Life, Death, and Eternal Gain
Passage: Luke 9:23–9:27
Life, Death, and Eternal Gain
The cross of Christ both saves us and shapes us. That is the truth we began to consider last week, and it’s the truth we will continue to focus on this morning. The cross of Jesus Christ both saves us and shapes us. Consider both of those perspectives for a moment.
It was at the cross that the Lord Jesus shed his blood to make atonement for his people. As Jesus hung there on the cross, God’s wrath was poured out, so that Jesus paid – once and for all – for the sins of the people of God. And therefore, the cross and resurrection of Christ stand as the bedrock confession of the church. There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus because that condemnation was dealt with forever at the cross. That is what we mean when we say that the cross of Christ saves us.
At the same time, the cross of Christ also now shapes us, so that our lives as Christians identify with and display the reality of Christ crucified. As Christians, we do not take our cues from the world, which prioritizes the immediate and demands that we avoid anything costly. Instead, we take our lead from a Crucified Savior, who endured suffering in faithfulness to God with the confident hope of glory to come. That is what we mean when we say that the cross of Christ also now shapes how we live.
It is this second perspective that demands our attention this morning, and it does so because this is how Jesus calls us to discipleship. I hope you heard it as we read, but there is a very deliberate progression to Jesus’ teaching. Notice how it flows in the text:
V20, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ of God, and immediately, v22, Jesus begins to teach his disciples what kind of Christ he will be. He is the Christ who suffers and rises again, in fulfillment of God’s will. So, Jesus is the Christ who goes to the cross.
But then notice the transition that Jesus makes, v23. He goes from describing his suffering to describing the disciples’ call to take up their cross as well. Do you see that progression? Jesus is the Christ who suffers, and right away, he calls his disciples to follow him on the road of suffering. Right away, he calls his disciples to take up the cross.
The point is this – if we want to think about discipleship the way Jesus does, then we must think in terms of the cross. It is Jesus himself who defines discipleship as taking up the cross and following him by faith. And so, we are in good company when we say that the cross of Christ both saves us and shapes us to live as Jesus’ disciples. This is how the Lord Jesus defined discipleship.
Of course, this only raises the necessary question – what, then, does cross-centered discipleship look like in the life of a Christian? If the cross is to shape how we live, then what specifically does that shape entail? That’s what I’d like us to consider this morning. Following on from Jesus here in Luke 9, I want to draw your attention to four marks of what we might call Cross-Centered Discipleship – four ways the cross shapes us to follow the Lord. Let’s consider these together.
Cross-Centered Discipleship Denies Self in Submission to Christ
Mark #1 – Cross-centered discipleship denies self in submission to Christ. Notice the very clear command that Jesus issues to all of his disciples, v23 – “And [Jesus] said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.’” So, fundamental to Christian discipleship is the call to self-denial. Now, as I say that, we should acknowledge how deeply at odds this command is with the impulse of our world, as well as the impulse of our hearts. Every age of human history has to deal with selfishness, but our day, in particular, presents some unique challenges. You could say we live in the Age of the Almighty Me, where the self has triumphed and now reigns supreme. We are told to pursue the things that make ourselves happy, and even more significantly, we are told to judge truth claims on the basis of how they relate to ourselves. We’ve removed God from the center of life, and in his place, we have installed the most insidious idol of all – Self.
And the results is that in our culture, something is right if I consider it to be helpful or satisfying, and something is wrong if I think it will in any way inhibit what I want for myself. Again, this has been always a temptation, but there has been a shift in our day. It’s not just that self-oriented thinking exists; it’s that self-oriented thinking is now considered healthy, right, and good.
But into is very me-centric world, Jesus issues this clear command – “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” Discipleship demands that we turn away from a self-oriented life and embrace life as defined by what God has done in Jesus Christ. This is actually the starting point of true, saving faith. Think about it. Where does true faith begin? With the confession that I cannot save myself and that only Christ can save a sinner like me. Self-denial, then, is bound up with coming to Christ.
But here’s what we often miss, brothers and sisters. This self-denial must then continue throughout the Christian life. Each day, Christ calls me to turn from the pursuit of self and to respond by faith to who Christ is, what he has done, and what he has communicated in his Word. Every day, the Christian life requires self-denial, and this works out in numerous ways.
