34And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34. ESV.)
I grew up in the church. I learned God’s word. I did not quite understand it on an adult level (obviously because I was a child) but I knew it. I comprehended the difference between biblical and unbiblical. As a young adult (in my early twenties) I made the conscious decision to engage in some “unbiblical” behavior. The unwise choices I made then have affected me to this day. (Moving to California was included in that.) But over the course of the last eight (8) years, God has been growing and stretching me…sometimes beyond any limit I thought possible for myself. He has brought AMAZING people in and out of my vapor of a life (James 4:14) to walk with me in the Spirit, get me back on track, and stronger than ever before.
Each season is plain as day. I can give you dates and the names of the people He used. I love and never cease to marvel at how “all things are His servants” (Psalms 119:91) regardless of if they want to be or not. My time in California and all the heartache with it was a tool God used for His purpose. One, though devastatingly painful, in which I rejoice. Being refined is NEVER pleasant but I am hopeful people can see the image of Christ that much clearer in me.
Here the requirement for saving our lives is losing our lives, which means denying ourselves, dying to ourselves, and following Jesus. Is this works? Are we working for God when we die to self? No. Letting the old proud self die is not works. It's the death of works. That's who's dying. The old sin-loving, self-exalting, God-opposing me has to die. When that old rebel dies, I don't earn anything. Nobody boasts in having to be put to death on a cross. You don't earn anything by getting crucified. This is not works, but it is change—the deepest and most profound change possible.
And the same thing goes for "following Jesus." Following Jesus is required, but it is not works. Following Jesus is no more working for Jesus than the pigeons of Elliot Park are working for me when they follow me around because I have the breadcrumbs they want.
Following Jesus would be working for our salvation if we were following him to meet his need and not for ours. But the whole point of Mark 8:34ff. is this: if you lose your life, you will save it. If you die, you live. If you forfeit, you gain.
Jesus demands that we follow him not because he needs our labor but because we need his love and fellowship and help. He's the doctor and we are the patients. This is what he said in Mark 2:17, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners." When we obey the call of Jesus to follow, we are not coming to an employer to earn wages; we are coming to a doctor to get healing. And that is not works. The gospel is not a "help wanted" sign; it's a "help available" sign. Coming to one would be works. Coming to the other is faith.
Faith means coming to Jesus to have all our needs met and to have all our longings satisfied. "I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:35).
Once you see the essence of faith as a coming to Jesus in order to be satisfied with all that he is, then you begin to see that all these other requirements are really just different ways of describing the demand for faith. (By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org. http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/joy-recovered.)