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SELF-DENIAL IS A DISTINCTIVE FEATURE OF GENUINE CHRISTIAN
It concerns us to form a correct and definite idea of that sell.denial which is exhibited in the scriptures ; also, to see what is the evidence of its being made essential to the Christian character.
1. Let us seek to understand what is meant by self-denial. The Savior said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself." A man's denying himself stands opposed to his pleasing himself: or, perhaps, with stricter propriety, it may be said, he is pleased, for the sake of promoting a greater good, to surrender that which is in itself dear; or do that which is in itself an unpleasant service. In the self. denying spirit which is enjoined by the Savior, the following things are implied:
1. The voluntary relinquishment of all those pleasures which are sinful. The scripture speaks of “the pleasures of sin." In this world of probation, sinners are not only suffered to have
a degree of happiness, but also to derive some of it from their sins. Though they lose a far greater and purer enjoyment, still their very sin has its pleas
The intemperate derive a present gratification from indulging themselves in excessive eating and drinking. The lascivious have their pleasures of sin. They who have been luxurious and wanton, are said to have lived in pleasure on the earth : and a night devoted to feasting and vain mirth, is called “the night of pleasure. A sinful world is full of sinful pleasures. These are very extensively idolized; for men are “ lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God.” To the happiness of wicked men, they are what the right eye and the right hand are to the body. But as a right eye or a right hand, when they endanger the life of the body, are to be given up, so are these soul-destroying pleasures to be abandoned. “ If thy right eye offend thee,” said the divine Teacher, "pluck it out; and if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.” Self-dénial requires that every forbidden enjoyment, every sinful pleasure, be given up; for the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts. When we pertinaciously retain any one of the pleasures of sin, it is an evidence that none are relinquished from proper motives.
If we are influenced by right motives, we shall deny ourselves the pleasures of sin, because they are sinful; and such motives will influence us to relinquish all those pleasures which are of this character.
2 Self-denial supposes, not only the relinquishment of those grat. ifications which are in themselves sinful, but a willingness to give up those which are innocent, when the interests of the kingdom of God render it necessary.
Self-denial can therefore be practiced by such beings as have no sinful pleasures to renounce. The sinless Jesus practiced self-denial, and that to an infinite degree. And when he
required his followers to forsake houses, and brethren, and sisters, and father, and mother, and wife, and children, and lands, for his name's sake, it was not because the enjoyment of these things was in itself unlawful. Even when we forsake all these things for Christ, he com. monly leaves us in possession of them. In his sight, we practice selfdenial, if we give them all up, and submit it to him, either to take them from us, or leave them in our hands, as shall best subserve the interests of his kingdom. In the exercise of self-denial, the primitive Christians not only submitted to the loss of property, when it was wrested from them, so that they took joyfully the spoiling of their goods; they also voluntarily devoted much of their substance to the cause of Christ: To further such a glorious cause, the apostles forsook all they had. The spirit which governed them is breathed out in these words of Paul, in his second epistle to the church at Corinth : “I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.” 2 Cor. xii. 15.
It must never be forgotten, that self-denial is accompanied with a cross-bearing spirit; and indeed can not exist without it. When Christ had said, “ If any man will come after me, let him deny himself," he immediately added, " and take up his cross, and follow me.” This implies, that if he does the one, he will do the other; if he denies himself, he will take up his cross. But what is meant, it may be ask. ed, by the Christian's cross ? Reference is undoubtedly had to the cross on which the Savior died. This cross was laid in his way, and the glory of God and the salvation of men, required that he should not only bear it, but expire on it. The same spirit of self-denial, which he manifested in that act, he requires of every one of his followers. Some of them have had a literal cross thrown athwart their path; and the interests of their Master have required them to evince their self-denial, by submitting to crucifixion. We hear one of the followers of the Lamb saying, in view of such sufferings, “ I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.' Acts xxi. 13. This is a good illustration of a cross-bearing spirit.
Every self-denying act may be considered a cross, which, when Providence places it in our way, it is our duty to take up and bear. Selfishness would invent excuses for going around it: but a self-deny. ing spirit enables the Christian to silence objections, and go forward in the path of duty, even when he finds it beset with briers and thorns. Self-denial has done wonders in promoting a benevolent and efficient discipline in the church of Christ; and without such a spirit, discipline will be either neglected or abused. It is of vital importance, both to preserve the internal purity of the church, and to promote its extension in the earth. Had there been no self-denial exercised, the apostles would not have endured so many privations and persecutions for the elects' sake, that they might obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Tim. ii. 10. And were no such spirit prevalent in our own times, it is more than probable that those missionaries, who have relin. quished all the delights of civilized life to live and die in pagan lands, would have found reasons enough for remaining at home. These cases of self-denying duty are instanced, merely to illustrate what is intend. ed by the Christian's taking up his cross.
3. It is necessary to be distinctly understood, that we exercise no true self-denial, only when we deny ourselves for the good of others. If there were but one being in the universe, there would be no place for its exercise. Had the Deity forever remained alone, his love would have been of a holy, and not of a selfish nature ; but there would have been nothing to call forth a spirit of self-denia).
