As I get closer to finishing my series of comments on John Stott’s books The Cross of Christ and Basic Christianity, it is evident that both books are heading to the major reasons the author had to write each book. We have seen in The Cross that the last part [part four] is focused on “Living Under the Cross;” for example the Church is the place where Christians can learn how to live a Christian life. In Basic, the main reason for writing that book is “Man’s Response” to Jesus’ calling [part four] and one of the main final ideas is on “Counting the Cost.” In this post we will comment on “counting the cost.”
Counting the cost is not an uncommon phrase for Christians. It lays out the terms of discipleship.
Terms? What terms?
Too often the new Christian attends to the idea of salvation but they don’t realize that there is a “cost” for the gift of eternal life. It is not a free ride.
Let’s look carefully at Mark 8: 34-38: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.
Does this sound like Jesus is offering the believer a free ticket to heaven?
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” is a wonderful piece of Scripture but it has some terms.
First of all, God does not want us to follow the world’s ways; we cannot just do what we want without suffering some consequences. Many don’t “count the cost” of following Jesus or they put on the thin veneer of Christianity, looking good enough to others to be considered Christian but not really dedicating their lives to Christ to the point of being uncomfortable. Stott calls these Christians “nominal Christians.”
What do we have to do? When Jesus calls out that we need to follow Him, what does He mean? When He asked His Disciples to follow Him the command was literal. They dropped their fishing nets. They left their fathers to follow Him. Matthew was sitting at the tax office and left everything that he knew and followed Jesus. For us however, Jesus is not implying the physical need to follow Him, He is looking for us to surrender inwardly. Put Him first in life above family, above ambition, above worldly concerns like material gain.
Explicitly, Stott says that we must renounce our sinning. If we don’t do this, we are not Christian. Some may think this is merely a public pronouncement of repentance, but Christ is looking more for an inward change of mind and attitude toward sin. A public pronouncement is not enough.
“There can be no compromise here. There may be sins in our lives which we do not think we ever could renounce, but we must be willing to let them go as we cry to God for deliverance from wrong” [Stott, 110]. Our guide in this is not other Christians; it is the teaching from God’s Word. God’s word will prick your conscience, but Christ will lead you further along the path of righteousness.
Jesus made the extreme statement that His followers should pluck out their eye if it causes them to sin, or cut off their hand or foot is they cause sin. Does this mean that we are to practice self-mutilation? Of course not; it is just a figure of speech, designed to make a point.
Stott also writes that repentance sometimes means restitution. We have to make an effort to put things right with people we have harmed. Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax collector repaid the money he had stolen from his clients. Actually he overpaid them. In addition, he promised to give away half of his money to the poor for all the people he wronged that he could not reach. This is our example. Being human beings and prone to extremism, Christ is not calling us to be overzealous in this matter, but if we really desire to repent, we should try to do everything we can do to right our wrongs.
Secondly, we need to deny ourselves: “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself.” Self-centeredness is the root of much of man’s problems and is closely related to another problem: self-will. Granted it is hard to deny ourselves but Christ expects us to say no to sin and yes to Him. We should give up our efforts to try to manipulate life for our own gain and let Him lead us to do the work that He intends us to do. That may not mean gain: Jesus said “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for My sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24).
Finally Jesus uses the phrase “take up the cross.” That sounds extreme, that we are to take on the attitude of a man going to execution. What this means in reality is to find yourself in a life of Christ. Take on a new identity, an identity that is not “of this world.” Jesus is not calling us to a half-hearted commitment. He wants as much of us as we can give Him. When He calls us to take up the cross, He is not lowering the standards for being a Christian, He is raising them. “The astonishing idea is current in some circles today that we can enjoy the benefits of Christ’s salvation without accepting the challenge of His sovereign Lordship. Such an unbalanced notion is not to be found in the New Testament [Stott, 112].
As Christians we are called to follow Christ privately but we are to confess Him publicly. That confession can be mere words if we don’t take our faith seriously. “So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” [Matthew 10: 32-33].
Open confession cannot be avoided. It is a condition of salvation. We are not only supposed to believe, we are to confess with our lips the statement that Jesus is Lord. Words are cheap however; we must strive to live out our faith.
What does God ask of us? We need to renounce our sins, renounce our self. We need to take up our cross.