This post originally appeared at Servants of Grace.
Luke 9:23-27, “And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
Prayer is hard. Obedience is hard. Forgiveness is hard. For the average Christian, however, I think that repentance is the hardest. Repentance— the one act that is impossible apart from humility, impossible apart from truth, impossible apart from hope. Repentance is not merely remorse. Even the wicked are sometimes sorry. Repentance is not merely regret. Even a dog learns from bad results. Repentance is more than that. Repentance is an intentional turning away from the wickedness of the world to the righteousness of God. In this, we agree with God on what is righteous and what is sinful, and we agree with him on the punishment deserved for both. Repentance is an act of the whole person— it is an act of the heart before it is an act of the hands.
One of my seminary professors, Lyle Dorsett, quoted C.S. Lewis as having said, “Every story of conversion is a story of blessed defeat.” That’s close to the mark. It’s not just defeat, however, it’s assimilation— it’s reformation! Rosaria Butterfield captured this beautifully in her book Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert when she said, “Repentance is the only no shame solution to a renewed Christian conscience, because it only proves the obvious: God was right all along.” That’s a beautiful but terrifying thought. Repentance is an overthrowing of what is evil in us in favor of God’s goodness apart from us.
If a Christian is one who repents from beginning to end then it’s important that we understand why. Why would anyone want to repent? What motivation is there to keep going? Jesus says in Matthew 9, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” So often I’ve read that as if Jesus is merely saying we will have to make sacrifices in our lives. So often I’ve thought the point is about persistence. More specifically, however, Jesus is urging would-be believers to persist in dying. a certain kind of death. He continues, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”
The death that Jesus is calling Christians to is not the kind of death Bill Murray died in Groundhog Day. This is not an ascetic death or an ambiguous death. This is the death died by way of humility. It’s the death that denies one’s self the desire to gain the whole world. What Christian has not once stood at the base of Babel’s tower and imagined future glory? John Piper has reminded the church, there is no hope in future self-glories, only in future grace.
The same grace that leads to repentance is the grace that sustains us in repentance, and it is the same grace that gives us hope in the promised future. The truth is that dying daily feels like death. It has all of the hurt, all of the struggle, all of the gasping and life-rattling shudders of weakness. The author of Hebrews says , “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood,” (12:4) as if the shedding of blood is the natural expectation for the one resisting sin. Here’s the secret: it was. Somehow we have come to the conclusion that the fight against sin becomes easier as we go along in the Christian life or that it doesn’t require drastic measure.
How have we gotten to the point that we expect the carrying of a cross to be like a mere ankle weight on an otherwise easy jog through life? Jesus never comes to that conclusion, instead He teaches His disciples to, “Deny yourself.” He says, “Take up your cross daily.” He says, “Follow me.” He warns his disciples that anyone who seeks their own life and not his will find neither. Christians are compelled in love for God to lay down their sinful desires and wayward preferences. We are compelled to refuse that which displeases God. We do not laugh at or love those things which led to the death of our Lord. Instead, Christians are to lay down our lives out of faithfulness to the Word.
The result is that Christ’s remaining words in this passage aren’t true of us. The result is that when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels, he is not ashamed of us. The motivation for a life that continues in repentance is friendship of God, the expectation that when Jesus comes our eager awaiting is met with his surpassingly eager embrace of us as his brothers and sisters, and friends.
The apostle John says in 1 John 2:1, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Likewise, I would urge all who are struggling in the fight to turn to Christ first for grace as our advocate before God. He is, 1 John 2:2 says, “the propitiation” for our sins. And, being found in Christ, persevere. Deny yourself and seek that life which is far greater than any other: life in Christ.