Expressive individualism drives our culture. This is the idea that we find our ultimate meaning only when we express our own feelings and desires. We are thought to be most authentically ourselves when we perform outwardly what we are feeling inwardly. Anything that restrains or restricts our ability to do this is seen as the great enemy. The very idea of moral authority denying what we choose for our happiness and freedom is viewed as repressive, even morally wrong. If self and personal fulfilment are the ultimate-if they are sacred, then the very idea of self-denial is utter heresy. Yet it is exactly what Christ calls His disciples to. We cannot avoid it simply because it goes against the grain of our culture. If we really want to be salt and light, we need to take self-denial seriously, however uncomfortable it may be. What do we mean by self-denial and how do we pursue it?
Nothing could be more counter-cultural than living in a way that is God-centred. Manifesting obedience to God, rather than the great idol of self, displays our real purpose. It shows others what we were meant to be. Our culture says that the ultimate failure and sin is not to be true to yourself. But the gospel shows us that sin has corrupted our view of what we are meant to be, and grace enables us through union with Christ to live as we were designed to. When we speak of self-denial it does not mean that enjoyment is rejected as sinful, rather we are able to enjoy God Himself as all that will truly satisfy. Our culture is pursuing happiness and purpose in that which will never satisfy. That is why we must turn from the false god of self to the only true and living God. It is only in this way that we can find that happiness and purpose, indeed have our self renewed and restored. Thomas Manton (who had an important role at the Westminster Assembly) explains much of what Christ’s call to self-denial means in this updated extract.
1. What Do We Mean by Self?
In the original the words have the emphasis “let him utterly deny himself.” Whatever is ours, so far as it stands in opposition to God or comes into competition with Him must be denied. This can include all our lusts, all our interests and relations. Life and all the appendages of life aggregated together are called self in Scripture. In short, whatever is of himself, in himself, belonging to himself, as a corrupt or carnal man, all that is to be denied.
Some aspects of self are absolutely evil, and must be denied without limitation such as lusts and carnal affections (Titus 2.12). They are called “members” (Colossians 3:5) that must be put to death. Sin is riveted in the soul, and it is as irksome to a natural heart, to part with any lust, as with a member or joint of the body.
Other aspects of self are only evil as far as they prove to be idols or snares to us. Life and all its benefits, comforts and conveniences – liberty, honours, wealth, friends, health – these are all called self.
Self is a bundle of idols. Since God was laid aside, self seized the crown – everything that we call our own. Everything before which we may put that possessive “ours” may be abused and set up as a snare, all the excellences and comforts of human life, both inward and outward.
That self which we must hate or deny is that self which stands in opposition to God or competition with him, and so competes with him for the throne. Self is the great idol of the world, ever since the fall, when men took the boldness to depose and lay aside God, as it were, self took the throne.
2. How Far Does Self-Denial Go?
All people are to do this in all things, at all times, and with all their hearts.
(a) All people. Everyone is required to do this, all kinds of people (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8.34). There is no calling, no sex, no age, no duty, no condition of life excluded. One way or another, self-denial is an obligation.
No one can exempt themselves. No Christian went out of this world without God at some point or other trying them in some prominent aspect of self-denial (Genesis 22:1).
(b) In all things. It must not be partial. Many can deny themselves in many things, but they are loath to give up everything to God without reservation. Herod denied himself in many things, but could not part with his Herodias.
(c) At all times. It must not be temporary; in a good mood we can give up and renounce everything and be humble. Ahab humbled himself for a few days. It is not enough to deny ourselves in those things that we do not take any pleasure in. We must have this as a constant duty.
(d) With all our heart. It must be out of a principle of grace and out of love to Christ not mere constraint. Self-denial must not be self-seeking, that is abominable to God.
We must deny ourselves what we desire as well as what we enjoy (Titus 2.12). All sin is rooted in a love of pleasure more than of God; we sin, because of the contentment we imagine to be in sin, that draws the heart to practice it. But if we cannot deny ourselves and rule our spirits in this, we are nothing (Proverbs 25:28).
3. Why is Self-Denial Necessary?
(a) God must have our dependence and trust. Man wants independence, to be a god to himself, sufficient for his own happiness (Genesis 3:5). Nothing can be more hateful to God. Self-denial takes us off other things we depend on to trust in God alone.
(b) God must have the highest esteem. When anything is honoured above God, or made equal with God, or indulged against the will of God, Dagon is set up, and the ark is made to fall.
(c) God must be our law-giver. Self is not to interpose and give laws to us, only God’s will must stand. The great contest is, whose will shall stand, God’s will or ours? Self-will is betrayed by murmuring against God’s providence, rebellion against His laws, and obstinate obedience to self (Jeremiah 18:12; Jeremiah 44:17).
(d) God must be our highest purpose (Proverbs 16:4). But the unrenewed person sets up self as the purpose for every action and pushed God out. All the actions of life are only a kind of homage to the idol of self, if they eat and drink, it is to nourish self, a meat-offering and drink-offering to appetite. If they pray or praise, it is but to worship self, to advance the reputation of self; the crown is taken from God’s head, He is not made the highest purpose.
