Reasons Not to Be a Christian

Luke 14:25-35

Once again this morning we find ourselves considering teaching that bears on the great themes that have occupied us for a number of weeks. In the previous paragraphs the Lord has spoken of bringing not peace but a sword, that he would be the cause of division even between members of the same family; he has spoken of the narrow door that leads to life and how we must strive to enter through it; and he has spoken solemnly of those many who, imagining that there is a place for them, would in fact be excluded from the great banquet at the end of history. The Lord was a serious preacher: he spoke of very serious matters in a very serious way. You cannot imagine him with a smile on his face as he delivered any of this teaching in chapters 13 and 14 of Luke’s Gospel. Shakespeare didn’t mean to describe Jesus in this passage from Henry IV, but he did.

Yea, this man’s brow
   Like to a title-leaf,
Foretells the nature
   Of a tragic volume.
Thou tremblest, and the
   Whiteness of thy cheek
Is apter than thy tongue
   To tell thine errand.
[Henry IV, Part 2, Act 1, Scene 1]

Text Comment

v.25     If we have been returned to the narrative of the Lord’s travels over the last months of his ministry — remember we are in a section of the Gospel of Luke in which he narrates a long southward progress of the Lord from Galilee toward Jerusalem that will land him in Judea shortly before Passover – if this is in fact again that journey and not the recollection of some earlier episode or incident in his Galilean ministry, then he was likely at this point in Perea, the land east of the Jordan River. The enthusiasm of the crowds continued to be fed by their failure to grasp what Jesus had come to do. They imagined him on a victory march to Jerusalem. [Caird, 178]

v.26     What we have in this statement, a statement that has often troubled people who wonder why Jesus of all people would tell us to hate our parents, our wife, or our children, is the living voice of the Savior. The Gospels were written in Greek, that is, every word that Jesus spoke — apart from a very few that were transliterated, such as Abba or Talitha cumi in the account of the healing of the little girl in Mark 5e — has been translated from another language. Scholars have tried to work back from the Gospels’ Greek to the Aramaic words and sentences that Jesus would actually have spoken, but, of course, they can only guess. But at least here, we know precisely what words Jesus would actually have spoken because this is the way a Jew would have put the point. The Hebrew way to say “I prefer this to that” is to say “I love this and hate that.” In Mark, a Gospel written explicitly for a Greek speaking Gentile audience, the same point is put quite differently. There we read the Lord saying: “He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” That’s what Jesus meant, but that is not what he said. But the point, whether made in the Hebrew way, in absolute terms, or in the relative ones familiar to Greeks and, for that matter Americans, is the same. The Lord isn’t advocating the abandonment of family responsibilities; he certainly isn’t commanding us to hate our parents or our children. He is teaching us in a typically Hebrew idiomthat the claims of the kingdom of God must have priority in our lives. God and Christ must come first. [G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 111]

v.27     We know the Lord must have said this in a variety of ways and often because we have already read a version of that statement in positive rather than negative terms in Luke 9:23. In a world where crucifixion was commonplace, the cross made a powerful image of suffering and willingness to suffer is what the Lord is requiring here of his followers.

            In each case the point is clear: the Lord does not want disciples who have given no thought to what following Jesus will require and who have not decided to follow him fully aware of the potential costs of doing so. But there is a difference between the two short parables. In the first the builder is free to build or not to build. But in the second the king is being invaded; he has no choice but to do one thing or the other: sue for peace or muster his troops for battle. In the first the Lord says in effect, “Consider whether you are willing to pay the price of following me.” In the second the Lord says in effect, “Consider whether you can afford to refuse my demands.” [Morris, 254]

v.33     There will be a price so a man or woman must consider the cost before becoming the Lord’s disciple. The half-hearted will not be the Lord’s disciples, no matter what they think. Not the enthusiasm of the moment but clear-eyed deliberation is what is required.

v.35     One commentator suggests that a modern idiom for what the Lord is talking about here would be “running out of gas.” And one runs out of gas as the Lord’s disciple because he hasn’t kept Jesus first. The particular burden of the Lord’s illustration is debated in the commentaries. Salt seasoned food, of course, but it was also used to kill weeds and to slow the fermentation of manure. In the ancient world salt was rarely pure but was mixed with gypsum and other impurities. But the point is clear enough. Feigned, half-hearted disciples are of no use to the Lord and will be rejected at the end. [Bock, ii, 1290-1292] The disciple who lacks the true characteristic of a follower of Jesus Christ, namely that Christ comes first, is no more use to the Lord than unsalty salt is to a cook.

