There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two. The way of life is that of faith in Christ Jesus, which proceeds in love for God and man; and the way of death is that of unbelief and self-idolatry, whereby you strive to serve yourself above all others, only to find that you are consumed by the desires and demands of your own fallen flesh.
So you stand at the crossroads, and these two roads diverge before you, the blessing and the curse, the way of life and the way of death. You cannot travel both, but it seems as though the choice were obvious and easy, since faith and life and sin and death are as different as heaven and hell.
The trouble is that, in the blindness of your sinful heart and mind, you cannot perceive or interpret the difference clearly. The way of life looks like death to you. The life-giving Word of the Lord sounds onerous and burdensome, as though it were asking too much of you, whereas the gifts and promises of God in Christ appear foolish and pointless. Life itself looks like the opposite to you.
By contrast, the way of death appears to you as though it were pious and righteous, as though it were a sure and certain path to life and happiness, to safety, security, and peace, and as though it were actually the way of God. The Lord Jesus warned His disciples, prior to His Passion, that a day was coming when men would presume to serve and worship God by persecuting Christians and putting them to death. Nowhere was that more the case than it was with Saul of Tarsus before the Lord converted him. In his sincere zeal for the Law and for his ancestral traditions, and in his conviction that he was serving the Lord God of Israel, Saul was in fact sincerely and dead wrong.
So also in your unconverted heart. In your sinfulness, in your native unbelief, life looks like death, and death looks like life. Faith seems foolish, a bad investment. Sin seems wise and profitable.
The way of death, in short, is the way of legalistic self-righteousness, which is already the heart of the problem. It comprises all the many and various ways whereby you strive to get life for yourself, whether by attempting to bargain and barter with God, seeking to buy Him off with your works and sacrifices, or by ignoring Him altogether on the false assumption that you know better.
This way of death is common to all the sons and daughters of Adam & Eve, apart from conversion. Until the Holy Spirit shines the Light of Christ into your heart through the Gospel, you dwell in thick darkness, though you cannot even tell that you’re in the dark. You strive and strain with all your might to set things right, to get life for yourself, to gain control, to get whatever you want. But what you get is death; and many others suffer, too, as you pursue that path of self-destruction
The way of life is the very opposite. It is followed by no trust or confidence in yourself at all. It is pursued solely by faith in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, by His Word and Spirit.
You cannot find or follow that way of life by any wisdom, reason, or strength of your own. For you cannot recognize or know the Lord Jesus apart from His Word and Holy Spirit, far less can you believe in Him or follow Him by any intelligence or effort of your fallen flesh. But the Lord in His mercy has not left you to your own devices or allowed you to proceed unhindered on the way of death. He has rather confronted you with the preaching of His Cross and Resurrection, by which He calls you and brings you to repentance and faith in His forgiveness of all your sins.
By the preaching of His Word He knocks you off your high horse, He shatters your hard heart, He pierces your beclouded mind, and He breathes His life-giving Spirit into your body and soul, so that you become a living being. He shines the Light of the Gospel in the midst of your darkness, so that you begin to see Him as He is. It is as though something like scales falls from your eyes.
He does it by the preaching of His Cross and Resurrection, which is the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name. That is what is necessary for the salvation of the nations. So that is what St. Paul is called to do, like the other Apostles before him; and that is what pastors to this day are called to do in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
By that preaching of repentance you are crucified and put to death — to yourself, to your sins, and to the wicked world all around you. You are crucified, put to death, and buried with Christ Jesus, in order to be raised to newness of life by His forgiveness of your sins and the gift of His Spirit.
Whoever tries to save his own life will lose it, but whoever loses his life in this world for the sake of the Lord Jesus and His Gospel will have Life everlasting with Him in body and soul. That is the paradox between these two ways, the way of life and the way of death. In attempting to make a life for yourself, you end up dying, and you take your neighbors down with you. But when you live and die by faith in the Cross of Christ, then you are raised up and live forever in His Body.
The preaching of repentance and forgiveness thus corresponds to and coincides with your Baptism into Christ. Indeed, such preaching is always to and from the font, to and from the waters of Holy Baptism. That is to say, not only does it call you to be baptized, but then it daily returns you to the dying and rising of Baptism. Day after day it drowns you and puts to death the old Adam in you, in order to raise you up, day after day, to live before God in the righteousness and purity of Christ, now and forever. It brings your sins to light and calls you to account for them, to acknowledge and confess them, that you might be turned away from sin and death and brought to life in Christ Jesus.
This preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins — the preaching of the Law and the Gospel, the preaching of the Cross and Resurrection — marks your body and soul, your heart, mind, and spirit, with the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the sign of His Cross, just as you also received in your Holy Baptism. So it is for you as it was for St. Paul. As the Lord sent Ananias to lay his hands on Saul of Tarsus, to bestow the Spirit upon him, to open his eyes, and to baptize him in the Name of the Lord Jesus, so has the same Lord sent His pastors to baptize and catechize you, to anoint you with His Spirit, and to sign you with His Cross upon your forehead and heart.
