[K:NWTS 3/3 (Dec 1988) 3-14]

A Sermon on Matthew 16:24-25

Geerhardus Vos

As we are all aware these words were spoken by our Lord at a most critical juncture in his ministry, at Caesarea Philippi, where he elicited from Peter the confession: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" and for the first time explicitly announced the necessity of his approaching passion and death. Of course there was method in his putting these two things so closely together. Even at that late time and even in the case of his most faithful disciples, it would not have been safe for him to dwell on his Messiahship without straightway adding the qualification that this Messiahship was not to issue into immediate glory, but into suffering and ignominious death.

How little the most advanced of these disciples were prepared to appreciate the true nature and aims of his Messianic work appears from the answer which Peter, who had just made that notable confession, gave to the startling announcement of Jesus: "Be it far from thee Lord, this shall never be unto thee!" At first thought these words of Peter might seem to be only the expression of affectionate concern, such as would fain ward off all suffering from the Savior; and perhaps to the consciousness of Peter himself, they bore at first no other meaning. Our Lord, however, had a deeper insight than Peter into the hidden motives by which this apparently innocent request had been inspired. He recognized in it in the first place a temptation of Satan addressed to him through Peter. Hence his answer: "Get thee behind me Satan!" It was a repetition of the effort made by the Tempter in the wilderness at the beginning of our Lord's ministry. At that time, when the life of self-denial and suffering was just opening up before Jesus, Satan had instantly discovered how his only hope lay in making Jesus fall out of this role of self-sacrifice and humiliation. Satan grasped better than some human theologians have done in what lay the inner principle–the true essence of our Lord's redeeming work. However evil his intentions, he was sound in his doctrinal views on the atonement. He did not need to be instructed about the necessity of Jesus passing through great trials and sufferings in connection with his Messianic task. In the world of superhuman spirits the issues of our Lord's ministry were understood at a time when they were still veiled in obscurity to most of his followers. As the demons were the first to recognize in him the Son of God and to address him as such, so here Satan, the Prince of the demons, shows himself fully alive to the consequences which would follow from the vicarious death of Jesus. And therefore he here, at this second critical point, renews the temptation using Peter as an instrument in order that even now he might make the Savior swerve from his determined purpose to bear the cross and so destroy his work.

Jesus recognizes the Satanic temptation in Peter's words: they were not merely adapted, they were intended to make him sin; he calls Peter in this capacity, a skandalon, an offense, a stumbling-block, thrown into his way by the Prince of Darkness. How sharp were the contrasts in Peter's life. But a moment ago, he had been honored by the Savior as the recipient of a special revelation: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven." And here Satan lays his hand upon him and uses him as a tool for the fearful purpose of tempting Christ. It ought to be a warning to us; a reminder that we should never deem ourselves safe, not even in our best and most spiritual moments, from the assaults of the enemy of our souls. There is no state of privilege, no degree of sanctification, that can render us absolutely secure to the allurements of sin. It is only the continuous supply of the grace of God in answer to our prayer and our faith that can shield us.

Peter, however, was not a mere passive instrument in the hands of Satan. There was a point of contact in his own heart for the suggestion of the Evil One. Our Lord's rebuke, while clearly pointing to a superhuman Tempter standing back of Peter, certainly involves a degree of blame for Peter himself. This appears from the statement: "Thou mindest not the things of God but the things of men" in which the contrast between God and men would not be applicable to Satan. Peter's words were not inspired by a concern for the accomplishment of the saving purpose of God, to which Jesus had so clearly referred when he said, I must go to Jerusalem and suffer, but by a concern for human comfort and safety. This is what our Lord calls minding not the things of God but of men. Perhaps the general form of the statement (which speaks of men in the plural) may be taken to indicate that Peter's concern had not merely related to the Savior's human comfort and freedom from suffering, but that he had also been thinking of his own safety and ease when he spoke those impertinent words: "This shall never happen unto thee!" At any rate it will be observed that our Lord's answer is not in the main a reaffirmation of the necessity that he himself should suffer and die, but rather an emphatic assertion of the consequences which this will involve for the disciples and of the duty which it will impose upon them to follow him along the same pathway of suffering: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it."

