And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. (Luke 9:23)
If you ever wanted to know how to give an invitation, there’s one. Do you ever wonder what to say at the end of a service? Do you ever wonder what to say to sinners after you’ve preached the gospel? How about this! “Any of you who would like to follow Christ: Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow. And to further explain what that means:
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:24-26)
Now let’s get the picture. There are a lot of people following Jesus and His ministry at all points on the spectrum of belief and here Jesus gives an invitation. The issue is “coming after me”, “devoting yourself to me”, “following me”. And the terms are unmistakable: “Let him deny himself.” Doesn’t sound like the “self-esteem gospel” to me. Doesn’t sound like felt-needs to me. Arneomai is the verb and I want you to know what it means. It means to “refuse to associate with”, to “disown”. You want to come to Christ do you? Disown yourself. Refuse any further association with the person you are. It isn’t about adding the whip cream on the top of your already successful life. It isn’t about taking the final step to secure forever the wonder of who you are. It is about disassociating with yourself. The one you want to no longer associate with is you. You’re sick of you. You don’t want anything to do with what you are. This is hard. This is why it’s hard to believe. A sinner has to come to the place of complete self-denial. Abandoning any hope of self-fulfillment. It’s back to that beatitude-attitude again isn’t it? Blessed are the poor in what? The poor in spirit. The spiritually bankrupt who know they’re destitute. And their spiritual destitution causes them to be also those who mourn, and those that are meek, they’re lowly.
In Philippians chapter 3 the Apostle Paul spent his life up until the point of his conversion in the pursuit of self-fulfillment. Self-fulfillment for him came through the legalistic system of Judaism–the works-righteousness, self-exalting system of Judaism–and Paul had achieved as much as could be achieved. Philippians 3 talks about the fact that he was circumcised the eighth day, and that he was of the tribe of Benjamin, he was a Jew, and he was kosher–that is he followed all of the traditions–a Hebrew of the Hebrews, he was zealous for his religion to the degree where he persecuted people that were a threat to it. As far as outwardly concerned there was nothing that could be laid against him as a violation of the law. He was all of that that one could hope would be enough to fulfill one’s self as having achieved religious stature before man and God, and he said when he came across Christ, he looked at it and said it was dung. So much for self-fulfillment. It was once gain to him, but when he saw Christ he counted it as what? Loss. It wasn’t neutral. It was devastating.
This is not about self-fulfillment. The gospel is not about self-fulfillment, it is about self-denial. Out of the carcass of self-denial comes the honey of divine grace. An old puritan prayed this way:
LORD, HIGH AND HOLY, MEEK AND LOWLY,
Let me learn that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the joyful spirit,
that the repentant soul is the triumphant soul
that to have nothing is to have everything
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown
that to give is to receive
Let me find Your light in my darkness
Your joy in my sorrow
Your grace in my sin
Your riches in my poverty
Your glory in my humiliation
and Your life in my death
We need to tell people that if you want to be saved–that if you want to follow Jesus, you want to come after Him–it’s the end of you. All your ambitions, all your desires set aside in utter submission to His Lordship. It’s the attitude of that publican in Luke 18. The Pharisee goes in to the temple: “I thank you that I’m not like other people…”, you know the story. And what is the publican doing? He won’t look up, his head is bowed, he’s pounding his chest, and he’s crying out: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The Pharisee was happy with himself. The publican didn’t want any further association with himself. That’s where we have to take the sinner. This by the way then becomes a way of life.
When you present some shallow gospel that calls for no self-denial what do you expect people to live like from then on? If they think that Jesus is in the business of giving them what they want does that ever end? Does that ever end? And guess what happens as soon as Jesus doesn’t deliver.
No, we begin at the point of self-denial and, listen, that’s how you come to salvation at the point of total self-denial and then the Christian life is the struggle to stay that way. And it’s a struggle. I was there when I was saved but it’s a battle to stay there because my flesh rises up and makes it’s demands, doesn’t it? So I have a little set of things written that I keep close by to remind of the fact that I came to Christ in self-denial and I want to live my life that way. This is what it says:
When you are neglected, unforgiven, or when you are purposely set at naught and you sting and you hurt with the insult of that oversight, but your heart is happy, being counted worthy to suffer for Christ, that is dying to self.
When your good is evil spoken of, when your wishes are crossed and your advice is disregarded and your opinions are ridiculed, and you refuse to let anger rise in your heart or even defend yourself, you take it all patiently in loving silence, you’re dying to self.
