Monday, August 15, 2011

Theology of Suffering and Sacrifice: On Taking up Your Cross, Part I (Bob Heppe)

Bob Heppe is a Field Director for the UK and Asian teams with World Harvest Mission and has been with the organization for over 18 years. Bob is an astute thinker and visionary for integrating the whole gospel in everyday mission. Bob is married and has 4 children and currently resides in Harrow, England.

I have a lot to learn from this man. Bob Heppe has challenged and strecthed me in many ways concerning the gospel and mission. I am thankful to be under his leadership and guidance. Part 2 is coming soon. This is good stuff. Enjoy.

Treatments of carrying one’s cross are trivialized in many ways. It is not about putting up with problems in one’s life: the thorn in the flesh, the intolerable boss, the pesky neighbour, or even the pain of personal loss. These are indeed often occasions of deep suffering and sorrow; but they are not what Jesus is talking about here. This suffering is the effect of living in a fallen world; it comes to us. We are not commanded by Jesus to take up such suffering.

John Stott, in the Cross of Christ, improves greatly on the trivial view of the cross mentioned above. He points out that it is not merely a matter of putting up with a few problems in one’s life, or even the denial of a particular sin, but of the total repudiation and putting to death of one’s SELF.

“Self-denial is not denying to ourselves luxuries such as chocolates, cakes, cigarettes and cocktails (though it may include this); it is actually denying or disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way.” Quoting Cranfield’s commentary on Mark,: ‘To deny oneself is … to turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness” (Cranfield, Mark, p.281).’

Stott continues a bit later: “The traditional word for this is ‘mortification’; it is the sustained determination by the power of the Holy Spirit to ‘put to death the misdeeds of the body’, so that through this death we might live in fellowship with God.” (Cross of Christ, p. 279)

Similarly, Walter Chantry, forcefully states the necessity of the cross for growth in godliness. For example, “Nothing leads to self-repudiation so much as spiritual meditation on the corruption and wickedness of your heart. If your soul has grasped human depravity you have been forced to deny yourself.” (The Shadow of the Cross: Studies in Self Denial (Banner of Truth, 1981), p.9). The cross is necessary, says Chantry, because it represents death to the enemy of sanctification: “There before you is the grisly old enemy to spiritual progress standing astride the path of obedience to Christ – SELF! This monster cries out daily to be served…. But on every occasion when we are serious about advancing in righteousness, we must contend with self” (p.15-16).

I choose these two authors because neither would ever be accused of casting Christianity in the form of serving sinful self-interest, or of pandering to the unregenerate drive for self-advancement. And indeed these men are aware of and seek to articulate the radical self-denial to which Jesus calls us as His disciples. As such, this is a very definite improvement over the superficial readings of Jesus’ call to discipleship so prevalent through the ages.

But nevertheless, I believe their treatment of carrying the cross falls radically short of the true significance of the text which we label “the call to discipleship”. I would suggest that to treat the text in this way – in terms of mortification in the process of sanctification – is to misread it in a self-interested way which is the very opposite of Jesus’ intention. Despite the call to radical self-denial which Stott, and Chantry, as representatives of the best in the Evangelical and Reformed interpretation of the call to carry our cross, to read the text as essentially about our personal struggle against sin is ultimately a self-centred reading of Jesus’ intentions. It is indicative of a subtle anthropocentrism running deeply entrenched in the foundations of Reformed and Evangelical theology. A text which is clearly about self-denial ends up being about self!

Furthermore, and more importantly, it obscures the fact that there is a far more radical and comprehensive call to give oneself over totally to Christ and for His (missionary/kingdom) purposes....

1 comment:

CRW said...

This is really good. Love the point that self-denial ends up being about about self. I so agree. Thanks for setting the record straight - denying self is all about serving Christ's kingdom and not our own. Looking forward to Part 2.