Dying to Self, Living in Christ

This is part 4 in the series “What ‘Following Jesus’ Really Means.” Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


In this series, we’ve been looking at what it really means to follow Jesus by breaking down each phrase of Greg Ogden’s definition of a disciple:

“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”

Last time, we saw that following Jesus is a lifelong process. Today, we’ll look at the two competing forces that process consists of—1) dying to self while 2) allowing Jesus to live in us. It’s necessary to see how each of those work separately before we see how they fit together in the process.

Dying to Self

The concept of denying one’s self comes directly from the teachings of Jesus, most notably his call to discipleship in Luke 9:23-24 where he says,

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

For a long time, I struggled with understanding what Jesus meant by “deny himself.” What am I supposed to deny myself? I’ve come to see that denying myself means to reject myself or to refuse to give into myself. In effect, it’s like saying, “I don’t know myself.”

That sounds strange until you realize our sin is borne out of our desire to be our own gods. That’s the lie Adam and Eve believed in the garden, that they could be their own gods and determine the rules for themselves. Each of my sins is rooted, somehow, in that same insidious lie. Each time I give into the idea that I can be my own lord, I deny the Lordship of Christ and set myself in rebellion against God.

Darrell Johnson, a professor of pastoral theology, puts it this way:

“To deny yourself means to deny your self-lordship. It means saying no to the god who is me, the reject the demands of the god who is me, to refuse to obey the claims of the god who is me. [It means we say] a decisive no—‘I do not know the lord Me—I do not bow down to him anymore.’ Jesus calls us to say no to ourselves so we can say yes to him.”

Saying no to ourselves so we can say yes to Jesus brings us to the second force at work in our lifelong process of following Jesus—allowing him to come alive in us.

Allowing Jesus to Come Alive in Us

As we deny ourselves and crucify (kill) our own desires, we make more and more room for Jesus to take up residence in our hearts and minds. The violent words—crucify, kill—are appropriate because following Jesus isn’t always easy. Jesus promises to give his followers abundant life (see John 10:10) but he makes it clear that following him is costly and difficult.

That’s not the narrative many of us are telling ourselves. We want the abundance Jesus offers without accepting the cost and making the sacrifices. We want the resurrection without the crucifixion. But that’s not how it works.

Johnson writes,

“Just as there would be no resurrection for Jesus without crucifixion, so there would be no resurrection for the disciples without crucifixion. . . . A man on his way to public crucifixion ‘was compelled to abandon all earthly hopes and ambitions.’ Jesus calls his followers to think of ourselves as already dead, to bury our earthly hopes and dreams, to bury the plans and agendas we made for ourselves. He will either resurrect our dreams or replace them with dreams and plans of his own. . . . This is a hard but liberating saying. . . . Freedom comes when we lay down the ill-gotten false crown, when we say no, when we live as though the gods who are us have already died.

A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.

Conclusion

Most of us have fallen for the lie that life is supposed to be easy; that life should involve as little pain as possible. Sometimes we come to Jesus thinking he’ll make that happen.

But that’s not what he promises.

If anything, Jesus promises the opposite. 2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Not “might be.” Not “those who follow me in certain countries.” But everyone who follows him.

If that sounds hard to you, remember this. God who overlooked our open rebellion against him, our allegiance to Satan, and sent his Son to die in our place so we could be restored and renewed, today and in the life to come.

Following Jesus means we count the cost, we understand the difficulty, and we keep following anyway. Not because we’re promised a good life or an easy life, but because we’re promised Jesus—and he’s enough.

Following Jesus means giving up the things we want for the thing we want even more—Jesus Christ.

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