In Luke 9:23 Jesus said, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." There are several lessons regarding living the Christian life to be learned from this brief statement of scripture.
The Negative Element
There is a negative element in being a Christian. Jesus said that one must learn to "deny himself." Self-preservation and self-care may be laws of nature, but self-denial is a lesson that one must learn by divine grace. Modernism would advise that negative preaching should be eliminated. Self-deprivation would not be recommended by modem child psychology. Hedonism rules our day. One ought to do whatever would make him happy, says the modern hedonist.
However, Jesus not only taught self-denial; He also exemplified it. In overcoming during His temptation, Jesus denied Himself bread, deprived Himself of all the kingdoms of the world, and He denied His pride the right to control His actions. In emulating our Master, we must also learn the art of self-denial. Paul taught, "Now we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbor for that which is good, unto edifying. For Christ also pleased not himself . . ." (Rom. 15:1-3)
The essence of the struggle to live the Christian life is denial of self. Paul said that one must deny "ungodliness and worldly lust" in order to live "soberly, righteously and godly in this present world" (Tit. 2:11, 12). The tensions that cause the struggle in living the life the Christian must live result from the conflict between flesh and spirit. The struggle each one must undergo is the struggle to see whether flesh will control spirit, or whether spirit will control flesh. The blessing will come only to those who "overcome" (Rev. 2: 11).
Until one begins to deprive himself of leisure and things of this world, he is not serving the Lord sacrificially. Self-denial is the price that one must pay if he is to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The Positive Element
But the negative element alone is not enough. It is not enough merely to deny oneself. There are many inanimate objects which could boast of not doing certain sinful things. It is not enough not to do wrong; godly living requires positive, affirmative action of us. Jesus said one must "take up his cross daily." But what does it mean to take up one's cross?
To Jesus, taking up His cross meant shame. It was considered a cursed thing to die on a cross (Gal. 3:13). But because of the joy set before Him, Jesus "endured the cross, despising shame" (Heb. 12:2). The shame was set at naught by Him, because of the greater joy before Him which He could accomplish by His death. However, when we live and talk like Jesus, we also will be reproached like Him. One of our favorite songs asks, "Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there's a cross for everyone, and there's a cross for me!" The Christian must take up his daily cross of shame and reproach, and follow Jesus.
But to Jesus, taking up His cross also meant responsibility. Jesus abhorred the cross. His flesh cringed at the thought of its agony. In His anguish Jesus cried, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Lk. 22:42). His flesh would have avoided the cross, but if salvation was to be provided, He had to provide it by enduring the cross. The cross therefore meant responsibility to Him.
There is plenty of responsibility to be borne by those of us who would be His disciples. There are some who would avoid responsibility. They shirk their duties as disciples. They prefer to get "lost in the crowd" of some large congregation so that personal responsibility can be dodged. But discipleship demands that one "take up his cross daily.
The Progressive Element
In addition to a negative and a positive element, being a Christian also involves a progressive element: "follow me." This expression suggests that there can be no "stand-still" Christian. A Christian is like a train crossing a mountain; it either keeps going forward, or it begins rolling backward. Living the Christian life is like riding a bicycle; one must either keep moving or fall.
Following Christ demands that we stretch forward to the things that are before; that we press on "toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12-16). The Christian's life must be one of growth (2 Pet. 3:18). Every day one should pitch his tent a little nearer Canaan's happy land.
Sometime, in an effort to show that certain actions are incompatible with the life expected of a Christian, the question is asked, "Could you take Jesus there?" But perhaps a better question would be, "Could you follow Jesus there?" We should remember that the Christian does not have Jesus on a noose, leading Him here and there. Instead, he must follow Him! And following Jesus would not lead us some of the places that some who wear His name are found.
Daily we should sing, "I'm pressing on the upward way, New heights I'm gaining every
Day, Still praying as I onward bound, 'Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.'
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 2, pp. 3-4