Rick Ritchie left a comment on my previous post describing his “wariness” of evangelism that is geared towards getting people to resolve to deny themselves and take up the cross, and asking how my description of Jesus’ “call” as descriptive of what believing the gospel looks like can be reconciled with Philip Cary’s “Lutheran syllogism”:
Major premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).
If we bring Jesus’ “call” into our basic presentation of the gospel, doesn’t this throw us back onto the “reflective” faith which Cary warns us against: “Have I denied myself? Have I taken up the cross? Am I following Jesus?” What role (if any) does Jesus’ call to take up the cross have in our proclamation of the gospel today?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. On the one hand, if Jesus regards “let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” as part of the gospel call (note that he said this to “the crowd”) then we can’t excise these words from our own understanding and presentation of the gospel. On the other, it is all too easy to use these words to throw people back on the law (“Deny yourself! Take up your cross!”) and on introspection (“Have I denied myself enough?”)
However, if we exclude “taking up the cross” from our account of the gospel in the name of avoiding legalism and pietism then in the end we may find this takes us closer to legalism or pietism rather than further away from them. Because if we say that the “identity” and “mission” elements of Mark’s message are a sufficient statement of the gospel, then that can only mean that the “call” element is something additional which we come to after we have accepted the first two elements: a “further step” into a “deeper experience” of Christian commitment.
So how do we hold on to the pastorally-valuable emphasis on a “non-reflective” approach to the gospel and faith, in the light of Jesus’ call to take up the cross? Well, at least part of it is that we’re not to use those words to lead people to questions such as, “Have I denied myself and taken up the cross?”. We’re certainly not to invite people to make statements like, “I am denying myself and taking up the cross”.
That’s why I think Rico Tice’s emphasis on contrasting the “present” and the “future” is helpful here. This takes us away from an inward focus on our own present state of mind or behaviour, to an outward focus on the future-directed promises of Christ. It’s not a question of choosing between two ways of living in the present – “selfish” vs “self-denying”. It’s a matter of deciding whether to believe Jesus and his promises about the future, or to turn away from those promises and focus only on our lives in the present; whether to treat Christ and his words as something to be ashamed of (v.38) or as something we can believe and rely upon.
To believe that Christ is telling the truth is (necessarily and by implication) to deny one’s own perceptions and works. To become his disciple is to put oneself (or rather, to be put by him) into the community of those who are visibly his companions in the way of the cross – that is, the church. (In other words, the emphasis in “taking up the cross” is on visibly identifying with the crucified Christ and exposing oneself to the world’s ridicule, rather than “self-denial” in the conventional, moral sense.)
And it’s only fair to tell people what they’re letting themselves in for if they believe Jesus: not as a standard of behaviour to which they must attain and for which they must look in their own lives in a reflective way, but as an inevitable consequence of believing that Jesus is telling the truth about his identity and mission. To make people think that believing Jesus is something that can remain a wholly private and individual decision without any negative social consequences is to mislead them.
However, I’d very much welcome any further thoughts people have on how we can ensure that Jesus’ call to take up the cross is included in our proclamation of the gospel in an appropriate way.