Taking Up the Cross

We are living in days when it is considered inhuman and degrading to put people to death, even though they have committed the vilest of crimes. Men taking the lives of others can now do so in the knowledge that they will not have to forfeit their own. This is because the current thinking regards lawbreakers not so much as sinners or criminals, but as public misfits. The word “sin” has been dropped out of our national vocabulary, and offenders are now thought of as ones likely to be hardened in wrongdoing if they were treated too harshly, and so it is hoped to reclaim them to society by gentler means.

This was not the thinking in New Testament days. If we had lived in Jerusalem at the time of our Lord, we would have found the Roman authorities’ attitude to law-breakers very much different. For lesser crimes than murder, they put people to death in the most cruel manner. Instead of hanging or beheading, they nailed their victims to a cross, and left them there to die a slow, lingering death. To add to the victim’s misery, the condemned had to carry the cross from the judgment hall where they were sentenced, to the place of execution, which was just outside the city gate. The people of the city would see a squad of Roman soldiers escorting someone carrying a cross through their streets, and they would either shrug their shoulders and carry on with their affairs, or follow with the crowd to witness the gory spectacle. To them, anyone carrying a cross, meant only one thing—a death.

With this picture in mind, we can better understand our Lord’s words, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”, Matt. 16. 24. In this short statement He is stating the terms of true discipleship. These words are not calling sinners to salvation, but are a call for volunteers from among the ranks of His own people. No evangelist preaches the gospel from these words. We do not get salvation by denying ourselves and taking up a cross. It is a free gift through faith in Christ’s work upon a cross. They are a call to us today, and the response will only come from those of us who are willing (“if any man will”). If we are happy with our present level of Christian living, these words will not have much significance for us. On the other hand, if we feel that there is more for us in Christ than we know at present, and we seek the Lord about it, this is the way that He will indicate.

This is one of our Lord’s hard sayings, John 6. 60, and consequently many believers turn away from it. Enlarging on it, He said, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”. There is no thought of martyrdom in these words. The life which we are to lose, or crucify, is our self-life. This is that part of us which makes us self-seeking, self-centered, etc., so that our lives revolve around ourselves, instead of around God. So many of us are idolators and do not realize it! We think more of our children, our houses, gardens, cars, or other possessions, than we do of God. These things occupy our thoughts, and our talk is mostly about them. If these things have more of our love and interest than God has, then they have become idols to us. The Lord Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”, Matt. 22. 37. Our foreparent Adam, before he fell, had no self-life as we know it, but by the fall he put self in the centre of his life, instead of God. This call of Christ, if responded to, restores God to His rightful place in our lives by crucifying the usurper self. True discipleship means that we no longer live for ourselves, and that we cease to please ourselves.

It might sound paradoxical to say that those who consent to “lose” their lives do not actually suffer loss. But it is true. What they do is to change them for others. Hudson Taylor, of the China Inland Mission, called this experience, “The Exchanged Life” when he took this step after years on the mission field. With the self-life out of the way, Christ, by the Holy Spirit, can five His life through us in a much more definite way. This call to discipleship is as definite a call as the one to salvation, and those who are prepared to take it will know a new spiritual impetus in their lives. Not that the Holy Spirit’s power in their lives will make them famous, so that they will make the headlines in the religious press. Nor will they necessarily become great preachers. One believer who has gone this way described it as follows, “When one is brought into this new relationship to Christ, there is a re-direction of the heart, mind and will into the will of God. The things that are unseen, but eternal, become more real and more earnestly desired than the seen. The mind, previously dominated by the interests and desires of the flesh, becomes renewed by the Spirit, through the Word. This does not come about by a sudden and complete change, but there is a process of renewal. A new mode of thinking is known, and the character is transformed from being fleshy to that which is spiritual, in accordance with Romans 12. 2 and Ephesians 4. 23.”

We may be doing much good work in our local church, and be very active in the things of God, and yet miss God’s best. The good is often an enemy of the best. If up to now the challenge of true discipleship has meant nothing to us, then we are missing God’s best. We are happy to commit our souls to Christ for our eternal salvation, and say, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day”, 2 Tim. 1. 12. May we be equally happy to lose our lives for Him and say, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”, Gal. 2. 20. In the first of these statements Paul was speaking of his salvation, but in the second of his discipleship.

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