Arie den Hartog a missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, is currently laboring in Singapore.
The Christian life is one of self denial. This is the tremendous requirement of being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Many claim to be followers of the Lord. Few are willing to deny themselves. Some of these even have very high-sounding confessions and seemingly high standards of morality. But none who refuse to deny themselves can be disciples of the Lord. Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). The requirement of self denial is absolute. All Christians must live in self denial, not only those who will be ministers, missionaries, teachers and leaders, office bearers in the church. He who refuses to deny himself is not and cannot be a Christian, and all of his claims to this are vain. Self denial is required at the very beginning of the Christian life. It is not merely for those who are advanced in the Christian life or for those who have had a second experience, as some today teach. One cannot even begin to follow Jesus unless he first of all denies himself. So absolute is this requirement, that anyone who refuses to fulfill it shall lose his life. The alternative to self denial is hell and destruction. That is what the Lord means in the amazing words quoted above. The Lord will utterly cast down all those who are proud and self seeking. The whole of the Christian life is one of self denial. Self denial is not merely an initiatory rite of the Christian faith once performed at the beginning, after which we are finished with it. We must live daily and constantly in self denial. Self denial must be willful and voluntary; it must be loving obedience to the Lord. Jesus in the above passage speaks of actually living the Christian life and what this really requires. Every single area of Christian living has self denial as its great requirement. You can do nothing as a Christian without first of all denying your self. Self denial involves daily cross-bearing. It involves suffering, shame, and persecution. It involves much pain and sorrow and humiliation. It is hard; it involves great sacrifice. Ultimately it involves the crucifixion and mortification of ourselves. There is a great monster of self in all of us by nature. That monster first appeared in man when he believed the lie of the devil: “ye shall be as gods knowing good and evil.” Constantly that monster rears his ugly head in the life of man. Natural man lives only to gratify himself, to glory in himself, to advance and promote himself. With all his power and intellect, with all of his science and industry, his technology and civilization wicked man seeks to promote himself, to seek his own advantage and his own glory. He will be the lord and master of his own life and destiny. This is man’s greatest evil. In refusing to deny himself he denies God. He refuses to worship and serve God and to give to God the honor and glory that is due unto His name alone.
Many have been the vain and false appearances of self denial in the history of the world. Heathen religion puts forth a form of self denial. Its priests and’ adherents are often exhorted to live in asceticism. They are told to refrain from marriage and from social intercourse with their fellow man. They are required to live lives of voluntary poverty and to live in temples and monasteries. They will suffer hunger and deprivation. They will go through excruciatingly painful religious rituals and elaborate ceremonies, all in acclaimed self denial. Humanism glories in its own form of self denial. Those who will deny themselves according to the standards of the world, and live among the poor and downtrodden of the world will receive the honor and respect of their fellowman. They can be the heroes of the world. False Christianity has its forms of self denial. Through the history of the church there have been those who have extolled the virtues of voluntary lives of poverty, suffering, and asceticism. Many thousands have isolated themselves in monasteries and convents to live simple and strict lives. They have denied themselves marriage and the pleasure of this present life. The more devout have also submitted to floggings and painful, strenuous rituals and ceremonies. But none of this is required of the Lord as an end in itself. In all of this men have not denied themselves but in fact have always sought their own glory and the praise of man. The self denial which the Lord requires of those who follow him is of a fundamentally different type.
We must deny OURSELVES. The Lord does not require merely that we deny to ourselves certain of earthly pleasures and riches, or merely that we live a life of poverty and isolation from society as an end in itself. It .is not wrong for the Christian to marry and to enjoy the earthly gifts and pleasures that God gives to us in this present life. But the monster of self within us must be destroyed, it must be crucified, hated, and utterly destroyed in us. This is the beginning of true self denial. Self denial is the opposite of all self seeking, self glorifying, self promoting, and self indulging.
Self denial has a positive purpose. There is no good merely in suffering and shame and humiliation and deprivation as an end in itself. God does not delight in seeing His people suffer shame and persecution and pain and death as the end of their life. Self denial is necessary for us because in all of our life we must seek the glory of God as the supreme objective. We must live only to serve and glorify the Lord our creator and redeemer. We must live to promote His truth and righteousness, the welfare of His church and kingdom. We must seek the highest good of His people in the world. We must live to show forth His glory and power and greatness. In order to do this we must be willing to deny ourselves. If we seek to glory in ourselves we will deny the glory of God. If we seek our own advantage and honor and safety in this world we will not be able to fulfill the Lord’s requirement for our lives. For the Lord’s sake we must be willing to sacrifice even ourselves. Because this world hates God and His Christ, those who follow the Lord will be persecuted, they will be put to shame and humiliated. If we would follow the Lord we must be prepared to suffer pain and sorrow, even martyrdom for His name’s sake, that His truth may be promoted and that His glory may shine forth. Truly to make the glory of God the supreme object of our life requires self denial. Whenever we refuse to deny ourselves we will rob God of His honor and glory. Doing all things to the glory of God must not merely be a pious platitude in our life but a real, practical matter.
