It is this most obvious aspect of our Lord’s teaching which has been forgotten or ignored by modern evangelism. Anxious to bring sinners to life, peace and joy in the Lord, evangelists have failed even to mention that Christ insists upon denial of self at the outset. Having failed to pass on our Lord’s requirement, and forgetting it themselves, evangelists have never questioned whether their “converts” with self-centered lives are true followers of Christ. Assuming that it is possible for a man to be self-indulgent and yet heaven-bound, Bible teachers look for some way to bring ego-centric men to a higher spiritual plane. Then self-denial is taught as the requirement for a second work of grace. But Luke 9:23-24 shows that unless a man lives a life of self-denial, he has not received a first work of grace.
Nowhere has selfishness done more damage than in homes. God’s fundamental building-block for society is now displaced by self-assertion. Wives are too self-important to minister to their husbands. Their own names and careers are too significant for life to be wasted in helping husbands and living “for them.” Husbands are too self-absorbed to share all of life with their wives, too self-centered to be thoughtful of and loving towards their spouses. Wisely the Scripture returns to the center point. “Wives, submit.” “Husbands, love.”
Women continue to cringe before the divine mandate of submission to husbands. Desires to lead rather than follow recur. Temptations arise to take the dominant initiative in the family, to act as the head. But each instance of a wife failing to defer to the known wishes of her husband (unless those wishes oppose the moral law of God) subverts the divinely appointed order and multiplies misery in the earth.
How soon marriage counseling sessions would end if husbands and wives were competing in thoughtful self-denial. If the woman were anxious to yield to her God-given head in the home, and the man were ambitious to serve her comfort and welfare as being his own flesh, there would be no room for contention and strife. “Wives, submit” and “husbands, love” must be repeated until the message reaches beyond ears to the hearts of spouses.
[Do pastors need to pray?] The glorious Sovereign conducts the affairs of His everlasting kingdom in the neighbourhood of the gates of hell, recruiting each new member of His body from Satan’s precinct. It is then inevitable that every preacher contends for truth and righteousness against principalities and powers of darkness.
Any gospel preaching that relies upon an act of the human will for the conversion of sinners has missed the mark. Any sinner who supposes that his will has the strength to do any good accompanying salvation is greatly deluded and far from the kingdom. We are cast back upon the regenerating work of the Spirit of the living God to make the tree good. Unless God does something in the sinner, unless God creates a clean heart and renews a right spirit within man, there is no hope of a saving change.
One of the sorriest creatures in all the world is a preacher who does not pray, except in public. Even with the theology of Calvin, the illustrations of Spurgeon, and the searching applications of Edwards, if a pastor has not been alone with God in secret, he is a pitiful figure in the pulpit. Without secret prayer he is without unction, a lifeless shell. Though ministers may, as other true saints, fall into intervals of prayerlessness, he is no man of God in whom this condition prevails. He is a hypocrite who is all superstructure in plain view with no unseen foundation. Bright flowers without roots are plastic having no life.
Our Good Shepherd has become the model for under-shepherds. His great concern is the good of the sheep. A good shepherd gives himself to the sheep. A thief comes to get something form the flock – wool or mutton. Jesus our Lord made every personal claim subservient to the blessing of his flock; even to giving His life that they might live.
Your Master’s life was dominated by a cross. He has called you also to a life with a cross. This clear gospel note is so easy to forget in flabby Western society. With a great chorus of custom, advertisement and temptation this world is beckoning you to a life of self-indulgence. Your flesh is drawn to that appeal, and will fall in with the world’s suggestions. But the Lord of glory has called you to a life of self-denial, to a cross.
If a man sets out to excel this generation of ministers, he will find it easier to preach than to pray. In the stern reality of the secret place a dagger is placed in his hands. Timid men shrink back from using it. When a man will plunge the knife into self-pleasing, self-confidence, and self-interest, and will wrestle alone with God for His glory, the world will see God working openly, and granting victory on the field of battle.
It is imperative that preachers of today learn how to declare the spiritual law of God; for, until we learn how to wound consciences, we shall have no wounds to bind with Gospel bandages.
