The Role of Suffering in Preceding Glory
Today I received an irenic email from someone, we will call him Frank, who agrees that everlasting life is absolutely free. However, he also thinks that in order to get that free gift you must deny yourself. Here is what Frank wrote:
I’d like to offer my opinion on the subject. I believe there is a logical fallacy in your argument.
Salvation is a free gift from God indeed. It cannot be earned. However, the qualification to receive the free gift is self-denial. One has to deny oneself (high cost) to receive the free gift of God.
Therefore, both are true: Salvation is free (or paid for by Christ), but in order to qualify for it, one has to pay the high cost of self-denial.
Example: If you’re willing to give up your job, then I’ll pay for a life-long vacation. If you accept the gift of vacation, you’re not paying for it even though you had to give up your job.
I’ve heard this argument before, but the illustration is new to me. I think Frank has done a good job of illustrating how something can be free, yet still cost something small.
Let me begin with the argument.
Saving the Soul
I do not know what passages he had in mind to suggest that self-denial is a condition for having everlasting life. Maybe Frank is thinking of a passage like Matt 16:24-28 which links self-denial with “saving one’s psyche.” Many understand psyche to mean eternal soul there. Thus they think that in order to get into heaven one must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ.
For the record, there are many problems with this understanding of Matt 16:24-28. I’ll mention but five.
First, those verses are in response to and directed to Peter, clearly, a born-again person as his great confession of Christ and Jesus’ response earlier in the chapter clearly shows (Matt 16:13-19).
Second, the issue is “if anyone wishes to come after Me…” Coming after Jesus is a discipleship concept. Coming to Jesus is a regeneration concept (e.g., John 6:35).
Third, there are over 100 verses in the New Testament which say that whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life. The issue is believing, not following, not serving, not self-denial.
Fourth, everlasting life cannot be both free and costly. If it is costly, then it is not free. See John 6:28-29 and Rom 4:4-5. While we might think we are helping God out by getting the costly part in there, we are not. Sanctification is built on a correct belief in justification. If we have a confused view of justification, we become legalistic and legalism does not produce true righteousness (see Romans 7; Galatians 5).
Fifth, the issue in Matt 16:24-28 is not getting into Christ’s kingdom, but ruling with Christ in it. Notice that the Lord specifically speaks of everlasting rewards in Matt 16:27.
Now, what about that illustration?
A Free Vacation
The clever thing about it is that Frank has asked people to give up something which most people would be happy to give up. Give up working 50 or 60 hours a week and I’ll give you an ongoing paid vacation for the rest of your life. Even people who have saved up enough to retire can’t vacation 52 weeks a year. So this is an amazing offer.
But the truth is, that is not what the Lord was talking about in verses like Matt 16:24-28. He was talking about being ready to die for Jesus. Peter and the other disciples all were martyred for Jesus, except for John who appears to have avoided it though we cannot be sure. Taking up one’s cross is certainly taking up the path of suffering on which Jesus was bound. Remember, it was when Jesus said He was going to Jerusalem to “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day” (Matt 16:21) that Peter said, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” (Matt 16:22). Peter needed an attitude adjustment. As Dr. Walvoord says in his commentary on Matthew, the Lord was teaching the disciples that suffering precedes glory. It did for the Lord Jesus. And it would for His disciples too.
The illustration of giving up one’s job to get a lifetime paid vacation does not contain suffering in self-denial. (Of course, I like my job and I don’t want a lifetime paid vacation. So for me, it would be suffering. But for most people, that is not an illustration of self-denial.)
I appreciate the illustration, but it may be more appropriate for discipleship, and how giving up earthly goods will mean gaining eternal goods in the kingdom. Maybe say, “If you give up buying a bigger and nice house; drive old cars instead of new ones; give your money generously to the Lord’s work instead of your own comfort, then the Lord Jesus will grant you the wonderful privilege or ruling with Him in the life to come.” Yes, self-denial is a key discipleship concept. But you cannot buy everlasting life, even with self-denial. As you say, Jesus already bought it for us at Calvary. Thus there is nothing left for us to pay. All we need to do is believe in Him to have the life He so freely gives.