Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:24-27 NIV)
I think too often, Christians in the West are guilty of selling a gospel that is too easy. All a person needs to do to be saved is to accept Jesus as his savior and pray a little prayer. And it would be nice if that were true. But it is not what Jesus said, or what he expects of us. This passage teaches something altogether different from that.
What Jesus wants from us is discipleship. A disciple is more than just an interested fan who sits on the sideline and watches the show, without getting involved. A disciple is one who actively follows another, learning from them, and imitating their teacher. And that is what Jesus is saying in this verse. I cannot be Jesus’ disciple without leaving my old life behind and following closely after him. Discipleship involves self-denial. It involves losing my life for Christ’s sake. And it involves finding a new life in Christ.
Salvation and Discipleship
Some would say that salvation and discipleship are not the same thing. That one can be saved without being a disciple. But that is foreign to the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Jesus is particularly clear in this passage. You have to lose your life for Christ in order to find it. Life in Christ is accompanied by death to the world (Gal. 2:20).
To be clear, I am not saved because I have died to myself in order to follow Jesus. But if I truly have been saved, I am a new creature, the old has gone, and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). I will deny myself, take up my cross, be a disciple, and follow Jesus. That is what he calls on us to do here.