Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus

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9780785263470: Hard to Believe: The High Cost and Infinite Value of Following Jesus

Popular perception of Jesus Christ is that of a tempered, genteel man who walked the earth, offering nuggets of wisdom to His followers. But what we sometimes fail to recognize is that although Jesus Christ offered a message of forgiveness, He also spoke challenging, demanding words about what being a follower of Christ requires.

In contrast to the superficiality of much modern Christian teaching, Dr. John MacArthur serves up the unvarnished truth of what Christ taught and lived. In simple, compelling terms, he spells out what is required of those who would follow Him. Going beyond Jesus' life to include the crucifixion and resurrection, MacArthur shows readers that Jesus modeled the commitment and loving obedience He requires of us by making the ultimate sacrifice for humankind.

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About the Author:

JOHN F. MACARTHUR pastors Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and serves as president of the Master's College and Seminary. A well-known Bible expositor and conference speaker, he has written more than six dozen books, including the MacArthur New Testament Commentary series and the MacArthur Study Bible. He is the Bible teacher on Grace to You, an international radio broadcast.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Tastes Great, Less Filling

The first role of successful merchandising is to give consumers what they want. If they want bigger burgers, make their burgers bigger. Designer bottled water in six fruit flavors? Done. Minivans with ten cup holders? Give them twenty. You’ve got to keep the customer satisfied. You’ve got to modify your product and your message to meet their needs if you want to build a market and get ahead of the competition.

Today this same consumer mind-set has invaded Christianity. The church service is too long, you say? We’ll shorten it (one pastor guarantees his sermons will never last more than seven minutes!). Too formal? Wear your sweatsuit. Too boring? Wait’ll you hear our band!

And if the message is too confrontational, or too judgmental, or too exclusive, scary, unbelievable, hard to understand, or too much anything else for your taste, churches everywhere are eager to adjust that message to make you more comfortable. This new version of Christianity makes you a partner on the team, a design consultant on church life, and does away with old-fashioned authority, guilt trips, accountability, and moral absolutes.

One suburban church sent out a mailer recently, promising an “informal, relaxed, casual atmosphere,” “great music from our band,” and that those who come will, “believe it or not, even have fun.” That’s all great if you’re a coffee house. But anyone who claims to be calling people to the gospel of Jesus with those as his priorities is calling them to a lie.

It’s Christianity for consumers: Christianity Lite, the redirection, watering down, and misinterpretation of the biblical gospel in an attempt to make it more palatable and popular. It tastes great going down and settles light. It seems to salve your feelings and scratch your itch; it’s custom tailored to your preferences. But that lightness will never fill you up with the true, saving gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is designed by man and not God, and it is hollow and worthless. In fact, it’s worse than worthless, because people who hear the message of Christianity Lite think they’re hearing the gospel—think they’re being rescued from eternal judgment—when, in fact, they’re being tragically misled.

The False Gospel of Self-Esteem

The true gospel is a call to self-denial. It is not a call to self-fulfillment. And that puts it in opposition to the contemporary evangelical gospel, where ministers view Jesus as a utilitarian genie. You rub the lamp, and He jumps out and says you have whatever you want; you give Him your list and He delivers.

Defending the true gospel has put me in pretty serious opposition to folks who don’t want to take the Bible seriously. I always say that the people I pastor at Grace Church must have a heart to submit to the Word of God, because that’s the message they’re going to get, unadorned and unadulterated, every time they walk through the door. If they’re not willing to face the hard truth of conviction over their sins, the hard disturbing reality of self-denial and the hard demands of following Christ, they’re not going to hang around very long.

Some within the framework of evangelicalism will tell you Jesus just wants you well, and if you’re not well, it’s because you haven’t turned in your spiritual lottery ticket. If you’re not rich, it’s because you haven’t claimed it. Jesus wants you free from debt, and if you send the televangelists enough money, that act of faith will free you from the demon of debt. Your salvation through Christ is a guarantee of health, wealth, prosperity, and happiness.

