Only those who deny themselves and take up their crosses will be able to do the last thing Jesus said: “Follow me.” The reason is simple. When we answer the call of Christ, life becomes both easier and harder. It is easier because of the blessings of grace, but harder because we enter an unrelenting combat against our old selves, the fallen world around us, and the schemes of the devil. Faithfully following Christ in this battle is possible only if we wholeheartedly put his will and interests ahead of our own, regardless of the cost. For as long as we retain our personal autonomy and seek to preserve our self-centered interests, we won’t be able to submit ourselves to his will when it conflicts with ours. And as long as we value our physical survival more than his glory, we will not be able to stand firm in the face of death. Once we make these decisive commitments, we will encounter challenges that require us to reaffirm them again and again. And we will discover that as we do, they grow deeper and stronger.What, then, did Jesus mean when he said, “Follow me”? He meant we should obey his commands and seek to walk as he walked, live as he lived. The essence of Jesus’ commands and life was loving obedience to God and sacrificial service to one’s neighbor, regardless of the personal cost. Thus we are called to follow Jesus’ precepts and example by living a life of holy love, striving for that perfection in love that begins in this world and comes to fullness in the world to come where at last the image of God will be fully restored in us.
Such a life seems impossible when we consider our self-centeredness, sins, and weaknesses. And indeed it is impossible apart from grace. But Jesus knows how weak we are, and he has made the impossible possible for us through the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit creates the community of faith to nurture us. The Spirit makes the Word become alive and powerful in us. The Spirit pours out God’s love into our hearts. The Spirit enables us joyfully to abandon ourselves to God, to daily put to death the works of our fallen nature, and to be progressively transformed into the likeness of Jesus himself. The Spirit calls us to mission, gifts us for ministry, and enables us to fulfill the works God has prepared us to do for his glory. All these things and more he will do as we earnestly seek to be filled with the Spirit and walk in the Spirit. It is significant that the Greek verb we render “follow” is not an aorist but a present imperative, indicating continuing action. That is, Jesus asks us to follow him faithfully day by day to our life’s end.
He knows, of course, that we will not do it perfectly. Throughout our lives we will encounter temptations, trials, resistance, and persecution. And there will be times when we stumble and fall, sometimes tragically. When we do, it drives us back to the cross in repentance for our sin and in faith that the blood he shed for us saves to the uttermost. He who could forgive Peter, who denied him, will surely do no less for us. Then, like Peter, forgiven, restored and humbled, we march on with fresh hope and renewed commitment.
What Jesus teaches about true conversion and wholehearted commitment is not something most American church-goers will want to hear. As James Houston once observed, “Most church members don’t want growth, they want to remain comfortably asleep.” As a result, this is not something most preachers will want to address, since it will definitely “rock the boat” and might lead to reduce attendance and giving. But it is something we desperately need to hear again from the pulpits of our land.
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