"If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life (soul) shall lose it, but whoever loses his life (soul) for My sake, he is the one who will save it" (Luke 9:23-24 NASB).
Several times in Scripture the believer is likened to a traveler passing through life. The course of following God is likened to a path or road. It is called "the way of truth" (2 Pet. 2:2) or simply "the Way" (John 14:6). The Lord said that the way is narrow (Matt. 7:14) and that few would find it. We sometimes think this journey is limited only to the day we passed from death to life. However, it includes deliverance from wasted or misguided living from now to eternity. The point is that we enter into truly abundant life through a journey rather than one great leap forward. It is more than a momentary decision. It is the path of following the Lord Jesus.
Jesus says that if one wishes to come after Him, then there is something that needs to be done. He then states the challenging condition, which most of us might seek to avoid. It involves a painful decision, it calls for great sacrifice. He says, "let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me." Following this Jesus takes His disciples through an experience figuratively represented by a cross, a means of death in Jesus' day. Taking up the cross is exactly the same path He walked, according to the Father's will, when He was led to Calvary and crucified. At that time, not one of the twelve volunteered to follow Him. In fact, they abandoned Him. His path to Calvary was humbling, self-sacrificing, and painful. Yet it was essential. He renounced His personal desires when He said, "not My will but Thine be done." It is this same path which is the example for believers in Philippians 2:3-12.
As God's Son walked the way to His cross, so He calls us to deny self, take up our cross, and follow the same path. The Savior reminded us, "a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master" (Matt. 10:24-25 NASB). He took up His cross, and we must take up our cross daily in following Him. Every child of God might desire to follow such an inspiring Leader if the price were not denying self. The word "deny" means to refuse any connection with something. It is the same word used in Christ's prophecy that Peter would deny Him three times (Luke 22:61). The Lord requires that we deny self to the extent of accepting a cross if we are truly to be His followers.
The Problem: Self-Life
What does the Lord mean when He speaks of someone losing his life (soul)? The verses on both sides of Luke 9:24 demonstrate that He is speaking of self. The word "soul" comes from the Greek
psyche, from which we get our word "psychology," which has to do with the study of man's inner self and resultant behavior. In Scripture, "soul" is used to describe the immaterial and invisible part of man (Matt. 10:39; 11:29; Eph. 6:6; Heb. 4:12; 6:19; 10:38-39).
The call to lose our life is not a call to lose our personality or individuality. It does not mean that we are to be "nothings" or "non-persons" before God. Our worth in God's eyes is great on two grounds. First, we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26; Col. 3:10) in a spiritual or moral sense. Secondly, we are esteemed to be worth Christ's giving up His life for our salvation.
What we are called upon to lose is
selfism. Self-life means being occupied with
me. It is the assertion of
my will, for
my own pleasure, apart from God's will. Self-dominated life is the opposite of Christ-directed or Spirit-controlled life. Self-life does not trust God's Word or God's sufficiency or God's way. It trusts self. It is interested primarily in self.
Most of us dislike obvious examples of selfism in others. However, we sometimes have difficulty in recognizing the same things in our own behavior. Here are a few examples for reminders:
1. Speaking frequently in terms of what "I" want, need, think, feel.
2. Seeking attention by word, action, or dress—craving praise.
3. Easily offended or angered but not easily corrected or taught.
4. Self-sufficient, proud, intolerant, highly critical, argumentative.
5. Decisions made on the basis of self-interest, not the interests of God or others.
6. Complaining, bitterness, self-pity, little expression of appreciation.
7. Taking care of "me" as the center, circumference, and goal of life.
This is the self-life that needs to be dethroned and denied.
We need to be liberated from the wretchedness of selfism. Galatians 2:20 makes clear in its very first word what is our chief problem. It begins, "
I am crucified." The barrier to godliness and fellowship with Christ is indicated in a one-letter word—"I." That is why "I" had to be crucified. This happened at the cross of Christ when we were slain with Him positionally. The crucifixion of selfism needs to happen in practice so that the true life of Jesus can be seen in us (2 Cor. 4:10).
The Remedy: Crucified Life
"Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27 NASB). What is this necessary cross? Obviously it is not the wood on which Jesus died. It is something His disciples must carry daily. The tense indicates not a momentary thing but a present, continuous activity. It is more than an involuntary difficulty or burden to bear, as some have thought. Arthur Pink comments, "To deny himself is not only for a man to disown his own righteousness, wisdom, and strength, but to renounce all self will and self-pleasing. The whole of self is to be set aside and the cross taken up."2 To take up the cross is to choose deliberately the pathway or lifestyle of following Jesus at the expense of self-interest. The cross involves shame, suffering, and sacrifice for the Lord's sake, just as Jesus' cross involved these things for His own life.
The idea of a crossless Christianity (as a way of living) seems to have gained great popularity in the western world. Yet that which God suffered His Son to pass through is not likely to be omitted in His plan for those who wish to be His followers. With Christ Himself, the humbling death of the cross preceded exaltation, according to Philippians 2:8-9. It preceded also the display of His resurrection life. It is apparent that daily death to the self-life must precede the outflow of dynamic life and power in us promised in Ephesians 1:19. If we are to know the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, then we must be "conformed to His death" (Phil. 3:10). Paul spoke of our "always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (2 Cor. 4:10-11 NASB). Paul's cross-bearing was a submission to God's plan for his life which involved hardship (Acts 9:15-16). Our surrender of self-interests may likewise involve hardships for the cause of Christ.