Some of us in this sanctuary were years ago trained in the Evangelism Explosion program. Developed by the late D. James Kennedy, EE, as it is known, is a method of sharing the Christian faith with unbelievers particularly suited to the use of lay men and women. In some places it has been wonderfully successful. After a time we decided that it was not as well suited for use in the Pacific Northwest, but a number of us learned the program and used it for some time. Many of you who will never have been trained in the use of EE will still remember the two questions with which this particular explanation of the gospel begins: first, “If you were to die tonight, do you think you would go to heaven?” and second, “If you were to die and find yourself standing before God and he were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?” Those questions then lead into a simple explanation of the good news that there is forgiveness for our sins because of what Jesus did for us on the cross.

A part of the total presentation was a testimony, which, as you know, is usually an account of how a Christian came to be a Christian. Obviously it can be very useful and encouraging to an unbeliever to hear a person say that he or she was once an unbeliever too and then to hear how it was that he or she came to believe in Jesus and what difference that made in his or her life.

In the training materials for EE there is a chapter devoted to the proper use of testimony and in that chapter you are taught that it is essential to emphasize the positive. Dr. Kennedy even includes an anecdote to illustrate his point.

“I remember one Christian who accompanied me on an evangelistic call. In response to my request that he give a testimony, he said, ‘When I accepted Christ, I lost all my friends. They wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Then I lost my job. You know, all the people who do worldly things (and he mentioned half a dozen things that evidently thrilled the people we were visiting) give you up when you give up these worldly practices.’ It was as if he had given a five-minute discourse on why one should not become a Christian!” [Evangelism Explosion, 82]

Well, doesn’t it seem to you that the Lord Jesus did something quite similar to that here? And, of course, it was hardly only here that the Lord rang the changes on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously referred to as the cost of discipleship. Again and again Jesus told the crowds and then in greater detail told his disciples what it would require of them to become a citizen of his kingdom and a servant of his cause. He said in many different ways that Christian discipleship is not “periodic volunteer work” offered “on one’s own terms and at one’s convenience.” [Cited in Morris, 253] Devotion to Christ must be unqualified and absolute. The real Christian must be ready to deny himself, to undergo all manner of suffering and loss if only he might prove himself or herself faithful to the Lord Jesus. Bonhoeffer himself not only wrote the great book The Cost of Discipleship but, proving himself faithful to the Lord’s challenge here, spent the last few years of his life in jail and then was executed just days before the end of the Second World War because in the language the Lord employs here — deeply as he loved his parents, his fiancé, his siblings, and his country — he hated them all for Jesus sake.

To be a nominal Christian, a Christian in name only, of course, costs little or nothing. It is cheap and easy work to follow Jesus half-heartedly which is why throughout history so many have done just that. They indulge the illusion that God will be well-disposed to them for having joined his church, for having made a few modest gestures of support for his cause — attendance at services from time to time, a bit of money in the offering plate now and again — but it never occurred to them to think of their Christian faith in terms of the hatred of their parents, their spouses, their children, or their own lives. They turn up their noses at the scent of fanaticism.
But,

“Whatever else these stupendous words may mean, they certainly mean that the relationship to Christ takes precedence of all other relationships, even the holiest of relationships like those that exist between husband and wife and parent and child. Those other relationships exist for the sake of Christianity and not Christianity for the sake of them.” [J.G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 151-152]

And, after all, the Lord was not being rhetorical here, simply exaggerating for effect. There is as there has always been a cost to following him. That is why it was so important for him to speak as he so often did about counting the cost. It was only to be honest with those who were considering following him. For his first disciples, faith in Jesus not only set them at odds with their countrymen in largest part, made attendance at the synagogue and temple sometimes if not often tense and uncomfortable, but at various times actually put their very lives in jeopardy. For the twelve it meant a life of travel away from home most of the years of what remained of their lives; it meant exposure to great danger; and at least for some if not most of them it eventually meant martyrdom. For Christians today in many parts of the world, public profession of faith in Christ is an extraordinarily dangerous act. But it is always demanding in innumerable ways. The Christian life is a hard life because it is a battle with one’s own sins, because the opprobrium that falls on Jesus Christ falls on his followers too, and because to be a Christian is to become the Devil’s target. Sometimes more than others, in some places more in one way than another, but always and everywhere the true and authentic Christian life is a demanding life, a life of sacrifice, self-denial, and various forms of suffering. It cannot be otherwise in this world.

