26 November 2012


In the ancient world, excessive pride or hubris was a prominent feature in classical tragedy.  For instance, in Homer’s Iliad the great, mythical conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon was borne out of the deep seated arrogance that permeated both men.  Of course hubris is not just a relic of the past, but is characteristic of every age.  That is because every child of Adam from the moment of conception is infected with this disease, and its symptoms are more or less evident throughout the whole of human experience.  No one is immune.  None is righteous, no, not even one! (Ro 3:10).

Take for example the shocking display of hubris in the life of Herod Antipas.  After delivering an oration arrayed in his imperial regalia, the Caesareans shouted, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22).  How foolish he was to welcome this false acclaim!  How excessively proud he was to withhold honor from God.  In the end, it was hubris that led to his gruesome demise.  An angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms (Acts 12:23).

Contrast this with the Paul’s experience in Lystra.  As he was preaching, a man lame from birth was listening and had faith to be healed.  With a penetrating stare Paul looked at him and said, “Stand upright on your feet” (Acts 14:10).  When the cripple sprang to his feet, the Lystrians shouted, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11).  Noteworthy was the influence of grace in Paul’s heart.  The temptation was great, but he refused to accept their idolatrous praise.  Unlike Herod, he knew himself to be but a sinful creature infinitely beneath the dignity of his Creator.

As the wise man warns, Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Prv 16:18).  Hubris plagues every human being to one degree or another.  It is something with which we all must struggle.  It reveals itself in countless ways across all walks of life.  Its ugly symptoms can be traced back to that original, diabolical, criminal desire to be like God (Gen 3:5).  The natural man like Herod welcomes the applause.  The spiritual man like Paul knows the truth.  With an enlightened mind he realizes that he is of like nature with the rest of fallen humanity.  It is a humbling insight.  But he also brings good news about turning from such vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them (Acts 14:15).  Amazingly, this living God holds out terms of amnesty to guilty rebels who are willing to lay down their hubris and humbly embrace the Lord Jesus Christ by faith.  Under the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit, through the justifying virtue of saving faith, one may display genuine humility reflecting the character of Christ.  Only then may he truly become like God.

14 November 2012

Take up your cross

It seems the biblical idea of cross-bearing has been misunderstood.  Typically we think of the crosses we must bear as the various trials, temptations and hardships we inevitably undergo in this life.  Each of us endures difficulties in which we as Christians are called to exercise patience and through which we may trust in the wise fatherly care of our God.  Many today view these hardships as “crosses” to bear.  But this misses the mark of what Jesus means when He says, “Take up your cross.”  First, unsaved people endure the same hardships.  They suffer afflictions, experience hardships, lose loved ones and eventually die.  Yet we would not say they are “bearing crosses.”  Second, the command to take up the cross indicates that the disciple is active not passive in this duty.  While most of life’s difficulties are “laid upon” us, the Christian is to “take up” his cross.  Third, the instrument itself, the cross, is an instrument of torture and death.  It suggests a hostile activity, not a patient passivity.  We are to use this instrument of death to kill something, namely, our sin.  Fourth and finally, Luke’s rendition of our Lord’s command includes the word “daily”:  Let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Lk 9:23).  Cross-bearing is something disciples must do every day through the scope of their entire lives.  While ordinary hardships are often temporary and of limited duration, cross-bearing is to be daily, every day, on all days, from now until we draw our last breath.  A man does not carry his own cross for two blocks and pass it off to another.  He bears it all the way to his death!  For these reasons, cross-bearing must not refer to the personal disappointments, physical handicaps or difficult hardships we experience with the rest of mankind.  Afflictions will be as diverse as the number of afflicted.  But the cross will be the same.  Regardless of what we suffer, we are all to take up our cross.  So what is the duty of cross-bearing that is incumbent upon every disciple of Christ?

It begins with a sincere faith in the Lord Jesus and a humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit.  Whatever cross-bearing is, one cannot perform it without trusting in Christ and being empowered by His Spirit.  It also involves at the very least the daily and diligent use of God’s appointed means for killing sin.  To deny oneself is the negative aspect of the disciple’s duty.  One must abstain from indulging his sin and starve it to death.  To bear one’s cross is the positive aspect of the disciple’s duty.  One actively crucifies his sin with God-given means of grace, especially the word, sacraments and prayer.  The word is a sword with which the disciple identifies sin, lacerates lust and cuts out selfish ambition, evil desires, sinful sloth, ungodly materialism, etc.  It is a powerful instrument for putting to death self-interest, self-esteem, self-centeredness and self-importance.  Indeed, it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12).  The sacraments are potent means of strengthening and equipping the disciple to fight this spiritual battle.  Luther often defended himself against the devil by saying, “I am baptized!”  The same can be said with regard to one’s own flesh.  “Flesh, would you indulge your sinful lusts?  I am baptized!  I am a communicant!  You will not prevail”  Interestingly, the disciple’s initial duties of self-denial and cross-bearing are matched by the disciple’s initial privilege of baptism (Mt 28:19).  The link between these discipleship firsts is noteworthy.  Specifically, without baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) these initial duties would be far more difficult to fulfill.  Prayer is indispensable in this battle with sin.  One cannot prevail without it.  Cross-bearing requires prayer.  No wonder the early church devoted itself to this discipline (Acts 2:42).  In fact, the whole panoply of spiritual armor enumerated by Paul concludes with an exhortation to be praying at all times in the Spirit (Eph 6:18).  This is how the disciple acknowledges his utter dependence on Christ to receive help in time of need.  We need His power and grace to mortify our sins.  Prayer seeks from the Lord that which only He can supply through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  To those who seem to lack power in overcoming sin and who find themselves flailing and floundering in their struggle with lust, perhaps it needs to be said, You do not have, because you do not ask (Jas 4:2).  Jesus assures us that the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Lk 11:13).

There is far more to it than this.  Owen’s classic treatise on the mortification of sin is a masterful treatment of this topic.  But a sincere, Spirit-filled believer’s use of the means of grace is certainly a large part of this duty.  While we share in this life’s miseries with all of Adam’s children, as Christians we must be diligent in actively crucifying those sins that threaten our spiritual fruitfulness and well-being.  As Owen wisely advises, Be killing sin, or it will be killing you!  So attend the word.  Participate in the sacraments.  Engage in prayer.  Mortify sin.  Glorify and enjoy Christ.