Despite the undeniably strong emphasis in the Bible upon the blessings of salvation, the gospel is essentially a call to self-denial rather than self-fulfillment.
‘Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess everything, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive. Let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty, Thy glory in my valley, Thy life in my death’. Old Puritan Prayer1
The Lord Jesus taught this great truth to His disciples using the evocative language of crucifixion. He asked them a question, ‘Who do men say that I the Son of man am?’ Matt. 16. 13, with the follow up question, ‘But whom say ye that I am?’ v. 15. Peter gave his great confession as he spoke for the other disciples, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’, Matt. 16. 16 NKJV. Peter is then told that the Lord would build His church. It was heady stuff, and the moment for which they had all been waiting. It is in that context that the Lord gave them instruction that must have been hard to understand and bear.
‘When he had called the people unto him with His disciples also, he said unto them, Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me’, Mark 8. 34.
To deny is to disown and refuse association. He is saying to His disciples, if you want to follow Me then you have to refuse to associate with yourselves. You have to see yourself as God sees you in all your failure and sin. This is what happens when we are saved as we come to God in repentance and faith. Sadly, we often lose that sense of our unworthiness and dependence upon grace, and begin to think selfishly.
What does it mean to deny yourself? I have not read or heard a better description than that which American Bible teacher John MacArthur gave in a sermon on the subject:
This could never be considered a natural outlook, and can only be possible when we remember what the Bible teaches about being crucified with Christ.