When we say that the must’s in the Word of God are imperative or that they are commands, we are asserting that these statements govern our lives. And by that we mean that, though it is possible to ignore or actively disobey a command of God, it is not possible to avoid the consequences of such actions. In the natural realm, I may choose to ignore or deny the Law of Gravity and leap off a precipice, but I will never escape the force of that law. Similarly, in the spiritual realm, I may wish to ignore or deny the law the Lord declared: “If any one wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24b). But the penalty for disobedience is as certain as the result from ignoring gravity. God always says exactly what He means and means exactly what He says. We will note briefly three thoughts about this law.
1. This law does not address the issue of salvation. Reams have been written on this point—both for and against. But we must be concise. While every believer is called to be a disciple, salvation and discipleship are not synonymous terms. Salvation is entirely the work of God, who elects, calls, justifies, sanctifies, seals, and glorifies (not necessarily in that order). Having received the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8, 9), a person simply believes, exercising the faith he has received by the Holy Spirit. Salvation is God’s work and costs the believer nothing (so far as obtaining it is concerned). However, discipleship costs everything. Neither statement is an exaggeration. Again, this law deals with discipleship, the role of a servant-follower of one who has been saved.
2. This law mandates self-denial. If I am to follow the Lord as required of someone who has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, I must deny myself. What does that mean? It means that “you are not your own . . . . you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (I Cor. 6:19b, 20). Everything we do involves our bodies. Paul’s statement is both simple and comprehensive then. Our bodies and all they contain do not belong to us. We must reject our own wills, control our own thoughts, submit our own desires to the Lord, refuse our own wisdom, govern our own actions, yield our own desires, goals, and ambitions to the Lord, give all our time, energy, and stuff to the Lord. Certainly, the Lord will provide graciously and abundantly, but according to His wisdom and love, not according to our natural desires and human ambitions.
Of course, our flesh will claim that such a demand is unreasonable if not outrageous. It will scream that such demands are tantamount to slavery. And that would be correct. Until we embrace that reality, we remain ungrateful rebels. Christ saves us from being lost enemies of God and slaves to sin that will take us to hell to being redeemed sons of God and slaves to Christ Who blesses us with eternal life and eternal blessings.
3. This law requires that we take up our cross. If we think that cross is a figurative term for a burden, we have missed the point. It is a more intense expression of what is meant by self-denial. In the Lord’s day, when a man was convicted of a capital offense under Roman law, he carried the crossbeam of his cross to the place of execution: the fact that he was still living and breathing was academic. His fate was sealed, his death at hand. He could no more choose to do anything of his own free will than if he were already dead: he was “a dead man walking.” His will, his actions, his time, his goals and ambitions, though he still had them, ceased to be his.
So it is with the follower of Christ. But whereas the criminal convicted under Roman law was compelled to take up his cross, the believer, though commanded to do so, will never be forced to do so. It is the privilege of a redeemed child of God to yield to this “must,” to voluntarily sacrifice himself to the will of God and the service of the Lord. Only those who fulfill this requirement will experience the full, ineffable approbation of God. God’s blessings far surpass any “blessing” we can manufacture ourselves.
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