I’ve been a follower of Jesus since the earth cooled. But only recently, through prayer and journaling, did the Lord give me some clarity on what it means to “die to self”. It caught me off guard, because it’s not what I expected.
Jesus, nor the Apostles, ever said the words “die to self”. However, in the context of “denying yourself and taking up your cross” in Matt 16:24-25, He did say, “whoever decides to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it￼”.
So on the surface, it appears our salvation is somehow related to losing our lives. But how is life gained by losing it? The two ideas appear incompatible. Then the Lord brought a couple of passages to mind:
Rom 6:3-8: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
Gal 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
These verses speak of our death, burial, crucifixion (and resurrection) as if they were shared with Jesus. The verbs are are also curiously past tense. I suddenly realized how perfectly they parallel and explain Matt 16:24-25.
Before the cross, Jesus used extreme examples of obedience under the Law as impossible ways to be righteous before a holy God. For example:
- “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”
- “if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away”
- “take up your cross and follow me”
- “whoever loses his life for my sake will save it”
Think about it — if we were truly called to die for Jesus as a prerequisite of gaining salvation (per the last two bullets), who could be saved? Only martyrs, I suppose.
If anyone could live up to Jesus’ standards, it would be the disciples. So how did they do?
Mat 26:33-35 “Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And so said all the disciples.”
We know the rest of the story. Despite their declarations, the disciples failed the self-effort test to dying/not deny Jesus the night He was arrested. Jesus was obviously not surprised. Do we think we’d do any better?
What I failed to realize over all these years is not only do we receive the exchanged life of Jesus, but the crucifixion, death and burial of Christ is also part of our glorious inheritance!
All my life, I was taught to try harder to “die to self” — being a lowlier servant than the next believer. Ironically, this mindset focused more on my works than Christ’s. My performance-based obedience made spiritual self-death an unknowable and unattainable goal — more slippery than an eel in a WD40 factory. As soon as I did something I deemed “humble enough”, I’d be proud of it. The cycle perpetuated.
Ultimately, I came to the same conclusion as Peter (2 Pet 1:3): Everything I needed for life and godliness is found in Christ (even dying to self)! Knowing my old self is already crucified with Christ through salvation, I can breathe a sigh of relief, walk by faith in what He has done, and be freed-up to serve others in love.
There’s likely much more to to discuss on this topic, but what the Lord showed me brought peace and freedom to my heart. Perhaps it encourages you as well.
“You’re born. You suffer. You die. Fortunately, there’s a loophole.” Billy Graham
*Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com