Taking Up the Cross

Now let us look for a moment at the principle expressed in these words in the light of the connection described. If any man would come after me, would be my disciple, my follower, let him deny himself as resolutely as I deny myself; let him be ready, when the necessity arises and the call comes, to take up his cross, as I will take up my cross, to sacrifice his life, as I will surrender mine. Identification with me, the Lord means to say, will probably entail the loss of life. The primary reference is undoubtedly to the sharp conflict of persecution upon which the cause of Christ was to enter. To take up the cross is not to be understood in the first place in the figurative sense we are accustomed to attach to it as a metaphor for the endurance of trials in general. Our Lord literally meant to say: "If any man would be my disciple, let him be ready to go on the scaffold with me!" The immediately following words show this, for there Jesus speaks without metaphor of the losing of life and of the finding of life, i.e., of the losing of temporal life here for his sake and of the finding of eternal life in the day of judgment when he shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels. Our Lord could condition these two things upon one another, could represent the surrender of life as a guarantee of salvation and the opposite as entailing everlasting loss of the soul because in the situation to which he was looking forward, the sacrifice of life would mean a profession of him and the refusal to sacrifice it would mean a denial of him. By holding up before their eyes both this glorious and this awful prospect, he seeks to nerve his disciples for the career of martyrdom that was awaiting so many of them. And who can estimate the influence which sayings like this in their clear, pointed, antithetical form must have exerted upon the first generation of early, persecuted, cross-bearing Christianity. The echo of such words is heard in almost every martyr's confession. They may have well been in Peter's mind when his own cross loomed up before him together with those other words of the Savior: "When thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee, wither thou wouldest not" (Jn. 21:18).

Now it might seem as if with the altogether changed circumstances of the present world, now that Christianity is no longer a forlorn hope, a persecuted cause, but a great historic power, the words of this passage have no further message for us. We are not called upon (at least it is not likely that the majority of us will be called upon) to take up the cross, to lay down our lives in this realistic sense. And yet I think it would be a mistake to dismiss these words as possessed of a purely historical interest and having no bearing on our own life as followers of Christ. It is easy to show that these uncompromising sayings of our Lord about the denial of self, the renunciation of life are but the sharpest expression with reference to concrete cases of something which everywhere underlies his teaching as an element of universal significance. No, it is not in exceptional cases; it is not in periods of persecution alone that the duty thus described devolves upon the Christian. Christianity as such in its very essence is a religion of self-denial and cross-bearing and life-surrender.

The same thoughts found here appear in other contexts which do not impose upon them any historical limitation. This very saying in regard to the taking up of the cross is found in Luke where there is no direct reference to our Lord's own crucifixion and moreover with a very significant variation bringing out the universal scope of the idea: "If any man would come after me, let him take up his cross daily" (Lk. 9:23). Every day we are called upon to obey this injunction and not merely in times of extraordinary trial. Our Lord throughout gives to understand that the life of discipleship to which his followers bind themselves is a life of serious import, of tremendous cost, to which no one should rashly commit himself without calculating the consequences. In the same context of Luke already quoted, he says: "Which of you desiring to build a tower, doth not first sit down and count the cost, whether he have wherewith to complete" (Lk. 14:28)? "Or what king as he goeth to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand" (Lk. 14:31)?

Nor can we dismiss the utterances of this kind with the easy remark that these are paradoxical, hyperbolical sayings which do not admit of literal interpretation and enforcement; for, granting that they are figurative and intentionally paradoxical, this does not absolve us from the duty, but rather ought to stimulate us in searching for the principles involved. Our Lord has given an extreme, pointed form to his words, certainly not for the purpose that we should brush them aside, but that our interest should be aroused and our minds react upon them and study them. Now in endeavoring to do this, it will, I think, be conducive to clearness to proceed both negatively and positively: to state first the false views of self-renunciation which are not only not implied but distinctly excluded by our Lord's teaching on the subject; and then in the second place to unfold the true conception of this duty which his utterances do present to us.

Cross-Bearing and Asceticism

Beginning then with the negative side of the matter, it is clear that our Lord did not uphold this principle in any pessimistic, ascetic spirit because he considered the natural life of man as such an undesirable thing. Life with all its legitimate pleasures he considered a gift of God and spoke of it as an invaluable possession. This is best seen from the fact that he used the ordinary enjoyments of it as figures to describe the blessedness of the higher eternal life. His own mode of life corresponded to this for in the popular estimate he was distinguished from John the Baptist (who neither ate nor drank, who practiced a certain degree of abstention) as a gluttonous man and a winebibber. The general tone of his life, notwithstanding its deep serious character, was not one of gloom but of joy, even unto the very last when the shadows of death were gathering around him. In regard to his disciples, he expressly vindicates their right to be joyful. They were children of the bride-chamber who could not fast, could not mourn as long as the bridegroom was with them. All this distinctly excludes both every kind of philosophical and every kind of religious asceticism which rests on a depreciating view of the natural life of man. Of the former you find an example in Buddhism which teaches that man should kill the desire to live, that extinction of this fundamental desire is salvation. Monasticism in many of its forms gives an example of the other. The Church of Rome has taught men to look down upon the ordinary life as something comparatively worthless, inferior in dignity to an artificially produced and artificially maintained state of renunciation. Both these theories are irreconcilable with the teaching of Jesus.

