Save Your Life the Right Way!

A sermon on Luke 9:18-36 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 3/19/2006

The year is 1505. Twenty-two year old Martin Luther plans to devote his life to the law and to becoming rich. But while walking one day he is caught in a thunderstorm. Amidst the rumblings and flashings, he tries to take shelter, but suddenly a bolt of lightning strikes so near him it knocks him to the ground. Luther is mightily shaken. He calls out to a Catholic saint, promising to become a monk if she spares his life.

He survives – and within two weeks Luther fulfills his vow. He enters a monastery. Wracked with guilt, he follows all the prescribed ways of gaining God’s favor. In one sense, he dies to self:

He later writes, “If ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If it had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”

But nothing worked. He writes concerning his first time of saying mass, “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal, and true God.’”

Luther went to extreme lengths in terms of self-denial. But he wasn’t a believer. He wasn’t saved. He wasn’t justified before God. All that self-denial gained him nothing.

What is the role of self-denial in the Christian life? In today’s passage Jesus commands self-denial:

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

Or, as the NAS and NIV render the verse: “he must deny himself.”

In the last several weeks in Luke, we have heard the call to discipleship. We have seen how those who follow after Jesus are to have faith, to obey Him, to have confidence in His power and love, to fulfill His commission. In today’s passage, Jesus expands on all this by saying that discipleship also means self-denial in some sense.

But the phrase “in some sense” is key. Many Christians over the years have thought that Christianity is self-denial. Yet as the story of Martin Luther shows, a man can deny himself in many ways and yet be lost.

How do we resolve such a problem? How do we learn the right place of self-denial in the Christian life? Not by trying to figure out the guidelines on our own. Not by looking for good human examples of self-denial. But by studying the Word, by seeing what it says. The Bible is our authority, nothing else.

So let’s look at this passage, asking what Jesus tells us here about denying ourselves. Ask yourself: What lessons are there for me in the passage? How have I been unbiblically denying myself? How have I failed to follow Jesus by not denying myself?

We’ll look at the passage under three headings:

The Messiah’s Example

As the passage begins in Luke 9:18, Jesus is in prayer. He has been teaching His followers through His words, through His example, and through His commissioning about the true meaning of following Him. Now the time has come for Him to confront the disciples’ biggest misconception of His role and their role. So He is much in prayer – even when in their midst.

He comes out of prayer and asks, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The disciples give the same answers that Herod has heard according to Luke 9:7-9: John Baptist back from the dead, Elijah, or a prophet of old. That’s what the crowds are saying. But their Master turns to them and asks, “But you – who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “The Christ of God!”   The Messiah. The long-awaited, coming King.

While the crowds have speculated, Peter and the other disciples have looked at Jesus, listened to Him, seen what He has done, listened to witness of John, looked at Scripture, and concluded, “This man is the Messiah!”

Question: Is this new information for Jesus? Did He ask the question to find out something He didn’t know? No. Sure, Jesus often knows what His disciples are thinking, but there’s another reason why Jesus already knows they think He is the Messiah: They have said so! For example, in John 1:41, right after Andrew meets Jesus, he runs to his brother Simon Peter and says, “We have found the Messiah!”

Since then the evidence has been piling up. Jesus has healed many, He has raised some from the dead, He has preached the Good News, He  has calmed the wind. He has exhibited His authority over demons and over food. He has shown His loving compassion for people. Jesus has shown His disciples that He is the Messiah.

So Jesus already knows His disciples figure He is the Messiah. So why does He ask the question? Look at verses 21-22:

And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." Luke 9:21-22

Note that these two verses are all one sentence (the NIV divides them into two). Do you see the connection between the first and the second part?  Verse 22 explains verse 21. Jesus commands them not to tell anyone because He, the Son of Man, the Messiah must suffer. And if they proclaimed, “Jesus is the Messiah!” almost no one would think He would suffer.

Jesus has waited to tell His disciples this key teaching. He has waited until there is an overwhelming abundance of evidence about who He is. And even then He makes sure this confession about His being the Christ is fresh on their minds. He has waited until He has taught them the necessity of following Him, obeying Him, of fulfilling their commission. He has prayed. Now is the moment. So He at long last says, “I will die. Your Messiah will die. Your long-awaited, long-expected King will be rejected by the authorities, and they will put Him to death.”

