This passage (along with companion texts in Matt 16:24-26; Lk 9:23-26; Jn 12:24-26) is frequently taught today as a post-conversion dedication text to a deeper or higher or victorious or abundant or crucified or more consecrated Christian living, but that is eisegesis stemming from corrupted soteriology and sanctification — certainly not what this unambiguous passage on repentance and salvation actually means.
Consider a brief exposition of this text that teaches saving repentance; how can you can be saved.
“And when [Jesus] had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
Christ’s audience is a mixed multitude, a few saved but majority lost. Scripture tells us the multitudes following Him were almost entirely unsaved (e.g. Jn 6:66; Lk 12:32; Mt 7:13-14). Jesus wasn’t teaching lost people how to be better Christians. If that was the case, it would’ve only been His true disciples (which it wasn't), but even among the 12 apostles, one was unregenerate.
The words “deny himself” means to forsake himself and carries the same meaning. It’s how the word (“aparneomai”) was translated by the English translators prior to the KJV, including Tyndale. It carries the idea of utterly disowning, to lose acquaintance with self, to forget self, lose sight of one self and one's own interests. Those who wanna come to Christ have to forsake self. You can’t hold on to your self and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. You are still your own master in that case and we know that “no man can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24). You aren’t willing to surrender your life to the Lord and King, to the One who Created you for His glory. The ricoh young ruler would not forsake himself, illustrated by his refusal to repent of his covetousness, and thus couldn’t be saved (Mk 10:21-25). Paul on the other hand forsook all for Christ (Phil 3:3-11). What things he had once counted as valuable, he counted as dung.
It has been well said, the only hand that can receive salvation is an empty one. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling. You cannot receive Christ while you still hang on and clutch to your own life, own abilities, self confidence, pride of life, self worth, sin, friends, family, self-righteous religion and material possessions. Of course we come to Christ sinful but we cannot come to Him while holding on to sin. These things have to be let go, they have to be denied, that is forsaken, but it’s Jesus that does the cleansing and washing at conversion. This does not refer to physically forsaking all or selling everything as if trying to earn some favour with God prior to conversion, but the willing desire to do so.
It’s a matter of the will, which must be overcome (Rom 1:18-31). You count them as loss, as “dung,” like Paul did in his conversion (Phil 3:3-11) and Zacchaeus likewise (Lk 19:1-10), and as Christ called the rich young ruler to do, but wouldn’t. But what are you really giving up? Everything is going to be gone anyway and you take nothing with you out of this life. Those that are truly repentant and get converted, recognize that the vast number of professors of Christ and religion, those professing to “believe,” don’t realize these truths. They are blind to it because of Satan (2 Cor 4:2-4) and their own flesh (1 Jn 3:7; Ti 3:3; Gal 6:7; 2 Tim 3:13).
Very few true conversions are without opposition from family. True salvation produces a division in the home, just like Jesus said it would. Losing your family that is temporal is eternal worth it, and God will give you an additional, a much bigger family upon the earth that you will never lose. “And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” (Mk 10:29-30)
Essentially, our stuff and people are idols before God if they place a value greater than God in our lives, which is measurable by who you would rather flee to or after. But they must become valueless, useless, and vanity, to the sinner under repentance, so then after conversion as you go through life and the Lord brings you to a situation where it’s a matter of forsaking those things or forsaking Him, those things would be forsaken because you have already forsaken them in your will. The true Christian life is the product of true Christian conversion. We see these things clearly and prominent in the example of Abraham, the father of our faith (Gal 3), upon offering Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Gen 22) demonstrating his obedience that he truly was justified by faith (Jam 2:21-23) which had occurred in Gen 15:1-6 (confirmed in Rom 4:1-5; Gal 3:6-9). Following after Christ starts at salvation, not at some point after. The call to be a disciple of Christ or what is commonly termed discipleship, is in fact a call to salvation. Not all disciples are true believers, but all true believers are disciples.
The issue is, many people want Jesus to come and fix their money or health or family or job problems, the same as the many Jews that followed Christ and professed to believe in Him, but were false believers/disciples (e.g., Jn 2:23-25; 6:2, 60-66). Jesus wants to regenerate the sinner, but that requires the sinner to lose his own life. And that is eternally worth it. In all this, we see how repentance and faith are inseparable. The sinner must fully recognize that he is an unrighteous, vile and a wicked unworthy dog who has offended a Holy and Righteous God, and must hate, abhor and attest himself and be truly satisfied with the punishment and judgment of God upon him in this life and the life to come, and then turn to God and believe that only Jesus Christ can save him from his vile nature. That is the soul that God can regenerate and make new.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.”