To deny myself means that I am not the determiner of what is true. Christ is, so I submit my thinking to his authority. To deny myself means admitting that my desires are not always good or right. God is the One who reveals where life is found, so I must follow the wisdom of his Word, even when it goes against what feels very natural to me. And to deny myself means recognizing that even my feelings are often misleading. So, instead of basing my life on how I feel, I choose, by faith, to live on the basis of what God has said is true. It’s all-encompassing, and it is absolutely counter-cultural. From what I think to what I pursue to how I respond to my feelings, self-denial is fundamental to discipleship. We belong to Another – to Christ – and therefore, the most basic confession of discipleship is, “Not me, but you, Lord.”
Now, if this sounds like a difficult road, that’s because it is! Notice Jesus’ next phrase that continues to explain the call to self-denial. Again, v23 – “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily.” This is where we need to remember the context of Jesus’ teaching. For us in 2020, the cross is almost exclusively a religious symbol. But in Jesus’ day, the cross was a picture of suffering. The cross was a means of execution. The cross was associated with the power and authority of Rome. So, when Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross, he is putting discipleship in an alarming perspective.
But what specifically does this image mean? What is Jesus getting at here? First and foremost, we should understand that taking up the cross means enduring suffering for the sake of Christ. For the Christian, the call to take up the cross is the call to endure hardship, rejection, and difficulty, and to do so in allegiance to Jesus. Just as the Lord suffered in faithfulness to the Father, so also the Lord now calls us to follow in his footsteps. We take up the cross as a way of saying to the world, “I’m with the Crucified One! I identify with him – with the Lord Jesus.”
And so, so, we should settle it in our minds, brothers and sisters, that allegiance to Christ is costly. Commitment to Christ will bring suffering. Following the Lord will mean rejection. Do we believe that? Have you come to grips with that reality, or are you looking for a more comfortable Christianity? Just consider the lives of the men standing here with Jesus in Luke 9. Excluding Judas, 10 of the 11 remaining disciples gave up their lives as martyrs for Christ. And that sets the tone for the history of the church. Discipleship entails that we suffer for Christ’s sake.
And brothers and sisters, we ought to pray that God would strengthen us for such things. We’re not capable on our own. We’re not sufficient in ourselves. The wise Christian prepares ahead of time for what Scripture says will surely come. And so, we ought to pray for the courage to stand firm with our Lord. To take up the cross means to endure hardship for the sake of Christ.
But there is another perspective on taking up the cross that we ought to consider. Notice that little word daily in v23. How often should we take up the cross and follow Jesus? We must do so daily. I find this extremely encouraging. Cross-centered discipleship is a daily endeavor. It’s not merely a decision that we make at one point in time. No, it’s the confession of my life each and every day.
So, apply this to your own discipleship. If following the Lord seems to be a daily fight to die to your self and to trust God’s Word, then guess what? You’re doing it right! It is a daily fight for faith, and here’s the encouragement – we never outgrow that call. Every day, the Christian is called to deny himself and to submit again to the lordship of Jesus Christ. So, be encouraged, brothers and sisters. If you’re fighting hard for faith today, then you’re on the road of discipleship, following our Crucified Lord.
Cross-Centered Discipleship Weighs Today in Light of the Last Day
So, that’s the first and foundational mark – Cross-centered disciples denies self in submission to Christ. Let’s look now at the second mark, which gives us the reason why self-denial is good for our souls. Mark #2 – Cross-centered discipleship weighs today in light of the last day. In v24, Jesus explains why self-denial is essential to discipleship – “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” So, Jesus is drawing a stark contrast here between those who value today above all else, and those who weigh today in light of eternity. This is the dividing line of humanity, you might say.
There are some who hear the call to discipleship and conclude that life in the present is too precious to waste on self-denial. Taking up the cross is too costly compared to the comforts, values, and esteem of this present world. For such people, today is all they can see. But that’s where the tragedy comes in, according to Jesus. Ultimately, where does allegiance to self lead you? It leads you to lose the very thing you most love – your own self-oriented, self-directed life. That’s how idols work, remember? Idols demand everything from you only to leave you with nothing in the end. And the idol of self is the most demanding and devastating of all. Sure, you may have an easier road in the present. Your “today” won’t include taking up the cross to suffer with Jesus. But the cost of that easier “today” is eternity. That’s the tragedy of those who reject the call to discipleship, those who reject the gospel. They mortgage eternity for the fleeting, temporary ease of today.
Amazingly, however, the reverse of this tragedy is also true. By God’s grace, those who embrace the call of discipleship find life in the end. This is an important point to remember in thinking about self-denial for a Christian. Self-denial is not an end in and of itself. Christ does not call us to self-denial because it is some inherently nobler way of life. No, self-denial for the Christian always has eternity in view. I take up my cross today because I trust that communion with God is better than anything this life can offer. I deny myself today because I believe that glory with Christ is what I am actually made for.
