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The following article was originally written for the “Newsletter” which was being published by the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland.

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. Matthew 16:24.

We will quote again the question that prompted this and the preceding article: “Our discipleship: is it ‘conditional’ or ‘unconditional’? ‘offered’ or demanded’? a matter of  ‘decision’ or ‘election’?”

We pointed out last time that discipleship is given by grace alone, through the work of the Holy Spirit and based upon the meritorious value of Christ’s cross. It is rooted in election and belongs only to those who are elect.

We noticed that the very demands of discipleship are such that we would never, agree to become a disciple. It is contrary to everything we want in life.

The context also makes clear that discipleship is a gift of grace, because Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, who were already disciples, but who had an erroneous conception of what it meant to follow Jesus.

I wish to make a couple more important points about this, however.

I have been at great pains to stress, in this article and in the one before this, that no one, knowing the cost of discipleship, would ever agree of his own free will to become a disciple.

This does not mean, however, that those who are made disciples become reluctant and unwilling disciples who only remain disciples because their resistance is overcome by sovereign grace, and their ability to break away from Christ is resisted by a power greater than anything they have.

When God’s people are made Christ’s disciples by the Holy Spirit, they are made willing, obedient, eager, and joyful disciples. Yes, even though the “cost” of discipleship is self-denial and cross-bearing, the Holy Spirit alters their will so that these disciples consider it a great privilege to follow Christ—even in His way of suffering. This is why I gave to these articles the title, “The Gift of Discipleship.”

When the Canons of Dordt describe the work of conversion (which includes the work of being made a disciple), it says: “God… infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable…” (3 & 4, 11). (You should read the entire article.)

That disciples joyfully bear their cross is evident from the joy with which the apostles praised God when they were whipped by the Sanhedrin for preaching Christ (Acts 5:41).

Someone may ask, however: “If Jesus is simply instructing His disciples and us in the true qualifications of discipleship, why does He put it the way He does? Why does He say, ‘If any man will come after me…?’ It sounds like everyone has a chance, and the final decision rests with man.”

But that kind of interpretation is so wrong that it is not even really worth talking about.

There is certainly an implied demand here—as the questioner suggests. Disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ. Jesus requires that. In fact, this is so much a part of discipleship that without self-denial and cross-bearing, we can never be a disciple. But the reasons Jesus puts it this way are two.

In the first place, it is our Lord’s purpose to save us so that we become willing disciples. But He does not work that willingness in our hearts blindly and as one manipulates a robot. He comes with the demands of discipleship and works by His Spirit so that we joyfully follow Him regardless of the cost.

And in the second place, because all our nature is contrary to what discipleship requires, we fulfill these demands only in the way of struggle against sin, putting down our own inclinations which are opposed to self-denial and cross-bearing, and earnestly beseeching God’s grace in prayer and supplication that we may be true disciples.

We are made willing in the day of His power, as Psalm 110 puts it (vs. 3). And so, in willingness and joyful obedience, we choose what no man can possibly choose apart from grace. As Moses did when he “by faith…chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt” (Heb. 11:25, 26).

A foolish choice from a human point of view, but a choice that leads to glory—as it did for Christ—and we follow Him.

It is all God’s work in us and through us and to His glory. ♦♦♦

The following article was originally written for the “Newsletter” which is being published by the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland.

“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man I will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me,” Matthew 16:24.

A reader, calling attention to this powerful verse in Matthew, asked: “Our discipleship: is it ‘conditional’ or ‘unconditional’? ‘offered’ or ‘demanded’? a matter of ‘decision’ or ‘election’?”

I remember that, as a young man, I heard a sermon on this passage by Rev. Herman Hoeksema. He began his sermon with these startling words: “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ. We have in this passage a three-fold prescription for going to hell.”

He meant by those introductory words to impress upon us that the requirements of discipleship were so contrary to anything we want in life that none of us would ever agree to be a disciple of Jesus. To deny ourselves? Whoever in all the world wants to do that? To take up a cross? Every man who seeks followers makes lavish promises of what benefits will be the possession of those who follow him. But here is someone who says: “If you want to follow me, you will have to carry a cross!” Who would ever do that? Follow Christ? But the path He walked led to shame, rejection, crucifixion, and death. Can any of us really say that we would deliberately choose that path that Christ walked?

I mention these things deliberately because, in a way, the very impossibility of it all points also to the answer to the question.

The question, if I understand it correctly, means to ask whether we are offered the chance to become a disciple; whether discipleship is, therefore a matter of our decision; and whether discipleship is, as a result, conditional upon what we do. i.e., we decide we would like to accept Jesus’ offer and so become a disciple of Jesus, so that our discipleship is conditioned upon our actions.

Or is the matter rather that discipleship is a matter of sovereign election; an unconditional work of grace; and a demand of the gospel?

It ought to be apparent to anyone at the outset that, if the decision were ours to make, we would never, never make it. And we would never be or become a disciple of Christ.

Let it be clearly understood that every one who becomes a disciple of Jesus becomes one through a sovereign and irresistible work of grace. Only the elect of God ever become Christ’s disciples, and the work is God’s work in its entirety. He not only makes us disciples of Christ, but by His grace He also preserves us as disciples throughout all our life. If He did not, we would resign as quickly as possible!

This is clearly taught in the whole of Scripture where repeatedly Scripture emphasizes that the whole of salvation is God’s work—and discipleship belongs to salvation!

We have an interesting illustration of this in one of the clearest pictures of discipleship in all Scripture. I refer to Mark 15:21. There we are told that Simon the Cyrenian carried Jesus’ cross behind Christ to Calvary. But he was compelled to carry it, the text says.

But this same truth is clear from the context in which these words of Jesus are found.

First of all, after his amazing confession (given to him by grace), Peter is lifted up in pride. When Jesus begins to describe the suffering that awaits him, Peter attempts to dissuade the Lord. Peter thinks he knows better than the Lord the road the Lord ought to take to His kingdom.

The Lord brushes Peter’s foolishness aside with a sharp reprimand in which He informs Peter that Peter’s remarks are part of Satan’s temptation.

And so, we have this text. The way Christ must walk is not an easy way. It is a way of suffering, and being killed. But, to be a disciple of Christ is to come after Him, and that way for every disciple is equally a way of suffering and death.

In other words, Jesus is not explaining the conditions of discipleship which a man must fulfill to become a disciple. Who in all the world would ever do what Jesus says? But Jesus is correcting a serious impression on the part of Peter and the disciples, that the way of discipleship was a way which would lead to glory, riches and fame in an earthly kingdom.

In the second place, it ought not to escape us that the text itself says, “Then said Jesus unto his disciples….” These men were disciples already, made such by sovereign grace. Now they had to learn an important lesson about what discipleship would cost. Hence these words.

There is more here. But we will save that for our next article. ❖

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