In the second place our Lord nowhere countenances the idea that foregoing the natural enjoyments of life is in any sense meritorious conduct in the sight of God; that by denying ourselves one set of pleasures, we can earn a title to others, bartering present pain for future happiness. On this point also his teaching is perfectly plain for he came into frequent collision with a class of people who held precisely this opinion. The Pharisees interpreted and observed the law from a meritoriously-ascetic principle. They prided themselves on the profitableness of their fasting, of their punctilious abstention from all pleasure on the Sabbath, of their wearisome observance of all the rites of purification. Jesus squarely took issue with this standpoint, not merely because it is impossible to earn anything with God, but also because, if anything were to be earned, even then the self-mortification, the suffering of man as such could have no value in the sight of God. What God desires in the law is not to afflict man, but to benefit him–a principle most strikingly affirmed in the statement that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.

Cross-Bearing and Self-Denial

Now coming to the positive side, we can here also distinguish more than one line of thought in our Lord's teaching. Most prominent and most easily understood is the demand for self-denial which results from the supreme law of love for our neighbor. This law is so absolute and so comprehensive that it is impossible to do our full duty to our fellow man without in many points denying ourselves–denying ourselves even in the matter of legitimate, sinless desires. The disciple must not merely give and so sacrifice his personal use of earthly goods, he must also serve and so sacrifice his enjoyment of natural pleasures. He must humble himself for his brother's sake. Even an infringement of our personal rights by another cannot for a moment exempt us from the duty of meeting him and dealing with him in a loving, self-sacrificing spirit. Even if he should smite us on one cheek, we must turn the other; if he should take our coat, we must give our cloak also; if he should compel us to go one mile, we must go two. Of course if must be remembered in applying this that our Lord seeks the value of such conduct not in the exercise of the self-repression and self-denial as such, as a negative thing, but in the positive good which through it we seek to confer upon our neighbor. Therefore it is not the blind impulse of self-surrender that is required, but the intelligent appreciation of what the welfare of others requires and how it can best be served. In this spirit, our Lord practiced the great self-denial of his entire earthly life; he brought this sacrifice because he understood its necessity and the beneficial results that would accrue from it for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind. In all minor matters as well the same principle should be applied. We may sacrifice ourselves for the physical, temporal comfort and welfare of our fellowman. But it would be wrong to do this, if by doing so, by indulging his natural desires, we were to endanger his higher moral and spiritual life. It would be a useless procedure if the natural life in one were to be curtailed in order that the natural life in another might be fostered. Both in the one who practices the self-denial and in the one for whose sake it is incurred, the supreme end sought for should always be the true moral and spiritual welfare of the soul; and this thought ought to control and in certain cases to limit the Christian in his altruistic conduct. It may render it necessary for us to deny ourselves the exercise of self-denial in order that the higher good of our brother may be promoted.

Next to this stands a self-denial which the disciple is required to practice for the sake of God and the kingdom of God. God claims our supreme affection. He asks that we shall love him with all the mind, all the soul, all the heart, all the strength; that there shall be no division of allegiance; that nothing else shall be interposed between ourselves and him as the great end for whom we exist; that we shall worship no other gods beside him. Now in a perfectly normal state of things, in a world free from sin, there would be nothing in such an absolute claim which would have to interfere in the least with the unrestricted exercise of all the legitimate functions of our natural life. For in man's normal condition, everything–whether he eats or drinks or does anything else–is made subservient to the divine glory, so that the natural instead of encroaching upon the spiritual becomes itself spiritualized and receives a religious consecration, thus rendering all self-denial superfluous. But in such a state the Christian does not exist for the present. He lives in a world of disharmony and conflicting forces in which the true balance and proportion of things has been lost. And therefore, the natural constantly tends to engross him in such a sense and to such an extent as to draw him away from God. Hence it is necessary that he should force it back within its proper limits wherever it interferes with his undivided devotion to the service of God. Our Lord frequently speaks of self-denial for the sake of God in this sense. The kingdom of God and God's righteousness are to be sought first. The Christian ought to wean himself from that pagan seeking after the things of this life which treats them as if they were the ultimate realities, which virtually puts them in the place of God. Martha was cumbered with much serving while only one thing was supremely needful; and by attending to this one thing Mary had chosen the good part. How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God. Circumstances arose in which Jesus demanded the giving away of all earthly goods; nay, where he warned against the yielding to the claims of natural affection, where he refused permission to go and bury one's father and advised the abstention from marriage because the interests of the kingdom of God could not be properly served without these renunciations. But here again he kept clearly in view the positive end to which all self-denial must be directed. The negative self-repression must be accompanied by a positive self-surrender to God and the concerns of his kingdom. Without the cultivation of the latter, the former would not only be useless but harmful. Our Lord himself is the great example in this respect. He not only perfectly glorified God in his use of the natural world, but also kept his detachment from the world free from every taint of unnaturalness and austerity by the positive joy and satisfaction he found in always serving the Father.

