About 100 years ago, GK Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” There is much wisdom in this. The Christian faith is not easy for the human mind to grasp in so many ways, and not just because we believe God became a man, and died for the sins of the world.
What is so hard to grasp is its cost. Not simply that which was paid by Christ himself, who set aside his glory to live among us, so that we might live forevermore with him. But what it requires of us—the cost of being a Christian.
A life without cost and without Christ
Years ago, I read a passage from J. C. Ryle that described this dilemma well. He put it this way, first describing the ease of having an outward appearance of faith:
I grant freely that it costs little to be a mere outward Christian. A man has only got to attend a place of worship twice on Sunday, and to be tolerably moral during the week, and he has gone as far as thousands around him ever go in religion. All this is cheap and easy work: it entails no self-denial or self-sacrifice. If this is saving Christianity, and will take us to heaven when we die, we must alter the description of the way of life, and write, “Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to heaven!”1
Ryle’s words cut deep here because our situation today is all the more dire. Today, statisticians consider a regular churchgoer as one attending at least once a month. That’s it.2 And far too many professing Christians have been so thoroughly discipled by the almighty algorithm that they unashamedly defame, spread disinformation, and defend the indefensible without hesitation, even as they decry the immoral views of their socially progressive opponents.
This isn’t costly behavior on either side, from a certain point of view. In a polarized and politicized climate like ours, especially when—for certain people—faith and political affiliation are intertwined, it seems prudent to stay in step with the way the wind is blowing. It is less costly to move the goalposts than to keep standing against insanity. Even if doing so costs us Scripture’s call to be known by our love for one another.
The real cost of being a Christian
And that’s what Ryle was really getting at. It’s not that there is such a thing as a cost-free faith, but in our attempts to live easily and comfortably, we need to consider what we’re losing. We need to count the cost, as we were once commanded. Ryle put it this way:
But it does cost something to be a real Christian, according to the standards of the Bible. There are enemies to be overcome, battles to be fought, sacrifices to be made, an Egypt to be forsaken, a wilderness to be passed through, a cross to be carried, a race to be run. Conversion is not putting a man in an arm-chair and taking him easily to heaven. It is the beginning of a mighty conflict, in which it costs much to win the victory. Hence arises the unspeakable importance of “counting the cost.”3
That is the reminder we need in our moment. The reminder we need in every moment, in every era, whenever Christians are encouraged to conform to the world. The Christian faith will cost us something. It requires us to let go of old patterns of life, destructive behaviors, even good things that are not the best things for us. It demands that we deny ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and even our “enemies.” And we do this not to go along to get along, but to make the gospel known.
In Christ, our self-denial and sacrifice are transformed into joy as we pursue greater things than the fleeting pleasures of the world. As we put the lavish love of God on display in word and deed and say, “Christ is better.” We all stumble in our pursuit of this joy, but may God grant us the strength to pursue still.
- As published in J.I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle, p. 174
- While there are certain unavoidable situations where people cannot attend weekly (for example, nurses, EMTs, and others whose work schedules may prevent them from being present as frequently as they like), we should be very concerned about this when it’s due to sports activities or frequent travel plans made by the individual.
- Faithfulness and Holiness, p. 174