As Jesus said, following Him requires a complete surrender of ourselves in obedience to Him: “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
The Greek word for life that Jesus chose is psyche, which literally means the vital force of life; a living soul. Your soul is you. It’s the core of who you are, as well as what makes you different from anyone else around you. Your soul is not your body but your will: your capacity to feel, think, choose, and desire. It’s your very essence—the part of you that will continue beyond time into eternity. That’s what Jesus asked you to surrender to Him.
Jesus said if you want to follow Him and thereby save your soul, you must do three things. First of all, you need to say no to yourself; that’s what denying yourself is all about. It’s necessary to deny yourself because your biggest problem in your relationship with Jesus is not outside you; your biggest problem is you. To follow Christ means you need to learn how to say no to you. In my case, it’s easy enough for me to say no to me when it comes to eating squash. But when it comes to eating fried chicken, it’s a different story.
When you want something, you don’t like to tell yourself no. Yet to fear God as King and follow Christ as your Master, you must deny yourself.
Second, you must take up your cross. This is a frequently misunderstood concept.
I often hear people quote this passage in relation to a difficult situation at work, at home, or in their personal lives. I hear things like “I’ll just have to pick up my cross and put up with that person,” “My in-law is the cross I must bear,” or “I have a headache, so that must be my cross.” But Jesus said you are to pick up your cross. The cross you are asked to bear is you. In Jesus’ day there was only one reason the Roman government ordered someone to carry his own cross: he was going to be crucified on it. A cross is an instrument of death. Carrying a cross was an open, tangible submission to the law of the land—the Roman government.
When a believer denies himself and carries his cross, he submits to another law higher than himself. He yields himself to what God has asked of him: to deny his wants, desires, and will in exchange for following the wants, desire, and will of the One he’s following. Even in the garden before Jesus carried His cross, He told God He didn’t want to do it. But He also said, “Not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). To carry your cross is to yield your will fully to God’s.
Third, after denying yourself and taking up your cross, Jesus said to follow Him. But keep in mind where Jesus was going: He was on His way to die. To follow Him, then, is to put to death any parts of you that aren’t fully submitted and obedient to the rule of Jesus. Paul said it this way: “Put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
We must not show mercy to the parts of us that aren’t aligned with Jesus. We must ruthlessly put them to death, sometimes over and over again. The good news is that we’re not alone in this fight. God is working in us for this same purpose. When we choose to crucify our sinful nature, we’re embracing the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Dr. Tony Evans is one of the country’s most respected leaders in evangelical circles. As a pastor, teacher, author and speaker, he serves the body of Christ through his unique ability to communicate complex theological truths through simple, yet profound, illustrations. While addressing the practical issues of today, Dr. Evans is known as a relevant expositor. New and veteran pastors alike regard him as a pastor of pastors and a father in the faith.