As Christians who have fixed our hope on the appearing of our Lord Jesus, we have been called to follow in the footsteps of our Lord. Thus, the call of discipleship is a central theme of the Christian life and this calling is intimately connected to our sanctification. Jesus Himself gives an important prerequisite for anyone who claims to be His disciple.
“If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” Luke 9:23
“Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” Luke 14:27
These passages do not mean that we have to suffer as Jesus did, nor does it mean that our cross-bearing is meritorious. However, it does mean that the pattern of Christian sanctification is connected to the experience of the cross – namely, our spiritual life is connected to suffering and weakness. As the Baptist Catechism states, "Sanctification is a work of God’s free grace whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of Christ. However, the manner in which God ordinarily renews and sanctifies believers is through the way of the cross."
There are many who view sanctification as primarily a matter of human exertion. It is very natural for us to want to sanctify ourselves - to cultivate a sense of spiritual independence and self-sufficiency so that we can be in control of our spiritual lives. We are tempted to glorify the life of the victorious, virtuous person because it appears that he has mastered sanctification. However, this is not the picture of sanctification given by the Apostles or the experience of Christians throughout the ages. The reality is that our lives are marred with various weaknesses, sins, and frailty. When we realize our true spiritual condition (even on our best days), then we cling to the cross, trusting Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. As the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed, on the cross, Christ carried not only our transgressions and our iniquities, but also our infirmities and our sorrows (cf. Isaiah 53:4). This is not an argument for a form of quietism, but it is an argument against any form of self-made religion that seeks to achieve spiritual self-sufficiency (cf. Colossians 2:23). This attitude must be broken so that we awaken to our need and put our trust in Christ to save us rather than in ourselves. In the Gospel and at the cross, our natural sense of independence is replaced by deep sense of dependence on the Lord for His grace.
The question may arise: why does Jesus command us to take up our cross and to deny ourselves if God is the one who sanctifies? At the heart of many faulty views of sanctification is the belief that we choose the cross that we bear. For some individuals, this may involve elaborate displays of ascetism (such as scourges and self-torment) and other acts of self-control and self-denial. What we must realize is that the crosses that we must bear are not self-chosen or self-imposed. Rather, bearing our cross has to do with the suffering that we do not choose for ourselves, the trials and difficulties that are imposed on us from our heavenly Father. In other words, the Apostles never command us to make our lives artificially more difficult; rather, they tell us to humble ourselves under God’s hand (cf. 1 Peter 5:6), to not despise the Lord’s discipline (cf. Hebrews 12:4-12), to rejoice in our suffering (cf. Romans 5:3-5), to consider our suffering as a momentary affliction (cf. Romans 8:18), and to patiently endure hardship (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25; Revelation 13:10; Revelation 14:12).
For some, cross-bearing may involve physical suffering through persecution or through some lifelong or terminal illness. For others, cross-bearing may involve the emotional suffering of becoming a bereft parent or a widow. However, for many of us, cross-bearing often is connected to the obstacles and frustrations of everyday life, such as marriage, parent, and job frustrations. For those of us who live in the Western world, our cross-bearing may involve social ostracization or becoming unemployed because of our Christian profession. Whether the problems are dramatic or ordinary, they are all trials given to us from God’s providential hand. In each of these cases, our temptation is to try to avoid these trials as much as possible (or to develop a complaining and bitter heart); however, to bear the cross means to submit and humble ourselves under the trials God has prepared for us. Just as our Lord learned obedience through what He suffered (cf. Hebrews 5:7-8), God uses the same means to train His children. In other words, our crosses are connected and patterned according to His cross.
Ultimately, all trials are occasions for the exercise of faith, especially in times when we struggle to understand God’s providence. It is during those dark days that we are called to believe in God’s Word, whether preached, read, or given at the Lord’s Table. It is typically in the midst of our trials that we are driven to prayer. Those moments of need bring out our utter dependence upon God in a way that self-made crosses cannot. Our Father does not give us more than we can bear, but the cross that our Father gives us is sufficient to train us and to conform us to the image of His Son. Therefore, as the author of Hebrews exhorts us, let us bear His reproach as we eagerly await and seek our heavenly city (cf. Hebrews 13:13).
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.