Do you see the difference with how we often think about self-denial? We tend to think of self-denial exclusively as a negative thing – it’s just about saying “No” to stuff. But Jesus thinks differently. According to Jesus, self-denial is saying “No” to the lesser things of today because we believe that God is better, that Christ is better, that an eternity of glory with the Father is what we were made to enjoy. That’s self-denial for a Christian, brothers and sisters. It is choosing, by faith, to embrace something better – God, and the life that is found only in him.
So, as you read v24, picture a set of scales. On one side is today, and on the other side is eternity. Jesus’ point is that you cannot put anything in today’s side that could possibly outweigh eternity’s side. In fact, notice v25, where Jesus makes precisely this point – “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” Now, that will get your attention, at least I pray it does. You can live for today and gain the entire world – all the power, all the possessions, all the pleasure, all the prestige – and still, you would be a fool to take the world at the cost of your eternal soul. That is Jesus’ point.. To be a disciple of Christ means you weigh today not in terms of what’s easy or comfortable or feels good to you. The disciple weighs today in terms of eternity.
So, how about you? Which side of the scale are you weighing most heavily – today or eternity? I don’t know where everyone is this morning, but if you are here today and you have not turned from sin to trust in Jesus Christ, then this is the call you need to hear. Don’t mortgage your eternal soul for a fleeting, temporary thing called today. Listen to the wisdom of Jesus Christ here in God’s Word. Confess your sin. Confess that you have sought to live only for yourself. And right now, by grace, turn from that sin and trust in Jesus Christ. Deny that you can save yourself, and take up the call to trust only in Christ. That’s the call. By God’s grace, think about today not in terms of what you can get right now, but in terms of eternity before God.
And listen – this applies to believers as well. Brothers and sisters, are you living for today, in hopes that you will find life in the things this world can offer? Are you compromising your convictions for the sake of your career? Are you prioritizing your pursuits at the expense of your family or your commitment to the church? Are you bucking against the place God has you in hopes of getting a life that more closely fits what you want for yourself? Are you frazzled, frantic, and stretched thin because you’re running from one thing to the next, desperately looking for that one thing – that one experience you think will finally settle the restlessness you feel deep in your soul? Brothers and sisters, that road of tailoring your life to get the most “today” – that road only leads to heartbreak. It turns to sand in your mouth. Of course it would be easier to live for the present. Of course it’s easier to just live for Me. That’s why Jesus says you have to take up your cross – it’s costly to live by faith. It’s costly to live for eternity.
But here’s what Jesus would say to you, brothers and sisters. Here is what he is saying in v24. Yes, it’s costly, but it is also worth it. Lose your self-oriented life now, and find true life with the Living God in the end. Cross-centered discipleship weighs today in light of the last day.
Cross-Centered Discipleship Looks Ahead to the Glory of Christ
As we think about this eternal perspective, we should note that Jesus continues with the same theme in v26. The third mark of discipleship also has the last day in view. V26 – Cross-centered discipleship looks ahead to the glory of Christ. Again, Jesus urges his listeners to understand the stakes when it comes to discipleship. Look again, v26, and notice how the final judgment comes into view – “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” So, there is a cost to discipleship, but there is also a cost to rejecting Jesus. When the last day comes, those who were ashamed of Jesus will find that he is also ashamed of them. In other words, Jesus, as the Judge, will reject those who were ashamed to entrust their lives to a Crucified Savior.
And that is the striking point in v26. Notice that Jesus himself is the Judge on the last day. He is the One who rules with judgment. This is actually a picture of the glory of Christ. God, as you know, does not share his glory with anyone else. So, when Jesus says that he comes with the glory of the Father, it’s like the curtain is pulled back a bit, and we see more clearly who he is. He is the Son of God, the Judge of the living and the dead. He is the once crucified but now reigning Savior of the church, and therefore, he alone is worthy to receive all honor and praise. That’s why those who are ashamed of Jesus will be cast out. It’s because they have rejected the One who is alone worthy to receive all honor and glory.
But at the same time, the reverse is also true. V26 is a strong warning, but there is also a promise here for the people of God. Those who are ashamed of Christ will be rejected on the final day, but those who trust in Christ – those who are not ashamed of the Crucified Savior – those believers will enter into the glory of Christ himself. In fact, Jesus hints at this in v27, when he speaks of those who will not taste death until the see the kingdom of God. What’s Jesus getting at? He’s reminding his disciples that the kingdom of God arrives with him, and that means some of the disciples will get a glimpse of kingdom glory in their lifetimes. It will begin at the Transfiguration, which we’ll consider next week, and it will climax at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Spirit. But the point is that Jesus is headed for glory. He is the King over God’s kingdom, and therefore, those who trust him – those who are not ashamed of him – are headed for glory as well.
