“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
Four our times in these verses the Greek word psyche appears:
(1) Whoever desires to save his psyche will lose it.
(2) Whoever loses his psyche for Christ’s sake will find it.
(3) What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own psyche?
(4) What will a man give in exchange for his psyche?
What did the Lord mean by the expression saving (or losing) one’s psyche?
Some understand the expression saving one’s psyche here and in the parallel texts in Matt 10:38, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23 and 14:27 to refer to obtaining eternal salvation from hell. one author writes, “There is no salvation apart from cross-bearing” (Boice, Christ’s Call To Discipleship, p 36). Another writes, “Thus in a sense we pay the ultimate price for salvation when our sinful self is nailed to a cross. It is total abandonment of self-will. . . It denotes implicit obedience, full surrender to the lordship of Christ” (MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, p 140).
Others, however, understand this expression quite differently here and in the parallel texts. There are four major reasons why the eternal-salvation view is untenable:
First, eternal salvation is not conditioned elsewhere in the Bible upon self-denial and cross-bearing. Eternal salvation is not something which we buy. It is free (John 4:10; Rom 3:24; Eph 2:9; Rev 22:17).
Eternal salvation is unmerited. It is by grace, not by works (Rom 4:1-5; Eph 2:9; Titus 3:5).
Eternal salvation is conditioned only upon believing in Jesus Christ (John 1:12; 3:16; 6:47; Eph 2:8). Nowhere in this passage is belief in Christ even mentioned.
Second, those being addressed here are believers, not unbelievers. Believers already have eternal salvation. Since eternal salvation cannot be lost (John 10:27-30; Rom 8:38-39), the Lord is warning the disciples about the possibility of losing something else.
Third, recompense according to one’s deeds (v 27) is a not a salvation concept. Rather, it is a rewards concept. Compare especially 2 Cor 5:10. There, nearly identical language is used and it clearly deals with possible rewards for people who are already eternally secure.
Fourth, nowhere else in the Bible does the expression saving the psyche ever refer to eternal salvation from hell. It either refers to preserving one’s physical life or to gaining eternal rewards.
What the Lord actually meant by saving one’s psyche here should be evident from the preceding four points.
Peter and the other disciples already had eternal life. They did not need to do anything else in order to get it or keep it.
Metaphorical language is being employed here. It is a sort of riddle. How can one give up something in order to gain that same something back? More specifically, how can one give up his life in order to gain his life?
All believers have eternal life. However, only self-denying believers will realize the full potential of eternal life both in this life and in the life to come (John 10:10).
If any believer wants to share fully in Christ’s glory when He returns with His angels (v 27), then he needs to suffer for Him now. Suffering precedes glory in God’s plan. It did for our Lord and it will for His followers as well. We must give to receive. We must lose to gain.
A “saved psyche” is the glory of a life lived for God.
How can a believer lose his life for Christ’s sake (i.e., deny himself and take up his cross)? By sharing in our Lord’s sufferings. Peter, the one to whom these remarks were especially addressed later wrote. “But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Pet 4:13). Anytime a believer suffers in order to obey and serve God he is losing his life that he may gain it.
People may ridicule you because you don’t drink or do drugs. They may make fun of you at work because you share your faith and because your language is different. Your house and car and possessions won’t be as grand as they could be because you have given sacrificially to the Lord’s work. You will pay more in taxes because, unlike many, you do not cheat. You may give up much if you leave parents and hometown to serve the Lord in other parts of the country or in other countries. You may even be martyred for your testimony.
The world says that you can never have enough. The Word says that if you want to gain a full experience of life you must give up such aspirations. What would it profit if we could gain the entire world for a few years and yet lose a full experience of life forever? We can’t take it with us; but we can send it on ahead. We can make regular deposits to our eternal IRAs (Matt 6:19-21).
One week after Jesus spoke these words, Peter, James, and John saw the Lord transfigured before their eyes (Matt 17:1-8). They caught a glimpse of the glory which faithful believers will share more fully than unfaithful believers will.
In order to have a full experience of life now and forever we must willingly give up our lives in service of God. Though it seems paradoxical, in order to gain we must lose.