To try and choose any teaching as the most important on a subject is possibly foolish, but I have sincerely come to believe that the most significant concept for us to understand regarding discipleship is that we are to deny self and daily take up our cross (Luke 9:23, Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34). We don’t hear many sermons on this today, but if we look to the past we see multitudes. Men like Whitefield, Wesley, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon and many others, all routinely spoke about this subject. They did so because it is absolutely essential to our being conformed to the image of Christ.
To begin, let’s look at the immediate context of the passages cited above. Peter has just shared the glorious confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Immediately following this, Jesus begins to explain to his disciples that he must suffer, be rejected, and ultimately killed. In Matthew and Mark we see that Peter was offended by this, and began to rebuke Jesus. Peter was rejecting the Father’s plan and focusing selfishly on his own desire, and thus the Lord rebuked him greatly.
We see here the ultimate illustration of self-denial, and cross bearing given by our Lord (Luke 9:22). Having illustrated it, he immediately explains that anyone who would follow him must likewise deny self and take up their cross daily. Jesus does not allow for a comfortable Christianity. Our lives, as disciples, are to be marked by routine denial of self, and an active daily taking up of our cross.
Jesus was talking to his disciples, of whom Peter had just made a profound profession of faith in Christ. For this reason I believe this passage is specifically addressing discipleship; however, it is important to note that in order to become a disciple we must reject or deny our own self-righteousness and place our faith completely in Christ, the Son of the living God. This is the essential first denial of self.
Having become his follower, Jesus says you must deny yourself. This means we must deny our fleshly desires. In Sermon 48 John Wesley says that all sin is the result of an unwillingness to either deny self or take up our cross. To deny self means we must relinquish control of our lives, our hopes, and our dreams for the plan and will of God. It means we must relinquish control of our possessions, and become managers of God’s resources for his glory and the good of his Kingdom. Self-denial means a rejection of being self-centered; we are no longer the center of our universe, Christ and his Kingdom are.
Self-denial is loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40). It is doing nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility counting others more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3). It is presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1). Self-denial is understanding that because Christ loved us he laid down his life for us, and therefore we should lay down our lives for the brethren (1 John 3:16). While not exhaustive, I think these passages make it pretty clear what self-denial is.
We often think of bearing our cross as the act of joyfully and with patience carrying a cross that the Lord lays upon us. It is carrying a burden that we have no control over, but that is not what Jesus is discussing here. Jesus says a disciple must take up his cross and follow him. Taking up our cross is actively and willingly taking a burden upon ourselves. It is choosing to do things, even though they require suffering, for the glory of Christ and the good of his Kingdom.
This is what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus. Sound difficult? Impossible? Apart from the grace and mercy of God it is. Through repentance of sin, faith in Christ, and submission to his Lordship, God will enable us to live this type of life. He will build his Kingdom through the lives of faithful disciples who deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. If we think the cost is too high, Jesus said those who actually live this way don’t lose anything, but in fact live the abundant life he has promised (Luke 9:24).