Thomas Monson’s explanation of Luke 9:23-26

By Sharon Lindbloom

The following was originally printed in the May-June 2010 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

And He [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23-26)

This passage of scripture has been called a paradox. Seek to save your life and you’ll lose it? Lose your life and you’ll save it? What did Jesus mean?

Just before saying these words Jesus told His disciples that He was going to “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then He invited anyone who wants to follow Him to count the cost.

In his commentary on Luke, William Hendriksen states that if one hopes to be a true disciple “he must once and for all say No to his old self, the self as it is apart from regenerating grace.” He notes:

“a person who denies himself gives up all reliance on whatever he is by nature, and depends  for salvation on God alone. He turns away  in dismay not only from whatever thoughts and habits are patently sinful but even from reliance on ‘religious’ – for example Pharisaic – patterns that cannot be harmonized with trust in Christ.” (p.498).

In reference to Jesus’ comment about disciples’ taking up their cross, Hendriksen explains:

“The underlying figure is that of a condemned man who is forced to take up and carry his own cross to the place of execution. However, what the convict does under duress, the disciple of Christ does willingly. He voluntarily and decisively accepts the pain, shame, and persecution that is going to be his particular – note: his, not someone else’s – lot because of his loyalty to Christ and his cause.”

Christian pastor Sinclair Ferguson says that in these words Jesus is calling for radical decisiveness; Jesus calls those who want to follow Him to be “decided Christians.”

“The implication of confessing Jesus Christ is radical and decisive. It means taking up the cross. It means that a death takes place in your life. The old goes; the eyes are fixed on Jesus, and you follow Him… It’s very radical, and it’s very, very decisive…carrying the cross, denying yourself, fixing your eyes on Jesus and living for His glory.

“…the challenge is, do I save my life? Or do I lose my life? And the only way you are able to sustain that is if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and the cross, living the life of bearing the cross becomes the way you live the Christian life all of the time…

“This following of Jesus that is radical and decisive, daily and repetitive, challenging and expensive, is also most glorious in its perspective. That’s the way to find your life… The glories of the Christian life are not for those who want to preserve their life from Jesus. And so He says to them, ‘It’s those who lose their lives for me and in me, those are the ones who gain their life.’

“…The thing about Jesus, the glorious thing about Him…is you can never find what He gives until you’re prepared to lose what you most want to keep…

“Are you a decided Christian? …He’s promised us that as He receives all that we’ve released into His hands, and I know, dear ones, that it can be so, so costly, and we can be so frightened, but… everything you have is safer with Jesus than it could ever be with you.” (Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Who Is Jesus?” [transcribed from a sermon on Luke 9:18-27], First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, South Carolina, 9/6/2009)

Jesus calls us to forsake all–release all that we are and all that we hold dear–into His hands and trust Him daily. Both William Hendriksen’s and Dr. Ferguson’s expositions on this passage are in agreement with what other Christian leaders have taught throughout the history of the church. For instance, on this passage John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote:

“…we ought to give up our natural inclinations, and part with all the affections of the flesh, and thus give our consent to be reduced to nothing, provided that God lives and reigns in us.” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, 304)

Matthew Henry (1662-1714) wrote,

“We must prefer the salvation and happiness of our souls before any secular concern whatsoever… he who to preserve his liberty or estate, his power or preferment, nay, or to save his life, denies Christ and his truths, willfully wrongs his conscience, and sins against God, will be, not only not a saver, but an unspeakable loser, in the issue, when profit and loss come to be balanced: He that will save his life upon these terms will lose it, will lose that which is of infinitely more value, his precious soul.” (A Commentary on the Whole Bible, 669 [St. Luke. Chap. IX])

Several other commentaries I consulted say essentially the same thing about this section of scripture; which is why I was intrigued by the exposition of this passage by LDS Prophet Thomas S. Monson during last October’s (2009) general conference. Mr. Monson said,

“The Savior taught His disciples, ‘For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.’ I believe the Savior is telling us that unless we lose ourselves in service to others, there is little purpose to our own lives. Those who live only for themselves eventually shrivel up and figuratively lose their lives, while those who lose themselves in service to others grow and flourish–and in effect save their lives” (Ensign, Conference Edition, November 2009, p.85).

Mr. Monson’s address focused on selflessly serving our fellow men and women – a good thing, to be sure. I would applaud his exhortation – if only he hadn’t misunderstood and misused the words of Jesus to promote it.

Perhaps you think I’m being too picky. After all, the Bible does tell us to care for and serve one another. Let me be clear; it is not the principle of serving others that I object to. What bothers me is that this man–-who claims to have a direct line of communication with God, who asserts that he speaks the mind and will of the Lord, who is said to be one who “teaches truth and interprets the word of God” (Gospel Principles, 2009, 39) –this man got it wrong.

And, in fact, I wouldn’t really expect him to get it right since I believe he is not a true prophet of the one true God. So what really troubles me is that the “prophet” who supposedly“ interprets the word of God” got it wrong – and his followers didn’t notice and probably don’t care.

These words of Jesus are at the very heart of His gospel. They are His call to forsake all and follow Him, to give it all for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord, to suffer the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order to gain Christ…

Monson took these great life-giving words of Christ and reduced them to a figurative directive suggesting that we need to engage in more public service for the common good. This really, deeply troubles me.

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know Him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings…” (Philippians 3:8-11)