The Christian Life

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“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” Matthew 16:24

This passage aids us in understanding what is promised to those who follow Christ.

Scripture is perspicuous, that is, it is clear and easily understood unto salvation. Nonetheless, Scripture often remains mysterious, distant, or opaque to us. After all, Scripture deals with mysteries such as the knowledge of God, which far exceeds the intellect. The opaqueness of Scripture is both a statement of our limitation (including our sinfulness) and Scripture’s abundance. Augustine understood this well in his Confessions; that what limited him from understanding was “he disdained to be a little beginner.”1 We risk reading and interpreting this passage as those who know it all and, therefore, those to whom the Scriptures have become distant. Like a tree in your neighborhood that you pass each day and, therefore, cannot perceive is growing, the beauty and demands of the truth become opaque.

We set off, then, as little beginners, aided by the Spirit bringing the passage near to us. Matthew 16:24 is framed by several significant events in the Gospel: Peter confesses and is blessed (Matt. 16:16–19); Peter rebukes and is rebuked (Matt. 16:21–23); and, after our passage, Peter, James, and John behold the transfiguration of Christ (Matt. 17:1–8). In each of these passages, Christ is clarifying for the disciples who he is as Messiah. From the beginning of his ministry, the disciples called him the Messiah (John 1:42). Yet, it is clear (given Jesus’ rebuke of Peter) that they still do not quite understand this confession. Christ’s foretelling of his divine calling to suffer, die, and be raised on the third day remained an unsettling detail to them.

In our passage, Jesus repeats and extends his divine calling to his followers, clarifying for them their calling: that they, like him, will need to deny themselves and take up their cross to walk in his path. The meaning, of course, lies open to us as a charge; those who are imitators of Christ must be willing to share in Christ’s calling.

John Calvin approached the topic of self-denial—significant for our passage “let him deny himself”—in the second chapter of his Little Book.2 He roots self-denial in our unio mystica (mystical union with Christ) and adoption as sons and daughters, which enables us to forget ourselves. Let us not forget that true knowledge of self comes through true knowledge of God (Institutes, Book I, c.1.i–iii). It is proper, then, for the Christian to seek not her own will but the Lord’s will in obedience (Luke 22:42). This obedience is not a means of obtaining righteousness before God; rather, flowing out of the gospel obedience is the Spirit-led means by which we conform to Christ as sons of the Father (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86). In other words, become who you are as children of God; for God’s children, obedience is pursued through self-denial.

In outlining Calvin’s understanding of the calling of self-denial, the main obstacle to this calling is, unsurprisingly, the self, the very one who must be denied! True self-denial, then, points us away from ourselves and toward God and neighbor. Calvin concentrates his discussion on the latter, urging readers not only to see their neighbor’s vices as small and their own vices as large but also to seek the good of others in love. Herein one sees the brilliance of Calvin—that the glory of God is to be pursued not in withdrawal from the world but in the encounter with the majesty of others who are fallen, just as we are. God beckons us to attend to the image of God that exists in all and makes them worthy of all our being and our exertions. This is especially the case with the church, in which the image is renewed and restored in them by the Spirit of Christ.

Already, this calling, “let him deny himself,” is audacious. But we must step further into this with Christ’s assertion to his disciples to “take up his cross.” We must not mistake this idea as speaking about a trivial burden or mistake it (as Karl Barth did!) with the consequences of our own sinful desires.3 More positively, in his Church Dogmatics, Barth understood our “crosses” to pale in comparison to Christ’s: “To love him and to hope in him is to be required, in remembrance of what we deserved and as a sign of fellowship with him, to take up and bear our much smaller crosses, and not to be able to escape this requirement.”4 After all, our lives are “sacrifices of praise” not sacrifices of atonement (Heb. 13:15).

We must not allow the passage to become opaque to us and fail to hear its claim upon us. To take up one’s cross, then, is our participation in Christ’s death. The difficulty being proposed—“if anyone would come after me”—is none other than the audacious demand of imitating the heart of Jesus’ messianic calling—the pursuit of the will of the Father in taking up our cross. Notice this does not issue forth in a particular form. We are not simply to repeat Christ’s life (as if we could!), as various sects of monks tried or (closer to home) as 90s-era WWJD wristbands inferred. Rather, in gratitude, we must be willing to join him in the humility of obedience. The discipline, striving, and limping (Institutes, Book III, c.14.iv) of bearing one’s cross will lead us to rest in God alone (Institutes, Book III, c.8.i-iii).

As Christ’s little ones, we understand, then, Christ calls us as his children to take up our cross and follow him as a call to share in his obedience to the Father’s will and, as such, share as beneficiaries in his suffering and death. Those who are united to Christ in his labyrinth of death will be those who rise with him (Rom. 6:4–5). Such a sharing is promised to those who are in Christ to be conformed unto him. Just as he descended to us, we shall ascend with him (Matt. 16:25).

Dr. Gregory Parker Jr. is an assistant professor in the School of Divinity. He can be reached at

  1. Augustine, Confessions (Oxford, UK Oxford University Press, 2009) Book III, 9. ↩︎
  2. The Little Book is an excerpt from his behemoth Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work intended to summarize the life of faith and knowledge of God that is profitable unto salvation [See John Calvin, Little Book on the Christian Life [Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017]; Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press , 2006] III, c.6–10). ↩︎
  3. See Christine Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum” Theology Today 74, no. 2 (2017):86–111, 103. Barth articulated his marriage to his wife, Nelly (amidst his lifelong affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum), as “his cross.” ↩︎
  4. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. (New York: T&T Clark, 2009), IV/3.2, 70. ↩︎