That is why, as a Christian, there is hardly anything more appropriate than making the sign of the Cross in whatever circumstances you may find yourself at any given time. Not only to remember the death of Jesus once for all upon the Cross, but also to remember and confess that you have died with Him in your Baptism, and that you therefore also rise with Him and live with Him forever.
As the Cross has been signed upon your heart, mind, and body, as it is preached into your ears and confessed with your mouth, so does the Cross mark all that you think, all that you say, and all that you do. It crucifies and puts to death whatever is self-righteous in your body and soul, whatever is sinful, whatever is unfaithful and unloving. But it also resurrects and sanctifies your body and soul, and it strengthens the New Man in you — which is your life in Christ and His Life in you.
Because the Cross does all of this, because it marks you, and because it crucifies you, and because it raises you up with the Lord Jesus Christ, it also means that you are hated and persecuted for His Name’s sake, and that you bear and suffer His Cross in your body and life on this earth.
Consider what God said concerning St. Paul: “I will show him how much he must suffer for My Name’s sake.” Not that God would punish him for being so wicked up until that point, but that his suffering for the Name of Jesus Christ, his suffering for the sake of the Gospel, his suffering under the Cross, would be a manifestation of the Gospel in his body and life. Thus were the power and wisdom of God manifest in St. Paul, and so also in your body and life as a Christian, as well.
You also bear and suffer the Cross of Christ. In some respects it is the discipline of the Lord who loves you, as a father disciplines his children in love. The Cross does perform the work of the Law in exposing your sin and putting it to death. But it is more than that. For the sufferings of the Cross that you bear also include the hatred and hurt of the world on account of what you do right.
In truth, you do not suffer even a fraction of what you deserve because of your sins, for you surely deserve nothing but punishment, yet God in His mercy spares you so many of the consequences of your sin, even in this life on earth, just as He has removed all of the consequences of sin from the life everlasting. But for doing what is good and right, for loving and forgiving your neighbor, for speaking the truth in love, for serving those around you in need, and for doing good to those who sin against you — for these things you are crucified, for these things you suffer and die, as Christ was crucified and put to death, the Righteous for the unrighteous, for the sins of the world.
What you suffer is not pointless, it is profound and fruitful, both as a discipline by which you are strengthened in your repentance and faith, and as a bodily confession and proclamation of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, your Savior and Redeemer. Praise God, therefore, when you are counted worthy to bear and to suffer the Cross of Christ to the glory of His Holy Name.
It is by His Cross that your thoughts and feelings are conformed to the mind and Spirit of Christ. And by His Holy Cross your entire body and life are recreated in the Image and Likeness of God. For in this poor life of labor, this is what God looks like: the Body of Christ Jesus on the Cross.
It is in that Image of God — in Christ the Crucified — that you are shaped by the preaching of the Cross. Not as though God were some kind of sadist who rejoices in your suffering, but because He has called you in love to be conformed to the Image of His Son, and because in Christ, through the Cross, you have such a life and such good things as you could never imagine or dare to ask for.
That is what St. Paul was called to bear in his body and life; that is what he was called to suffer for the Name and sake of Jesus. Both in his preaching and in his body he bore the Cross of Christ. He preached and he suffered in Jesus’ Name. And as I have already said, so also do you bear the Name and Cross of the same Lord Jesus Christ. You do not have the same office and vocation as St. Paul the Apostle, but you do have the same Lord, you are called by the same Jesus, and you are given the same life in Him. So, then, as a disciple of Jesus Christ the Crucified, you bear His Name and His Cross in your body and life, in whatever office and station you are called to serve.
But as you are thus called to live and die with Christ on the way of life — and so to rise and live with Him forever after in body and soul — He does not leave you to fend for yourself on your own. Like St. Paul, having received the true sight of faith through the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and having received the gift and cleansing of the Holy Spirit in the waters of your Holy Baptism, so are you also now fed and strengthened in body and soul by the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus. You are invigorated as a member of His Body, the Church, to live in faith and love by His grace.
And it is not only that you bear and suffer His Cross as a disciple, but Christ Jesus Himself is with you to share your sufferings and bear you up in the midst of sin and death, each step of the way.
Do you want to know how close Jesus is to you in the sufferings that you endure as a Christian? Consider what He has spoken to St. Paul there on the Road to Damascus. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” “Who are You, Lord?” “I Am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” So closely does He identify Himself with His Christians, that whatever they suffer in His Name, He suffers in them and with them, that He should sanctify their sufferings with His own and save them from sin and death in His Resurrection from the dead and in His Ascension to the Right Hand of God.
So, too, when you are persecuted for the sake of Christ Jesus, the same Lord Jesus Christ suffers with you. As He bore your sins and death upon the Cross, so does He bear your suffering with you now, that you should not be crushed or destroyed by it, but sustained and sanctified in faith. And He will bring you through it, through your death into His Resurrection and His Life everlasting.
Whatever it is that is put to death in you by the Cross of Christ Jesus, much more do you receive in the fruits of His Cross, in His crucified and risen Body, given for you, and in His holy, precious Blood, poured out for you. Baptized in His Name, anointed by His Spirit, fed and strengthened by His Food and Drink, you live and walk with Him on the way of life. Which is to say that, even though you die to yourself, to your sins, and to the world, yet shall you live unto God in Christ.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.