Self denial for the Christian begins at the cross of Christ Jesus. There can be no self denial without that cross of Christ first of all. Paul describes this in II Corinthians 5:14 and 15. For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we judge, that if one died then were all dead: and that He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died and rose again. The evil monster of self in us had to be crucified with Christ before we could ever begin to live in true self denial. The love of Christ as manifested and realized in the cross of Christ constrains the Christian from henceforth no longer to live unto himself but to live unto the Lord Jesus Christ in all of his life. In the cross and resurrection of Christ we are made new creatures, old things are passed away. Only because of this great reality can true self denial follow in the life of the Christian.
Christ is the supreme example of self denial that we as Christians must follow after. That is what it means to be a disciple of the Lord. We must have the mind of Christ in us. “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). What an amazing self denial is described in these verses. From the very time of His birth Jesus humbled Himself, He denied Himself. Therefore He was born in a lowly and stinking stable in the midst of abject poverty. For He sought the glory of God and the salvation of His people. All His life long He bore shame and humiliation. He had no place even so much as to lay His head. He suffered constantly the contradiction and persecution of sinners though He is the Lord of glory. Especially in the garden of Gethsemane do we see the utter self denial of our Lord. He stood in the shadow of the awful cross. He knew the dreadful suffering under the wrath of God against sin that this would involve for Him. Earnestly He prayed until sweat-like drops of blood fell from His brow. “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt . . . . O My Father, if this cup may not pass away except I drink it, thy will be done.” From Gethsemane the Lord gave Himself up to be falsely accused, tormented, and crucified by wicked hands. He willingly suffered all of the dreadful agony of the cross for the Lord’s sake, for the glory of the Lord, for the righteousness and holiness of God, and for the salvation of the people of God. Never has there been and never will there be, through all the ages of time and eternity, a self denial such as that of our Lord. We cannot possibly imitate that self denial in perfection. Yet in order to be followers of the Lord we must be willing to take up our cross and follow Him. We must be willing to suffer shame, humiliation, and even death for the Lord’s sake. We cannot do what He has done. We can only follow Him. It is necessary that we follow Him for the glory of the Lord. In the whole of our calling to deny ourselves, in all of the sacrifice and suffering and humiliation that such a life involves, we must always keep before us the Lord’s supreme sacrifice and absolute denial of Himself for our salvation.
The reality of self denial in our Christian life should properly follow the true understanding of the Reformed Faith. As Reformed Christians we believe in the Sovereignty of God. We believe that all the glory belongs. to God in all things and also really in all our life. If on the one hand we confess to believe in the sovereignty of God and on the other hand refuse to deny ourselves, our whole confession is nothing but hypocrisy, no matter how perfect and glorious that confession may seem to be. As Reformed Christians we believe in the total depravity of our nature. We believe that of ourselves we are miserable, wretched sinners, hopelessly lost in sin and condemnation. We are absolutely dependent upon the Lord. We are not at all worthy of any praise and glory. We are worthy only of shame and humiliation and judgment. Our salvation is truly only of the Lord. If we believe this it must follow that we deny ourselves.
Self denial does not however end in shame and humiliation. When the Lord humbled Himself and became obedient unto the death of the cross, God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name above every name in heaven and earth. The way of self denial for the Lord led to the cross, but the cross led to the resurrection and to the exaltation and glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Lord of lords and the King of kings. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, endured the cross, despising the shame, for the joy that was set before Him, and is now set at the right hand of the throne of God. Those who will truly deny themselves following the Lord Jesus Christ will receive an exceedingly ‘great and precious reward. They will be glorified together with the Lord Jesus Christ. Before man they will be put to shame and humiliated and even put to death. But the Lord will raise them up and exalt them and cause them to live forever in heavenly glory before His blessed presence.
All of the above must come to real and practical expression in our lives as Christians. In our next article we desire to consider some of the real and practical aspects of the Christian life of self denial.