When we preach a me-centred gospel, we end up with me-centred disciples. And when things get tough, these self-centred followers of Jesus will quickly fall away. Yet I hear believers all the time telling me we must make it easy for people to come to Jesus. We must not challenge them, judge them, mention their sin, or put any obstacles in their way.
They want to proclaim a wishy-washy gospel which everyone will be happy with and no one will reject. But if everyone comes rushing to embrace your gospel, then it is very likely not the gospel of Jesus Christ at all. Indeed, such easy believe-ism runs counter to everything Jesus said and did. He deliberately made it difficult for people to follow him. He warned people about the great costs of being his disciples.
Indeed, some of his demands were outright shocking and offensive to his audiences at the time. He demanded stricter conditions of discipleship than did the other rabbis. And because of such strenuous demands, many people turned away from following Jesus.
Consider his harsh and demanding words found in Luke 9:56-62: “And they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ To another he said, ‘Come, follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But he said, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God’. Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first let me first say farewell to those at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who sets his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’.”
There is nothing inviting, easy or welcoming about such words. It almost seems like Jesus is determined to put people off from following him. As Craig Keener comments, “Jesus turned away prospective disciples with heavy demands”. Jesus always rewarded the serious seeker, but never the casual inquirer.
As Keener notes, “Persistent seekers throughout the Jesus tradition display the appropriate response: the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:25-28), the blind man (Mt 20:31-34), the Gentile centurion (Mt 8:7-13), and Jesus’ own mother (Jn 2:3-9).” As Robert Stein says, “Jesus seeks no flippant, frivolous decision to follow him.”
In Matthews’s Gospel (8:19-22), similar words of Jesus are found to the Lukan pericope. Leon Morris remarks, “The paragraph brings out the necessity of wholeheartedness in following Jesus. There were people who were well disposed to him and apparently recognized that his teaching was outstanding, but who were not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to be real disciples. Matthew leaves his readers in no doubt that Jesus demanded wholehearted loyalty.”
Or as R.T. France comments, “The kingdom of heaven apparently involves a degree of fanaticism which is willing to disrupt normal rhythms of social life. Jesus can hardly have been surprised that true discipleship remained a minority movement, and that popular enthusiasm for his teaching and healing generally stopped short of full discipleship.”
And what about these demanding words of Christ? “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels’.” (Mark 8:34-38)
David Garland comments, “The cross is the heart of the gospel, and bearing the cross is the central requirement of discipleship. . . . Unlike some contemporary pedlars of the gospel, Jesus does not offer his disciples varieties of self-fulfillment, intoxicating spiritual experiences, or intellectual stimulation. He presents them with a cross.”
Consider also John 6:60-67: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” … From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.”
According to the sloppy thinking of so many contemporary mushy believers, Jesus was quite wrong here. He was being far too intolerant and exclusive. He should have been more loving, more accepting and more inclusive. He should not have put up barriers to belief.
Another clear example of the sternness of Jesus’ demands is the story of the rich young ruler: “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt 19:21-23).
Jesus deliberately zeroed in on his false god, and demanded total renunciation of it. Morris rightly comments, “He had made a god of his wealth, and when faced with the challenge he could not forsake that god.” Or as D.A. Carson put it, “His money was competing with God; and what Jesus everywhere demands as a condition for eternal life is absolute, radical discipleship. This entails the surrender of self.”
But plenty of preachers today would not even mention the issue of wealth. Indeed, many would claim that if we come to Jesus, we will get even more wealth! They certainly would not raise the issue of money – far too many of these preachers are up to their ears in the love of money.
In the light of these – and other – passages, most Christians today need a radical rethink about the gospel they are presenting and the Jesus they claim to champion. If the quality of our disciples is so poor today, it is because the quality of the gospel we preach is so anaemic and lightweight.
I can think of no better way to conclude this meditation than to cite some moving and supercharged words of Leonard Ravenhill:
“I think one of the serious breakdowns in modern evangelism is this: it has offered us too much for too little. What we do mostly is offer people forgiveness. We need cleansing! There is no true conversion until a man takes up his cross.”
“We try and get people saved who don’t even believe they are lost.”
“America is not dying because of the strength of humanism; it’s dying because of the weakness of evangelism! We take people to the cross, (but) we don’t put them on the cross.”
“If Jesus had preached the same message that ministers preach today, He would never have been crucified.”
“The early church was married to poverty, prisons and persecutions. Today, the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.”