“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” – Luke 9:23

What did Jesus mean when He commanded those who would be Christians to deny themselves and take up their crosses daily and follow Him? What does serious self-denial really involve?

3 parts to our Lord’s saying about self-denial in Luke 9:23.

“If anyone wants to come after Me [be a disciple of Jesus, a Christian]“:

(1) “let him deny himself.” The “self referred to here is the sinful self, everything in us that strives against God; and everything in us that puts our wants first before God and neighbor. To deny self means to say “no” to yourself, to refuse every want and desire of yours that contradicts to the will of God. Self- denial is the opposite of self-fulfillment. It means to renounce your own personal fulfillment, your wants, your rights, your dreams, your comfort, your welfare, your personal glory, if any of these things are contrary to what God wants.

(2) ” Let him carry his cross daily.” Crucifixion- was one of the most gruesome forms of execution in the first century Roman Empire. When Jesus said that Christians should carry their crosses daily, he refers to one’s willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ and neighbor. rather then refusing or fleeing from that suffering. The little word “daily” reminds us that we should always be willing to suffer if necessary, and such willingness to suffer should be a way of life. In other words, self-denial, if it really is self-denial, involves suffering: it hurts.

(3) ” Let him follow me.” To “follow” Jesus means to consider him your Leader, your Master, your Lord. It means subordinating your will to his, so that from the moment you become a Christian you do what he wants. Living your life the way he wants you to but not the way you want to. It means relinquishing the reigns of your life to Him. You are no longer in control. Jesus is. For that is the way of the disciple. The place where Jesus tells us how he wants us to live our lives, of course, is in His Words.

What Jesus wants us to do? To Love. Love is the way that Jesus wants us to live our lives. Love for our neighbor. The passages are so familiar that even non-Christians know them: Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). Love even your enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Treat others the same way you would want them to treat you (Matthew 7:12). When it comes to loving our fellow Christians, if anything, we are to love them even more. “Love one another even as I have loved you” (John 13:34) says Christ. Don’t strive to be greater or better than each other, but humbly serve one another: “for even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And again: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).

Therefore; to follow Jesus means that your guiding principle in life becomes what He wants, not what YOU want. And what Jesus wants is for you to live your life for the good of your neighbor, even if it is not for your good. Do what is best for them, even if you don’t think it is best for you. As the apostle Paul puts it, “Each of us should please his neighbor for his [neighbor's] good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself…” (Romans 15:2-3a).

So now we are ready to define what Jesus means in Luke 9:23, what serious self-denial really is. Serious self-denial means doing what Christ wants you to do, for the good of your neighbor, even when it is not at all what you want to do, and might be the opposite of what you want to do. Yet, nonetheless you do what Christ wants, even though it hurts.

So what are some examples of Christians practicing serious self-denial?

  • The parent who gives up a career she truly enjoys to stay home and raise her own children rather than have strangers do it, because Christ wants her to — that’s self-denial.
  • The spouse who finds herself in an unhappy marriage. And though she desperately wants out, she stays because that’s what Christ wants — that’s self-denial.
  • The Pastor whose congregation has resisted his ministry at every turn so that his ministry has become a fruitless heartache rather than a fruitful joy; yet though he is unhappy and longs to leave, he remains as Pastor of the congregation, because no other call has come and therefore Christ wants him there — that’s self-denial.
  • The Christian who could have pursued a number of lucrative careers but instead goes into full time church work because Christ wants him to; or the Christian who already had a lucrative and successful career, but gave it all up to go into full time church work — that’s self-denial.
  • The teacher who feels so discouraged over his teaching that he truly wants to quit, but continues on because of the students — that’s self-denial.
  • The Christian couple who plan to have no children so that they are free to do whatever they want, yet, because they become convinced that Christ wants them to, they do have children — that’s self- denial.
  • Each of these is an example of serious self-denial, an example of doing what Christ wants you to, a daily lifestyle of doing what Christ wants you to do, for the good of your neighbor, even though doing so is the opposite of what you want to do. But there are other examples of serious self-denial that are not quite so dramatic.
  • The student who really wants to be popular, but because Christ wants her to, she regularly_ up for God’s truth and shares the good news of Jesus Christ, and thereby risks losing the popularity she truly wants — that’s self-denial.
  • The company man, who truly wants that promotion, yet refuses to do anything contrary to his Christian faith, even though such refusal will jeopardize his promotion — that’s self-denial.
  • The Christian woman who is willing to listen whenever that annoying person calls or stops by at all hours of the day or night, even though she really, really, doesn’t want to and secretly longs to move to another continent; but she does it because Christ wants her to — that’s self-denial.
  • The person who goes to church every Sunday because Christ commands him to, even though he would really rather stay home to sleep or relax or do something else — that’s self-denial.
  • The Christian who spends time in God’s Word and prayer daily because Christ wants him to, even though to do so he has to routinely give up other activities that he would much rather do — that’s self-denial.
  • The child who really wants that new video game and has been saving up to get it, but instead gives the money to the work of the church, because he believes that Christ wants him to support the work of the church — that’s self-denial.
  • The church member who has had a falling out with another church member or a relative, and goes to visit that person to try to reconcile, even though she shudders at the thought of confrontation and it is the last thing she wants to do; yet, she does it because Christ wants her to — that’s self- denial.

