“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?'” (Lk 9:23-25)
Hard for the Rich to Follow Christ
Remember the story of the rich young man who came to Christ with the question so many seekers ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17). Jesus knew this young man’s heart. He had a sense of his own righteousness. To disabuse him of this notion, Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Then Jesus told him he must keep the law perfectly. This man claimed he had done that from his youth. Since he obviously had no sense of his own spiritual need, Jesus asked him to do one more thing – to sell everything he had and come and follow him. This was one commandment the young man could not obey because he was too attached to his wealth. So in great sorrow he went away.
Mark tells us that Jesus had great affection for this young man, despite his unwillingness to follow. So why did Jesus let him go? Why didn’t he make things a bit easier for him? Jesus did not require others to sell all their belongings in order to follow him. Commenting on this incident to his disciples, Jesus said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:23).
Seeker Friendly Lowers the Bar
What would happen in this same context today? If an evangelist were to sense that a person’s wealth might be a hindrance to the gospel, he might very likely lower the bar just enough to let him in. In fact, many evangelists would go even farther and promise the young man that a life of service to Christ might mean even greater riches. This is what is known as the prosperity gospel.
I met a woman once who said she would never have come to Christ if the evangelist had confronted her with her sins. She needed to hear all about the blessings first. There is a very popular book in Christian bookstores called “The Shack.” The main character encounters God as a black woman. This man had issues with his father, so the author of the book presents God as someone more soft and compassionate, someone that will be easier for him to accept.
It seems that many folks today simply cannot trust the Holy Spirit to do the work of conversion through the word of God without a little assist from the evangelist. We need to soften the message to make it less offensive and more palatable. But the core of the gospel message is that sinners need to be reconciled to God by repenting of their sins. Paul says this message is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). Who wants to acknowledge the fact that their transgressions are so offensive to a Holy God that it required the death of his Son to save us? Today that same gospel is no less offensive than it was 2000 years ago. We should expect people to have difficulty accepting it.
The Call For Total Commitment
Here is what Jesus said to those who had reservations about following him, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” (Mt. 16:24). “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60). “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” ( Lk 9:62). “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33). “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30). Does that sound like he was making things easier for them? On the contrary, he expected total commitment without reservation.
Jesus said that his followers should expect to be hated by the world because the world hated him, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
The Apostles affirmed what Jesus said. Acts 14:21-22 says, “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Peter said, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:1). The Apostle James said, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2). Paul told his disciple Timothy that, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles all began their messages with an appeal to repent. John the Baptist and Jesus both said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2, Mt 4:17). Peter accused his listeners of killing the Son of God, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:22-23). Stephen launched a diatribe against the religious leaders for their hypocrisy just before they stoned him, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53). The entire first chapter of Romans is a condemnation of the lawlessness of man without God. Paul begins by saying, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18).
Spiritual Blessings are not for the Natural Man
We must recognize that the natural man cannot receive the things of the spirit, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). So when we offer spiritual blessings before the Holy Spirit brings new life, the natural man misconstrues this as an appeal to his natural desires. It means coming to Christ on his terms. But the blessings are not natural blessings. They are supernatural blessings that come with repentance and submission to the lordship of Christ. And they are accompanied by tribulation. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The peace that Christ gives comes in the midst of turmoil. It is not an escape from hardships. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). This is the kind of peace that martyrs experience in the face of death, not the peace that comes from looking at a beautiful sunset. The unbeliever does not associate peace with calm in the face of peril. In describing his own sufferings, Paul told the church at Rome, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:37-39). He experienced the comfort of Christ in the midst of all kinds of terrible times. This is the peace that Christ confers on the believer.
So the person who comes to Christ for all the blessings without acknowledging his own sin and repenting will fall away when times get tough. That is not what he signed up for. And that is why, despite the dysfunctional relationship a man had with his father, we should not try to redefine God as a kindly Black woman or something else that he is not in order to make him more appealing. He is a holy and righteous God who cannot tolerate sin and will not receive us unless we come to him humbly, confessing our sins and asking for his forgiveness. That is the only way anyone can ever be reconciled to God. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of enlightening that man or woman with the truth of the gospel regardless of his or her background without false comforts offered by us. He did it in Paul’s day in a society as morally bankrupt and full of dysfunction as our own. He can still do it today.
Sacrificing All For Christ
The thrust of Jesus’ message to the rich young man was that in order to become a disciple he would have to put Christ first. Jesus was testing his willingness to do that by asking him to leave his possessions behind and come and follow him. In another passage. Paul said, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8b). Like Paul, those who would inherit the blessings of eternal life must be willing to forsake all to follow Christ. Those who come to Christ in an attempt to “gain the whole world,” or as we would say today to “have it all,” will only lose their own souls.