We recently moved to a retirement community in suburban Chicago. It is a lifestyle entirely unlike any other we have ever experienced. Since everyone is from the same generation, we share many of the same values. Tastes in music run from the 40s to the 60s. The other day, I walked into the clubhouse to the tune of Bing Crosby crooning “Have You Ever Danced with a Dream.” The music and lyrics took me back to more innocent days when girls were still a mystery to boys and sex was something reserved for marriage.
Around here we start every meeting with the pledge of allegiance. An American flag marks the entrance to each of the sixteen neighborhoods that make up the community. When we get together, the conversation often revolves around the safer, saner times of our youth when the word ‘gay’ meant ‘happy’ and there were no Muslim terrorists. Driving through the gates is sort of like taking a step back into an earlier era. Around here it is easy to strike up a conversation with a total stranger and build an almost instant rapport.
So it was no surprise to me when I found myself in a conversation about the Christian faith with a woman I had just met in the pool. I was sharing how so many professing Christians have never really come to terms with their own guilt before God. She said that she had come to Christ to receive all the blessings of salvation, but nearly lost her faith when trials came her way. She questioned her faith because she was under the impression that God would spare believers from the hardships of life.
Her experience is not uncommon because many people never come to the point of genuine remorse and repentance for their sins when they ‘accept Jesus as their Saviour.’ They are told that Jesus loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives, that all they need to do is “ask him into their heart” and he will save them from their sin and provide them a home in heaven forever. Unfortunately, that is not the way salvation is presented in the Bible.
Jesus demands that we forsake all else to follow Him. He says we must take up our cross, that the world will hate us, that the servant can expect no better treatment than his master, and that in this world we will have tribulations. Those are the promises he makes to us, along with the pledge of a place by his side for all eternity if we are willing to abide in Him, i.e. stick it out to the bitter end (Jn 15:1-10)
Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a field with a buried treasure so valuable that the man who finds it sells all that he has to buy the property. He likens it to a pearl so valuable that a merchant sells everything he owns to buy it (Mt 13:44-46). He says that the person who comes to him must be willing to turn his back on anything that would hinder his total obedience whether job or possessions or even family (Lk 9:57-62).
Paul puts it this way, ” But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:7-11).
In the same way that a woman leaves her mother and father and her own home to follow her husband when she gets married, we must forsake everything this world has to offer when we choose to follow Christ. We cannot ‘have it all’ — everything this life has to offer along with all the blessings of heaven. It is not a ‘both/and’ proposition, but an ‘either/or’ proposition.
Unfortunately, Christians too often minimize the cost of discipleship and maximize the blessings of belief in order to make the gospel more palatable. But it is simply not possible to produce genuine faith without genuine repentance of sin. That would render the sacrifice of Christ on the cross a tragedy of cosmic proportions. If our sins are so grievous that God the Father can accept nothing less than the sacrifice of his own Son in payment, we must not only agree with him, but express genuine sorrow for our sins in order to be reconciled to God.
To cajole sinners into making a ‘decision for Christ’ by using enticements like promises of safety and security and immunity from trials and tribulations is a betrayal of the gospel. It shows a lack of trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring new life through the preaching of the Word of God. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit produces that life by convicting the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). If there is no conviction, the Holy Spirit has not done a saving work in the person’s heart.
The true gospel begins with a call to repentance. Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” In order to repent, a person must have a sense of their own guilt. So every gospel presentation must begin with the preaching of the law, for it is the law that brings consciousness of sin (Rom 5:20; 7:7).
There certainly are blessings in following Christ, but they are appropriated as God weans us away from this world through afflictions (Heb 10:36). The promises of God are eternal and not temporal (Heb 11:13-16). What we get on this side is a good dose of the cost of discipleship in order to conform us to Christ. Our suffering is storing up a weight of glory in heaven that is far beyond measure, if we endure suffering patiently and remain true to Christ (Rom 8:18, 2 Ti 2:12).
Suffering binds us to Christ in a way that good times never can. When we patiently endure shame and humiliation for Christ’s sake, we identify with him in a way we never could through good times. In fact, our loyalty would be suspect if it were never put to the test. If we received Christ just for the blessings, we would be no different from the advantage-seekers who ingratiate themselves with rich relatives or famous celebrities and then disappear when the money dries up.
Paul tells the Colossians, “… in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). Satan heaps the abuse intended for Christ on his followers now that Christ is seated in heaven far beyond his reach. By associating ourselves with Christ and his church, we take upon ourselves the abuse and ridicule intended for him. The apostles counted it a privilege to suffer shame for Christ’s sake (Acts 5:41). We should do the same.
1 Pet 4:13-14 says we will share in the very glory of Christ if we suffer for his sake, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” According to Romans 8: 16-17, suffering is a condition for sharing in Christ’s glory, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” The apostle James says that patient suffering produces assurance of salvation, for if we don’t abandon Christ in the face of persecution we know that our faith is genuine. Nothing produces assurance of salvation like faithfulness in trials (James 1:2-4).
There is arguably no stronger bond than the one that binds together soldiers in the midst of conflict. The bonds forged in battle last a lifetime. There is a trust that cannot be broken because these men know that their brothers will always “have their back.” They share secrets with one another that they share with no one else. They expose vulnerabilities they will never let anyone else see, and they willingly forfeit things others cherish to be with their brothers.
This is the kind of relationship we can have with Jesus Christ if we treasure our relationship with him enough to suffer shame for His name’s sake. For our faithfulness we will share a bond with Christ that those who have never shed a tear or taken an insult on his behalf will ever know. Don’t find yourself on the outside looking in wishing you could enjoy such intimacy with Christ because you aren’t willing to patiently endure hardships for his sake.