But there’s a question here, isn’t there? We see the preview of Christ’s glory in v26 – that he is the Judge who rejects those who are ashamed and welcomes those who not ashamed – but that only raises a question – How do we avoid being ashamed of Jesus?
First and foremost, not being ashamed of Jesus means trusting him with your life, believing that he alone can save you. That’s the most important point here. The way we identify with Jesus is by repenting of our sin and trusting that his blood cleanses us before the Father. That’s foundational.
But there is another point in v26 that we ought not overlook. Notice that Jesus speaks of those who are ashamed of him and of his words. Do you see that there, v26? This is also important. Not being ashamed of Jesus means trusting his blood to save you, and it means submitting to his teaching and to the teaching of his apostles. Disciples are doctrinal people. We confess that Scripture – all 66 books – is the Word of God, that the Bible is the expression of Christ’s authority in and over our lives.
This is where I am concerned for the church in our day. Like we said last week, many people are fine with Jesus to a point, but when you begin to insist on his teaching, when you stand firm on his Word as authoritative, that’s when people recoil. That’s when the cost has to be counted. And that is where the cost will be counted in our day. Will we submit to Jesus and to his word, in its entirety? Will we stand firm on the Bible, even when every voice around us screams that we must give ground?
Brothers and sisters, we need to recover doctrinal commitment as necessary for Christian maturity. We need to remember that holding firm to the faith is not an optional part of discipleship. It is essential. We confess our allegiance to Jesus and to his words – to the Scriptures. If we reduce Christianity solely to our experience of faith, then we open the door to the kind of doctrinal compromise that ends up being ashamed of Jesus. This is where Protestant Liberalism went off the rails. It reduced Christianity to mere experience. It made Christianity not an objective reality rooted in historical truth, but a subjective experience that ended up denying historical truth. And we see those same trends in our day. The urgency of the sexual revolution, for example, demands that human experience, self-actualization, be the sole criterion of truth. What’s happening there? Many things, but at the core, it is a shift away from revelation, which is outside of me, to experience, which is defined by me.
That’s just one example, but it is enough to make the point – not being ashamed of Jesus requires not being ashamed of his words, of his teaching as given to us in the Scriptures, all 66 books. Brothers and sisters, this is what faithfulness will require in our day. This is what discipleship will demand. We must declare our trust in Jesus and his cross, and we must declare our submission to Jesus and his Word. That’s how we take up the cross and follow our Lord, and we ought to be praying regularly that God will give us grace to stand firm. Cross-centered discipleship looks ahead to the glory of Christ and then stands firms on his Word.
Cross-Centered Discipleship Relies Solely Upon the Work of Christ
Let’s try to bring this together with one final reflection on discipleship. We’ve considered the call to self-denial. We’ve looked at the need for an eternal perspective. And we’ve savored how glory of Christ fuels our discipleship. But there’s one final mark of Cross-Centered Discipleship that we should remember before we close. This is the mark that upholds us as we seek to follow the Lord. The final mark – Cross-Centered Discipleship Relies Solely Upon the Work of Christ. Behind all this teaching on the call to discipleship, there stands the obedience of Jesus Christ. We’re on the road of discipleship only because Jesus himself has gone ahead of us and blazed the trail through his life, death, and resurrection. Each piece of v23 is possible only because Jesus obeyed the Father in our place.
We are called to deny ourselves only because Jesus first denied himself, laying aside his heavenly glory in obedience to the Father. We take up the cross only because Jesus took up his cross – a cross that only he could bear, a cross where he shed his blood for self-oriented sinners like us, a cross where the wrath of God was satisfied and forgiveness was purchased for God’s people. And we can lose our lives to find life only because Jesus first lost his life in death in order to secure life for those who were dead and could not live apart from Jesus’ resurrection.
Do you see it, brothers and sisters? Do you see how the gospel undergirds and upholds every step of the disciple’s life? Discipleship exists because Jesus went ahead of us in saving power, to do what we could not. Discipleship, then, leads to life only because of Jesus’ work, and never because of ours.
Worship him, brothers and sisters. Worship him with your life by fighting for faith, for he alone is worthy of praise. Amen.