked here to recognize Jesus as the absolute Lord of glory before whom our place is on our faces in the dust. We are being asked to consciously and with meaning make the Lordship we have already accepted in principle when we accepted him absolute. We are being asked to say to him--as he said to the Father--"Not my will but thy will be done."
Now, this goes against the grain of our age. Our age is telling us the very opposite. We are told that self affirmation, self expression, self fulfillment is the path to joy. And we have accepted this lie on levels we are not even aware of. But it is a lie, and at our best we already know it. Which moments in your own life have given you the greatest joy? Manipulating another person for your own selfish desires or falling in love? Being a "hot dog" for your own glory or sacrificing yourself for the sake of the team's victory? If you answered the first option in either pair, you only prove that you have never known the second. I am here to tell you that our Lord knew what he was talking about. This principle is true even in the natural world because it is the very watershed of the spiritual life. If you want to be his disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him! You cannot confess Christ as Lord --you cannot invite Christ to take the throne of your life--if you are still sitting there.B. Take Up Your Cross.
The second phrase is commonly understood no better than the first. When most people speak of having a cross to bear, they are mindlessly using the Lord's words as a metaphor for some hardship in their life. My room mate's snoring; my body's propensity to snag and hang onto every calorie that passes near it; my unreasonable boss; you name it: this is (we say with a sigh) just the cross I have to bear. We wouldn't say such stupid things if we had lived in the first century, when the cross was the common method of execution. So let's translate the Lord's words into Twentieth-Century language. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, sit down in the electric chair, and follow me." "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, stick his head in the noose, and follow me." "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, hold out his arm for the lethal injection, and follow me." "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, walk into the gas chamber, and follow me." "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, step in front of the firing squad, and follow me." Are we getting the idea? In the First Century, confessing Christ literally meant risking the martyr's death. It would be supremely foolish to do so without taking that into account! But there is a spiritual principle here that transcends the circumstances of the early Church.
Taking up the cross, in other words, is exactly parallel to the first phrase, to denying our self. As Christ laid down his life for us, so we are to lay down our lives for him. And we are to do it daily. We consider ourselves, as Paul puts it in Romans, already dead to sin so that we can be alive to God (Rom. 6:1-11). Or, as he told the Galatians, Christ lives in us; it is no longer we who live, but the life we live, we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. If I have laid down my very life, what else do I have left to hold back? If the necessity of actual martyrdom arises, the decision has already been made in advance. Does this sound negative? It only seems so to people who do not know the Lord! Those who love him would give up their lives and more and count it all as dung for the surpassing value of knowing Christ. It is not as if he is holding out on us until we make these nasty sacrifices. It is rather that because of who he is--because he is God, because he is Lord--we cannot truly have him and keep control of our own lives. It is not an arbitrary requirement with which he could have dispensed. It is the very nature of the relationship he is freely offering us by grace alone: a relationship with God! Why do we insist on trying to settle for something less? "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me."CONCLUSION
Salvation is free, but it is not cheap. It cost our Lord Jesus Christ everything. But he made the payment in full simply because he loved us. Now, there is nothing you could give for salvation. You must accept it as the free gift of his grace, his unmerited favor, if you are to have it at all. But accepting that gift will cost you something. It might in effect cost you some of your friends (you won't reject them, but they might reject you), some of your habits. But those are superficial things. What it will ultimately cost you is your independence. What it will ultimately cost you is your self, your life. Nevertheless, I do not hesitate to ask you to count the cost, any more than our Lord himself did. Why? You are only being asked to empty your hand so he can fill it. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. And you will discover that it has cost you precisely everything that has been holding you back from the joy for which you were created. "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved." What does that mean? "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Let us follow him indeed!
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams