American Christians sometimes do not realize how thoroughly the diseased theology and legacy of Charles Finney have infected our doctrine and practice. This infection is nowhere more evident than the near-universal category of decisionistic Christianity—Christianity reduced to conversion or a decision. This plays itself out in various ways. Perhaps it is of the unspeakably ghastly, damning “pray a prayer and then you’re saved no matter what” variety that is always popular. But perhaps instead it does not grapple with the profoundly future-oriented nature of salvation in the NT, and so makes all obedience merely the evidence of a past decision. Or maybe it over-stresses the role of human response in salvation, front-loading the gospel with draconian and oppressive qualifiers to the nature of faith.
None of this represents the Christianity of the NT taught by our Lord and His apostles. Jesus proclaimed His lordship, but its focal point was not a one-time decision, but a way of life that walked with Him by faith all the way to heaven. Jesus proclaimed this message with vigor and without compromise. For Christians, the lessons on discipleship encourage us to excel still more, to stay the course walking with Christ in greater fruitfulness and holiness all the way to heaven. For the unsaved, it is a clear call to the kind of life salvation involves—a radical break with the world that leads to an increasingly fruitful and transformed life.
A. The Cost of Following Jesus (v. 34)
At some point in the narrative, a crowd has gathered around Jesus and His men (it is unclear whether this is a different crowd from the one described in 9:14). Doubtless some are true disciples of our Lord, along with the saved 11; others may simply be interested in His power and miracles but not in His rule and kingdom. To all, He says the same thing. Both saved and unsaved need to hear this message (which goes against the popular, if dated, teaching that there is a sharp distinction between salvation and discipleship, and that the latter requires a post-conversion work of consecration). To one, Jesus calls for deeper, fuller, and more fruitful devotion to what it means to follow Him. To the other, Jesus offers a clear invitation to follow Him—with a frank explanation of what that kind of faith involves.
To lit. “come behind” Jesus—for all students followed their rabbi, quite literally, in those days—meant a lifestyle of three things. These things are not extraneous to faith, or optional, but are necessary expressions of it. Nor must these things necessarily be fully conscious—nor certainly have their full implications and applications understood and agreed to—in order to become a Christian. But the seed of humble, earnest surrender to Christ as Savior and Lord, giving oneself into His hands and safekeeping for time and eternity, has within it these elements that will imperfectly but truly lived out as both fruit of conversion and the necessary pathway of perseverance in faith all the way to glory.
Deny yourself. Jesus is not teaching asceticism or self-induced poverty, much less the refusing yourself a chocolate sundae or extra helping of fried chicken! Rather, He is asking for an attitudinal refusal—one whose essence is expressed in repentance, but when fully unpacked and understood is a grace-empowered perception of one’s fallenness and the wicked fruits it bears, a siding with God and His rule against yourself, a fighting of these fallen inclinations and the willful acquiescence to them that is sin, recognizing your fallen heart as its source and disowning it. The word is often used to describe denying or refusing to associate with someone—like when Peter uses it to deny his knowing Jesus (Mark 14:30, 72). The words speaks of disowning—not merely the sin, but its source. Of course, this must include a disowning of all self-righteous merit and the pride that births it! This is something even godly believers still struggle with. The first step is to disown it, and receive Christ’s saving righteousness by faith, as Paul did and continued to do (Phil. 3:5-8).
Die to self. “Taking up the cross” meant one thing in Jesus’ day: death. Here is the counterpart of self-denial. This isn’t speaking primarily about enduring suffering or trial—though it certainly has multitudinous applications there—but a daily (cf. Luke 9:23) dying to your own will, plans, desires, temptations, and ways—often painfully. That Jesus used death imagery ought to disabuse us of the notion that such a process is emotionally pleasant or painless—much more that the experiencing of often deep turmoil and pain is somehow a sign of unbelief. Sometimes, obedience is not pleasant. It does not feel good. It is done for the joy in God that flows from it, but often in the moment all we see is the loss, pain, frustration, or lack. Acknowledging this is not unbelief. It actually places a nearly impossible burden upon those who are trying to walk faithfully with the Lord! We must die daily, and that includes a willingness to suffer loss for the cause of Christ; to experience the sorrow of this fallen world in faith, not murmuring; to mourn over the life we wanted and accept the one we have by faith from the hand of God. In every case, the fallen self wants to rebel against the appointments of God. This is not to say legitimate relief and happiness ought not be sought—but it does mean that we suffer whatever we must if obedience requires it, and we did so trusting the Lord. Our autonomy is dead to us, and the living Lord rules over us with gentle authority from His heavenly throne.
