(Click to listen to an audio recording of this article, read by the author: The message of the cross: practical Christianity)
The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ,” and in Luke 9:23-24 Jesus Himself tells us what that means: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” This is the essence of Christianity, and it applies to every true Christian, regardless of age, gender, personality, background or circumstance.
Jesus knew what He was talking about
We can follow Jesus in this, because it is what He Himself did while He was on earth. As a human being He had also inherited a “flesh” with a tendency towards sin. (Hebrews 2:14) Because He had lusts in His flesh, He was tempted. (James 1:12-15) But because He denied Himself (that is, His own lusts), He never committed sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
It is very clear that Jesus knew the human condition, not only as a theory, but from first-hand experience. He uses practical examples that show that He knew what it was like to be tempted: to envy, to irritation, to lust, to judging, to anxiety, to pride, to hypocrisy etc. But every day of His life, Jesus used the “cross.” This was the place where the lusts in His flesh were denied, and met their death. In practical terms, this meant that He said “No!” to the demands of His flesh and, by the strength given to Him by God, He endured until He won the victory, which was death to the sin He was being tempted to. This meant that He had to suffer in His flesh, and He had to cry out to God for help, but it also meant that He never sinned. (1 Peter 4:1; Hebrews 2:14; Hebrews 5:7)
We actually stop sinning!
The “message of the cross” is extremely practical. It can be applied to daily life, by anybody, regardless of age, gender, personality, background or circumstance. It can be applied in any situation, to any temptation. When we take up our cross daily, we do not give in to feelings of anger, irritation, or envy. We do not give in to temptations to be proud or spiteful or lazy. We do not entertain impure thoughts. We refuse to be slaves to low self-esteem or discouragement that would cripple us in doing the good. We become doers of the word. (James 1:21-22)
With the cross we “put to death” the lusts in the flesh before they become sin. (James 1:14-15; Colossians 3:5; Galatians 5:24) Paul says that the message of the cross is a power unto salvation for those who believe, and that it is the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) We see this in practice! Through use of the cross and power from the Holy Spirit, a transformation takes place.
Where we were bitter and demanding before, we become a blessing. Where we were anxious and discouraged, we become full of faith and power for action. Where we once were judgmental and full of spite, we learn to forgive and edify. Instead of causing arguments and strife when our feelings are hurt or our opinions defied, we become examples in mildness, kindness and patience. As our own lusts are denied, we acquire the virtues of Christ.
Apart from ourselves, the first to benefit from this transformation are our nearest and dearest, and the effects spread out like ripples from there. What a joy when fathers, mothers, children, colleagues and neighbors stop being harsh and become gentle, thankful instead of bitter, cheerful rather than grumpy. What a relief when we stop being overbearing and start supporting the others. What a blessing for society when lazy people become diligent, when righteousness, honesty and loyalty prevail.
As Christians we become examples and champions for righteousness, compassion and high morals. We are a city set on a hill, a light which cannot be hidden. (Matthew 5:14-16) Wherever we are, whatever we meet, however we feel, whatever our disposition, whomever we are with, the message of the cross will always work, and always bear fruit. It is Christianity in practice.