We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee.
Because by Thy Holy Cross Thou has redeemed the world.
A traditional devotion for Holy Week, and indeed for the entire Lenten period, is the Stations of the Cross, in which fourteen stages of the Saviour’s sorrowful path from the sentencing under Pilate to the laying of His body in the tomb, are meditated upon. It is an entirely appropriate devotion. All Christians are called to take up their cross and follow their Saviour and in the Stations this is enacted symbolically and liturgically. This is, of course, no substitute for actually obeying Christ’s call to take up the cross and deny oneself and if treated as such a substitute, it will be of little benefit to anyone.
Much has been preached and written about the Way of the Cross – not the Stations but Christ’s call to His disciples to follow in His path – over the years. Sadly, much of it has fallen into one of two great errors. The first of these is the error of trivializing the cross, of equating the minor inconveniences we face in everyday life with the cross we must bear. The second is the error of presenting the call to take up the cross in such a way that it compromises the grace of the Gospel.
If we consider the challenge to take up the cross in the context in which it was originally made there can be no danger of falling into the first error. Jesus first made this challenge at a turning point in His teaching ministry. In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus and ask Him to show them a sign from heaven. He tells them that no sign shall be given to them but the “sign of the prophet Jonas.” This is not the first time this exchange had taken place – earlier in the twelfth chapter of the same Gospel He had given them the same answer, explaining that “as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The sign, in other words, is His death and resurrection. After the repeat of this exchange, Jesus warns His disciples of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”, and, when they arrive at the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, asks them whom men say that He is. They throw out a few of the rumours circulating as to His identity, and then He follows up with “But whom say ye that I am?”
At this point St. Peter gives his famous confession of faith “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” which Jesus responds to by saying:
Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Jesus then instructs them to tell no man that He is the Christ. This may perhaps seem odd. Peter’s confession was not the first time He had been identified as the Christ, nor the first time He had confirmed this. John the Baptist had identified Him as the Christ at the very beginning of His ministry (Jn. 1:32-36), and it was on this understanding that His Apostles had become His followers in the first place (Jn. 1:38-49). He had certainly shared His identity as the Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well, (Jn. 4:26) long before this. Nevertheless, at this point His identity as the Christ was being treated as a secret among His disciples (including the Samaritan woman and those she introduced to Christ), although whispers of it were clearly circulating around the larger public of Judea as evidenced by the repeated requests for a sign. The secrecy would be dropped on the first Palm Sunday, of course, when with obvious reference to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, Jesus presented Himself publicly to Israel as their Messiah, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
An explanation, at least in part, of the secrecy at this earlier stage, is that Jesus had important instructions to give His disciples in preparation for what would happen when He “went public” as the Messiah. Accordingly, Matthew next tells us that “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”
This, we recognize in retrospect, was the entire purpose for which Jesus came as the Messiah, as prophesied in the third and fourth of the Servant Songs of the Book of Isaiah (50:4-9, 52:13-53:12). The disciples, however, raised as they had been to think of the Messiah in entirely different terms, were shocked to receive this teaching from Him Who had just received and acknowledged their confession of Him as the Christ. Peter responded by rebuking Him Whom he had just confessed to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and received a rebuke in return.
It is at this point that Jesus issued that famous challenge:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
In this context, these words can only mean one thing. He has just told them that He was going to Jerusalem, to be handed over to the elders, chief priests, and scribes, who would put Him to death, and that He would be raised from the dead. This challenge, in this context, was for His disciples to join Him in His suffering and death. To be His disciple was to be His pupil, one who followed after Him and learned from Him. Teachers test their students and here Jesus lays out what the test will be for His disciples. Included in the challenge was the promise that they would also join Him in His resurrection:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
Clearly then, this challenge cannot be reduced merely to putting up with our everyday burdens, toils, and nuisances. In its most literal sense, however, it could only ever have been fulfilled by those to whom it was first addressed, as the opportunity to be literally crucified alongside Christ came once in history. Even in the second most literal sense of martyrdom, while this has been going on throughout history and continues in some parts of the world today, it has never really been an option for every single person called to follow Jesus. Does it have any other meaning?
Traditionally, the church has answered this by pointing to the words “let him deny himself.” This does not mean merely “let him deny himself this or that comfort or pleasure”, but “let him deny his own self – his ego, his will, etc.” In this light, to “take up his cross” means to “die” to self, sin, and the world – the world, in the sense of “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16). These things – the gratification of bodily desires (encompassing far more than just the sexual), the desire for material gain, and the desire for the praise and esteem of other people – are the motivations that rule most people’s lives and to die to them is to cease living for them, and hence to cease living for one’s self. It is the death of the old, self-seeking, self-governing, self-willed self, to make way for the life of a new self.
