The title Christian is adopted and used freely by millions of people today yet with a very shallow understanding of what it is all about! Rightly so, the greater number of adherents of the Christian faith are nowhere close to it in life and character, just as darkness is opposite to light. The great freedom fighter Marcus Garvey expressed his view of what he saw displayed as Christianity – “A form of religion practiced by the millions, but as misunderstood, and unreal to the majority as gravitation is to the untutored savage. We profess to live in the atmosphere of Christianity, yet our acts are as barbarous as if we never knew Christ. He taught us to love, yet we hate; to forgive, yet we revenge; to be merciful, yet we condemn and punish, and still we are Christian.
“If hell is what we are taught it is, then there will be more Christians there than the days in all creation. To be a true Christian one must be like Christ and practice Christianity, not as the Bishop does, but as he says, for if our lives were to be patterned after the other fellow’s all of us, Bishop, Priest and Layman would ultimately meet around the furnace of hell, and none of us, because of our sins, would see salvation.” (The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Routledge, New York, New York, 1923, 27.)
John Monroe Gibson, Scottish, American Clergyman of the eighteen hundreds wrote: “One truly Christian life will do more to prove the divine origin of Christianity than many lectures. It is of much greater importance to develop Christian character, than to exhibit Christian evidences.” Another once prominent Christian leader, F. W. Robertson, concludes, “The Christian life is not merely knowing or hearing, but doing the will of Christ.”
It has really become a challenge in this present age to define the word Christian if we were to accept the many definitions given by professed Christians and Christian churches through their verbal confessions and/or by their overt influence. What does it really mean to be a Christian? What was Jesus’ definition and understanding of “on being a Christian”? How did the early followers of Christ understand the meaning of the name Christian?
Luke 9:23 identifies the terms for discipleship or what it really means to be a Christian: “And He said to them all, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” This same teaching is recorded both by Matthew and Mark (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34). Notice that Matthew uses the same expression that Luke uses concerning who is being addressed, “If any man …” which some people will take to mean that Jesus was only addressing the male gender, but Mark explains it by the expression “Whosoever will come after Me … .” This word whosoever takes in every human being, male and female.
So Jesus lays the foundation principles for what constitute the true meaning of “on being a Christian.” He states emphatically, “If any man will come after me … .” That is to “follow Me” where I am going. To come after or behind Christ means to attach oneself to Jesus as a disciple, but the thought is deepened; it is to follow as a disciple this Messiah who is going into death and resurrection.
On being a Christian involves the engaging of the will of the person, for Jesus says, whoever wills to come after Me. There is no force involved in being a Christian. Christ does not pull His sheep by a rope; in His army are none but volunteers. Ellen White wrote, “Christ does not use force or compulsion in drawing men [people] to Him.” Manuscript Releases, vol. 16, 95. Also, she points out: “How much does God value man? I point you to Calvary. The most ignominious death my Lord suffered that He might rescue you, yet He does not force any of you to serve Him. He does not force the will or conscience of any soul.” Sermons and Talks, vol. 2, 105.
We must also bear in mind that God will not accept unwilling service; this we are told once again: “If men, after this great and merciful condescension on the part of God, maintain their position with the first apostate, no force will be used with them. God accepts no unwilling service.” The Review and Herald, September 13, 1898. Therefore, the decision to become a Christian, or follower of Christ, is left up to each individual!
Now having said that, whoever chooses to become a Christian must understand what is required in being a Christian. Look at what Jesus said as recorded by Luke: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself.” Luke 9:23. The truest and most serious thought that Jesus is here conveying, with which we professed Christians are constantly struggling, is to turn someone off, to refuse association and companionship with, to disown. And the one who is here to be disowned is self, and that means self altogether, not merely some portion, some special habit or desire, some outward practice. What our Lord is addressing here is the natural, sinful self as it centers in the things of men and has no use for the things of God. Why must we disown self completely? Here are ten reasons:
- Ellen White puts it this way: “Self is a hard tyrant, and while this power rules in the life, we cannot do unto others as we would have them do to us.” The Review and Herald, April 9, 1908.
