Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luk 9:23).
What does it mean to take up your cross daily? I’m going to give you two interpretations and then you can choose.
Interpretation #1: Jesus is preaching self-denial
Following Christ is all about self-denial and going without. If you are not in the daily habit of denying your appetites and desires, you are not a real Christian. The more you deny your own needs and wants, the holier you’ll be. So fast everyday and you’ll be just like Jesus.
But there’s a problem with this interpretation. Abstaining from food, Facebook, or fun won’t make you righteous and holy. (It might make you religious.) This message of self-denial is nothing more than the ancient practice of asceticism dressed up in religious jargon. It is a message that promotes Pharisaical self-righteousness and DIY religiosity.
Another problem with this interpretation is it will leave you anxious and insecure. “Have I denied myself enough?” You can never know. So you’d better deny yourself some more, just to be safe. “Don’t touch, don’t handle, don’t taste.” Pretty soon you’ll be whipping yourself and asking your friends to crucify you for the Easter parade.
Jesus did not suffer and die on the cross so you could join him in suffering and dying on a cross as well. That’s not good news. Jesus died so that we might be free from this sort of dead and useless religion.
Interpretation #2: Jesus is showing us the way to salvation
And who is the way? Jesus. When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he’s saying the way to salvation is through him and his cross.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me… (Gal 2:20a)
The reason most Christians struggle to live the Christian life is they do not know they have died with Christ. Yet Paul says so again and again. To the Christians in Colossae; “You died with Christ” (Col 2:20). To the believers in Rome: “We died with Christ” (Rom 6:8). To the Corinthians: “We died” (2 Cor 5:14).
When you were baptized or placed into Christ, you were baptized into his death (Rom 6:3). This is just about the single most important thing that ever happened to you, yet many Christians are unaware of it. Since they don’t know that they died, they are constantly trying to die. But the gospel declares, “You died.” You have been crucified with Christ. The person you used to be – dead in sins and alienated from the life of God – no longer lives, but Christ lives in you.
“But if I died with Christ already, why does Jesus say we must take up our cross daily?”
First of all, note that the word daily is only found once in the three accounts of Jesus’ words. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and…
…take up his cross and follow me. (Mat 16:24)
…take up his cross and follow me. (Mar 8:34)
…take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
Why does Luke record the word “daily” when Matthew and Mark do not? “Luke is wrong,” says Adam Clarke. “Or at least our English translations of Luke are wrong, for the word ‘daily’ is not in some of the original manuscripts.”
Adam Clarke may be right. I wouldn’t know. I don’t have the original manuscripts. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume Clarkey is wrong and our English Bibles have it right. What then?
Why does Luke say “daily”?
My view is that Luke is on the same page as Matthew and Mark but he is emphasizing something to make a point. Luke isn’t contradicting Matthew and Mark; he’s saying the exact same thing – the way to salvation is through Christ and his cross – but he’s saying it with gusto. He’s saying we ought to value the finished work of the cross every single day.
When I get out of bed in the morning and put my feet on the floor, my left foot says, “Thank you, Jesus,” and my right foot says, “For the cross.” It’s because you have died with Christ that you now live, everyday, in union with him. This is a great treasure and not something to take for granted.
“Paul, are you saying that if I stop valuing the cross I’ll lose my salvation?” Not at all! I’m saying if you have been born of the spirit, learn to walk by the spirit. We don’t die daily – once will do the trick – and we don’t get born again every day. But every day we make this choice: Will I walk after the flesh or after the spirit?
Let me give you an example. Say you hear a message that says you need to fast and pray to become spiritually mature, so you decide to fast and pray. Bam! You are no longer walking by the spirit. You are no longer trusting in the grace of God. Rather, you are trusting in your own fasting and praying performance to make you mature. Where does the Lord fit in this picture? He doesn’t, and that’s the problem. Dead religion is a graceless and faithless way to live.
“Walking after the flesh” doesn’t necessarily mean running around getting drunk and doing bad stuff. That’s a caricature that applies to only a few. For the good Christian, the flesh takes on the subtler guise of good works, duty, and self-improvement. (For more, see my post, When doing good is bad for you.)
What does it mean to die to self?
There is nothing wrong with the phrase “die to self.” The problem is we read it through Buddhist lenses instead of gospel lenses. We think, “I have to stop being who God made me to be. I have to pretend I’m somebody else – someone who doesn’t enjoy wine, one woman, and song.” That’s a dehumanizing doctrine of demons.
God made you unique. He gave you good dreams and good desires that no one else has. When you suppress your God-given dreams and desires, the world is impoverished.
“Die to self” means “Trust Jesus instead of the flesh.” It means live each and every day out of the glorious relationship you have with the Lord. It means, don’t fall back to the inferior ways of the flesh that you walked in when you were a sinner or religious, but stand firm in the freedom of Christ.
This, I believe, is the point Luke was trying to make. The trusting life is an adventure. It’s good to remind yourself daily that “God is for me. How can I fail?” Conscious of your loving Father’s acceptance and approval, you will soar on eagles’ wings. And when you apprehend, by faith, the inexhaustible riches of his grace, the whole world benefits.
Why would you want to waste one single day living any other way? Why crawl when you can fly?
~ Paul Ellis
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