Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
This is the quintessential challenge of discipleship, the fundamental call of everyone who claims to know Christ. The implications of this one sentence reach to every corner of our existence. To follow this command, we must allow it to claim our ambition, our desire, our bent for honor, our comfort. In short, it must claim our lives.
Of course, it would be a more preferable command if He had said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and do such and such things in such and such way.” Then we could look back upon our obedience and measure our personal progress, but a life with Christ is one of spiritual fruit and that is not something to be measured during our journey home. If we seek to glory in our progress, we have received our reward. Jesus adds to this point by saying that he who seeks to “save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (vs. 25). We lose it because it is not life, but death. We become that to which we cling. Through Christ, our flesh perished when the nails were driven through His hands and feet (Gal. 5:24). Therefore, by embracing our life, we mistakenly embrace death and trade away the full joy of experiencing life which is only found through Christ.
To follow, we must surrender the direction we grip so tightly. To follow, we must deny ourselves and count Christ’s ways infinitely better than our own. To follow, we must set our eyes on Jesus and follow Him no matter where He takes us. This cannot be accomplished if we are following Him for personal benefit to our own lives. It occurs only when we devote our lives to exalting Him and making Him famous.
The first words of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount take a dramatically different turn from the ways of the world. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). It is not the accomplished or the wealthy, it is not the courageous or the bold, it is not those who dwell upon the Law and succeed in abiding by it. Rather, it is those who are in spiritual poverty, who feel their own inabilities and realize their desperate need for a Savior. It is in this place that we find ourselves willing to follow Him.
Even further, Christ flips conventional wisdom on its head and tells us that we are blessed in times of mourning (vs. 4), in meekness (vs. 5), in extending mercy (vs. 7), and last of all in suffering and rejection among men (vs. 10-12). How can we possibly live in this reality if we still hold onto the desires of our hearts? We must be set free from the bondage of self-awareness and become enslaved to Christ alone. This is the condition of the believer. “For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Cor. 7:22).
When we forsake this world to set our eyes upon Christ, He commissions us to love it in a way we never could before – through Him. In following Him, He does not permit us to remove ourselves from the world. He tells us instead to live like Him, to be in the world but not of it (Rom. 12:2). We are to engage the world as disciples (even slaves) of Christ by following Him. If this is not the primary and central element of our obedience, then our labor is in vain and we have received our reward.
“Follow me,” he says. If we do not, we labor for ourselves. This is the challenge: to depart from ourselves in order to live in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ. This is the call to discipleship, the heartbeat of the believer.
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”