For those of us who grew up going to church, this is not at all shocking. We have heard it all our lives. But for these folks – for anyone who hasn’t heard the story before – this is unbelievable. Jesus comes as king, fulfilling a promise of the restoration of the kingdom. He Himself has been preaching, “The kingdom of God is at hand!” “Good news to the poor!” “Release to captives!” Now He says, “I’m going to be rejected, I’m going to suffer, I’m going to die.”

At this point He doesn’t even explain why. He just says it must happen. Isaiah 53 will be fulfilled.

So if Messiah is going to die, how will God’s kingdom come? Suffering is no the end! Dying is not the end! Look at the end of verse 22: Jesus also says that He will be raised on the third day. He says, “Peter, James, John, all My disciples: You believe I am the Christ. And you are right. I am the coming King. But there’s one step you’re not expecting. I’m going to suffer and die. It must happen. However, you have already seen that I have authority over death. Death will not hold me. I will rise. And my kingdom will come!”

So listen carefully. Jesus’ message is not: “I am going to suffer. Following me means suffering.” Jesus’ message is: “I will suffer – and then reign hereafter. If you follow after me, you too will suffer – and then be exalted.”

That’s the example of the Messiah. Note that Jesus is denying Himself. He is willing to put aside His heavenly glory. He is willing to forego temporal joys and pleasures. He is willing to undergo brutal treatment, great pain. But all this leads to a joyous end. Although Luke here doesn’t explain what that end is, we see it in the rest of the New Testament: God’s glory through our redemption. The payment of the penalty for our sins. Consider Colossians 2:14: He canceled “the record of debt that stood against us . . . nailing it to the cross.” He paid our ransom. He reconciled us to God so that we might be His people, and He might be our God, so that we might live to His glory. So Hebrews 12:2 says,

for the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is self-denial, yes. But not self-denial for its own sake. Instead, this is self-denial that leads to God’s glory, that leads to Jesus’ own great joy.

That’s the example of Jesus.

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

Look at verses 23-25. Remember, Jesus is talking to those who want to be His disciples. To many, He has said, “Follow me” and they did. Now He explains more clearly what following Him entails:

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 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. Luke 9:23-26

Jesus says, “I will suffer voluntarily. If you come after Me, you too must suffer voluntarily.”

He then explains why that is the case. And along the way He explains why self-denial makes sense. Saving your life is not wrong. But there’s a wrong way to save your life. And if you choose the wrong way to save your life, you lose everything.

So what is the wrong way to save your life? He mentions it in verse 24, then explains it in verses 25 and 26. The key phrases are:

Contrast these phrases with the second half of verse 24, which encapsulates the right way to save your life: He “loses his life for My sake.”

Do you see what Jesus is saying? What is the main goal of someone who wants to save his life in the wrong way? His goal is to gain the things of this world, “gaining the whole world.” He may talk “Jesus” talk or he may not – that depends on whether or not it seems profitable to do so. He won’t follow Jesus if that means gaining less money, having fewer friends, lowering his status, or lessening his accomplishments. Whether he acknowledges Jesus in some settings or not, ultimately he is ashamed of Jesus. He will deny he believes in Jesus, if that seems in his interest.

All these are ways we try to save our lives in the wrong way. We are afraid that if we don’t look out for own welfare, we’ll lose out. We’ll lose out in terms of:

All these are dead-end ways of seeking life. Jesus explains it this way: “Imagine that all your lying, all your face-saving, all your exaltation of self works. It works to highest extreme. Imagine you gain the whole world. You are richest man or woman in the world. You have respect. You have influence. You have fame. You are the most famous football player or hip hop artist or movie star or Fortune 500 CEO. You have it all. Yet if in the process of gaining all that you turn your back on Me, what does it profit you?”

What is the answer to Jesus’ question? Does gaining the whole world profit you?

Surely we are tempted to say, “Jesus, it sure does profit me!

