The wisdom of the ages has always reminded us that there are two sides to every story and that the truth is somewhere between the two. I would say this is usually correct. Like people, stories can have two sides and both can be true. One can be both kind, yet firm, highly intelligent, yet lacking in common sense, and patient with a sense of urgency. Seemingly opposites, they can still be true simultaneously.
The gospel has two sides as well. Grace is complicated. It is multifaceted, yet discernable. Profound, yet accessible. Alarming, yet quite reassuring. Again, this tension is complex. However, without both perspectives, the gospel and the Christian life become one dimensional and the result is a 21st century Christianity that has decided to apathetically walk away from the faith, or at least from the church.
Both Testaments tell both sides of the story of grace and the call to sanctification, the sweet taste of forgiveness with the bitter struggle to be holy. They promote the free gift along with the call to a rigid daily self-denial and cross-bearing. Denying that His plan includes both a free and a costly grace, believers often default to what Bonhoeffer called, “cheap grace.” The result of this is a 21st century American Christianity that boasts great confidence in Christ, yet shows little willingness to serve Him. It is a self-centered, narcissistic approach to the faith. In this case, “Amazing Grace” has ushered in human entitlement. This sad reality has been met with piles of books on discipleship and Christian living. Some have proven helpful. However, they are often over-analyzing a very clear and comprehensible expectation set forth by the Master Himself. It is time to return to these basics of Christian discipleship.
In order to become a disciple, the sinner must turn from his or her sin and seek God’s redemption through Christ’s blood sacrifice. Genuineness is a necessity as is an intentional act of surrendering oneself to the will of the Lord for service at His pleasure. It is beyond mere conviction and guilt. It is actually a complete act of rebirth and redefinition. Nothing else will do. This move from death to life begs the questions, “How do I declare this decision to others?” and “What does the King specifically desire from His servant?” The answer to the first is baptism and open, public profession of faith. The answer to the second is explained plainly from the mouth of the King, Himself.
In an attempt to identify a true disciple, Jesus states in all three of the synoptic Gospels, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he mustdeny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it . . .” (Mt. 6:24, Lk 9:23, Mk 8:34). This heart-piercing statement continues to be abundantly clear. After one confesses, repents, and submits, true disciples take three steps toward holiness that only end at one’s death or His return.
First, the follower must deny themselves daily. It is simple enough; it’s what servants do. No elaboration was needed by Christ and the command is clear today as well. It’s difficult to do, but not difficult to understand.
Second, the Christian must pick up their cross. This clearly would have been understood as a brutal martyr’s death in Jesus’s context. Rewards should not be expected, nor notoriety in this world. Life on earth would be quite painful, as would the eventual death of the disciple.
Finally, disciples must follow Jesus. Not just His steps, but His practices, His priorities, His expectations, His concerns, etc. If Christ is to be followed, He must be well-known, to the point that the disciple can discern His voice, predict His next move, and go His direction at all times.
Again, these are very accessible, but not always easily accomplished. There are two angles of grace, one that saves completely and the other that stubbornly sanctifies. Without a clear understanding of these steps, one will usually faults to either paralyzing fear and legalism or an aimless lack of devotion and direction. A very bold, solid line must always exist between works and salvation. However, Scripture will not allow a similar distinction between works and sanctification.
Although Luther and others seem to struggle with the tension between Paul’s teaching on grace and James’ teaching on faith-producing works, Jesus didn’t seem to have similar issues. He was the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 11:1), and was, simultaneously, the one who worked harder, longer, and more effectively than anyone else in world history. Let us look to Him by denying our self, selling out completely to His cause, and following Him every day.