And when you lovingly and patiently bear any disgrace, any regularity, any annoyance, when you can stand face to face with folly and extravagance and spiritual insensitivity, and endure it as Jesus did, that is dying to self.
When you are content with any food, any money, any clothing, any climate, any society, any solitude, any interruption by the will of God, that is dying to self.
And when you never care to refer to yourself in conversation or record your own good works, or itch after commendation from others, and when you truly love to be unknown, that is dying to self.
When you see your brother prosper and have his needs wondrously met, and can honestly rejoice with him in spirit and feel no envy and never question God, though your needs are greater and still unmet, that is dying to self.
And when you can receive correction, and reproof from one of less stature than yourself and humbly admit inwardly as well as outwardly that he’s right and find no resentment and no rebellion in your heart, that is dying to self.
That’s how you came, and that’s how you stay. We are selling a kind of evangelicalism that is deadly to this. You can’t build a gospel around people having self-fulfillment, and then not expect them to think that that’s what God has to deliver to them from then on. This is another way to attack the issue of Lordship.
Furthermore, go back to Luke 9. Jesus didn’t just say: “if anyone wishes to come after Me let him deny himself”, but he took us to the level, or to the extent that that self-denial must go when He said this: “…and take up his cross daily”, take up his cross daily. And the daily there is important because the daily means we’re not talking about an event, we’re talking about a way of life. In the fourteenth chapter and the twenty-seventh verse of Luke, Jesus essentially says the same thing. You take up your cross and you keep carrying it. What does this mean? Well, what did a cross mean to them? It didn’t mean to them what it means to a Keswic preacher. It doesn’t mean some psychological self-crucifixion. It simply meant to them what it was: an instrument of execution.
They knew what crucifixion was. The Romans crucified people. The Persians had sort of launched crucifixion. The Egyptians used crucifixion. There were other barbarians that used crucifixion. It was somewhat common. There had been one occasion of a rebellion in Jerusalem in which 800 Jews were crucified there for a revolt which followed the death of Herod the Great. The Proconsul Varus crucified 2,000 Jews. They knew exactly what a cross meant. A cross was the most heinous form of torture and death. And what Jesus is saying here cannot be mistaken. He’s not talking about something psychological here. He’s not talking about something even spiritual. He’s talking about something very physical: “I want you to deny yourself and be ready to die because that’s what it might require.” In fact you need to be ready to die any day and every day. When Paul said I die daily, he wasn’t saying that I get up spiritually and I execute my ego. He was simply saying every single day I anticipate the possibility of my death so that in my mind I’m dying everyday. So many plots of the Jews, so many plots of the Gentiles. Paul is talking in his own personal testimony of dying daily, to the Corinthians, the same thing that Jesus is speaking about here. So, Jesus says, you want to follow Me do you? You want to come after Me? It’s the end of you. Even to the degree that every day you put your life on the line should I desire to take it. And then, the literal Greek closes the verse: “And let him be following Me.” Self-denial, cross-bearing, and loyal obedience, those are the life patterns of those who are truly the followers of Jesus Christ…
…It’s hard to believe, but you wouldn’t think that today, in fact, today, it’s easy to believe and in fact it’s getting easier every month…Over the last few months we have been told that you don’t have to even know there was a Jesus. You don’t even have to know there was a Bible! You don’t even have to know the true God! In an article in Christianity Today I read, a couple of editions ago, people are saved by Jesus who don’t even know Jesus is saving them. This is no-Lordship carried to the extreme, this is no Jesus! Some of you may feel I’m a little extreme on this, but I’m just telling you what Scripture says. We have certainly succumbed to the fundamental opposition of sinners in a culture that supports and grows self-love. We’ve literally succumbed to that. Everybody is in to self-love, and fulfillment, personal fulfillment, so that’s the way we’ll put the Gospel — and there are lots of people all around the world who don’t know about Jesus, so let’s get them in the kingdom without having to know about Jesus. If we have to we’ll “trans-dispensationalize” them to get them in.
Martin Luther launched the great Reformation of course with his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The fourth of his protesting assertions, the fourth, was that a penitent heart was characterized by a self-hate…quote: “penance remains, while self-hate remains.” Luther said true penitence is self-hate, and he says that remains in those who enter the kingdom of heaven. This is essential for the Gospel.
“Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man”, “Woe is me, for I am disintegrating” says Isaiah…This is so alien to a culture feeding on self-love and having every whimsical need met insisting on rights, privileges, equal respect, reward, and honor for everything.
taken from: General Session #1 address given by John MacArthur at the 2003 Shepherds’ Conference. (emphasis added)