Unfortunately, many who understand this to be the enduring meaning of this challenge, and avoid falling into the first error of trivializing the cross, fall into the second error of compromising the grace of the Gospel.
This is done by making fulfilment of the demands of discipleship the “cost” the disciple pays for receiving the grace of God. This, of course, completely undermines the concept of grace, which is that of favour that is freely given, rather than offered in exchange for something, and which is paid for by the giver, not the receiver. One well-known example of this error is the 1937, The Cost of Discipleship, by the neo-orthodox, (1) German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is widely, if erroneously, thought of as a martyr today. A martyr is someone put to death for their faith. Bonhoeffer was put to death by the Nazis for his political activities – his involvement in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944. However laudable such activities may or may not have been, being put to death for them does not qualify one for martyrdom. (2)
It is not only heretical pseudo-martyrs, like Bonhoeffer who made this mistake, however. One of the books that I read this Lenten season was A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Written by second generation non-juror, (3) William Law, this was a classic of eighteenth century spirituality, which influenced, among others, John Wesley and Dr. Johnson. The book is a call to Christians to practice true devotion, i.e., not just allotting a quick prayer to God here and there, but devoting all of their lives, including the aspects that would be labelled “secular” today, to God, and emphasizing that nothing less is required of all of Christ’s followers, whatever may be their condition in life.
Overall, it is an excellent book and far superior to Bonhoeffer’s highly overrated tome, but it is very weak on grace, despite the author’s having demonstrated a thorough grasp of the subject in his personal correspondence, and in the seventeenth chapter he writes:
And we are to suffer, to be crucified, to die, and rise with Christ; or else His Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, will profit us nothing.
Here, Law has gotten the cart, as the saying goes, before the horse and, as a result, he misses the meaning of the verses he then proceeds to cite to support this assertion (Rom. 6:6, 2 Tim. 2:11). For the orthodox teaching is not that it is our following the Saviour down the path of suffering, crucifixion, and death that procures for us the benefits of His saving work on our behalf but that it is His saving work on our behalf, the benefits of which are given to us freely and which we receive through faith, that procures for us the following Him along the way of the Cross.
Consider again the call to take up the cross, in its original, literal, meaning. Did any of the men who heard that call that day pass the test of discipleship?
They certainly promised to follow Him to the death. When Lazarus died and Jesus returned to Judea to raise him, St. Thomas, in words that have something of a feel of resignation to fate to them, said to the others “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11:16) On the eve of His arrest, Jesus told the Apostles that they were about to fail the test:
All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (Matt. 26:31)
This was met with St. Peter’s famous boast, that “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” to which the Lord replied by predicting that the Apostle would deny Him three times that very night, prompting the further denial “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee”, which all the others echoed.
When the moment of testing arrived, after putting up an initial resistance to the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, which ended when Christ Himself told them to back down, they scattered as predicted, when St. Peter tried to hide himself among the crowd in the high priest’s courtyard to hear the outcome of the trial, he ended up denying his Master three times, as predicted, and of the Twelve, only St. John dared show up, along with the Lord’s Mother and some of His female followers, to witness the Crucifixion.
The story did not end here, however. Following the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles became bold witnesses for Jesus, proclaiming Him to the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2), and suffering persecution and imprisonment for Him (Acts 4:1-21, 5:18) and ultimately to undergo martyrdom – with the exception, according to most traditions recounting the history of the early church, of the Apostle who had been present at the Crucifixion.
Clearly, a powerful transformation had taken place. It was not merely the disciples themselves, however, who were transformed by the power unleashed in the Gospel events, but the call to take up the cross and, indeed, all of Jesus’ teachings and commandments. Considered apart from Jesus’ Death, Burial and Resurrection, and the grace of God revealed therein, Jesus’ teachings, such as those found in the famous Sermon on the Mount, very much ring with the tone of Mt. Sinai: “this do and live.” Apart from the saving grace revealed in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus’ words at the end of the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel seem ironic and mocking. Paraphrasing the words of Sirach 5:23-27, Jesus gives the invitation “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30). Five chapters later, He says that burden is a cross! Easy? Light?