Finally in the third place our Lord preaches the duty of self-denial because self has become identified with sin. So far we have only dwelt upon the renunciation of the natural instincts under special circumstances where they come in conflict with the higher, the paramount interests of the love of God and our neighbor. But in the heart of every man there are cravings and lusts evil in themselves which must under all circumstances and at any cost be suppressed if the higher life of the soul is to prosper. Even in the disciple, even in the Christian who has already entered the kingdom, there are two natures, two principles, two selves wrestling for the supremacy. It is in reference to the duty of denying this lower sinful self that our Lord has spoken the sharpest, most uncompromising words: "If thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut if off and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee, that one of thy members should perish and not thy whole body go in to hell" (Mt. 5:29-30). That is to say where the natural self has been so taken into the service of sin as to bring the very soul into peril, there the disciple must by the severest discipline, in a painful process cut himself loose, tear himself away from it. Here self-denial becomes so imperative because it amounts to the direct denial of the right of sin to rule over us.

Now our Lord does not mean this in the merely outward sense that the refusal to indulge the act of sin is sufficient. He nowhere lends his authority to the view that sin can be effectually conquered by attacking its external manifestations. He had too profound a conception of the internal source and the inveterate nature of sin than that he should have relied on such a remedy. No mortification of the flesh can uproot a single evil desire from the heart. The penances may kill the body, but they cannot kill the sin. No–what our Lord refers to is something internal; something that only the true child of God can practice–it is a penance of the soul. From the overt act of sin even an unbeliever, a man of the world may perchance by force of will restrain himself. But this deeper, spiritual self-denial whereby the regenerate consciousness asserts itself against the stirrings of the lower nature and reduces the desire itself to silence and subjection, this is something which the unbeliever cannot know because only the grace of God renders it possible. There can be no renunciation of the sinful self unless there be first set up in us a purer, higher self which will plead in us the cause of God.

Self-Denial and Sanctification

Looked at from this point of view the whole Christian life, the whole process of sanctification is one continuous exercise of self-denial. It is especially the apostle Paul who has grasped most profoundly this element in our Lord's teaching and most consistently developed it. It begins in conversion, which is crucifixion of the old man, and it extends from there through the entire life in the flesh. Daily there is something to deny; daily there is something to subdue. I buffet my flesh and keep it under, lest I myself should become a castaway. And what we call cross-bearing in the wider sense–the enduring of hardship and adversity–what else is it but one of the principal forms in which the grace of God leads us to exercise this denial, this suppression of our sinful selves? When God lays upon us a trial, a cross, he always adjusts it to our individual state that it may be helpful to us in purifying ourselves of remaining sin. But here also it is not the external bearing of the cross, it is the inward taking up of it which can alone yield the gracious result God designs it to have for us. Just as our Lord Jesus not merely bore his cross, but entered into its spirit and approved of it and made it by his obedience and submission effective for atonement, so we must take upon ourselves, receive, as another passage says, the chastisement of the Lord. We must search ourselves to discover the purpose God has in sending it to us and then deliberately set ourselves to give effect to it.

The old divines like Calvin used to devote a separate chapter to this subject in their discussion of sanctification. In their days of trial and persecution there was special occasion for this. But I am sure that even in our day of peace and security there is still ample need for exercising this grace. Especially the minister of the gospel has as a rule enough trials and crosses laid upon him to discipline his soul. Let us then endeavor to obey the Lord in this. And let us not think that this is too hard a view to take of the Christian life. To be sure denial of self, a course of action as if self did not exist, does not seem a pleasant procedure. But remember that it is not the true, it is only the sinful self that we are called upon to abrogate. The law laid down by our Lord, "Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it" applies not merely to martyrdom with its reward in the day of judgment. It applies to every cross that we daily bear. Even now, if we are his true followers, the Son of Man comes to us in the glory of his Father and with his holy angels to impart unto us and strengthen in us that higher, heavenly life which needs no repression, no denial and with which trials of the present are not worthy to be compared.

Preached November 22, 1903 at Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey