Losing Your Life to Save It
And He said to all, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. Luke 9:23-26
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in The Cost of Discipleship, when Christ calls us into His kingdom “He bids us to come and die”. Are you ready to participate in your own death? Ironically, in calling us to die Christ is actually rescuing us from death and giving us real life. In other words, death to self is the gateway to real life.
It must have been shocking when Christ turned to His followers and announced that they must die. It was counterintuitive to the extreme but in another sense consistent with profound gospel logic. WE all work hard daily to avoid danger, injury, hardship, suffering, pain, difficulty, trial and loss. The instinct to preserve life runs deep yet here the creator of life calls us to die.
Here is some practical truth to consider. It has everything to do with how you are presently investing your life, i.e. where you are placing your real hope and the true humanity you were created to enjoy. Your little kingdoms and fiefdoms promise life but always deliver death. The big kingdom (Christ-centered living) requires death but delivers life. The struggle of the Christian life is that you are continually tempted to think the opposite is true. Put another way, the biggest danger this side of eternity is death pretending to be life. It was true in Eden and has been true ever since. As Proverbs 14:12 summarizes this deceit “There is a way that seems right to a man but the end it leads to is death”. Sinners are amazingly good at getting death and life confused. If you are “on to it” you see it all the time. Media portrays the most heinous acts of sin and debauchery sans consequences. Adultery is portrayed as the giving life, a moment of passion and sexual lusts seem invigorating, and even life giving at first but will prove to be a bad investment of body and soul. Ruling desires such as gluttony, lusts, pride, envy and self righteousness seem like life, deceive you that they have power to give life but when they rule your heart they atrophy your soul. Everyone needs to hear and heed the warning of Christ because the death-pretending-to-be-life trick will be played on us again and again.
In Luke 9:23 Jesus tells us three things to help us in the battle with death pretending to be life. First, He tells you that you must die. This is your calling. You must experience a three-fold death to enter the door to life. The model for this three-fold death is of course the Lord Himself (John 12). It begins with denying yourself, i.e. death to the tyranny of self. From our earliest days the love of self shapes all that we say and do. We work to be thought of as right, viewed as attractive, win every argument, receive every promotion, strive to be the best, the center, the most powerful, best known, loved and admired. Nobody has to teach us this, we really do love us and have a wonderful plan for our life. Everyone is so given to meeting his or her own needs that humanity has become blind to it. But Christ says that you must say no to the one person you have the most trouble saying no to—yourself! To experience the joys of His kingdom you must let go of your hold on your own life. To deny yourself is to give yourself back to Jesus. It is time to ask yourself the hard questions. Am I following Christ in my own home, work, church, relationships, etc.? Am I investing my time, talent, treasure and energy in my little kingdom or in His big kingdom? Am I investing in life or death? Am I holding on tight to my own to my own life as if it belongs to me? Do my personal wants and needs come first? Only in your brokenness and meekness can you even begin to deny yourself.
He also tells you to take up your cross. That means death to the pursuit of life in your little kingdom. The cross is an instrument of death. To many the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness. It seems like a big mistake and a bad joke. How can anything good come out of it? Yet it is not a mistake, a failure or a bad joke. It is history’s most beautiful paradox. It is only by His death that you could have life. So that you may have life now Christ calls His disciples to sacrifice their lives for Him. In a world dominated by the kingdom of self, living for the kingdom of Christ will always require suffering and sacrifice. What are you willing to offer? Money? Lifestyle? Reputation, prestige, power, esteem of others, your plans for the future? Which pleasures do you refuse to nail to your daily cross?
The third element of the three-fold death is to follow Him. This is death to the pursuit of my agenda. Where are you going with your life? Whose plan are you following? Whose dream shapes the decisions you make and the actions you take? Here, Christ calls you to the death of self rule. You are to submit all to Him for His purpose. You are no longer little kings and self lords, sovereign over your own lives. You are called to something bigger. You have been chosen and called to be followers of Christ. That means you no longer live with a master mentality but rather as a servant bought and paid for (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Christ has called you to a three-fold death. Are you ready to preside over your own death?
The second major principle found in Luke 9:23-26 is the logic behind your death to self. Why is the call so hard? Because Christ knows you. You need the three-fold death. He knows your character and the inertia of sin. Sin is self focused and the pull of your little kingdom causes your heart to be ruled by personal desire and felt need. Sin makes you want to set rules for self and others to co-opt grace for your own agenda. Sin makes you demanding and impatient and tightens the grip you have on your own life. Christ calls you and lays out the logic of the big kingdom principle. If you try to save your life you will lose it. But if you will lose your life for Christ’s sake you shall find it. The little kingdom promises life and delivers death. The big kingdom requires death and delivers life. To jealously hold on to your dream of what you want your life to be is to guarantee that you will never experience true life. It is spiritual suicide to refuse to obey. It shrinks the soul. It does not enlarge you. Holding on to your life blocks the ability to enjoy the life you are made for. You are not the exception. Death to self is the only solution.
Finally, Jesus gives a warning. There is imminent danger in prioritizing your little kingdoms. In vs. 26 He says to be ashamed of His kingdom will result in His being ashamed of you. To be ashamed means to prefer the world and what it has to offer over Him. It means to deny Christ His rightful place. It means to offer the rulership of your heart and its thoughts and desires to someone other than Christ. It is to reject the offer of life and to seek it elsewhere. It is to treasure and value self above the surpassing value of knowing Christ.
He is not talking about the theology you profess or the statement of faith you subscribe to. He is talking about what treasures and pleasures so excite and motivate you that they shape everything you say, desire, think and do. Here is the warning—deny Me My rightful place in your heart and I will deny you a place with Me in glory. Don’t take this lightly. Do you pay Christ lip service while your heart is really elsewhere?
In conclusion, there is a sweet promise. The call is a hard call but it is in reality a call of grace. In calling us to death Christ is protecting us from death and giving us real life. He knows you have a grasping, clenching, stubborn heart that refuses to open your hands and receive the gift. To give you everything you want is not to love you at all. To call you to what you really need is true love. It is only when you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him that you will experience the true life for which you were created.