The Path: Broken Life
When self-life is confronted and rejected, the path will lead to complete submission to His will, or brokenness. Resistance hinders the work of God's Spirit. We remember that an untamed colt was brought for the Lord Jesus to ride in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:30). It was immediately broken for His use. This principle is repeated several times in Scripture. God first breaks, then He uses. The warrior Gideon had his soldiers break the pitchers in their hands at the sound of the trumpet as they stood about the enemy camp. Then the light of the torches within the earthen vessels blazed visibly (Judg. 7:16-22). God's light shines forth best from broken vessels. The woman broke the vial of precious perfume to anoint the Lord Jesus. Brokenness releases the fragrances of spiritual worship to God. The greatest sacrifice ever made demonstrated this. "This is My body, which is broken for you" (1 Cor. 11:24). How God values brokenness! "A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Psa. 51:17).
Of what are we to be broken? The things that hinder our conformity to the image of God's Son must be removed. We see God doing this in the life of the patriarch Jacob. At a critical point, he met the Lord at Peniel, which means "face of God" (Gen. 32:24-31). There this man, so strong in self-life, wrestled with the heavenly being until he was rendered helpless. He acquired a new name, a new strength, and a new vision; but he walked thereafter "limping on his thigh." He had been broken.
William MacDonald in his booklet "Lord, Break Me" lists examples of brokenness including:
1. Readiness to confess sin to God and those we have wronged (Psa. 51).
2. Restitution (paying back) where we have caused damage to another (Luke 19:8).
3. Willingness to forgive when we have been wronged (Col. 3:13).
4. Enduring wrong without retaliating (1 Pet. 2:19-20).
5. Repaying evil with good (Rom. 12:17, 20-21).
6. Honoring others above self (Phil. 2:3).
7. Accepting and obeying God's will without resistance (Psa. 32:9).3
Ground must be plowed and cultivated before it can be productive (Jer. 4:3). Then the seed of God's planting can be fruitful. Broken lives do not resist the work of God, wherever that work may lead. Remember the Savior's invitation, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart" (Matt. 11:29 NASB).
The Result: Christ-Controlled Life
An important question at this point is, "Are you walking in the way of the cross?" This is not asking whether you are saved. It means, "Are you doing what the Lord Jesus has called you to do in being His disciple?" The following diagram illustrates two ways of living which are possible for believers. One is not the will of God, thus blocking the abundant life experience for you. If you wish in a deep and serious way to change from self-pleasing to Christ-pleasing living, then you must take self-life to your cross, as He taught.
Selfish (fleshly) Living practiced by many believers
Trying to live spiritually by my strength
Obedience to God according to my feelings
Motivated to act according to self-interest
Spirit-filled (controlled) Life available to all believers
Living by His grace and His enablement (confidence in Him, not myself)
Obedience to God according to His Word
Motivated to act according to my appreciation of Christ's love (2 Cor. 5:14)
You must choose daily to have a Christ-directed, Spirit-empowered life. There may be an initial crisis experience. The change may be more gradual. But Christ must be allowed to live His life in you unhindered and express His risen, powerful life and character in your life.
The Condition Restated
The Lord teaches a clear principle in John 12:24-26:
1. In agriculture the grain must be detached from what connects with its own natural life. Then it
dies. Only after death is there new reproducing life (v. 24).
2. The principle is applied to the believer (v. 25). Jesus says, "if you hold on to your soul (your self-life) you will lose it." Only when you hate this worldly self-life and choose to give it up to Christ for the benefit of others will you make your life count eternally.
3. Following Jesus in service requires that we follow in His earthly path (v. 26). That path led Him to the self-denying, God-glorifying death of the cross. We cannot follow Him and escape the path of the cross for ourselves. This means death to the life of self-pleasing. It means the remaking of it into the mold of the Lord Jesus Christ that His life might be seen in you.
When we have decided to take up and carry our cross daily, we will turn our backs on self-pleasing. Walking by the Spirit we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). Are you ready to take up your cross and follow Him (Luke 14:27)?
The Cross In The Believer's Life
1. How does God intend every Christian to live (2 Cor. 5:15; Gal. 2:19b)?
In what ways did the Lord Jesus demonstrate this type of life (John 5:19, 30; 8:28-29; Rom 15:3; Phil. 2:5-8)?
2. Describe the life that is the opposite of the one in question 1. List some of the evidences of a life that is lived for self rather than for God.
3. Study carefully Luke 9:23-24. What is the meaning of each of the following steps?
"let him deny himself"
"take up his cross daily"
4. How are the steps in Luke 9:23 the solution to the problem of self-life, or selfish living?
5. What is the relationship between the believer's cross-bearing and the process described in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11?
6. Paraphrase (write in your own words) Galatians 2:20.
Why is this truth the key to living the kind of life that God wants you to live?
7. What aspect of cross-bearing is brought out in Romans 8:13b and Colossians 3:5?
What will this mean in practice?
1 Corinthians 9:27
1 Peter 2:11
8. Identify some of the practical ways of obeying Luke 9:23.
9. Read John 12:23-26. What fundamental principle regarding fruit-bearing does Jesus give?
How did His life demonstrate this principle?
Why is living for self an obstacle to bearing fruit for God?
10. How does the self-life manifest itself in your daily walk? Be specific.
In those areas where self-life is evident, how will you deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Jesus? Identify practical steps you will take.
2 Arthur W. Pink,
Spiritual Growth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1972).
3 William MacDonald,
Lord, Break Me (Kansas City, Kansas: Walterick Publishers, 1972).