In his famous biography Roland Bainton paints a captivating (if perhaps not altogether honest) portrait of one of Martin Luther’s most famous moments. Attending an imperial assembly in the city of Worms, Luther was called upon to give answer to his writings. He entered the town in a two wheeled cart with a processional of two thousand people. He was ushered into the presence of the emperor where when asked to recant of the many things he had written, he apparently replied: “Since then Your Majesty and your lordship desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by the Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Centuries later it’s easy to romanticize the moment — the resolve, courage, confidence, and conviction that seems to define and almost overwhelm the scene. Luther is, so to speak, an iron pillar against whom the waves of this world are crashing and he remains steadfast and unmoved in his pursuit for the peace, purity, and progress of the church. There’s something admirable in that. But, the thing is, while I’ve never had a Lutheresque experience, promoting the peace, purity, and progress of the church isn’t at all glamorous. It’s messy. It’s difficult. It’s hard. Real people in real churches with real reputations are involved. And when, in fulfillment of the promise I made when I became a pastor, it has been necessary to promote these things in the church, it has often been accompanied with many tears.
Why? Because the peace, purity, and progress of the church cannot be had without cost. As Christians this shouldn’t take us by surprise. The pattern the Bible continually sets forth is that the cross must always come before the crown. In fact, it was an insinuation of Satan himself in the wilderness temptation that Jesus could have the one without the other. But toe-to-toe with the enemy, Jesus conquered by embracing the way of suffering knowing that this would lead to the glory set before him. Peace, purity, and progress cannot be attained without the difficult work of dying. It requires picking up the cross and following Jesus.
Sometimes we will follow him with the cross of confrontation. When Peter’s actions compromised the peace of the church by wrongly dividing Jew and Gentile, Paul, a man whose physical stature was weak and whose speech was unimpressive (see 2 Corinthians 10:10), didn’t hesitate to oppose him to his face (Galatians 2:11). When empty talkers upset the faith of families Paul told Titus “they must be silenced” (Titus 1:11). Encouraging the young pastor the Apostle told Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Sometimes we need to confront those we care for the most.
Sometimes we will follow him with the cross of separation. When the sinful deeds of a man compromised the purity of the church Paul did not hesitate in telling the Corinthians “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 5:5). When the aged Apostle John worried for the “elect lady” he reminded her to have nothing to do with those who do not abide by the teaching of Christ (2 John 1:9-10). While divisions and dissensions are a work of the flesh (see Galatians 5:20), it is not a sin to wisely and cautiously separate from those who by their leaven would produce impurity in the church.
Sometimes we will follow him with the cross of difficulty. As Paul sought the progress of the church he was again and again met by hardship and trials — beatings, riots, hunger, sleepless nights, dishonor, and slander (see 2 Corinthians 6:3-13). I’m often reminded of this by a note given to me by wife that sits on my windowsill. It quotes a tender letter that Mary Winslow wrote to her son Octavius. It reads: “When you accepted the pastoral office you commenced a life of trial both from saint and from sinner. Oh, do not be surprised at all you meet with. Look to Jesus. Do not let difficulties distress you. The cause is Christ’s and all you have to do is take them to him.” The advance of the gospel is carried along by many hardships.
Sometimes we will follow him with the cross of misunderstanding. How often Jesus wasn’t understood even by those closest to him. He spoke as a person had never spoken before (John 7:46), but ignorance and accusations followed in his wake. He went about doing good and yet many mocked and ridiculed. He sought to be wise and people called him a fool. He was strong and people despised him as weak. The intent of his heart was judged, his motives questioned, and his purpose doubted. Yet, it’s not the court of public opinion by which we stand and fall. The rightness of the cause is owned by Heaven’s court and that is where you want the case to be heard most of all.
Sometimes we will follow him with the cross of silence. The Apostle Peter wrote, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23). Not every question needs an answer; not every challenge requires a response; not every accusation must elicit a reaction; not every pointed criticism must be dulled. It’s okay to be silent.
Always, we will follow him with the cross of love. Yes, love is a cross. It’s a burden. It’s a sacrifice. It doesn’t always feel good, it isn’t always easy, and sometimes it hurts those we love the most. But that love that is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, is not arrogant or rude; that love that doesn’t insist on its own way, isn’t irritable or resentful; does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth; that love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; that love that covers a multitude of sins, is a weight that, heavy as it is, we are intended to bear.
Peace, purity, and progress come with crosses — the crosses of confrontation, separation, difficulty, misunderstanding, silence, and love. It is a costly pursuit, and only an insinuation of Satan to say otherwise. Those who rightly and biblically seek it will experience something very like death itself. But we must be content to bear it knowing that Jesus has borne the heaviest part. Suffering is the path to glory; and the cross must come before the crown.