[Jesus] called to Him the crowd with His disciples and said to them: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Jesus says that His disciples will have a cruciform life. It will be so if they believe His words. Jesus’ disciples will imitate Him, and that includes the denial and sacrifice of oneself. It is clear that Jesus must die: “He said this plainly.” The Twelve heard Jesus’ words: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus lays this out as His mission statement—what He is on earth to do.
But then Jesus includes the Twelve and all His followers in the same sort of life. He says that this will be their fate, too: not that every disciple of Jesus will be martyred for the faith, but that they will all sacrifice themselves for His sake and His Gospel’s sake. Jesus is just as clear about that as He was about His own fate: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”
This is an appropriate message any time, but especially so in Lent. Lent is meant to bring to mind self-denial, the very thing Jesus speaks of. His followers are not independent, autonomous beings. They do not make a law for themselves. Rather, they are under discipline, under a rule that is imposed upon them by their Master. This is what Jesus does for the Twelve and for all His followers.
But what does this rule look like? To understand that, you must understand what the Master Jesus did. He predicted His suffering and death at the hands of secular and religious leaders of
You heard how the Apostle Paul described what took place through Jesus’ suffering and death: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul’s words explain the intentionality of what Jesus underwent. This was the denying of Himself and His taking up the cross to redeem you.
Jesus’ actions placed Himself under the will of His Father who desired that sinners be reconciled to Him. Jesus was born under the Law, made obedient to all the rules of the Old Testament. He was subservient to His Mother Mary and His Guardian Joseph. And this was so, despite the fact that Jesus was the One through whom all things were made and possessed a glory coequal and a majesty coeternal with the Father. Jesus is under a discipline to justify you by His death and to give you life by His resurrection.
This type of action is what Jesus calls His disciples to. Like He did, Jesus’ disciples must also undergo self-denial, taking up their crosses and following Him. As Jesus’ followers, you are not autonomous. You have orders and commands given to you; they are not of your own design or desire. Your Master instructs you how to live, how to behave toward people within the community of disciples, and how to present yourself to the world. Christianity is more than a set of propositional truths, it is also a way of life and a way to life.
But the self-denial that Jesus speaks of is not simply a loyalty test. It is the way to salvation: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Putting aside your own desires in order to conform to what Jesus says is a matter of faith. It is a trust thing. Do you believe what He says to be true? Is Jesus really the Christ? Is He really the One, the only One, who can reconcile sinners to the Father? Is He the source of forgiveness? Following Jesus means answering these questions affirmatively, so that it is not just a matter of self-denial, it is also a matter of reliance, dependence upon your Master.
This is why Jesus says: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?” Jesus wants you, His followers, to consider those questions. If you do not have yourself under Jesus’ orders, in the way of discipleship, receiving His merits, what do you possess that you can exchange with God for your soul? If you decide to acquire your own salvation, determining your own morality which you will keep, devising your own good works, making your own checklist for salvation, can you present that before the Lord God and demand entry to
But those who find themselves in Jesus’ fellowship, receiving His benefits, and following His cruciform pattern of life, they partake of all that He has earned for them. “While [they] were still sinners, Christ died for [them].” They were weak, able to do nothing for their salvation, and yet Jesus helped them. “While [you] were still sinners, Christ died for [you].” This wasn’t your own choice; this is what Jesus elected to do for you and to share with you. But this necessarily requires trusting and believing in a Master, a God who is humble, weak, and unimpressive. For that is what Jesus was in His suffering and death. Not only do you not get to determine your own salvation, you don’t determine what your Redeemer will be either.
But this is how you are saved: “Whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Forgoing your self-determination and self-reliance for the sake of following Jesus and believing His acts of redemption and His teaching brings salvation to you. You imitate Jesus as you follow Him to everlasting life. Just as He made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant to redeem you, so you make yourself nothing, taking the way of discipleship for your salvation. That is the losing of life that your Master speaks of.
All of this boils down to hearing and believing what the Lord God says to you. Jesus spells out this way of discipleship in His teaching. He is clear that salvation means dependence on Him. He is also clear that His suffering and death were necessary. Jesus doesn’t hide the fact that receiving His redemptive work does not guarantee any sort of earthly success. He warns you that people will hate His followers. And Jesus puts demands on His disciples. He has said so plainly to the Twelve and to you.
For those who do not believe this or do not want this, there is always the self-determinative way of living. It’s always an option. But Jesus says: “Whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes again in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Such an option is not worth choosing: it is eternally worthless.
But for those who have their “minds set on things of God,” there is a blessed fate: “Whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” That faith in Jesus and His words leads to great things when He comes again in His Father’s glory. It’s just what Paul described: “Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
As that Holy Spirit has been given to you, you can believe and trust in Jesus and His Word. You can deny yourselves, pick up your crosses, and follow Him who did so for you. For there will be no shame in Jesus and His Word, as you are led by the Holy Spirit to lose your lives for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s. Instead, there will be the eternal saving of your lives: “If while [you] were enemies you were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that [you] are reconciled, shall [you] be saved by His life.” That is the promised finish that awaits you who follow Jesus’ path of discipleship. For the cruciform life has a greater end, the empty tomb. So it was for Jesus; so it will be for you when your Crucified and Risen Lord returns.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.