Question: "What does the Bible mean by 'dying to self'?"
Answer: The concept of “dying to self” is found throughout the New Testament. It expresses the true essence of the Christian life, in which we take up our cross and follow Christ. Dying to self is part of being born again; the old self dies and the new self comes to life (John 3:3–7). Not only are Christians born again when we come to salvation, but we also continue dying to self as part of the process of sanctification. As such, dying to self is both a one-time event and a lifelong process.
Jesus spoke repeatedly to His disciples about taking up their cross (an instrument of death) and following Him. He made it clear that if any would follow Him, they must deny themselves, which means giving up their lives—spiritually, symbolically, and even physically, if necessary. This was a prerequisite for being a follower of Christ, who proclaimed that trying to save our earthly lives would result in our losing our lives in the kingdom. But those who would give up their lives for His sake would find eternal life (Matthew 16:24–25; Mark 8:34–35). Indeed, Jesus even went so far as to say that those who are unwilling to sacrifice their lives for Him cannot be His disciples (Luke 14:27).
The rite of baptism expresses the commitment of the believer to die to the old, sinful way of life (Romans 6:4–8) and be reborn to a new life in Christ. In Christian baptism, the action of being immersed in the water symbolizes dying and being buried with Christ. The action of coming out of the water pictures Christ’s resurrection. Baptism identifies us with Christ in His death and resurrection, portraying symbolically the whole life of the Christian as a dying to self and living for and in Him who died for us (Galatians 2:20).
Paul explains to the Galatians the process of dying to self as one in which he has been “crucified with Christ,” and now Paul no longer lives, but Christ lives in him. Paul’s old life, with its propensity to sin and to follow the ways of the world, is dead, and the new Paul is the dwelling place of Christ who lives in and through him. This does not mean that when we “die to self” we become inactive or insensible, nor do we feel ourselves to be dead. Rather, dying to self means that the things of the old life are put to death, most especially the sinful ways and lifestyles we once engaged in. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Where we once pursued selfish pleasures, we now pursue, with equal passion, that which pleases God.
Dying to self is never portrayed in Scripture as something optional in the Christian life. It is the reality of the new birth; no one can come to Christ unless he is willing to see his old life crucified with Christ and begin to live anew in obedience to Him. Jesus describes lukewarm followers who try to live partly in the old life and partly in the new as those whom He will spit out (Revelation 3:15–16). That lukewarm condition characterized the church of Laodicea as well as many churches today. Being “lukewarm” is a symptom of unwillingness to die to self and live for Christ. Death to self is not an option for Christians; it is a choice that leads to eternal life.