After rebuking Peter for attempting to hinder the necessity of His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus informs His followers that they too must bear a cross. The doctrine of self-denial has consistently been overlooked by Christians throughout the generations.
“And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
It is clear from this text that self-denial is an absolute necessity for someone who claims to be a follower of Christ. We accept that salvation is the free, unmerited favour of God through the blood of Christ, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9), but while many would stop at this text and state that the saved do not need to do anything, the apostle Paul did not, he continues, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). We are not saved by works, but works prove that we are saved. The hallmark of true believers is ‘self-denial’ according to Jesus. Those who accept Christ’s offer of salvation must show the reality of “His workmanship” by carrying the cross after Him on a daily basis, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This means that we must take up the cross of doctrine and the cross of practice, the cross of Christ and the cross self-denial. Notice how the first part of well known verses is clung to, but the remaining words ignored! Jesus’ words do not end with, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”, for He adds, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
The doctrine of self-denial is a heavy one to hold and maintain, but the Lord will give us the strength to carry it throughout our lives, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). Millions of believers have died for their faith by carrying this yoke to martyrdom rather than deny Christ. Entrance into salvation costs us nothing, but the annual subscription is everything.
It is certain that just as Peter tried to hinder Christ, other Christians will think we are too strict and righteous overmuch. But it is they who are in danger of losing their souls through not obeying the clear and simple teaching of Scripture. “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13). If we do not bear the cross, we shall never wear the crown. We must go on boldly and allow no one and nothing to keep us back from serving the Lord. The cross is only borne for a few years, but the crown will be worn for ever.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:35-37).
These words reveal why self-denial is vital in the Christian life. If they were deeply engraved in our hearts then we would find that the world and the devil will have less of a chance to draw us away from Christ. Everyone has a soul that will live forever. We all have a soul for which we will have to give an account of before God’s throne. How little attention, even as believers, we give to our souls! While no man can save his own soul, he can lose it to the flames of Hell. It is not just the obvious sins that damn a person to a lost eternity, for following a religion of lies and man-made superstitions will do it too. Notice that Jesus is not talking to the multitudes here but to His own disciples. If they do not live a life of self-denial then they will lose their souls. Every believer is held accountable for the life he leads.
It is to the world so many believers have gone to satisfy their souls, and forget that they are heading for eternal ruin. “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10) … “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17). They are like Esau who gave up his birthright for a plate of pottage (Genesis 25:34).
We need to meditate upon the seriousness of this matter. If we do so, then we will be fully armed when the fool’s gold of this world presents itself to us as being of greater value than eternal life, or in the hour of persecution for the cause of Christ.
“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
No believer has ever announced that he is ashamed of Christ; instead he confesses that Jesus is Lord. But in practice a person reveals that he is ashamed of Christ when he does not live a holy and sanctified life. He is ashamed to be seen as a true follower of Christ amongst his family and friends. He does not want to appear to be odd or the odd one out in worldly company. The one who will not follow self-denial is proving that he is ashamed of Christ, and automatically places himself under the sentence of this passage. Solomon was right when he said, “The fear of man bringeth a snare” (Proverbs 29:25). How sad it is to find believers more willing to follow the ways of the world rather than the word of God. “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). The fear of ridicule brings the soul into bondage and forces it to live according to the opinions of the world.
We need to ask God for the faith and boldness to truly follow Christ each day. Instead of being ashamed of Christ, we can be ashamed of bringing shame on the name of Christ through sin, worldliness and unbelief. How can we be ashamed of the One who died on the cross to save our souls? We are going to have to ignore the mockery, criticism and laughter of the world and carnal believers, but instead press on until we hear those words of commendation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). It is a thousand times better to confess Christ here in both word and deed, and suffer the ridicule of others, than to be disowned by Him before the Father on Judgement Day.