Follow Me. Lit. “let him be following Me.” Jesus did not think salvation was primarily a decision. He is not talking about forensic justification or imputation here. He is talking about the organic, dynamic, daily, lived-out righteousness and union with Him that are major components of the experience of salvation. It is daily life, in the details and stuff of life. Unwavering, continual, sacrificial, submissive, humble, believing learning from Jesus as your Lord and Teacher and then doing what He says. It is a lifelong thing, a daily journey with Jesus to the Heavenly City. You learn from Him and grow to be like Him.
We must carry the cross to wear the crown of eternal life. There is no other way.
B. The Paradox of Following Jesus (vv. 35-37)
Here Jesus gives the basis for the terms He outlined above. Note the “for.” Why must all who want to follow Jesus do this? Because if you want to hold onto your life, you will lose it, but only in losing it for Him and the gospel will you find it! A paradox indeed.
“Life” here refers not merely to physical life, though that is included. Rather it includes the entirety of the person, emphasizing especially the invisible, spiritual part of us that is our soul or spirit. If we wish to hang onto that—meaning, on our own terms, our own way, rejecting the right of the risen Christ to rule over us—we shall lose it for eternity in hellfire. The very acts that seek our self-protection from the authority of God and the loss of our autonomy at a practical, daily level are the acts that will send us to Hell. The very expressions of our autonomy are sin and unbelief.
However, it is only by the faith that dies to self, that relinquishes itself into the scarred hands of the incarnate God that we have eternal life. But Jesus says more: Only as we lose our lives for Him and the gospel—meaning not merely the faith in abstract but its actual expressions in obedience—will we gain eternal life. Is this salvation by meritorious works? No indeed! Jesus is saying first that faith is inseparable from a way of life, and also that the way of life is the necessary means to the end—which here is eternal life in glory in His earthly kingdom.
O Christian! Keep trusting and obeying the Lord! Keep putting one foot in front of the other, for that is the only way you shall walk the narrow path all the way to glory! Do so looking away from yourself, away from your merit and righteousness, casting yourself wholly and completely on the blood and righteousness of Jesus for your peace with God and your cleansing. But walk you must. Jesus insists upon it.
Verses 36 and 37 expand upon the ground given in verse 35. What good is it, Jesus reasons, to have everything and lose yourself forever in hell? Is not your soul worth more than any toy or pleasure or comfort you could gain or keep by not obeying the Lord in faith? Surely many unsaved people are more comfortable, even immediately happier, than some Christians simply because they indulge their every desire rather than fighting them or being broken over them. But of course they do so and then go to hell. What loss! Jesus is encouraging us to see things from a divine perspective. Your soul is priceless. It is worth the shed blood of God incarnate to redeem you from sin and wrath. How shall you throw all of that away for the fleeting pleasures of sin? O Christian! Repent and keep trusting the Lord! O precious lost friend! Turn from sin and follow Jesus Christ by faith in His perfect life, death, and resurrection!
C. The Warning for Forsaking Jesus (v. 38)
Jesus knows He has given men and women a hard word. The cost of true faith is very hard at times even for genuine believers. Sometimes sin seems too alluring, lies too believable, the flesh too intimate, God too distant, His way too inflexible, too costly, too alienating, too unnatural.
Besides assuring us eternal life awaits the end of the narrow path on which we walk each day, Jesus also is not afraid of warning us—warning the whole world—what happens if we forsake His way.
What does Jesus mean by being “ashamed of [Him] and [His] words”? He isn’t referring to fear of witnessing, or not admitting to people you’re a Christian. Rather, He speaks of denying Him by rejecting the kind of faith He calls for here. For faith is centered upon His person and work, and it yields to His authority. And Jesus has just assured us what that faith actually entails. So to live in a way that rejects this kind of self-denying following of Jesus is a life that betrays severe unbelief—an unbelief that, if not repented of, will send even good church members to hell.
On the last day of judgment for the world, Jesus will reject those who have rejected Him by rejecting His words (cf. John 12:48). But He will also vindicate and openly, joyfully welcome those who are His (cf. Matthew 10:32).
O that we would be faithful to Him. O that we would trust Him more! For He promised to be with us the whole of every day as it is lived (cf. Matthew 28:20), and that His yoke of discipleship is indeed light (Matthew 11:30).