Imprisoned for his beliefs, William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and a forgotten father of religious freedom, wrote the classic book No Cross, No Crown. While suffering in the Tower of London for his faith, stripped of the privileges he was entitled to as a nobleman, he discovered something we have forgotten in our modern age of prosperity: The call to follow Jesus is a call to come and die.
Penn and his noble peers faced in their time, what we face on a much larger scale in our time – the seduction of success and riches. In 17th century England, the state church meant that being a “Christian” and being a wealthy success were highly correlated. If you deviated for reasons of conscience like Penn and many others did, you could find yourself in prison, so it was much better to “go along to get along.” You could pursue worldly success and be Christian at the same time.
Penn’s life and message were that pursuit of Christ might cost you worldly wealth, but would win you eternal wealth. Success in the Kingdom might cost you success in this world. This is the message of the cross: die to what the world can give you so that you can have God’s true eternal wealth.
These have become conflated in our time. The American church has had to reinvent itself as American wealth has reached new levels. The average American lives with comforts and distractions that Kings and princes of just 100 years ago could only dream of, so we are fighting for their attention and what we have discovered is that if we make things glimmer more, and if we take a bit of the cross out of the message, a lot more people will come.
While this has helped us to connect with a new generation, it has created an illusion of impact for many of those who lead it, and perhaps of even more concern is that it has raised a new generation of Christians who don’t know much about the Cross. They haven’t heard many messages about it, they haven’t sung many songs about it, they haven’t seen it lived out by peers and mentors. They have been trained in a Christianity with No Cross, and so are still chasing their Own Crown.
Christianity with a cross does not mean that we should all become monks, it means that our first and only pursuit is Jesus and His glory. Every other pursuit must be instrumental to that. A true Christian does not seek success for the comforts, friends and opportunities it brings, but seeks to excel in whatever Jesus has asked them to do so that His Kingdom may advance. This might be in the White House, but much more often it is in a halfway-house. Many who are first shall be last, and many who are last shall be first. What matters is what is driving you.
And you can be certain of this: if you are pursuing Jesus and his cross, you will take some stripes. There is no redemption without suffering. There is no victory without a battle, or as Penn said, No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown. Penn lost everything he had, multiple times, but he was faithful, and near the end of his life he got it all back. His cross did brought a crown that couldn’t be taken away. Sometimes we live to see the crown, sometimes we only see it on the other side, but if there is no cross, there is no crown. Worldly crowns disappear in the blink of an eye, but the eternal crown that Jesus bestows through a life of sacrifice and obedience lasts forever.
If you are a Christian leader caught in the race of successful ministry, I want to kindly warn you: there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In fact, we’ve seen many stories of fallen leaders caught in this race. The story we publish is about the sexual tryst that the brought them down, but the story behind that story began with the corruption of their motives, and I’m afraid in our time, ministry culture is too often making it worse. We are chasing each other in the race to the top, and indulging in the special perks that success brings, and our example teaches other to do likewise even if our words do not. We need to put the cross of Jesus back in the center of everything we do, and that means most importantly the culture that we build around us. We must celebrate those who have paid and are paying a price more than those who appear to be winning the race. We must preach the full counsel of God, not only the good parts so that we can raise up true disciples.
On the other hand, if you are someone who is faithfully pursuing the Kingdom first, if you are loving others as your own expense, if you are standing up for truth by the Spirit of God, and you have not been recognized for it, or have paid a price for it, be certain of this, I want to encourage you: you will receive a crown (1 Pet 5:4). You will see some fruit in this age, but in the age to come, you will see the fullness of everything you did in love, and how much it meant to Jesus that you carried his cross part of the way up the hill. The pain of these moments can be intense, but Jesus never ever leaves you. He is with you in each moment as you pay the price of love.