The idea continues fro v. 34, further describing what it means to "come after [Jesus], let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow [Jesus]." The contrast is being made between those who will not heed the call to salvation by desiring to save or hang onto their life (i.e. maintain the control of their own life and holding onto sin, self and stuff), and those who will heed the call to salvation by desiring to lose their life for Christ and the gospels sake (i.e. surrender their life to God, get off the throne and allow God on it to be their Lord; truly repenting).
The word “life” here is the same Greek word (“pusche”) translated as “soul” in verses 36-37. The clearest explanation on what it means to lose your life is given in v. 34 — deny self, take up the cross and follow Christ. In Luke 14:25-15:32 (akin to Mt 10:32-39), the illustration goes even further, teaching the mostly unsaved “great multitudes with him” (v 25) that “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (vv 26-27). Coming after or to Christ is ALWAYS salvation language in Scripture (e.g. Jn 14:6; Rev 22:17). The call to being Christ’s disciple is ALWAYS salvation language in Scripture.
We become disciples of Christ at the very point of conversion, not some time after. Nor do we ever cease being His disciple. Christ’s sheep, the children of God through the new birth, always follow their Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:” (Jn 10:27). They never stop following Him, which means they never cease obeying and keeping His Word, though they may stumble at times and disobey. Mk. 8:34-38 clearly teaches that all saved people are disciples, and that one who refuses to become Christ’s disciple will face an eternity in hell.
The parallel passages express to disavow yourself of all these things because Christ is worth it. In Phil 3:3-11 where Paul recounts his testimony of salvation, he declares: “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,” (v 8). There are yet other places that this is taught, such as Jn 12:24-26. Death to self, denying self, is illustrated by the corn of wheat dying and then coming to life (the new birth) and bringing forth fruit (v. 24), with this passage defining the one that follows, “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” (v. 25).
Worldly wisdom teaches that its worth it to love your life and hang on to it, but you’re actually going to end up losing it anyway. However, if you let it go because its worth nothing anyway, it's worthless and vanity, you are going to save it unto life eternal. Taking up the cross means to die to yourself. Like the seed of corn that must first die before it can bring forth fruit, so we must first die before we can be converted and bear fruit. Though its contradictory to how the fleshly mind thinks, this is the harrowed ground required for true saving repentance and salvation to occur. Loving your life is loving the sin and worldliness of your life, idolatry. The sinner must see their life and works for what they are: sinful and filthy rags. We even see here the eternal aspect of the life that is given when one loses or hates his life in this world, clearly referring to the moment of salvation, which is not acquired by a deeper or higher Christian life (which would be a form of works-salvation, and perversion of the gospel) but by the new birth.
Its not difficult to see why majority of people in Evangelical, Protestant and Baptist churches are in fact unsaved. They love their lives in this world and thus remain in bondage to sin and error, tossed to and fro after every wind of doctrine. But those that want to truly serve Him, have to follow Him (v. 26), and that requires dying to self and being born again, and that requires hating your life in this world, not loving it — all of which represent true saving repentance. The Thessalonians, like all other true conversions in Scripture, exemplified this when they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;” (1 Th 1:9). You cannot be saved without recognizing and responding to who Jesus is: as both Lord and Saviour, as the Pearl of Great Price, as the greatest treasure in the entire world, and that requires the humbling of the will and a broken and contrite heart.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
To encourage the lost to give up their own way and surrender to Christ’s Lordship for salvation, Christ reminds them it profits them nothing if they gain the whole world, but lose their souls. The materialistic things and positions of influence, and selfish glory, and monetary or popularity gain is all vanity, useless, worthless, like the preacher of preachers says (Ecclesiastes), "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." (1 Tim 6:7).
The further one reads into Christ's command to deny self and take up their cross and follow Christ, the more clear it becomes that his call was a call to salvation, and his warning of losing one's soul when gaining the world was a warning about eternal judgment.
“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Those who, rather than being ashamed of their sins (Rom 6:21; cf. 2 Tim 1:8,12,16), are ashamed to follow Christ and His Words in this evil and adulterous world will have Christ ashamed of them at His return and be damned—for Christ is “not ashamed to call [true believers] brethren” (Heb 2:11), and “God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Heb 11:16; Lk 9:26). No text in Scripture indicates that God will be “ashamed” of His saints.
