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Good For You? | is Christianity Repressive?

April 21, 2024
Mark 8:34-38

34And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst

To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships

To participate in God’s mission to the world 

Opening Prayer

Almighty God, you alone can order the unruly wills and passions of sinful men: Grant to your people that they may love what you command and desire what you promise, that so, among the many and varied changes of the world, our heart may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Responsive Prayer—Psalm 36

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

Your faithfulness to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;

Your judgments are like the great deep.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

For with you is the fountain of life;

In your light do we see light.

Summary and Connection

In his recent radio interview, the famed “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins called himself a “cultural Christian.” Dawkins’ comment was prompted by the cultural shift in the UK precipitated by the striking growth of Islam, which, according to Dawkins, is a radically intolerant and hostile religion. Dawkins, however, was quick to clarify that he was not a follower of Jesus or a believer of the teachings of Christianity. Dawkins’ interview provides a clear picture of our culture where Christian moral and ethical values are celebrated to the extent of being taken for granted, while Christianity itself is considered as a repressive religion. 

In our spring sermon series, Good for You?, we are focusing on some of the contemporary challenges to the Christian faith. We live in a culture where many people assume that Christianity devalues the self and distorts human identity. Christianity, according to many, is repressive as it robs human beings of their fundamental right of autonomy. However, is that a true assessment of Christianity? This week we will address the issue by answering one of the common questions against the claims of Christian faith — is Christianity repressive?

This week’s discussion is from Mark 8:34-38. In these verses, Jesus presents three radical demands. He provides a strong rationale for his demands, and he ends with a solemn warning. Firstly, Jesus demands his followers to deny the self. Notice how Jesus, rather than affirming the self, is calling us to deny our self. It is vital to understand that following Jesus is a lifelong commitment that requires courage and sacrifice. Following Jesus is not a recreational activity or a part time voluntary service to boost your moral score. Many people wrongly conclude that Jesus here is asking his followers to adopt some kind of asceticism — denying the material things and pleasure, or that he is demanding self-discipline. One commentator describes Christian self-denial like this: “It is not the denial of something to the self, but the denial of the self itself. It is the opposite of self-affirmation, or putting value on one’s being…of claiming rights and privileges peculiar to one’s special position in life or even those normally believed to belong to the human being as such.” In verses 35-37, Jesus provides a strong rationale that is fundamentally different from how we perceive the good life. According to Jesus, the authentic way to experience the good life here and for eternity is by denying the self and carrying the cross for the sake of the gospel. Jesus’ words were repugnant to his audience as the cross was a symbol of agonizing punishment and humiliating death. Christianity offers a radical definition of the self and the good life — the only way to save one’s life is by bearing the cross and by identifying oneself with Jesus, who bore the cross. In verses 36 and 37, Jesus asks two vital questions that redefine the value of human life, and the true essence of human identity. Human life and identity are infinitely more precious and irreplaceable than the so-called “good life” and identity the world claims to offer. Jesus ends with a solemn warning for us: would you be ashamed of Jesus and continue to seek identity from the world that is filled with sin and shame, or would you seek and find your identity in Jesus who calls us to share both in his sufferings and glory?

Discussion Questions

1. Looking at the Bible

Observation: Read the passage privately. What does the text say? What according to you is the theme of this passage? Do you notice keywords, parallels, or surprises?

  • Read verse 34: what are the three radical demands made by Jesus to his followers? Discuss the nature and implications of Jesus’ demands.

2. Looking at Jesus

At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

  • According to you, how does fulfill the demands he is placing on his followers here? How does Jesus’ fulfillment of the demands make him a worthy candidate to commit our lives to?

3. Looking at Our Hearts

  • In this passage we learn an important lesson about the nature of  Christian faith: It is a lifelong commitment that requires self denial, courage and sacrifice. Take a moment to reflect: On a day-day basis, do you see yourself following Jesus as a lifelong commitment, or more on  a volunteer basis? Share.
  • How does self-denial look for you? For example: For the ones who tend to be proud, it means denying the inordinate desire for status and honor, and looking to Jesus as the source of honor?

4. Looking at Our World

  • How might this passage help you as a community group to reflect the gospel freedom in a city that looks down at Christianity as repressive?


God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.

  • View Study Guide Notes

    Question 1: In verse 34, Jesus makes three radical demands on his followers. Firstly, self-denial: as mentioned in summary and connection, it’s vital for us to understand what Jesus means by self-denial. It’s not a call for asceticism, to deny the pleasures, and comforts of the world. It is not the Buddhist philosophy of curbing the desires by denying and mastering them. It is also not a matter of self-discipline, which is but a repackaged stoicism offered by a plethora of self-help gurus. Christian self-denial means the willingness to shift the center of gravity of your life from a concern to self — success, satisfaction, ambition, pleasure, comfort, validation — to the will of God. In his book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” Bonhoeffer writes this about Christian self-denial: “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. Once more, all that self-denial can say is: “He leads the way, keep close to him.””

    Secondly, Jesus talks about carrying the cross. In our culture, the symbol and image of the cross has become more acceptable to the extent of flaunting it as an ornament. One commentator writes, “the cross has become a fashion accessory, a piece of jewelry often worn but seldom borne.” The cross is at the very heart of the Christian faith, and bearing the cross is the fundamental marker of Christian discipleship that separates followers from the admirers. To bear the cross is to be willing to bear the persecution, shame, and mockery that is associated with it. To bear the cross is to identify oneself with Jesus who bore the cross for your salvation. Oftentimes we tend to think that to bear the cross is to suffer well — sickness, or death of a loved one, or to navigate the complexities of life patiently. However, to bear the cross is to recognize what it represents: the oppression caused by the people who oppose the faith and Christian witness. It is to identify with Jesus in a place and culture where he is not honored for who he is. As Bonhoeffer says, “The cross is laid on every Christian … when Christ calls a man he bids him to come and die.”

    Thirdly, Jesus appeals to the self-denying, cross-bearing people to follow him, not recreationally or on volunteer service basis, but with a life-long commitment, ebbs and flows notwithstanding. Think about the disciples who were spiritually blind and confused when Jesus was with them, but how their lives were transformed post resurrection. These disciples laid their lives for the sake of Jesus, and his gospel. They followed him to death, because they firmly believed that they will see Jesus, and will also partake in his glory.

    Question 2: Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, came down to earth, humbling himself as a servant to fulfill the redemptive plan of God the Father. Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father, completely relying on him to accomplish our salvation. We see Jesus fulfilling the demand of the righteous and just requirement of the law, by carrying the cross, bearing the sin and shame, as he was flogged and mocked by the crowd. His disciples abandoned him. His own people mocked him. The religious leaders were ashamed of him. Yet God, in his providence, used the very symbol of torture, pain, and humiliation to redeem his people, and to glorify Jesus — the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.

    The resurrected and victorious Jesus does not condemn his fearful and faithless disciples. Rather he graciously entrusts them with the task of the great commission, equipping them with the Holy Spirit, and assuring them of his return. Jesus calls us to deny our self, to bear the cross, and follow him. It’s hard and humanly impossible. However, Jesus doesn’t place an impossible demand on us. He points us to his cross, on which he carried the sin and shame of the world. Furthermore, Jesus who calls us to partake in our sufferings, also offers us the authentic good life and graciously offers us to share and participate in his glory.

    Question 3: These are personal application questions.

    Question 4: This is a personal application question.