4. How Does Self-Denial Make Us Salt and Light?
(a) It makes us Christ-like. We cannot be conformed to our great Master without this. Jesus Christ came from heaven with the purpose of teaching us the lesson of self-denial. His birth, life, death were a pattern of self-denial (Romans 15:3). It is ridiculous to profess Jesus Christ to be our master, and not be conformed to His example. What is our self to Christ’s self? The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord (Mark 10:25).
(b) It makes us like the disciples. Christ set the example and all the saints have followed after it, some better, some worse (Romans 14:7).
(c) It shows our devotion to Christ. All respect shown to what is regarded as divine in any kind of religion is marked by self-denial. Worldly people can deny themselves to achieve their ends (Psalm 127:2; Ecclesiastes 4:8). A covetous person shames many a godly person. Will lust do more with them than the love of Christ with you? Certainly, we should have a stronger impulse, for we have a better reward; we are influence by a mightier spirit. In reality is not self-denial in worldly people so much as the obstinacy of self-will. The kingdom of Satan is divided; self-will is set up against self-delight or ease. People can deny themselves for their pleasure, they sacrifice their reputation, possessions, conscience and all to that great idol.
(d) It shows we are not our own but the Lord’s (Romans 14:6). Our will should not be our own law, nor our profit our aim, because we are not our own. We cannot say that our tongues are our own, to speak what we please, nor our works our own, nor our interests our own.
5. What Does Self-Denial Look Like?
(a) When every purpose and choice is swayed by reasons of conscience rather than by reasons of interest. When we are content to be anything, so long as it serves for God’s glory and Jesus Christ may be all in all (Philippians 1:23). A child of God does not consider what will most gratify the flesh but how they may do most work and service and glorify God on earth.
(b) Humble submission to God’s will (2 Samuel 15:25-26; 1 Samuel 3:18). The children of God consent to give up their souls, possessions and friends if providence so orders it (Job 1:21). They can see as much reason to bless God, when He impoverishes them as when He enriches them. This is being like the great example Christ Himself who said, “Not my will”.
(c) When a person is vile in his own eyes because of their sins. None pass a severer sentence than the children of God do upon themselves when they have sinned against God. They need no other judge than their own consciences to pass a sentence upon them. By nature we are apt to favour ourselves and censure others more than humble ourselves. But God’s children are different (1 Timothy 1:15; Proverbs 30:2; Psalm 73:23). If these things are truly spoken out of a deep felt sense, it is an encouraging sign that self is dethroned in you.
6. How Do We Engage in Self-Denial?
(a) Reduce your esteem and affection for worldly things. If you would deny yourself for Christ, you must prize the worst of Christ before the best of the world. Moses could deny himself because he “esteemed the reproach of Christ to be greater riches, than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:25). Moses’ had his esteem right.
The greater our affection for something the greater our trouble when we have to part with it. When this is so with the things of the world, it troubles us to part with them for Christ’s sake. When anything begins to sit too close and too near the heart, it is good for a Christian to be wary, and ask how will I deny this for God so that we are not brought under its power (1 Corinthians 6:12). What you possess is not who you are (Luke 12:15). You can say of anything, “I can still be happy without this.”
(b) Seek self in God. There is a lawful self-seeking when we seek it in God (John 5:44). If you desire pleasure, remember, there are no pleasures like to the delights you can enjoy by communion with God, the pleasures which are at His right hand for evermore. If you desire riches, turn your heart towards the good treasure God has opened in the covenant, to be rich in grace, rich towards God.
(c) Be resolved to experience the worst, to please God even though you may experience the displeasure of the whole world. A person never comes to Christ in the right way, unless they give up everything and allow Christ to take it all.
(d) Do not confine your wellbeing to outward things, beware of binding up you life and contentment with created things (Habakkuk 3:17-18). Your happiness does not lie within yourselves, nor in any other created thing, but only in God.
(e) Exercise faith often. A person will leave what they have on earth more easily when they have strong expectations of heaven (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:16).
(f) In all conflicts of conscience and self-interest, observe God’s special providence to you. Ask yourself where did you receive the thing from that you are so unwilling to part with if not from the Lord? Distrust is the basis of self-seeking. We find it hard to deny ourselves because we do not consider the providence of God to us and that all things are in His hands (2 Chronicles 25:9
(g) God has a right to all that is yours. He made it and He gave it to you. You have given yourself and all you have to God (Romans 12:1).
(h) Understand what sins you are particularly tempted to more than others so as to deny that sin (Psalm 18:23).
(i) Consider the times in which you live and how they call for self-denial. If they are times of affliction we must seek to sit looser to the things of this world (Jeremiah 45:4-5). When we are likely to put a stumbling-block in the way of a new convert (2 Kings 5:26). In prosperous times we must deny ourselves in charity (Mark 10:31). A persons needs to fear their heart more in prosperous times than in times of persecution lest they are only lovers of themselves with a mere “form of godliness” ( 2 Timothy 3:1).
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