- Self also is our enemy. “Self is the enemy we most need to fear. No form of vice has a more baleful effect upon the character than has human passion not under the control of the Holy Spirit. No other victory we can gain will be so precious as the victory gained over self.” Ministry of Healing, 485.
- Another important reason why we must disown self is that no human being can become a Christian as long as self is cherished. God’s messenger states, “Man must be emptied of self before he can be, in the fullest sense, a believer in Jesus. When self is renounced, then the Lord can make man a new creature.” The Desire of Ages, 280.
- Self blinds people’s eyes. “But when the eye is blinded by the love of self, there is only darkness.” Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 91.
- Self brings unrest. “It is the love of self that brings unrest.” The Desire of Ages, 330.
- Self chills religious zeal. “There are many who give no decided evidence that they are true to their baptismal vows. Their zeal is chilled by formality, worldly ambition, pride, and love of self.” Testimonies, vol. 9, 155.
- Self destroys peace. “It is the love of self that destroys our peace.” Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 16.
- The love of self excludes the love of Christ. “Love of self excludes the love of Christ.” The Review and Herald, August 6, 1901.
- Self leads to the substitution of human theories and traditions. “It is the love of self, the desire for an easier way than God has appointed that leads to the substitution of human theories and traditions for the divine precepts.” The Desire of Ages, 409.
- Self opens the door that leads to ruin. “Through devotion to worldly interests, Satan receives all the homage he asks. The door is left open for him to enter as he pleases, with his evil train of impatience, love of self, pride, avarice, overreaching, and his whole catalogue of evil spirits. Man is charmed and treacherously allured on to ruin.” Testimonies, vol. 4, 45. What our Saviour focused on in this phrase “let him deny himself” is true conversion, one of the very first essentials of the Christian life. The person sees all the sin of self and the damnation and death bound up in this sin and turns away from it in utter dismay and seeks rescue in Christ alone. Self is thus cast out, and Christ enters in; henceforth the believer lives not unto himself but unto Christ who died for him.
To give an even more in depth definition of “to deny self,” the following is worth our careful observation: “Man is required to love God supremely, with his might, mind, and strength; and his neighbor as himself. This he cannot possibly do unless he denies himself. To deny self means to rule the spirit when passion is striving for the mastery; to resist the temptation to censure and to speak words of faultfinding; to have patience with the child that is dull, and whose conduct is grievous and trying; to stand at the post of duty even though others may fail; to lift responsibilities wherever and whenever duty requires, not to gain applause, not for policy, but for the sake of the Master, who has given each of His followers a work that is to be done with unwavering fidelity. To deny self means to do good when inclination would lead us to serve and please ourselves. It means to work patiently and cheerfully for the good of others, even though our efforts may not seem to be appreciated.” The Review and Herald, July 11, 1907.
So then for Jesus, on being a Christian means that you and I will lovingly and voluntarily submit our wills to Him, henceforth to live for Him rather than for ourselves. “What is specifically Christian,” according to Dr. Hans Küng “is the fact that all ethical requirements are understood in the light of the rule of the crucified Jesus Christ. … Jesus to whom we are subordinated once and for all in baptism by faith, must remain Lord over us. In following the Crucified it is a question of manifesting the rule of the risen Christ. Justification and sanctification go together in the sense that both mean assimilation to Christ.” On Being a Christian, SCM Press, Norwich, United Kingdom, 544.
To be a Christian in the truest sense of the word has to do with total subordination to the divine historical Christ and complete, ongoing demonstration of His lifestyle. “The Christian faith is one of those great religions the strength of which lies in being able to justify and substantiate in detail an attitude to life, a way of life and a life-style, by pointing to a quite definite, authoritative, historical figure. … Jesus of Nazareth is himself the personification of this new way of life.” Ibid. The apostle Paul understood it this way, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21.
