The Cost of Discipleship

Note from Randy: I wrote this to the men in a study group I led, based on Dallas Willard’s book, Spirit of the Disciplines.


And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?

This is arguably the single greatest and hardest passage on self-denial in all of Scripture. We are told we should lose our lives for Christ’s sake. We are told we must deny ourselves. If losing and denial aren’t enough, we’re to carry a cross, the most dreaded instrument of execution there is. Carrying a cross is walking the path not only to death, but excruciating death. The cross is suggestive of the very sacrifices of Jesus himself. In terms of costliness, how much more dreadful a picture could be painted?

And to top if off, we are to do this cross-carrying not just once, at some triumphant point of martyrdom, after which the terrible job will be done. Rather, we are to carry this cross daily—every day of our lives!

This seems impossible. (Yet it would be cruel for God to command us to do what is impossible, so clearly he offers the power and means to do whatever He commands.) It also sounds emphatically undesirable. Who but a masochist would want to do this? Who could get up in the morning looking forward to doing it, or go to bed at night looking back with pleasure at having done it?

Yet if we think this way, we are letting the words of self-sacrifice and self-denial—which are real, but only part of a larger picture—eclipse the central meaning of the text. Take a closer look.

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Self-denial and cross-bearing is a means to, or part of, coming after Jesus. But what does Jesus offer those who come to him, and follow after him?

Consider Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart. You shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

So, once we actually follow Jesus, in this mode of self-denial, what do we find? Rest for our souls, not weariness. An easy yoke, not a hard one. And a light burden, not a heavy one. In other words, all this apparently heavy-duty self-denial is done with the promise of finding rest, ease and lightness! The very cross we bear daily is to be borne with rest, ease and lightness. As we abide in Jesus, as we enjoy his fellowship, as we find our joy in Him, we are empowered and fulfilled. It is not only God’s glory that comes out ahead in this—we also come out ahead.

If it seems that I am imposing Matthew 10 on Luke 9 to lighten it, consider just what Luke 9 itself says in the next verse: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”

Here the end is in full view: our long-term goal should not be to lose our lives, but to save them. Losing our lives now, momentarily, is the divinely prescribed way to ultimately save them.

At first this sounds contradictory to the passage. But look at it closely. Jesus is appealing to our desire to save our lives, and our desire to not lose them. He points out that the means to save your life permanently (which we want to do) is to lose it temporarily by acting as Christ’s disciple rather than doing what we may feel like. The way to lose your life permanently (which we don’t want to do) is to save it temporarily by doing what we feel like, while failing to act as Christ’s disciple.

In other words, this passage that seems saturated by the abandonment of self-interest is in fact an appeal to our true self-interest. It is saying “abandon what looks to be in your short-term self-interest and embrace what is in fact in your long-term self-interest.” Apparent self-interest is not true self-interest. Things are not as they appear.

The word “apparent” is key. When we act in self-preservation rather than obeying Christ’s command to love our neighbors, to speak his name before men, to abide in Him and His word, do we actually bring to ourselves lasting satisfaction? Yes, there are the “passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11). Yes, there are the passing costs of righteousness (1 Peter 4). But long-term satisfaction eludes us, for it can never be found in acts (or failures to act) of non-discipleship.

God has built us in such a way that He is the greatest pleasure and desire of our heart. Therefore, any other pleasures found apart from Him, can only satisfy us in very brief and shallow ways (followed by guilt and numbness and deeper dissatisfaction). But every command of Scripture to rejoice in following Christ, even in the midst of sacrifice, affirms that obedience is not only in our eternal self-interest, but even our temporal self-interest. (The joy of Chinese believers in prison, in contrast to the angry misery of their jailors, is a case in point.)

What this passage offers us is not loss instead of gain, but gain instead of loss. It is not death instead of life, but life instead of death. We fail to see it because of the weight of cross-carrying and self-denial, which seem antithetical to gain and life. But in verse 25 Jesus asks, “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?”

Note that Jesus directly appeals to our human desire for profit. He wants us to want gain, and he wants us not to want loss. In fact he has created us, designed us to want gain, not loss. He appeals here to the very way he has made us.

Jim Elliot’s words make this precise point, though they—just like Christ’s words—are typically misunderstood: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Elliot—and the four other men who died in the jungle—sacrificed, carried their cross, denied themselves, and lost their lives (figuratively and literally). But why?

Read it again: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

This statement is all about gain. Jim Elliot was a profit-seeker. The men who died on that beach did what they chose to do and what they wanted to do. Even in the short-run, they would have been miserable and unfulfilled not doing it. And in addition to that, they would have forfeited incalculable gain. Using Willard’s terminology, the cost of their non-discipleship would have been far greater than the cost of their discipleship. It would have taken a terrible toll on their lives. They would have been fools not to follow Jesus, and they didn’t want to be fools. Neither should we.

We mistakenly associate Elliot’s famous statement, just as we do Christ’s, with self-sacrificial altruism, stripped of any thought of self-interest or gain. But in fact, gain was the whole point of his statement. Jim Elliot was an excellent wrestler at Wheaton. He knew about winning and losing. He didn’t want to lose. He wanted to win. And he was right to want gain rather than loss! The difference between him and so many Christians is not that he didn’t want gain—all of us want gain—it was that he realized what gain would last and what gain wouldn’t last, and he chose the one that would last!

For Jim Elliot, as for all of us, discipleship wasn’t just the right choice. It was the smart choice. It was the choice that one would be a fool not to make.

Willard speaks of the need to count not only the cost of discipleship, but the cost of non-discipleship. The alternative to following Christ wholeheartedly and abiding in Him and obeying him even when it’s uncomfortable is to not follow him, not abide in him and not obey him. There is no third alternative. In not doing these things, we will not only forfeit joy and fulfillment, we will heap upon ourselves (and our families) incalculable negative consequences.

Taking up our cross to follow Christ is truly in our best interest. Losing our lives in obedience to Christ will result in finding our lives. This is smart-i.e., always in our ultimate, and often even in our immediate, self-interest.

Trying to find ourselves by disobeying God will mean losing our lives. This is therefore stupid—i.e., always in our ultimate and, often even in our immediate, self-destruction.

So the cost of discipleship is significant. But paying that cost purchases something: it purchases life, gain, profit, reward, rest, and fulfillment. By not paying the cost of discipleship—that is, by paying the cost of non-discipleship—we purchase death, loss, anxiety and lack of fulfillment.

Which is the better deal? What is to God’s glory is also to our good?

What is right is also smart. What is wrong is also stupid.

So when we are tempted, let’s be motivated not only by our love for God, and our desire to see God glorified. (Lofty as those are, sometimes they seem insufficient to motivate us.) Let’s also be motivated by our desire for life rather than death, and gain rather than loss. Let’s be motivated by our desire to live smart rather than to live stupid. Let’s realize that the passing cost of discipleship, real though it be, pales in comparison to the lasting cost of non-discipleship.

So instead of watching TV or responding to email or writing my novel, I’m going to read Scripture and Willard now. I’m motivated by finding greater gain and greater joy—gain and joy that will last. And, Lord-willing, that will surface in my interactions with my wife and those I spend time with today and in days to come.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries