Self-sacrifice is one of the major themes of the New Testament. Jesus modeled it for us in the way He lived. Though He was God, He did not demand His rights as God, but demonstrated servant leadership in everything He did (Philippians 2:6–8). He said to His disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27–28).
Some people through the centuries have defined self-sacrifice as extreme forms of bodily punishment we must undergo in order to please God. Some branches of pseudo-Christianity have encouraged all manner of physical deprivation and abuse as though self-inflicted punishment could make people right with God. Certain sects of monks and nuns have lived in abject poverty, rejected legitimate marriage, and taken vows of silence that are nowhere suggested in Scripture. These are akin to the man-made laws that Jesus despised (Mark 7:7–9; Colossians 2:8). They do not represent the kind of self-sacrifice the Bible requires.
Jesus clarified the path to godly self-sacrifice in Luke 9:23, saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” The kind of self-sacrifice that pleases the Lord is the natural result of having taken up our cross to follow Jesus. A cross always represents death. So, in order to take up a cross, we must be willing to die to ourselves, our agendas, and our rights. When we crucify our fleshly desire to be our own boss, we begin to make decisions based on what Jesus would have us do (Galatians 2:20; 5:24).
The greatest commandments require self-sacrifice. The first commandment is that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The second is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:36–40). We can do neither of these while still demanding our own way. We must sacrifice our rights and desires in order to fully obey God. Biblical self-sacrifice is being willing to set aside one’s own desires for the good of others. Galatians 5:13–14 says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
When we willingly limit our freedoms, set aside our own rights, and pursue the best interest of those God has called us to serve, we are being self-sacrificial biblically. Self-sacrifice demands that we daily die to the passions of our flesh that are in opposition to God’s will for our lives (Romans 6:6–7; Galatians 2:20). We don’t do this in order to appease God or earn His favor. We already have that because of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 1:4–7). We choose it because we know it pleases our Father and we want to be more like His Son (Romans 8:29).