The Cost of Discipleship Pales in Comparison to What We Gain in Following Jesus

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for My sake, they are the ones who will save it. For what is anyone profited if they gain the whole world, and lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:23-25)

This is arguably the single greatest—and hardest—passage on self-denial in all of Scripture. Jesus tells us to lose our lives for His sake. He commands us to deny ourselves.

The Call to Carry Our Cross

And if self-denial and sacrifice aren’t enough, we’re to carry a cross—that dreaded instrument of execution. Carrying a cross represents walking the path to an excruciating death. The cross signifies the very sacrifices of Jesus Himself. In terms of costliness, could Jesus have painted a more dreadful picture?

And to top it off, our cross-carrying isn’t a once and done. Rather, we are to carry this cross daily—for the rest of our lives!

This seems impossible. It also sounds emphatically undesirable. Who but a masochist would want to do this? Who could get up in the morning looking forward to it, or go to bed at night looking back with pleasure at having done it?

Yet if we think this way, we let the words of self-sacrifice and self-denial—which are real, but only part of a larger picture—eclipse Jesus’ central meaning.

Jesus Promises Real Life

Take a closer look: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Self-denial and cross-bearing are a means to, or part of, following Jesus. But what does Jesus offer to those who follow Him?

Matthew 11:28-30 says: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from 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, we do all this apparently heavy-duty self-denial with the promise of finding rest, ease, and lightness! As we abide in Jesus, as we enjoy His fellowship, as we find our joy in Him, He empowers and fulfills us. God’s glory comes out ahead in this—and so do we!

If I seem to be imposing Matthew 10 on Luke 9 to lighten it, consider just what Luke 9 says in the next verse: “For whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for My sake, they are the ones who will save it.”

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.

Jesus Appeals to Our True Self-Interest

If at first this sounds contradictory to the passage, look again. Jesus appeals to our desire to save our lives. He points out that the means to save our life permanently (which we want to do) is to lose it temporarily by acting as Christ’s disciple. On the other hand, the way to lose our life permanently (which we don’t want to do) is to “save it” temporarily by doing whatever we feel like, while failing to follow Jesus.

Though this passage seems saturated by the abandonment of self-interest, it in fact appeals to our true self-interest. It tells us, “Abandon what seems 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 ourselves lasting satisfaction? True, there are the “passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). Yes, there are the passing costs of righteousness (1 Peter 4:12-19). But long-term satisfaction can never be found apart from reflecting Jesus.

God created us in such a way that He is our greatest pleasure and the deepest desire of our heart. Therefore, any pleasures found apart from Him will only satisfy us in very brief and shallow ways (followed by guilt and numbness and deeper dissatisfaction). And every command of Scripture to rejoice in following Christ, even in the midst of sacrifice, affirms that obedience not only works for our eternal self-interest, but also even in our temporal self-interest. (The joy of believers in prison, in contrast to the angry misery of their jailors, is an example of this.)

The passage offers us gain instead of loss. 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 anyone profited if they gain the whole world, and lose or forfeit themselves?”

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’s appealing to the very way He made us.

Gaining What We Can’t Lose

Jim Elliot’s words make this precise point, though just like Christ’s words, they 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 jungles of Ecuador in 1956 bringing the gospel to the Auca Indians—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 chose both sacrifice and riches. Even in the short-run, they would have been miserable and unfulfilled by not giving their all. And in addition, they would have forfeited incalculable gain. As Dallas Willard says, the cost of their non-discipleship would have been far greater than the cost of their discipleship. 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 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 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. He chose well.

For Jim Elliot, as for all of us, discipleship wasn’t just the right choice. It was the smart choice. It is the choice that we would be fools not to make!

The Best Investment

We’re to count the cost of discipleship, and also 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 and obey Him. There is no third alternative. When we choose our own path, we forfeit joy, fulfillment, and eternal gain.

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. The passing cost of discipleship, real though it is, pales in comparison to the lasting cost of non-discipleship.

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