Serious self-denial means doing what Christ wants, out of love for your neighbor, even though it is the opposite of what you want, even though it hurts to do it.

He lived the very self-denial that he commands you to live. His whole ministry was an exercise in self-denial, of saying “no” to himself. From beginning to end, he submitted to His Father, subordinated his will to the Father’s will, did what the Father wanted (see John 5:19, 12:29). He did so even when he didn’t want to, even when it hurt. In the Garden of Gethsemane,

when the terror of his immanent crucifixion flooded his mind’s eye, after falling with his face to the ground, he cried out in prayer to His Father, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39). At that moment, as he wrestled the powers of darkness, Jesus did not want to suffer. But instantly, immediately, he denied himself. For the very next words out of his mouth were, “yet not what I want but what you want.”

Jesus denied himself and chose the road of suffering for the good of his neighbor, namely us. He did it all to save us from our sins and from eternal death. And suffer he did, undergoing scourging and beating, rank injustice and public humiliation. Worst of all was the cross, first carrying it past the jeering crowd, then being nailed to it, then dying on it. As he himself had said that he would do, he, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:15,17). He came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). As Isaiah puts it, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isaiah 53:5-6). Because of his perfect suffering and death, his perfect self-denial, all sins have been forgiven, including yours and mine, whatever they may be. And all who believe this, receive this forgiveness as a free gift. The Word of God declares this good news: “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39).

And forgiveness is what we need. For unlike our Lord Jesus, whose self-denial was perfect in every way, our self-denial is anything but perfect. For we are a self-obsessed people, who seldom deny ourselves. Rare are the times that we do what Christ wants instead of what we want, especially when what he wants disagrees with what we want. We prefer a “comfortable Christianity,” one that requires no serious sacrifice, no serious self-denial. Even when we do manage to sublimate our wills to his, and do what he wants, even though it hurts to do it, even then we stain such self-denial by our endless whining and complaining, jealousy and self-pity.

For all our failures to practice serious self-denial and for all our stained self-denial, we need cleansing and forgiveness. Thanks be to God, then, that by His astounding grace, because of the atoning self-denial of Jesus, God does forgive those who confess it. For through the holy Gospel, as it comes to us through preaching, through absolution, through the Lord’s Supper, and the written Word, God takes the once-for all forgiveness won at the cross, and distributes it anew to those who need it. He forgives those who believe this Gospel and counts Christ’s perfect self-denial as theirs. For you see, Christ’s self-denial is not merely example — it is salvation.

Thanks be to God that He so richly forgives our failures and counts Christ’ self-denial as ours. Woe unto us if, once we are forgiven again, we do not strive with all our hearts to live a life of serious self-denial. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”‘ To “all” Christ spoke these words; He has called all Christians to a life of serious self-denial, a lifestyle of doing what Christ wants, even when we don’t want to, even when it hurts, for the good of our neighbor.

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