But look at the end of verse 25. Jesus says, “Sure, there’s a type of gain. But there is also a cost! No corporation satisfies its shareholders by reporting gross revenue! Corporations must subtract their costs to calculate profits. So compare what you gain to what you lose. There’s a huge cost. And the cost is: You lose yourself.”

You lose yourself. You lose your life (verse 24). The word translated “life” is frequently translated “soul.” That is, “what makes you you”, “what you really are on the inside.” This is what you lose when you give up Jesus to gain the world.

Jesus is even more explicit in describing the cost in verse 26: “The Son of Man will be ashamed of you when He comes in His glory.” Jesus is saying, “You were made for a purpose. And that purpose is to glorify God by sharing in My glory for all eternity. And if you are ashamed of me now – if you think gaining the world now is better than having Me – you lose Me. And thus you lose everything for all eternity. This is true life – knowing and having Me.”

If the choice is fame, influence, and billions of dollars on the one hand, and Jesus on the other, you had better choose Jesus.

The text gives us an interesting example in the person of Herod. As we noted, in verse 19 Jesus’ disciples say the crowd thinks Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet of old. Herod had heard the same speculations, according to Luke 19:7-9. He became curious about Jesus. He wanted to see Him. Now, he easily could have done so. Jesus was teaching publicly, and Herod could have gone out to Him. But He was not wiling to give up anything to see Jesus. He would have liked to have seen Him on his own terms. But Jesus doesn’t negotiate terms. Herod wouldn’t humble himself and go listen to Jesus preach. He thus held on to his reputation, held on to his status, held on to his power, held on to his riches, and continued to live as one of the richest, most influential men in all that part of the world. But he lost his life. He never became what God created him to be. And today he suffers in hell.

In a sense, Herod gained the whole world. But he lost himself. That’s the wrong way to save your life.

What choice are you making, my friends?         

The Right Way to Save Your Life

Jesus exhorts us to save our lives in the right way, the opposite way: Deny yourself. Take up your cross daily. Follow Him. Lose your life for Jesus sake. Don’t be ashamed of Him and His words. Don’t worry about losing the things of this life.

Why? This is the key. So many over the years – like the young Luther – read words like these and said, “OK, I must deny myself! I must cause myself pain! Pleasure is wrong! I must stifle desire!”

That is not what Jesus is saying. He instead appeals to desire. He is saying, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he then loses himself?” Thus, Jesus assumes we are out to profit– and He doesn’t try to change that! Jesus is saying, “Don’t be a fool! Don’t throw away a greater good for a lesser good. Become what God intends you to be – what He created you to be. That is how you will find the greatest joy now and for all eternity. All else is fading and brief.         The greatest profit, the greatest joy, the greatest accomplishment comes in Me.”

Verse 26 describes the final outcome of the wrong way to save life: “I’m going to be ashamed of you when I come in glory.” But verse 27 provides a glimpse of the final outcome of pursuing the right way to save your life:

But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.

Jesus then gives a foretaste of the glory of the kingdom of God by taking three disciples to witness His transfiguration, as described in verses 28-36.

Understand the reason for this event: Jesus says: “This is what’s coming. And this is much greater glory than anything you can imagine – even gaining whole world.”

On the mountain, Jesus’ face changes. His clothes become dazzling white. According to verse 32, the disciples saw His glory in a new way, a different way. Furthermore, Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus – and they are glorious too. They discuss “His departure,” His coming death in Jerusalem. Jesus’ glory is related to His death.

Peter is so happy, he just wants to stay on the mountain. So he says, “Let’s make little shelters, one for each of you guys, and we’ll just have the best time up here.”

Peter’s motivation, I believe, is both good and bad. He sees Jesus’ glory and thinks, “Hey, I want this! This is better than the normal world!” That’s right. That’s what Jesus wants him to see! That’s what we ourselves are to see! As we sing, “Oh, that day when freed from sinning I shall see His lovely face!” This is reality: Jesus is worth more than all the world has to offer. We are to see this, to desire Him, to want Him, to long for His kingdom to come in all its fullness, to see Him in all His glory. Peter is right to desire that.