The psychologically man-centered evangelicals tell you that Jesus gives you peace, Jesus gives you joy, Jesus makes you a better salesman, and Jesus helps you hit more home runs. Jesus really wants to make you feel better about yourself. He wants to elevate your self-image. He wants to put an end to your negative thinking.

It’s interesting how this trend has come into the church. I’ve been around long enough to have seen it arrive. It blossomed, I think, most pointedly through the effort of the ever present small screen religious personality Robert Schuller and a book he wrote a number of years ago called Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. I reviewed that book for a national magazine. I thought Schuller’s view was a turning point, literally, as the title says, an attempt to promote a new reformation. It was an effort to replace the biblical gospel with a new gospel. And it worked.

In that book, Robert Schuller attacked the protestant reformation. Calling for a new reformation he wrote: “It is precisely at this point that classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered’ and not ‘man-centered.’” So, according to Schuller, the first thing we have to do is put an end to classical, God-centered theology and replace it with man-centered theology.

To define man-centered theology (an oxymoron), he wrote further, “This master plan of God is designed around the deepest needs of human beings—self-dignity, self-respect, self-worth, self-esteem.” For Schuller, the pearl of great price is self-respect and self-esteem. He went on to say, “Success is to be defined as the gift of self-esteem that God gives us as a reward for our sacrificial service in building self-esteem in others. Win or lose: If we follow God’s plan as faithfully as we can, we will feel good about ourselves. That is success!”

Pardon me if I don’t join. I can’t think of a plan with which I’d less like to associate.

In this new reformation of self-esteem, the first thing required is to pull God down from His supremely elevated place so you can then lift yourself up, replacing God-exalting theology with man-exalting, self-esteem psychology. To pull this off requires altering and misinterpreting the Bible and the gospel for the grand purpose of making people feel better about themselves, so they can fulfill their dreams and realize their visions.

Maybe the most amazing statement in Self-Esteem: The New Reformation is the following: “Once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” So, if you want to be saved, according to this new gospel you cannot believe yourself to be an unworthy sinner. How twisted is that? How contrary to the truth is that? But it is just the sort of man-centered, self-esteem gospel that eventually became the seeker-friendly movement, which has hijacked so many churches. It’s a kind of quasi-Christian narcissism, or self-love, that is characteristic of false teachers: according to 2 Timothy 3, which reminds us, “Dangerous times will come, for men will be lovers of themselves” (see 2 Tim. 3:1-2).

Christianity, in the hands of seeker-sensitive church leaders, has become a “get what you want” rather than a “give up everything” movement. These leaders have prostituted the divine intention of the gospel. They have replaced the glory of God with the satisfaction of man. They have traded the concept of abandoning our lives to the honor of Christ for Christ honoring us. As such, our submission to His will is replaced by His submission to our will. Since people usually reject the real gospel, modern evangelicals have simply changed the message.

A saint of many centuries ago got it right with this prayer:

“Lord high and holy, meek and lowly, let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess everything, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive. Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin, thy riches in my poverty, thy glory in my valley, thy life in my death.”

“Thy life in my death”? That’s the true gospel. Jesus said it unmistakably and inescapably, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). It’s not about exalting me, it’s about slaying me. It’s the death of self. You win by losing; you live by dying. And that is the heart message of the gospel. That is the essence of discipleship.

The passage mentions nothing about improving your self-esteem, being rich and successful, feeling good about yourself, or having your felt needs met, which is what so many churches are preaching these days in order to sugarcoat the truth.

So who’s right? Is the message of Christianity self-fulfillment, or is it self-denial? It can’t be both. If it’s just a matter of opinion, I’ll do my thing and you do yours, and we’ll both cruise contentedly along in separate directions. But Christianity, the genuine gospel of Jesus Christ, is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of truth. What you want, or I want, or anybody else wants, makes no difference whatever. It is what it is—by God’s sovereign will.

The Hard Words of Jesus

I have no idea how the fans of Christianity Lite reconcile their approach to religion with the teachings of Jesus, or how they become comfortable ignoring what He said. But the only acceptable approach—for me and you—is to take our Lord at His word in the single source of truth for every authentic Christian: the word of God revealed in the Bible. So let’s go there.

