In this chapter we will look at the difference between being saved from Hell and saving one’s life. To understand the process of being saved from Hell let’s first look at Ephesians 2:8-9.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.1
The first thing we must ask when we see the word saved is “saved from what?”As J.B. Bond puts it, “This salvation is in the perfect tense, showing action that happened in the past with continuing results. When the Ephesians exercised faith they were saved and the results continue on.2”
When salvation is talked about in terms of a current possession the Bible is denoting eternal salvation from hell. We see the ultimate destiny of those who are not described by the above verse when in Revelation 20:15 John says,
And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.3
Those who are not saved by grace through faith, can expect to be thrown into the lake of fire at the end of the age. This gut wrenching outcome should make all who have rejected Christ reconsider their position on the matter. God is both deadly serious about his call for all to believe in his son, and he’s willing to prosecute any who don’t with eternal ramifications.
That’s why it is such a comfort that Paul says, we are saved by grace, which is unmerited favor. He then adds that this transaction happens through faith. While we are saved by the unmerited favor of God, Faith is the conduit through which that favor is allowed to flow. Any who believe, which is the same Greek word pistis used here, in Jesus for everlasting life will be freed from this horrifying destination.
Now that we have established the condition for being saved from hell, let’s take a look at a passage that explains how to save one’s life.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “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. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?4
The astute Bible student will recognize this passage with a few slight changes. The more traditional translations render the second two instances of the word life (psychē) as soul. That is an unfortunate translation considering that the word is the same for the four times it is used in these verses. The traditional translation reveals a theological bias among translators. Fortunately more modern translations have picked up on this error and corrected accordingly.
With this superior translation we find out a few important facts about What Jesus is teaching. First of all it says, “Then Jesus said to His disciples.” The fact that Jesus is speaking specifically to his disciples and not the crowds at large is important. This is a teaching that is intended for those who have already believed and chosen to follow him on a daily basis.
Secondly in that same verse we get a valuable aspect of discipleship. He says, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” It’s easy to view this as poetic language couched in religious jargon, but for the original hearers, it wasn’t. It was a call to prepare for death. The Cross was a cruel implement of capital punishment. This statement might be like telling a group of students, “sit in your electric chair,” or “take your lethal injection.” For the disciples, there was no mistaking what he meant. He was telling them that this road they were on would likely end in death. For at least ten of them it did.
With these words he has made it clear that he is talking about physical death. The disciple is expected to be so committed that he is willing and able to give up his life for the sake of Christ. Certainly not all disciples are going to die a martyr’s death, but all that intend to come after Christ, should prepare and expect for their own martyrdom as a possibility.
Although this is a heavy price to pay, Jesus assures his listeners that it will be worth it when he says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it.” He’s pointing out that whatever is lost for the sake of Christ, even if it is a person’s entire life, the dividend that is received in return will be of equivalent, and even greater value. He doesn’t specify in this verse what that reward will be other than to say that the one willing to be martyred will find his life. This is to say, a wonderful experience when they enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
We know that he is talking about reward, and not eternal salvation, because in the next line he says, “What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life?” Many translations render that question, “what will it profit…” This teaching is focused on the profit; the payback; the reward a disciple stands to gain by being all in. By implication he teaches that the disciple who is willing to go to the gas chamber for Christ will profit big, even though he loses his life.
On the inverse he shows that one’s physical life is not worth saving in comparison to what will be gained for committed discipleship. He says, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it.” What we stand to gain as committed disciples is so great, that it is reasonable to let our lives go in exchange for the full experience in the life to come. That is, after all, what is in view here. A person’s eternal destiny is determined by their faith in Christ. However, their eternal experience will be determined by their commitment to Christ in discipleship.
That’s why, in the most real sense, the way to salvage your life is to live as a disciple. Short of being a martyr there are many things that are expected of disciples that look as if one’s life is being sacrificed on a daily basis. I have a friend who had a sweet job, made a fat and growing bank account, and drove fancy cars. After he had been a believer for a few years, he felt the call of Jesus to live a life of discipleship. He gave all of his worldly possessions up and went into ministry. He now lives below the poverty line, and sometimes has trouble paying his bills. To the outsider, he wrecked his life. He abandoned the life that so many are chasing. He gave it up, in order to find it. Although, he has not been martyred, at least not yet, he has undergone a form of giving up his life. In fact, even in the here and now, his life is better than ever.
The disciples too, had experienced this. Even by this point, they had given up houses, missed their families, and abandoned jobs to follow Christ. Sometimes our discipleship requires this of us. When our way of life hangs in the balance, it’s a huge motivation to remember that giving up your life will profit big in the end. As he puts it, that is the only way to really find your life. It might be said that someone who is not willing to give up anything is not ready for a life of discipleship.
To propose, as some have done, that all believers must be willing to die or give up their lifestyle in order to be saved from Hell, is ludicrous. Much of that confusion has come from an inferior translation, and a theological bias. These verses are clearly about discipleship and the cost associated with it.
In this chapter we have seen that discipleship has a component implicit within that the committed follower should be willing to give up his life, whether in part or in whole. Salvation from Hell comes by faith alone, but saving one’s life comes by losing it. Salvation is by faith, but discipleship comes by lost of one’s way of life, or life itself.
1 Ephesians 2:8–9.
2 J. B. Bond, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 868.
3 Revelation 20:15.
4 Matthew 16:24–26. (HCSB)