But Peter also displays wrong motivation. Jesus has said He must suffer and die. Thus, it is not yet time for Jesus – or for Peter - to enter glory. Jesus has a death to undergo. Peter has a commission to fulfill. Self-denial comes before glory. They can’t stay on the mountain.

In addition to a wrong motivation, Peter displays a wrong conception of Jesus. By suggesting he make tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Peter treats the three equally. But God makes clear that they are not equal. Moses is His faithful servant. Elijah is His faithful servant. But Jesus is His Son. It is Moses and Elijah’s great privilege to be talking to Jesus – not the other way around.

So a cloud envelops them. God calls out, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One: Listen to Him!”

The cloud departs. Jesus is alone.

Jesus is almighty. Jesus is all-glorious. Jesus is our greatest joy.

The contrast to Herod could not be greater. Herod is a conniving, self-centered, self-absorbed man who uses His power to maximize His own personal pleasure. That’s the best this world has to offer. The most successful man in world apart from Jesus will be like Herod.

But if you give all that up, if you deny yourself, you get Jesus in all His glory – this Jesus who is greater than Moses and Elijah. He says, “Share in my glory.”

Even if you have to give up Herod-like power, the choice is clear. Jesus is worth everything. Herod made the wrong choice.


What choice will you make? The wrong way to save your life? Or the right way?

Note that the wrong way to save your life might look very different in different people, as the huge contrast between Herod and young Luther shows.

Are you pursing a Herod-like dream? Are you pursuing success in the world, not worrying about the corners you cut? Are you effectively ashamed of Jesus by your actions? Would you trash any opportunity to witness for Him if it stood in the way of your career, or marriage, or friendship, or status?

My friends: That is a dead end. That is the way to lose your soul. The world is not worth it. Deny yourself. Follow Jesus.

On the other hand, are you pursuing an early Luther-like dream? Are you denying yourself things, trying to prove you’re worthy of Jesus? That is a dead-end too! Christianity is not about self-denial for the sake of self-denial. Jesus doesn’t say, “Kill yourself – it’s the right thing to do.” Self-denial is not the virtue. That’s stoicism. That is akin to some forms of Eastern mysticism. That’s Phariseeism – they used fasts to exalt themselves

Jesus says, “I am the Christ. I will die and be raised. You too must die to self.”  But He doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “You will be raised with me!”

Remember the baptism we held four weeks ago. I lowered Nathan, Joy, and Andy into the water, saying, “Buried with Christ.” This signifies dying to self. As Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ.”

But does the baptism stop there? If these three were just buried with Christ, I would never have brought them up out of the water! I would have held them down, saying, “Buried with Christ! Dead to self! Stay down! Stay down!”

But that’s not what happened. I lifted them up, saying, “Raised to walk in newness of life.”

My friends, deny yourself if and only if that will help you to follow Jesus more closely. Deny yourself if and only if that will help you glorify Jesus more fully. Deny yourself if and only if that will help you take your eyes off the world and put them on Jesus.

So, my friends: We are about to sing:

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute[PE1] , despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

That’s the right balance: leaving all to follow Jesus, knowing that our condition is rich!.

Jesus is your all. So follow Him because He is your priceless treasure.

On your own, you can never make yourself attractive to God. You can never pay the penalty for your past sins. You can never perfect yourself so you won’t sin in the future.

But Jesus has paid the penalty. As Luther eventually saw: “The righteous shall live by faith;” those of us who are saved depend on Jesus’ righteousness for our standing before God.

So trust Him. Lean on Him. Depend on Him.

What must you give up to do that? What things that you do? What thoughts that you indulge in? What things that you pursue?

Are you ready to lose your life for His sake – knowing you are gaining true life?

Follow Him! Take up your cross daily! Die to self! And thus enter His joy.

This sermon was preached on 3/19/06 at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC. I quote the first line of the last verse of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Robert Robertson (1758), and the first verse of “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” by Henry Lyte (1825). Check out the excellent new tune for this second hymn at  Parts of this sermon are drawn from, my exposition of Mark’s version of Jesus’ call to take up our cross.

Copyright © 2006, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, posted on the internet, copied for resale or incorporated in any products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, PO Box 620099, Charlotte, NC 28262.

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