In Mark 8, the Lord is describing the necessity for a rebellious man who as a subject under an Almighty and Holy God to come to recognize and see his rebellious estate, and by the grace of God turn to God from his sins and love of self, forsaking (denying) himself, losing his own life by giving it to God who rightfully owns it, and surrendering to the Lord Jesus. This describes repentance and then faith in coming after Christ and following Him. If we believe He is Lord, we’ll do what He says. We are saved by faith alone but faith is not alone. It demands repentance or it’s a false, and that requires what Mk 8:34-38 speaks of, the complete committing of self to Him. This is the message Jesus was always preaching (Mt 4:17).
Repentance relates to God. The sinner sees himself and his sins as a Holy God views them in light of His Perfect Law, then turns from himself to Him, from idols to Him, and from his sins to Him. By faith we leave the old life for a new one, one that was about us and what we wanted to one that is about Him and what He wants. Passages such as Mk. 8:34-38; Lk. 9:23-26; 14:25-35; Matt. 16:24-26; Jn. 12:24-25 are not obscure. They are axiomatic. They are not different or separate from the gospel or from the normal teaching of Jesus; they are the gospel of Christ. These are principals that Jesus is preaching repeatedly throughout His ministry, over and over again in all different contexts. They are also seen throughout Scripture in all the testimonies of salvation found therein. Repentance is not a work—it’s demanded for salvation. The Bible says it and then it has nothing that contradicts it. Love rejoiceth in the truth. But this is just one part of the equation. In repentance you must turn to God (1 Th 1:9-10; Ac 20:21) for in repentance alone there is no merit. You don’t earn God’s favour or become inherently righteous when you repent. It is the blood of Christ, not your repentance, that is the ground of forgiveness; repentant faith is simply the means through which salvation is received.
But you might ask, “Who then can be saved” (Mk 10:26), like the apostles did. “And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.” (Mk 10:27). Eleven of the apostles had done exactly what Jesus preached in Mk 8:34-38, by the grace of God, and were converted. “Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.” (Mk 10:28). Jesus affirms that was indeed their conversion (Mk 10:29-31), which occurred in Lk 5:1-11, 27-28. Every testimony of salvation in scripture reflects these things, whether Abraham, or David, or Paul, or the Philippian jailer, or Zacchaeus, or the eleven apostles, or the prodigal son, etc.
Even in those who wouldn’t be saved, such as the rich young ruler (Mk 10:17-25), we see this crystal clear. Jesus didn’t make it easy for people to be saved. You can’t, because of the deceptive and wicked nature of fallen man. Unlike the unscriptural practice today where every obstacle possible is removed to get people to “believe,” Jesus puts very significant obstacles in place, and they are designed to bring the sinner to understand and recognize that he has nothing to offer God and that he has a wicked and deceitful heart. Even the cross itself is a stumbling block to the Jew. Was Jesus trying to keep them from being saved? No, rather, He was exposing the deceitfulness of their own hearts and that results in obstacles.
Matt 13 is further example of obstacles put up by Christ in people coming to Him for salvation. Verses 10-13 Jesus explains parables are given for the saved or those who want to be truly saved (v 11) but He prevented certain people from understanding, since they were willfully dull of hearing, blind and hard hearted (vv 13-15), and even further, He took away the little understanding they might’ve had: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” (v 12).
Many deceptively console themselves that Heaven is their home, when in fact they have never truly repented and been regenerated. They have never done what Jesus preached in Mk 8:34-38. The Jews had “a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.” (Rom 10:2). They were sorely deceived. They went “about to establish their own righteousness,” but didn’t “submit themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Rom 10:3). This is true today not only of the almost innumerable false Christian groups that teach some form of works, but also many of the so-called evangelical or Protestant type of churches, ones that would profess to believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone. These “turn the grace of our God into lasciviousness,” by which means they actually “deny the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ju 1:4).
This is the preaching we are to emulate, all of it. This is a very serious matter. Scripture where Christ is clearly teaching salvation (i.e., Mk 8:34-38; Matt 16:24-26; Lk 9:23-26; Jn 12:24-26; etc) is corrupted and twisted into something post salvation by many today. The teachers and preachers and pastors are making unsaved false professors two-fold children of hell by not preaching the gospel according to the truth of Scripture, according to how Jesus preached. Instead, they have corrupted the true gospel into something "easy" or "quick," and these cannot escape the judgment of God. How many are continuing on their merry and deceived way into a Christless eternity of hellfire and brimstone, without hearing the truth about their feigned and deceptive nature?! Woe unto the man that perverts, corrupts and wrests the Word of God, which is an “error of the wicked.” (2 Pet 3:16-17).
“Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness.” (2 Pet 3:16-17).
Read more here: The Call to Discipleship is a Call to Salvation