And so, while the Lord Jesus often took Dr. Kennedy’s advice and accented the positive — think of such a gospel invitation as “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” or “whoever believes in me shall not perish but have everlasting life” — nevertheless he was careful to prepare people ahead of time to make an informed decision. He didn’t want folk to set out after him who had no clue as to what loyalty to Jesus was going to cost them. He knew how dangerous to his cause and to the faith of his true followers multitudes of half-hearted disciples would be. Nothing, after all, is more harmful to the church than its lukewarm members and its backsliders. Nothing does more harm to the truth and the reputation of the gospel of Jesus Christ than those who only pretend to embrace it or who embrace it for a time but quit when the going gets tough. Why after all do comparatively few people take the Christian message seriously in the Western world? Because so many people who call themselves Christians don’t take it seriously! Filling his army with soldiers who would fail in the hour of crisis was no part of the Lord’s strategy.

As we have seen before, the Lord knew very well of the superficiality of the enthusiasm of the crowds that gathered around him. He was disabusing them of what he knew to be a false interest, a merely temporary loyalty. What he said here and said so often elsewhere in the gospels he said first and foremost for the benefit of his true disciples, those he identifies at the end of the paragraph with the words, “those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” His words here were also for the vast multitudes of Christian who would read them in the Word of God in the ages since.

You see, it was not only to separate the men from the boys, as it were, that he said such things as we have read this morning. It was also to nerve and to steel and to inspire his true disciples. There is greatness, nobility, and heroism in the calling of a Christian man or woman. And a man or woman with the faith of Jesus Christ in his or her heart understands that. He does not want, she does not expect to be called to a playground. He or she expects to be called to a battlefield. They do not want to hear that loyalty to Jesus will cost them nothing, any more than the man in love hopes to spend the least amount money and to find the smallest diamond that can be set in an engagement ring. Love craves its expression. Loyalty craves the opportunity to demonstrate itself.

Some of you may remember from school days the poems of Robert Service, the poet of Alaska during the days of the frontier and the gold strike. Service, in his famous poem, The Law of the Yukon, described the sort of person it took to meet the demands of such a hard country, the sort of person who was needed in the Yukon.

 Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane,
 Strong for the red-rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore.
 Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core,
             Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat,
             Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace of heat…
             And I wait for the men who will win me — and I will not be won in a day,
             And I will not be won by weaklings, subtle and suave and mild,
             But by men with hearts of Vikings and the simple faith of a child,
             Desperate, strong, and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat,
             Them I will gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat.

Isn’t that something like the idea the Lord had when he said to the crowds that to be his disciple you had to be willing to turn your back on your loved ones and even your own life? He did not hesitate to make dramatic and extravagant demands because he knew there were those who would rise to that challenge, who would think it only right that someone as exalted as the Son of God and something as unspeakably grand as eternal life should require something great of them in return. The Lord Jesus is, of course, not talking about the cost of salvation, as if we bought God’s forgiveness and entrance into heaven with our sacrifice and suffering for Jesus’ sake. He is talking about the cost of being someone who has received God’s salvation as a free gift and now must live in gratitude to God and love for Jesus Christ for having given him or her that extraordinary gift. Even a completely free salvation becomes expensive for those who wish to live worthy of such a gift!

Do you remember what the Lord told Ananias to tell Paul when he went to meet him in the Straight Street in Damascus? The Lord had met Paul, or Saul as he was called then, on the Damascus Road, had struck him blind,  and summoned him in a very preemptory way to follow him. He didn’t ask Paul, he told him, and told him to go on to Damascus and wait for further instructions. Then Ananias was instructed to go meet Paul and tell him how much he would have to suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. Whew! Hardly the warmest welcome to the Christian faith! We might have thought, blind as the poor man was, the Lord would accent the positive and tell him what wonderful things he would experience now that he was a Christian, a follower of Jesus. We might think that it would have been better to concentrate on all the good things that Paul was going to obtain now that he was a Christian. But the Lord knew his man. He never seemed to worry about being honest about the costs of following him. He never seemed to think that candor would keep someone who might have been his true disciple from signing up. The Lord Jesus is the master of the human heart and mind. He knew full well that those who were being saved would find this honest description of the Christian life bracing, ennobling, inspiring, even thrilling; certainly not off-putting. A true Christian does not want to hear of an easy road, not a man or woman into whose heart has been poured the love of God and who understands something of the terrible sacrifice that was made to secure his or her salvation.

