Self Denial, the Cross, and Following Jesus

Almost all Christians must have heard at least more than once sermons that encourage them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus as both a commandment and a promise that they would experience peace, joy, and ultimately a more fulfilling Christian life. Is this what Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words?

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At first glance, the three aspects of what Jesus spoke in Matthew 16:24 appear to be achievable goals, and Christians set out to achieve these goals with a vengeance. A huge amount of communication is dedicated toward teaching Christians how to achieve a measure of success toward these goals. But is a measure of success good enough? For certainly Jesus was not speaking to those who were already in God’s kingdom, but to the lost world of the requirements for entering it. He is posing an impossible standard that only he could achieve: to deny one’s self, to bear the cross, and to follow in his footstep. This article will show that these are not challenges to see who qualifies for God’s kingdom, but are stern ominous shouts from the One who is going to the cross: “Will you surrender?”. We should not hear it with any less alarm than the terrifying scene around mount Sinai when the law was about to be delivered.

This article was inspired from a verse that was quoted at the end of an email. This verse, which I had heard sermons on it several times in my decades of sitting in my church pews, over the radio, or through Christian literature that I devoured in my early years as a Christian, became my life’s purpose years before Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life was written.

Matthew 16:24

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24)

If you hover over this verse Matthew 16:24 and right-click to open it in a new window or tab, you’d find a short commentary on the verse: “Discipleship is costly.” This subtitle is found in the NASB, Amplified, and various other versions. No, discipleship is much more than being costly, it’s priceless. It took God’s only begotten Son to pay for it.

Self denial

To what extent does Jesus ask you to deny yourself? Denying yourself of certain pleasures by restricting certain foods or drinks, or follow the pattern of the Colossians who prescribed “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Colossians 2:21), or other forms of personal sacrifice? No, Hebrews 9:22 says that “without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins.” And it’s not just a spilling of some blood, it’s all of it until death, and that was what Jesus did. He died. The condition for becoming his disciple, for following him, is not just mere denial of something, but a denial unto death through the shedding of your own blood. And even then, when you did shed your own blood, it wouldn’t do you any good because you don’t qualify as an unblemished sacrifice. The Old Covenant requirement for sacrificial beasts is they have to be accepted by the High Priest as unblemished. Jesus is unblemished but you are not.

Now why am I talking about death when the verse only talks about self denial? Because Jesus spoke these words as a condition for salvation, not discipleship. The New Covenant was not yet made available until Christ denied himself by enduring the cross. He was asking his listener though they did not know what he was alluding to: can you endure what I’m about to endure? But of course, this is just a rhetorical question, because your death on the cross will not yield the righteousness you need for an entrance into God’s kingdom, as I had alluded to earlier.

There is another aspect of self that no sinner can deny. It’s their Adamic nature. No matter what amount of obedience or lawkeeping can rid them off the part of them that the apostle Paul referred to as he cried: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” It’s the part that became ours when Adam and Eve lost eternal life in the garden of Eden. Self denial is a pipe dream, but it became a reality for us when we came to trust in Christ who died on our behalf.

For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

That is how you deny yourself, by the grace of God and by your faith in the One who God had sent to die for you.

Take up your cross

This is just a continuation of the denial of self explained above. The cross requires the one who carries it to end up at the point of death. It’s not at all the kind of cross people generally think of, the cross of life’s struggles, or of trials and tribulations. It’s the cross to pay for someone’s sin, and, as discussed earlier in the self denial section, no one is qualified to endure such cross except Jesus Christ. In short, can you endure a cross to the point of death?

Following Jesus

Once again, Jesus does not simply call men to become his disciples, but he calls them first to become children of God, citizens of his kingdom, to pass from death to life, or to put it simply to be saved. While he spoke Matthews 16:24, He was still preparing the world to receive his free gift of life through his death on the cross. Jesus was using the language of the world when he called them to follow him. Adherents of other religions follow their leaders while Christians enjoy the fellowship with Jesus making his abode in their hearts. He no longer calls those who trust in him servants, but friends and children of God. The work that we do as citizens of God’s kingdom is just a byproduct, an inevitable consequence of us being attached to the Vine, having the full right to become children of God, and sealed by his Spirit.

A new and living way

This verse Matthew 16:24 is not the basis of the new ministry of reconciliation, but the old ministry of condemnation. It should give any Christian a shudder had God not given us a new way to draw near to him through his Son. We’d find bodies of Christians strewn about as each attempts to obey its impossible command to make peace with God. Ah, but here’s the irony, had they tried to crucify themselves, to chop off their hands and feet, to pluck out their eyes, to sell all their possessions to give to the poor, they would have quickly discovered the futility of such attempts as they still wouldn’t know to what extent they must go to meet God’s righteous requirements. But thankfully:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body (Hebrews 10:19-20)

It’s his body, not ours. Go in peace.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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