Bearing a cross is an elaboration of Christ’s demand for self-denial. Bearing a cross is every Christian’s daily, conscious selection of those options which will please Christ, pain self, and aim at putting self to death.
Selfishness is the controlling force of sinful living. It is this motive which pulsates through the natural mind, emotions and will – self-pleasing, self-serving, living for self.
There are no easy steps to witnessing! No painless, unembarrassing methods! You must bring men to see that they are filthy sinners under the wrath of God who must flee to Christ for mercy. That is offensive. And there is no way to coat it with honey.
The only lasting and fully satisfying joys for any man lie on the other side of a cross.
The roots of this depravity are quite evident in very young children. Babies may not show all the ugly outworkings of sin, but their selfishness is quite apparent. Any time of the day or night they will howl when their little egos are annoyed. Brothers and sisters have noticed how small children are self-seeking. When treats are being given, a “me first” attitude prevails. Small children want the chief attention. It is all self-serving. This all-demanding self-will matures into that of a grasping adult. Though clever devices will make the selfishness polite and genteel, all of life outside of Christ is for one thing – self!… Self is the idol to which all men naturally bow.
Self-denial is a practice which lies very near to the heart of true religion. Without its exercise there can be no conversion to Christ. Qualities most basic to a Christian frame of heart – notably humility and meekness – would dissolve without its active expression.
Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet.
Ministers must know how to lose arguments on non-essential matters. Care must be taken not to harangue others into silence. Preachers have a way with words. Their whole career is related to the skillful communication of ideas. It is a disgraceful fact that some ministers love to talk and have a habit of dominating discussion on every subject. Even when ignorant on an issue, a preacher can usually out-talk knowledgeable men. Thus in a controversy it is possible to silence men by sheer force of verbiage without convincing them. How exemplary would it be if all ministers exercised self-control over their tongues in the church! It is to be feared that some men are able to handle texts of Scripture who cannot discipline themselves.
Nothing leads to self-repudiation so much as spiritual meditation on the corruption and wickedness of your heart. If your soul has grasped human depravity you have been forced to deny yourself… No man can conclude in his heart, ‘in me dwelleth no good thing’ (Romans 7:18) and then continue to live for himself.
While you may in charity assume that a Christian brother acts from pure motives, you dare not assume that your own heart is upright. You must be more charitable to others than you are to yourself. You have no access to a fellow Christian’s heart. No ability to test his inward devotion to the Lord, which is the all-important matter in using things indifferent. But you can scrutinize your own heart. You can examine your inner man to detect your own motives and aims for every act.
In the name of liberty professing Christians glut themselves with luxuries, entertainments and sensuous pleasures. Under the banner of freedom men give the reins to their thirst for wealth, women dress immodestly, feeding vanity which loves attention, and youth abandon themselves to athletics and leisure. When self is fed in this manner it becomes brazen and runs to excess, crowding God out of the heart… They begin again to serve themselves rather than the Lord.
There before you is the grisly old enemy to spiritual progress standing astride the path of obedience to Christ – SELF! This monster cries out daily to be served. He challenges the dominion of Jesus Christ and opposes every devotion of time, energy and love to the Lord. But it is a strange war that we may win only by feeling ourselves the painful blows we give. Every denial of self is felt keenly. How we would love to change the scene of combat! But on every occasion when we are serious about advancing in righteousness, we must contend with self.
Men are not sinners because they choose to sin; they choose to sin because they are sinners.
Christian liberty then does not teach that there are things in the world in which you are free to indulge yourself. It does not suggest that you may do anything you wish with God’s creation. But it teaches that there are things which you are free to enjoy and use as you serve the Lord.
Self-denial corrects two evil tendencies ever attacking Christian ethics. There is a tendency to give more attention to outward standards than to the inward state of the heart. And there is a tendency to be strict with others and lenient with oneself… These two dragons are slain by the sword of self-denial when their heads appear in the land of Christian liberty.
God never forces men to act against their wills. By workings of outward providence or of inward grace, the Lord may change men’s minds, but He will not coerce a human being into thoughts, words or actions.
