As the world sinks further into madness, seldom in history has humanity’s need for truth and love been more apparent. In this final part of my interview with Kemper Crabb, minister, musician, and author of “Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church,” he discusses how speaking the truth and speaking in love are not incompatible. The two are essential. (NOTE: Some light editing on Crabb’s comments.)
JERRY WILSON: The book is a challenging read, which, as you stated, is the intention. Its design is to shake up the reader. Yet the book also inspires, pointing out the living riches promised the believer who acts upon the Scriptural dictates you highlight. It is reminiscent of Christ’s mix of exhortation and comfort – “carry your cross; deny yourself; anyone who loves their family more than Me is not worthy of Me” alongside “My yoke is easy and My burden light.” How do you, as a minister, balance the two?
KEMPER CRABB: Well, you’re absolutely right to say that Jesus’ Message brought both warning (or exhortation, as you said) and comfort. In some ways, these two categories are just two sides of the same thing seen from slightly different perspectives. Context, of course, is always important though many of us are not used to seeing Scriptural passages in context because the largely topical approach of consumer-oriented methods generally cherry-picks passages to emphasize a particular point. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I think topical preaching is bad. I don’t, though I believe that there’s a paucity of real exegetical, verse-by-verse teaching in the churches at this time. But I digress.
You mentioned a couple of examples of exhortational teaching on Jesus’ part: Matthew 16:24 (or maybe the parallel passages in Mark 8:34 or Luke 9:23), where Jesus tells His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” But then Jesus goes on to give this statement its sort of motivational context in verse 25: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My Sake will find it.” This follows in all three of the Synoptic Gospels just the same. You could even have included Jesus’ warning in Matthew 10:38 about this: “And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me,” which is smack-dab in the middle of the other warning passage you quoted, Matthew 10:38, part of a larger passage in Matthew 10:32-39 (which, providentially, I preached on just last week).
The passage in Matthew 10 is the one where Jesus says He didn’t come to bring peace, but rather a sword (verse 34) and to “set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (verses 35-36), following which He says in verse 37, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me,” after which Jesus says that whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Him is not worthy of Him.
All of this, of course, seems very dire and downer-ish, and in many ways, it is. But Jesus, again, gives the passage its context when, in verses 32 and 33, just before what I’ve quoted here, He tells us: “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father Who is in Heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father Who is in Heaven.” This whole passage here is about primary, fundamental identification with Christ Jesus as both our Source and Redeemer; as the God whose will and path are the very reason for our existence. We are not to be confused as to what our ultimate source and reason for being is, and our families are only our proximate sources and secondary reasons for being. If we confuse the ultimate and the proximate here (even here, where our families are generally massively central and important to us), we commit idolatry; we make our family members idols.
And, of course, back in Jesus’ time, even as now, family members frequently demand primary loyalties above anything else, even if their demand interferes with God’s demands. This was especially true in New Testament times (as it still is in more traditional societies), where familial loyalty is seen as THE primary loyalty.
But, as Jesus teaches here, we cannot put those loves or loyalties, good as they may be in most cases, above our love and loyalty to Jesus. To do so is to deny Him and to, in turn, be denied His loyalty before the Father. This is a dire situation because we live, outside of a primary relationship with Christ, under the condemnation and wrath of God, as Jesus tells us in John 3, verses 18-20, and in verse 36. This is a miserable situation, which Paul talks about in Ephesians 2:1-3 where he describes the life of those outside of a relationship with Christ, as we all once were, as being “dead in trespasses and sins,” and “by nature children of wrath,” and, in Ephesians 4:17-19, as living with darkened understanding in the futility of our minds. Worse, to end life outside of a relationship with Christ causes you to be condemned to an eternity of torment separated from the goodness of God in Hell (Revelation 20:11-15). A dire situation indeed.