After self has been disowned, Jesus then states the next imperative which is, “… take up his cross daily.” It is impossible to take up the cross if self is not denied! What does Jesus mean by take up the cross? It has to do with assuming the responsibilities that come with being a Christian, even though by doing so he/she be called upon to pay the supreme price. In the context in which Christ here mentions cross bearing, He refers not so much to the minor difficulties and obstacles to be encountered by the Christian, but rather to the need to be ready to face death itself. The Christian must be prepared to give up earthly ease and comfort, and be ready to bear the sufferings which will be sure to fall on him if he struggles after holiness. This readiness to give up ease, this willingness to bear suffering, will be a matter of everyday experience.
The cross is that suffering alone which results from our faithful connection with Christ. Let us remember that each Christian will have his/her share of suffering. The solemn message that Jesus gives is that He leads with His cross, and all His disciples, each loaded with his/her cross, follow in one immense procession like men who are being led away to be crucified. Paul carries the figure further: “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh” (Galatians 5:24); and Paul himself is crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel chapter 11 verses 28–30, states, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
There is a direct similarity between yoke wearing and cross bearing. “The yoke and the cross are symbols representing the same thing—the giving up of the will to God. Wearing the yoke unites finite man in companionship with the dearly beloved Son of God. Lifting the cross cuts away self from the soul, and places man where he learns how to bear Christ’s burdens. We cannot follow Christ without wearing His yoke, without lifting the cross and bearing it after Him.” The Review and Herald, October 23, 1900.
Christ, in His life here on earth, exemplified what it means to bear the cross: “By His own example the Saviour has shown that His followers can be in the world and yet not of the world. He came not to partake of its delusive pleasures, to be swayed by its customs, and to follow its practices, but to do His Father’s will, to seek and save the lost. With this object before him the Christian may stand uncontaminated in any surroundings. …
“Not in freedom from trial, but in the midst of it, is Christian character developed. Exposure to rebuffs and opposition leads the follower of Christ to greater watchfulness and more earnest prayer to the mighty Helper. Severe trial endured by the grace of God develops patience, vigilance, fortitude, and a deep abiding trust in God. It is the triumph of the Christian faith that it enables its followers to suffer and be strong; to submit, and thus to conquer; to be killed all the day long, and yet to live; to bear the cross, and thus to win the crown of glory.” The Acts of the Apostles, 467, 479.
One writer says that three things are necessary in traveling: first, to say farewell (to self); second, to carry one’s baggage (the cross); third, to proceed with the journey (follow Me). The question that needs to be answered is, Are we willing to make this journey? Following Christ shows that self has been disowned completely and the cross has been willingly taken up.
Dr. Hans Küng puts it this way: “The following of Christ is what distinguishes Christians from other disciples and supporters of great men, in the sense that Christians are ultimately dependent on this person, not only on his teaching, but also on his life, death, and new life.” On Being a Christian, 545.
“True religion,” Ellen white says, “is the imitation of Christ. Those who follow Christ will deny self, take up the cross, and walk in His footsteps. Following Christ means obedience to all His commandments. No soldier can be said to follow his commander unless he obeys orders. Christ is our model. To copy Jesus, full of love and tenderness and compassion, will require that we draw near to Him daily.” “Ellen G. White Comments,” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, 949.
So what does it mean to be a Christian? “As Christians, we are to manifest to the world the character of Christ in all the affairs of life. To be a Christian means to act in Christ’s stead, to represent Christ.” The Southern Worker, 39. Following Christ or being a Christian means “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). This was the experience of the Antioch believers: “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Acts 11: 26. And we are told why they were given this title: “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. The name was given them because Christ was the main theme of their preaching, their teaching, and their conversation.” The Acts of the Apostles, 157. She further states, “It was God who gave to them the name of Christian. This is a royal name, given to all who join themselves to Christ.” Ibid.
In closing, are you a Christian? Have you disowned yourself and taken up the cross, Christ’s yoke, and are you following Him? If you haven’t or you had once done it but have given it up, today Jesus says to you, come unto Me!
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor Ivan Plummer ministers through the Emmanuel Seventh Day Church Ministries in Bronx, New York. He may be contacted by telephone at: 718-882-3900.