The initial impetus for this post comes from listening to Tim Chester speak on "Making Disciples for Missional Church", available from Total Church Conference 2008
The one who follows Jesus is one who has made a choice to follow Jesus in 'the way of the cross'. This does not mean, and has never meant, self-denial or asceticism, but has always meant quite specifically that choosing to follow Jesus commits one to a life that embraces and makes potential a particular kind of death, that is the death of the martyr.
One problem of (western) Christians is a tendency to convert by stages. A person believes in Jesus, and then slowly gets convinced that this will mean certain consequences, a certain christian lifestyle, and held up as some kind of heroic end-stage, they might possibly attain to the faith of a martyr, as if martyrs were special super-heroes of Christian faith. This is, in fact, partly a function of the non-persecution of Christians. For those converted in the context of persecution and hostility, the choice to convert is made with the threat and real possibility of martyrdom, so that the choice to live for Jesus is already the choice to die for Jesus. Once the choice to die for Jesus is made, much of the rest easily falls into line. For every Christian, the choice to embrace Jesus is the choice to die for Jesus.
In contemporary usage, 'martyr' tends to denote those who die for a cause. I want to suggest that such an understanding is inadequate for the shape of contemporary understandings of the word, as well as for its historical usage. Cinema provides a ready example. Considers films that end with the death of the protagonist. Those that end with a death that effects a purposeful outcome, we consider examples of heroic martyrdom. The martyr dies and their death achieves their goal. Thus, we correlate the sacrifice of the self as the means of the outcome. The question is never, or at least rarely, raised - could the outcome have been achieved by other means? Nonetheless, the heroic dimension only exists because of the efficacy of the action. Conversely, films that end with the death of the protagonist which either aims for no purpose and thus has no efficacy, or falls short of the purposed goal, are real tragedies. The person who dies for their cause inefficaciously, might be called a 'martyr', but the real evaluation of their death is that it was pointless, vain, futile, meaningless. The politeness of martyr-rhetoric, not to mention speaking-ill of the dead, might prohibit us from saying so, but that is the cold, hard truth.
Come then to Jesus. Jesus neatly embraces both the standard and the historical usage of 'martyr', in that he both dies for a cause (or better, 'a purpose'), and he dies as a witness. The New Testament neatly preserves the usage of 'martyr' as witness, and in Jesus' case it is particularly apt. John's Gospel contains a long motif of trial, witness, and truth through chapters 1-12, and John 8:40 neatly connects the desire to put him to death with his claim to speak the truth. Likewise, Jesus before Pilate is questioned about being a King, replies that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). Jesus witnesses to the truth, and ultimately is crucified for his witness.
Yet, the death of a witness is not an efficacious death. If Jesus is who so many make him out to be, a rather inoffensive teacher of morality, or free-love, or humanism, the cause of his death is difficult to locate, but its purpose becomes totally obscured. If Jesus dies and fails, he is not a martyr, he is a tragedy. At best one might assert that his willingness to die for his beliefs witnesses to the depths of his convictions. Yet if those convictions include the certainty of his resurrection (Mark 8:31), and his Messianic significance, then this too would be in vain, since his convictions are false.
This is why the Atonement stands at the heart of understanding 'the way of the cross'. 1 John 4:10 speaks of the Father sending the Son for this very purpose, atonement. The efficacy of Jesus' death, and the cause for which he is martyred, is to reconcile sinners to God by the atoning sacrifice of himself for our sins. In achieving his purpose, Jesus' death is transformed from tragedy to heroic martyrdom; it is only in this sense that Jesus can truly be heralded as a martyr.
The whole pattern of Christian life is modeled on this centre. The imitation of Jesus means that Christians are sent, as he was sent, to witness to the truth and to reconcile sinners to God. I emphasise the latter, because this is precisely the point at which come Cross-centered thinking goes astray. There is no value in self-denial, asceticism, suffering, and the like, in and of themselves , because it cannot effect what Jesus' suffering effected, the once for all atonement for sin. Instead, Christians proclaim the same message as Jesus, with pronouns modified - Jesus calls sinners to repent and follow himself, we call sinners to repent and follow him too.
In this way Christian discipleship is severed from the compulsive need to be efficacious. Indeed, if we grasp the implications of the Sovereignty of God, we realise that whenever we do die, it is because God is pleased to call us home and give us rest from our cruciform lives. Into this scenario, the martyrdom of Christians is characterised by a peculiarly dual-nature. Rev 12:11 reads
And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they loved not their lives even unto death
The whole theme of conquering in the book is closely tied to the death of the Lamb, so that the reader is left in no doubt that Christ's atoning sacrifice is also his glorious victory. In this sense, the death of Christian martyrs has no efficacy - they conquer 'by the blood of the Lamb'. Yet, John is quick to link this with 'and by the word of their testimony (witness)', signifying that it is their confession, their repentance and lived-out cruciform discipleship, that has united them with the efficacious victory of the Lamb, Christ's atoning death. This is borne-out by the final clause in this verse 'and they did not love their lives even unto death', which links their death as the persecuted, like to Jesus, with their witness to and of Jesus, with Jesus' own witness-bearing atoning death.
It is in this sense that martyrdom as death is truly a baptism of blood, as some of the Fathers described it, since in martyrdom the Christian makes a final confession, a final clinging to the truth that Jesus died for them, and demonstrates in word and deed that they have repented and believed. This corresponds to the public witness of repentance and faith and the symbolic death of the baptismal rite, and in the case of a catechumen like Perpetua, truly is their baptism, a graphic and literal fulfillment of the symbolism of Rev 7:14.
One of the great failings of western evangelicalism is a failure to make explicit and live explicitly the truth that the choice to 'trust in Jesus' is, at one and at once, the embrace of 'the way of the cross', which may end in martyrdom. Death, of course, is not the end that Christians aim for, but the very real expectation that it is a regular and expected consequence of a Jesus-like life, shapes that choice right from the start. In this light, taking up one's cross to follow Jesus is to accept martyrdom, even embrace martyrdom, and to make the whole of one's life cross-shaped.