This life of darkened futility and death as a result of humanity’s rebellion and Fall has bent us so that we naturally want to be our own standard of meaning. Truth is the “self:” our own self-referential darkness which leads us to value family, or our own desires, or our own futile plans to save our own lives above losing our own self-referential life for Jesus’ sake so that He can truly save our lives (Matthew 16:25).
When Jesus says to take up our cross and follow Him, He is demanding that we do as He did: put aside our preferences and wishes and do instead what God intends us to do in the first place: His desires, intentions, and plans, just as Jesus did by going to the Cross to die as a sacrifice for our sins (Philippians 2:4-10; Matthew 26:37-44). Further, the command to take up our cross reminds us that the only way we can be free of our darkened, futile selves is to be joined by faith to the sacrifice of Christ for us on the Cross (Romans 6:3-14; Colossians 2:10-14).
The Church has always seen this demand of Jesus as a reference both to justification and sanctification, to being initially saved or redeemed by the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to us in our identification with Him by God (justification) as well as the subsequent path to being renewed more fully into the image of Christ by the ongoing exercise of putting the Lord’s will above our own (sanctification).
We should see these demands in Matthew 10 and 16 as being driven by God’s love for us, urging us away from a life of death and darkened futility toward one of renewal and joy. Life outside of a relationship with the Lord Jesus is living death, onerous struggle, and darkened futility. By contrast, life in a relationship with Christ is unbelievably better. This is the context for what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My Yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am Gentle and Lowly of Heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My Yoke is easy and My Burden is light.”
You’ll note that there is still a yoke and a burden to be borne, though comparatively easy and light ones, since the alternative, as we’ve seen, is futility, death, and darkness. This would also likely have been a liberating concept to those Jews who were attempting to earn their salvation by keeping the Law, which, to make the situation even worse (if possible), they tended to confuse with the traditions of men, as Mark 7:6-13 illustrates.
This, again, shows the compassion and love of God. To my mind, these two poles, exhortation (or warning) and comfort, are better understood as truth and love. And, in some ways, these poles interpenetrate each other. Jesus tells the truth because He loves, and He loves motivated by compassion in light of the truth of mankind’s plight.
To some extent, these same poles of concern are reflected in Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:15 that we should be “speaking the truth in love.” This verse comes in a larger passage whose context speaks about believers helping the whole Body of Christ to mature and grow up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (verse 13). As an aside, in Liberation Front I address the fact that today’s American churches are largely split into truth- or love-oriented churches: doctrine with little compassion or compassion with no content.
We are, as believers, to emulate Jesus’ example of speaking the truth in love: offering as two sides of the same message both exhortation and comfort; truth and love. And, necessarily, we have to live in light of that same message, putting aside by the Spirit’s power our own fallen ideas and desires to adopt and practice Jesus’ ideas and desires, thus experiencing Jesus’ comparatively easy burden and light yoke.
This is the responsibility and privilege of every believer. Every believer has this challenge. As a minister, I’m part of the servant-priesthood called to serve the Royal Priesthood of all believers, as Christians are described by Peter in 1 Peter 2:9. My responsibility is to be an example to others (2 Thessalonians 3:9; 1 Timothy 4:12), and though I all too frequently fail at this task, I do make it a subject of present concern to myself to do so, and to keep the example of Jesus in my mind, praying that the Holy Spirit will help me be the example I ought to be. That is not, of course, always easy to do, as I’m sure every believer knows.
These days, in our self-obsessed victim culture, to express the truth of the human predicament, or to speak out critically about the state of the Church, is to frequently be seen as unloving or judgmental since people easily get their feelings hurt, or experience guilt or shame, in light of the truth of God’s Word being taught. Love demands, however, that truth be spoken, or risk that for the sake of avoiding some hurt feelings, someone perish forever or fail to be as free in Christ as they could be. It hasn’t always been this way. There have been periods of time when the truth was callously laid out with no regard for the affective aspects of mankind. Our present situation is an overreaction to one of those periods. But this can’t ultimately affect my responsibility as a minister (or any believer’s responsibility) to, in a balanced fashion, speak the truth in love.