Jesus said he came to “seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10). He finished one parable with the statement “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.” (Luke 14:23). These statements communicate the passion and commitment Jesus has to see people restored to right relationship with God. However, if we read objectively through the gospels and observe Jesus in action, it becomes clear that his desire to see people saved never led him to compromise what he required of them. Instead, he routinely challenged people to come to him through surrender and obedience.
Jesus Challenged The Crowd
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27 NIV)
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. (Mark 8:34-35 NIV)
When explaining to the crowd what it takes to follow him and be his disciple, Jesus used the words “cannot” and “must”. This language communicates there are requirements that must be met to be a follower of Jesus.
Some of the things Jesus said are so challenging it might seem that he was creating obstacles for the crowd. The truth is, Jesus was simply addressing the obstacles that were already there. He was tenacious about challenging people on anything that stood in the way of a redeeming relationship with him.
One Thing You Lack
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:17, 19-22 NIV)
This passage gives valuable insight not only into Jesus’ heart but also into his methods. Notice the humility and sincerity of the man; he “ran up” to Jesus and “fell on his knees”. He then inquires how he might inherit eternal life. This shows that he doesn’t have a sense of entitlement or self-righteousness. Everything about this man’s actions makes you think that Jesus would lift him up from his knees and embrace him. But that is not Jesus’ response. Instead, he tells him, “One thing you lack”. Jesus is not telling him he has to be perfect in order to follow him and have eternal life. He is addressing the obstacle that stands in the way of the man having a redeeming relationship with God.
It’s significant that before Jesus gives his challenge, the scripture clarifies that he “loved him”. He loved him too much to not challenge him on an area he knew would seriously endanger his chance for eternal life. Remember, the man asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. It’s also significant that Jesus let him walk away. Jesus wanted the man to have the best possible chance of a life-saving, eternal relationship with God. He did not settle for a compromised relationship that allowed the man to come on his own terms. The Bible doesn’t tell us the final outcome of this man’s life, but it does tell us that in the moment, Jesus did not accommodate the man, instead he let him walk away.
Advanced Christianity or Basic First Steps?
Concepts like: you must take up your cross and deny yourself, you must lose your life, you must hate your own life, are not preached much in the church today. If they’re talked about at all, they’re treated as something that very mature believers might dare to embrace. But if you look at the context in which Jesus said these things, he presented them as a mandatory attitude of the heart for everyone who wants to follow him. Jesus said we must take up our cross “daily” because this is an ongoing, life-long endeavor. But this attitude of the heart, this willingness to die to yourself, is put forth as something that must be present from the beginning if we are going to follow Christ. This is not advanced Christianity, this is entry level stuff.
Don’t Change The Requirements
Some people will contend that if we include these kind of challenges when we share the gospel, we will see less people come to Christ. But if Jesus established these challenges as requirements to follow him, do we have the right to ignore them?
Consider this example: Max is a hardcore fitness fanatic and he decides to start a fitness club. To be part of Max’s club he requires members to participate in a specified number of intense workouts each week. I decide to recruit for Max because I really like him and think people would benefit from being a member of his club. But when I’m talking to people I decide Max’s requirements might be intimidating, so I tell them to just show up when it’s convenient, and to do whatever workout they feel comfortable with. The problem here is obvious; it’s Max’s club not my club, and I have no right to misrepresent the requirements that Max himself has decided on. Also, I have no grounds to feel good about hooking people up with Max, since the connections are not based on the truth and will probably fail to produce significant change for the people.
To effectively reach the lost we need to care for them as Jesus did. We also need to stay true to the message he presented. If we are going to accept the role of representing Jesus to the world, then we have no right to change the requirements he communicated so clearly. It is foolish to think we have a better, more effective approach than Jesus. It’s also very dangerous. We may get more people to respond if we lower the requirements, but if our invitation ignores the requirements Jesus himself laid down, it brings into question whether they are truly responding to him.