Liberty may be an instrument for giving glory to the Most High, or it may be a curtain used to shield base indulgence of the flesh (I Peter 2:16). You may discover by self-examination of your heart which function liberty serves in your life.
The sinful emotions are stirred most deeply by self-love.
Indeed, in conversion, a man must make a decision. We shy away from that term because in modern jargon a “decision” has come to be identified with an outward expression, such as raising the hand or going forward to the front. While such external acts have nothing to do with forgiveness of sins, the heart must make a decision to be saved.
It is not enough to ask yourself, “Does God’s Word permit me to use these good things of the world?” You must also inquire, “Will it serve the glory of God?” and, “Will it edify my fellow Christians?”
As Christ struggled up Calvary’s hill and bled upon it, His aim was to eradicate self-love and implant the love of God in the hearts of men. One can only increase as the other decreases.
When a sinner refuses to come to Christ, he is guilty because he has made a free choice. It reflects his own state of mind, feeling and attitude toward God and His Son. He has acted voluntarily without coercion. It is his decision.
The Bible as a whole speaks more of God’s holiness than of His love.
Self must be denied as to time and attention for prayer. All-prayer cannot be wielded without the expenditure of time. “A minute with God” seldom lays hold of Him. Sustained prayer is necessary. Such time may only be found by snatching it from personal pursuits, however legitimate they may be.
If the will were able to make decisions contrary to reason, and to the likes and desires of the heart, it would be a monster… This is most profoundly true in the moral and religious realms. When the mind is at war with God, denying His truth; when the emotions hate Christ His Son; when the desires wish God’s law and gospel were exterminated from the earth; the will cannot be in a position to choose Christ. If it were, a man would not be truly free to be himself. Here is the tragic truth about man’s will. While free from outward coercion, it is in a state of bondage. It is not in a stated neutrality. It is not a lever with which to move a man’s personality from sin to righteousness, from unbelief to faith.
There is something childish and legalistic about churches in which all of the saints observe precisely the same standards. When all lives begin to sink into the same mould of denial and exercise of liberty, something is amiss.
Man is like a tree. His heart, not his will alone, is the root. There is no possible way by which the will can choose to produce fruit contrary to the character of the root. If the root is bad, the tree is bound by its very nature to produce evil fruit. Man is like a person standing alongside his treasure chest. There is no possibility of bringing pure gold out of a box filled only with rusty steel. The contents of the heart determine what words and deeds may be brought out. Far from being neutral, the will must reach into the heart for its choices. Every thought, word and deed will partake of the nature of the treasure within. Man is like a stream which cannot rise above its source. If the fountain is polluted, the outflow will be evil. If the source be sweet, the stream will not be bitter and cannot choose to be so. These three illustrations alike contain the same lesson. What a man is determines what he chooses. Choices of the will always reveal the character of the heart, because the heart determines the choices.
Revelation is no usual book. It is a sweeping analysis of history from the first advent of Christ to the second. Jesus had promised that the Spirit would teach His apostles “all things” (John 14:26). The Spirit had come and fulfilled the promise. Apostles had communicated the authoritative word. The task of revelation was finished. The Book of Revelation is the last apostolic word to the church. The Almighty Saviour, seated at God’s right hand, opens His sovereign lips personally to declare that nothing is to be added to what has been recorded. Beware of meddling with Christ’s revelation.
If you have never felt your soul poured out before the Lord with a consequent exhaustion, it is doubtful whether you have advanced far in the school of prayer.
Failure to see Jesus Christ as the final revelation of truth is a major error that will open the door of the church to a multitude of heresies, taught in the name of truth. Every true movement initiated by the Spirit of God leads men back to the words of Christ which were inscripturated by His own inspiration.
Some preachers never appreciate the compliment given them when a saint disagrees with the pastor’s exposition of a text. At least the Christian under his care is devoted more to Scripture than to the man in the pulpit. Under his ministry the child of God has reached a maturity to think through issues for himself and has imbibed a Berean spirit (Acts 17:11).
At each stage of [spiritual] growth, more self-denial is required, more painful blows to self, more reckless decision to serve the Lord Christ with consequent abandonment of one’s own life.