The Criteria For Discipleship

I would like to begin our study on discipleship from a very familiar passage of Scripture—Luke 9:23. In this one verse, we have what true discipleship is, the criteria for discipleship, and what it costs.
Jesus said, “And He said to them all, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” This, as you can see, is plain and to the point, with no exceptions. I want to break this down by phrase so we can begin to understand just what the Master is saying.

Denying Yourself

The first thing that I would like to point your attention to is the phrase “deny himself.” What does this really mean? What was Christ talking about when He said that in order to follow after Him, we must first deny ourselves?
Let’s take a look at the word deny. In the Greek, the word deny means “to disown, or to abstain.” Many Christians believe that this has to do with denying ourselves of certain pleasures or gratifications in life, and by doing such, we are denying ourselves, which then makes us holy. To further explain this, let me give a brief example of what most Christians believe when it comes to denying ourselves.
My associate pastor at Crossfire Youth Ministries is Keith Babin. Keith has been with me since the very beginning, and I am grateful to the Lord for all that Keith provides. In addition to my wife, Keith has been such a huge help with Crossfire, and also with Family Christian Academy.
Keith grew up in a Christian home and was saved at a young age, just as I was. One day, in the course of a conversation regarding this verse, he mentioned something that had taken place earlier in his life. He told me that he had come home from wherever he had been (this was nearly 25 years ago), and to prove to God how holy he was, he taped a piece of paper over the television screen in his home with the words, “Jesus Loves You,” written across that paper. He did this so that he wouldn’t be tempted to watch too much television. We had a good laugh at that, but later I began to look back on my life and recall that some of the things I had done were in a similar vein. I also had the belief that whatever I was doing, I was somehow denying myself and proving to the Lord that I meant business.

What is True Self-Denial?

Denying yourself does not mean asceticism, which is a long word for “living a life of strong self-denial of pleasurable things,” such as watching too much television, going to the movies, or anything of that nature. It doesn’t mean that at all. What Christ is really saying here is that in order to follow after Him, we must come to the understanding that we cannot live this Christian life by the means of self-effort. Self-effort is a hindrance to the believer, as it makes the Christian believe he has to do something or accomplish certain tasks in order to earn something from God. The church is riddled with self-
effort, especially when it comes to trying to overcome sin.
There are scores of different methods that churches and believers use to try and overcome sin in their lives. These methods are filled with self-effort. There is a thought, that in order to overcome sin, one has to fast for 21 days, and then one will be delivered. Another method, which I read in one student Bible, is that if you feel temptation coming along in your life, you must immediately drop down and do 25 push-ups, and that will keep the temptation at bay.
Others say that you need to write down the sins that are plaguing you and then confess them to the church. After that, you burn them, and that will cause your sin to be removed, and it will never bother you again.
All of these things are fueled by self-effort and will not, no matter how sincere one might be, bring about victory over sin. The only means by which a believer can live an overcoming, victorious life is by placing his faith in Christ and what He has done for us at the Cross. That allows the Holy Spirit to begin working in our lives to take out the bad and put in the good. As a believer, we are commanded, in a sense, to reject all self-efforts, education, willpower, abilities, and strengths, and instead, look to Jesus Christ and what He did at the Cross.

The Cross of Christ

By placing your faith in Christ and Him crucified, you are denying yourself. You are beginning to see that you cannot provide victory over sin and that you cannot bring about holiness in your life. All of that is done through the finished work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s understanding that there is nothing in the believer that can bring about what is needed, and whatever is needed in the believer’s life has already been handled through what Christ accomplished at Calvary’s Cross.
The Holy Spirit desires to work in the life of the believer. He desires to bring about that which is needed in our lives, but He can only do so by our faith being anchored in Christ and the Cross. This is true self-denial. Any other way of trying to bring about holiness or victory over sin is self-dependence, which will always bring about trouble in the life of the believer.
The Cross is the key in all of this, and it must ever be the key. We are not speaking of a wooden beam, but rather what Christ accomplished at Calvary. Without the Cross of Christ, all we have to depend on is what we can do ourselves, but that will never bring about what is so desperately needed.
The Cross is the central factor in the Christian life. It is the way that God has chosen to bring the believer into this more abundant life and total victory over sin. By denying ourselves, we are saying that we, as Christians, can do nothing that can earn anything from God and that Christ has already provided what we need. It’s abandoning all hope of self-effort and totally depending upon Christ and what He accomplished at the Cross. To use an old expression that I never tire of hearing, saying, or writing, “It’s all in the Cross, that’s it, and that’s all.”

Taking Up Your Cross

Taking up your cross leads to the very next step in discipleship. Once again, many Christians have a misunderstanding of this phrase, thinking that it refers to suffering for the cause of Christ. Satan has done a very good job at convincing believers that by taking up our cross, it means that our lives will be one of constant sorrow, heartache, and suffering. Now, let’s be clear. The Christian life is not one of ease, and it’s not smooth sailing for the rest of our lives. Please be aware that you are going to have some difficult times in life, and that you are going to go through things that you may not quite understand. There will be some storms that will cause you to panic, to be frantic, and to lose heart. What Christ is talking about here has nothing to do with the Christian’s suffering, for if suffering was a requirement to be saved, then none of us would make it. Christ suffered at Calvary’s Cross so that we would not have to suffer, and we speak of the penalty of sin.
Taking up our cross does not refer to a curse, but rather one of the greatest blessings that we could ever have, for this is the key to all victory, blessing, and more abundant life. It speaks of placing our faith in Christ and the Cross. I know I am being somewhat repetitive, but I do so to make you see what is important.
By Christ shedding His life’s blood on Calvary’s Cross, He satisfied the demands of a thrice-holy God and atoned for all sin—past, present, and future—for all who will simply believe.
Sin was the legal right that Satan had to hold mankind in bondage and captivity, but with Christ atoning for all sin, the grip of sin was broken, and the power of sin was broken. Sin does not have a hold on my life anymore as long as I continue to exhibit faith in Christ, and this is something that we not only do once a week, but rather every single day. We are to renew our faith in Christ on a daily basis, for Satan’s biggest threat is always against our faith. It is Satan’s desire to move our faith away from the finished work of Christ and onto something else, whatever it might be. He will stop at nothing to turn us away from faith in Christ and the Cross, and to something else.

Fight the Good Fight

You may ask the question regarding why Satan fights the Cross so hard. The answer to that is simple: The moment you begin to place your faith in Christ and Him crucified, he knows that you have found the answer to victorious living, and he does not want you to ever experience what true victorious living really is. Therefore, he fights the Cross to keep people away from experiencing more abundant life.
Also, you as a believer need to understand that Satan does not really fight against you, but rather against your faith. That’s why Paul would plead with Timothy to “fight the good fight of (the) faith” (I Tim. 6:12). Satan fights your faith in order to severely weaken it or destroy it all together. This is why we are to fight the good fight of faith to ever keep our faith in Christ daily. The only way for us to get to God is through Christ (Jn. 14:6). The only way to Christ is through the Cross (Lk. 14:27). The only way to the Cross is through a denial of self (Lk. 9:23).

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