By Ryan Higginbottom

Perhaps you’ve heard that Christians need to count the cost. They must plan and be prepared; they should always know what they’re getting into.

The advice to “count the cost” often comes up when raising money for a new building or a missions trip. (Let’s color in that thermometer!) I’ve also heard people use this expression when launching a project or undertaking a new venture.

What does Jesus mean by this little phrase? In Scripture as in life, context matters. If we learn to read the Bible properly—instead of as a loose collection of proverbs and pull-quotes—we’ll find that some familiar phrases and verses have far different meanings than we’ve assumed.

Jesus Teaches About Discipleship

The phrase “count the cost” (or “calculate the cost”) only appears one place in the Bible: Luke 14:28. The larger context is Luke 14:25–35, where Jesus lays out the demands of being his disciple.

Jesus punctuates this sermon with three statements about what qualifies a person to be his disciple; the phrase “cannot be my disciple” appears in verses 26, 27, and 33.

These are indeed hard sayings!

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. […] So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26–27,33)

It is between the second and third warning that Jesus uses two illustrations about counting the cost. In the first (Luke 14:28–30), Jesus tells of a man who wanted to build a tower. If the builder lacks the proper finances and supplies, he will end up with an unfinished project and ridicule. In the second illustration (Luke 14:31–32), a king ponders an upcoming battle. Outnumbered two-to-one, if he foresees disaster for his army, he will pull out of the fight and ask for a peace treaty.

In the first illustration, the question is: Do I have enough? In the second: Am I strong enough?

What is the Cost?

In the middle of a discourse on discipleship, Jesus’s illustrations raise a natural question: What is the cost of being a disciple of Jesus?

The answer from Jesus flashes as stark as lightning. “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Combined with verses 26 and 27, the comprehensive answer is as simple as it is difficult. Being a disciple of Jesus may cost you everything.

Christian discipleship is not about frequent cost-counting and recalibration. It must be obvious from the beginning of your journey with Jesus that you may lose everything. In fact, you must be willing to lose all family, all possessions, all respect, all dignity—even your very life—as a Christian disciple.

The question of counting the cost only needs to be raised once, because the answer is always the same. The only fruitful disciples are those who are willing to drop everything, as Jesus highlights in the last two verses of this chapter (Luke 14:34–35). Like tasteless salt, a Christian still clinging to family, possessions, or life is not effective or useful.

Lose Everything to Gain Everything

Jesus demands everything of his followers. But those who give up everything for Jesus will not find loss, but gain. Those who have Jesus have everything.

And in giving up everything, Christian disciples follow the pattern of the same Jesus who issues the call. He laid aside all family, possessions, relationships, glory, and dignity—at both his incarnation and at the cross—to purchase the salvation of his people.

Have you counted the cost of following Jesus? There is no discount, and the bill is extreme. But Jesus supplies what you lack and gives joy along the path.

Context matters.