Luke 9 cuts to the core of the question of what Christianity is all about. Here, Jesus was with his disciples shortly after miraculously feeding a crowd of five thousand, who had come to hear him speak, with one modest basket of loaves and fishes. In Luke 9:23-26 we read:

Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.”

It’s pretty simple. Anyone who wants to come after Jesus into the kingdom of God—anyone who wants to be a Christian—has to face three commands: 1) deny himself, 2) take up his cross daily, and 3) follow Him. These words are hard to believe. They’re not consumer-friendly or seeker-sensitive. Christianity Lite is nowhere to be found. But this is not an obscure passage, or something different from other teachings of Jesus. These are principles that He taught consistently and repeatedly throughout His ministry, over and over again in all different contexts.

This is not news. When Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517 by posting his ninety-five theses on the door at Wittenberg, he affirmed in the fourth thesis that salvation required self-hate. He wrote that “self-hate remains right up to entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” The original Greek word for “deny” means “to refuse to associate with.” The thought is that if you want to be Christ’s disciple, and receive forgiveness and eternal life, you must refuse to associate any longer with the person you are! You are sick of your sinful self and want nothing to do with you anymore. And it may mean not just you, but your family.

In Matthew 10:32, Jesus talked about confessing Him as Lord and Savior: “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.” And then in verses 34-36: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’”

It’s not a friendly invitation; it’s a warning: If you come to Christ, it may make your family worse, not better. It may send a rift into your family, the likes of which you have never experienced before. If you give your life to Jesus Christ, there will be an impassable gulf between you and people who don’t give their lives to Him. In fact, as the New Age Hindu mystic Deepak Chopra said to me on CNN Television: “You and I are in two different universes.” I replied that he was exactly right. And that is not just true for strangers but also for family members, creating a severe breach in those most intimate of all relationships.

Verse 37 adds, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” If you’re not willing to pay the price of a permanent split in your family unless your loved ones come to Christ—if you’re not willing to pay the price of greater trauma, greater conflict, greater suffering in your family—then you’re not worthy to be Jesus’ disciple.

Verse 38: “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” Wait a minute. In Jesus’ time, people associated a cross with one thing and one thing alone: a cross was an instrument of death. He was saying that if you’re not willing to have conflict with the world to the degree that it could cost you your life, then you’re not worthy of Him.

Verse 39: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” This is an echo of Luke 9. It’s about losing your life. It’s not a man-centered theology, it’s a Christ-centered theology that says, “I give everything to Christ, no matter what it costs me, even if it costs me my life.”

The True Gospel of Scripture

This is a bedrock truth of Christianity that the Bible confirms repeatedly. Jesus said the same thing in many different ways. He said it in the familiar story of the rich young ruler. In Mark 10:17 the young synagogue leader ran up to Jesus, knelt before Him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”

What a setup for personal evangelism! Jesus could have said, “Pray this prayer” or “Make a decision to accept Me!” He didn’t. Instead He confronted the young man with the reality of sin to reveal whether he was convicted of his wickedness and penitent over his iniquities. Jesus offered several of the Ten Commandments as examples of the law of God the young man had broken.

Rejecting any thought of sinfulness and repentance, the young man bragged about having obeyed the Ten Commandments all his life. He thought he was a perfect candidate for eternal life. But he got a response he didn’t expect. In verse 21, Jesus said, “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” Jesus exposed his self-righteousness and then uncovered his love for money. The young ruler wanted Jesus to show him how to have eternal life. But Jesus told him that the price was giving up his illusion of self-righteousness, recognizing himself rather as an unworthy, wretched sinner. And he needed to be willing to submit to the Lord Jesus, even if it meant he had to give up all his earthly possessions. He might not ask, but the requirement for eternal life is the willingness to give it all up if He does.

The young man wouldn’t do either—admit his sin or deny himself. As verse 22 tells us, “But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” He decided he’d rather hold onto the deception of self-righteousness, and have his money and posse...

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