That is why the Apostle Paul after years of suffering, having been beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and shipwrecked for the Lord, and writing from prison could still encourage the Christians in Philippi to strive to enter more deeply and share more completely the sufferings of Christ.

The Lord meant with these remarks about the cost of discipleship to stir us, to inspire us, to make us want to be found among those who do exploits in the service of our Savior and our King. There are reasons to be a Christian, every Christian knows it, not just reasons not to be one.

May I speak especially to you young people and you younger adults? You live in a comfort-worshipping culture. You live in many ways an incomparably easy life. You spend more of your time entertaining yourselves than any generation of people who have ever lived in the world. Will you be the tough-minded Christians the Lord expects his disciples to be? Will you embrace the challenge of his cross? Will you face the difficulties of a godly life with a willing, even an eager spirit? What if loyalty to Jesus should come to cost you your life? Have you thought about that? It is hardly impossible to conceive in a world like ours, moving as rapidly as it is away from the gospel and the truth of the Word of God; becoming as quickly as it has hostile to that message. Would you accept martyrdom; even welcome it and consider it the ultimate privilege of your life to demonstrate your loyalty to Jesus Christ by giving up your life for his sake? Is there that whole-hearted, unqualified, extravagant devotion to Jesus that expects to suffer for his sake? I think this willingness to contemplate death, even to welcome it if it should be required of you on account of your being a Christian is characteristic of the Lord’s true disciples. Does he not say that here?

St. Teresa of Avila — the namesake of the famous Mother Theresa of Calcutta — was born in Spain in 1515, two years before the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. She was raised in a devout home and had, even as a little girl, a sense of what a great thing it was to be called to serve and to suffer for the Lord Jesus. Even as a girl she had it in her heart to do the utmost, not the least; to do the dangerous, the difficult thing for Christ’s sake. When Teresa was seven and her brother Rodrigo was eleven, they decided together that they would be martyrs for the faith.

At that time Christians were being killed every day by the Moors in North Africa. So, one day the two children snuck out of their house to make the two weeks’ walk to Gibraltar, there to find a boat and to make their way across the sea to North Africa and death for Christ’s sake. Out of the gate of Avila they walked. As it happened they had gone only several hundred yards before they were passed by a man on horseback. He happened to be their Uncle, their father’s brother. He asked what they were doing out of town and so ended their journey to Morocco and a glorious death.

Well, young people, among the things you day-dream about, among the things that flit into your mind and heart when you are at play, is there found this dream: suffering, even dying for the King of Kings?

But you reply, “No one is threatening me with death. No one is compelling me; no one is even asking me to make some great sacrifice for Jesus’ sake.” Really? More sacrifices, more suffering, more peril, more of the cross is before you every day than you know. Try to put to death for Christ’s sake just one of your favorite sins, really kill it — stone dead — and you’ll find out how much hardship, blood, sweat, and tears it will cost you to be Christ’s disciple. Stand up for him and for his salvation in conversation with some of your friends and it won’t be long before some of them are your friends no more.

No one, however young, who realizes how right it must be that we should make sacrifices for the sake of Jesus Christ who had made such an impossibly great sacrifice for us will have to wait very long to learn what some of those sacrifices will be.

The seal of one of the ministers of the French Reformed Synod of the Desert, that time in French church history when protestant Christians suffered terrible persecution, read:

“Né à pâtir et mourir” Born to suffer and to die. That is to be your motto; and mine. Did not the Lord Jesus say it here?

There are many ways to describe the Christian life. It is, to be sure, a life of great joy: joy in the love of God, joy in the fellowship of the saints, joy in the high purpose we have for our lives, and joy in the prospect of heaven. It is as well a life of tremendous satisfaction: satisfaction in knowing the truth, in doing what is good, in living for others, in knowing that your life really matters for time and eternity. It is a life of peace and of accomplishment; a life of hope; and on and on.

But it is also a life of suffering and death as was our Savior’s life and for the same reasons. But even that suffering is part of the Christian’s joy and peace and satisfaction because by it he or she shares in the experience of the Lord Jesus, honors him, and knows that he is doing something right and something worthy with his life. So what is the Lord saying to you from this text? He’s asking you this question, as framed in the words of Amy Carmichael.

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent,
Leaned me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned,
Hast thou no wound?

No wound, no scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow me;
But thine are whole: can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar?
       [Amy Carmichael]

Believe me, when you appear before him on the great day, you will not want to be the one standing there with no scars. Rather, say it to yourself now, and then again and again. “Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow thee.” Don’t say it in a spirit of resignation. Say it in a spirit of triumph!