All of this takes on a very different appearance in the light of the Gospel of grace and not merely because Jesus, unlike the Pharisees, had Himself born the burden He placed on the backs of His followers. In the Gospel as proclaimed by the Apostles, we are told that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day and we are invited to believe in Him as our Saviour. In further teaching and expounding this, the Apostles tell us that we are to consider, by faith, Christ’s death to be our death, and His resurrection to be our new life, to regard ourselves as having been joined by the Spirit to Christ in His death and resurrection, and therefore to reckon ourselves dead to sin, and alive to God and righteousness. Fallen human beings are unable to meet God’s righteous demands, but God in His loving grace and mercy, makes provision for us. This is the very essence of the Gospel.
When St. Paul wrote “I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:19-20) did he mean that by his own effort he had accomplished the crucifixion of his own self as the necessary precondition of receiving the grace of Christ? Of course not. Such an interpretation of these words, from the epistle written to the Galatian church to tell them that not only do they enter the Christian life by faith, but they continue in it and live it out the same way as well, would be not only absurd but obscene. The Apostle continues by saying “and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
The clearest passage on this subject is found in the sixth chapter of the epistle to the Romans. Earlier in the epistle, St. Paul had indicted the heathen nations with sin (1:18-32), then the Jewish nation which had been given God’s law (2:1-29), showing that with or without the law, all will be judged by their works, (2:9-16), but then showing that nobody will be justified by his own works because all, Jew and Gentile alike, have sinned (3:9-23), however, God freely justifies sinners, Jew and Gentile alike, who believe in Jesus, on account of the propitiatory sacrifice He made on the cross (3:24-26), and that this justification is according to the principle of grace rather than law and therefore by faith and not by works (3:27 to 5:1), contrasting the abundant grace that has come to the world through Christ with the sin and condemnation that had come through Adam (5:2-21). Here, in the sixth chapter, the Apostle answers the legalistic objection that his teaching will lead to licence to sin (6:1) by saying:
How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:2-14)
Instead of producing licence to sin, the Apostle is saying, the Gospel doctrine that God justifies sinners freely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not their own works frees men from the tyranny of sin. The believer is united with Jesus Christ in His Death and Resurrection, and so should consider himself to be dead to sin in Christ’s Death, but alive to God in Christ’s Resurrection. Note that in this passage the believer’s participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection is not something that the believer is to strive to achieve through vigorous self-mortification, but something he is to look to by faith as an established reality. It is connected here with his baptism, i.e., the Sacrament that is the rite of entrance into the Christian faith.
Christ’s Death and Resurrection changed everything. Before His Crucifixion He set before His disciples the path of the Cross, the path of self-denial and sharing with Him in His sufferings and death. The path remains, but His Death and Resurrection has transformed it from one in which sharing in Christ’s suffering and death is something we are to strive to achieve, but something that has been accomplished for us by grace and which we are to live out by faith. Again, we do not strive to share in Christ’s sufferings and death in order to obtain the benefits of His Crucifixion and Resurrection, which are given to us freely by grace through faith, rather it is the grace given to us through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which gives us the power to follow, however falteringly, in the footsteps of our Saviour.
(1) The neo-orthodox were liberal theologians who had lost faith in their own liberalism. They moved closer to orthodoxy, but did not actually embrace it. Bonhoeffer was a forerunner of the regrettable “God is dead” theology of the 1960s.
(2) If you are looking for an example, from the same era, of the genuine article to which Bonhoeffer was a counterfeit, I recommend Edith Stein. I recently read her biography and have been reading, over Lent, her The Science of the Cross, the treatise on the writings and thought of St. John of the Cross that she was completing in her last days. While the book does sometimes lean towards the second of the errors discussed in this essay, she also, following her subject, grasps that crucifixion is not something one can do to oneself but must come from God, and that faith is the path to union with Him. She was raised Jewish, studied phenomenology under its founder Edmund Husserl, whose teaching assistant she became. While pursuing her academic career she converted to Christianity and joined the Roman Catholic Church. Heavily influenced by the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, she joined a Discalced Carmelite convent and became a nun taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was transferred to a convent in the Netherlands after the rise of the Third Reich, but after the Nazi takeover of this country, she was arrested by the SS, sent to Auschwitz, and martyred there. She was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church during the pontificate of John Paul II, despite complaints by the, in my opinion at least, Christophobic hate group the Anti-Defamation League of the Binai B’rith and its leader Abraham Foxman.
(3) Non-jurors were orthodox churchmen who refused to swear the oaths required of them, when Parliament changed the reigning monarch in 1688. Second generation non-jurors, like Law, refused when the throne passed from the Stuarts to the Hanoverian succession after the death of Queen Anne.
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