The cross of Jesus Christ is the grace of God, extended to the world. When we are given the privilege of being joined to Christ in order to die in union with Him, and to be raised in union with Him, this too is grace. It is liberation from self-absorption. The cruciform life is therefore the liberated life.
However, some talk and think about this grace as if it were some kind of higher law. They talk as though living for God is one level of discipleship, and then dying for Him is the next level up—for the super disciples, perhaps.
But death is not the grad school of discipleship. It is entry level discipleship. No one follows Christ at all without being identified with Him in death. The meaning of your baptism is death. Death with Jesus is not the crowning glory of a life well lived. A life well lived is the crowning glory of an initiatory death.
So this means that death with and in Jesus is the kindergarten of this particular school. It also means that this death is not an achievement, but rather the prerequisite to all godly achievement. Death with Jesus is not the diploma you receive upon graduation; death with Jesus is the letter you get indicating that you have been accepted and are now enrolled in the first place. Death is not the place we get to. Death is the departure point; it is the place we left, and the way we left it. And it is a goodly grace that for every Christian disciple, that death is behind us.