That self-denial which helps constitute the Christian character, does not consist in relinquishing one selfish enjoyment, for the sake of secu. ring another. A man may give up one sinful pleasure, for the sake of enjoying another equally sinful; but this is not, in any proper sense, the spirit of self-denial. Some may think that the spendthrift has de. nied himself, because he has become a miser. But the truth is, that he has surrendered one kind of selfish gratification, only that he may in. dulge in another, that is no less selfish. Should a man who has idol. ized money, all at once become exceedingly lavish of it in charity, it might, at first glance, seem to be an act of great self.denial ; but if we ascertain that he did it just because he loved popularity more than money, we are satisfied that no real self-denial has been exercised.
The relinquishment of present good, for the sake of that which is future, is not that denying of one's self, which the Savior made a re. quisite to discipleship. The thing required is, not that a man should deny himself for the sake of his own good, but for the good of others. That forsaking of all, which Christ required of his followers, was to be done for his sake : Every one that hath forsaken houses, &c. for my name's sake.” “ And whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” Matt. xix. 29, and xvi. 25. In the thirteenth chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle supposes two cases, both of which were apparently very striking acts of self-denial ; namely, a man's bestowing all his goods to feed the poor, and his giving his body to be burned; and then he proceeds to tell us, that if he does all this without charity, it will profit him nothing. In close connection with this he informs us, that it is one of the characteristics of charity, that she seeketh not her own. One of the sacrifices which is here supposed, namely, a man's giving his body to be burned, must be understood to be made for the sake of securing happiness in the world to come; and yet even this is declared to be worthless. A man's giving up his happiness in one world, merely for the sake of securing it in another, is, in no proper sense, an act of self-denial; any more than parting with his possessions in one country, in order to purchase those which are more valuable in another.
But does not God, it will be asked, promise future rewards, with a view to excite to the performance of self-denying actions ? To this it may be replied,
ist. It is to them only, who have the genuine spirit of self-denial, that God promises any reward. At the same time that our blessed Lord inculcated self-denial as essential to discipleship, he said, “Who. soever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” He did not say, Whosoever will lose his life for his own sake, or merely for the sake of finding it, shall therefore find it. The promise of eternal blessed. ness to such an unselfish affection as losing our life for Christ's sake, serves to show what a high value is put upon disinterested religion by
Him who is to be the Judge of quick and dead. The reward prom. ised to disinterested actions, certainly can not be designed to encour. age a mercenary spirit. Yet we can all see it is highly proper that such actions should be distinguished, by being rewarded.
2dly. Such is the nature of the reward promised, that it can be enjoyed only by those who deny themselves, for the sake of promoting the glory of God and the good of their fellow men. That eternal life which is promised, is to consist in knowing the only living and true God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent; as also in loving and serving them, without fear, in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our existence.* They, who deny themselves present enjoyment from no higher motive than to secure their own happiness in eternity, do not, in any proper sense, have respect to the recompense of the reward. They do not truly desire that reward which God has promised to them that love him. Truly to desire such a reward, necessa. rily supposes a disinterested frame of mind. They who deny them. selves for their own sake, instead of doing it for Christ's sake, have no meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light.
II. Having taken an imperfect view of the nature of self-denial, let us now turn our attention to the evidence of its being essential to the Christian character.
Without a spirit of self-denial, we can have no excellency of character; we can have nothing better than selfishness. And what is more pointedly reprobated in the word of God, than a selfish char. acter? This is the first thing which Paul mentions as causing the perilous times of the last days : “ For men shall be lovers of their own selves.” 2 Tim. iii. 2. Israel was condemned as an empty vine, not because he was absolutely fruitless, but because he brought forth fruit unto himself. Hos. x. 1. Timothy is commended by Paul, because he differed from those who sought their own, and not the things of Jesus Christ. Phil. ii. 20, 21. Selfishness, through all the sacred books, is condemned as a sin; yea more, as a sin that comprehends the whole of a sinful character. Surely, then, there can be no moral excellence where there is nothing better than a spirit of selfishness. And there can be nothing better, where there is no spirit of self-denial. It is vain to imagine that we can have disinterested love to our fellow men, and yet have no willingness to make personal sacrifices to pro. mote their happiness.
2. Without self-denial, we are destitute of the spirit of Christ, and therefore are none of his. Christ had a self-denying spirit. Nothing was more prominent in his character than this. The occa. sion which led him explicitly to enjoin self.denial on his followers, was this: He made his disciples acquainted with the sufferings he was about to undergo at Jerusalem. This led Peter to dissuade him from enduring those sufferings. But he told Peter that he was an of. fense to him, and that he savored not the things that were of God, but those that were of men. Immediately upon this it is added : “Then
* « This day," said Brainard," I saw clearly that I shonld never be happy, yea, that God himself could not make me happy, unless I could be in a capacity to please and glorify him forever. Take away this, and admit me into all the fine heavens that can be conceived of by men or angels, and I should be miserable forever."
said Jesus unto his disciples, 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." Here we have, first, a display of the selfdenying spirit of the Master; and next we are advertised, that unless we possess a similar spirit, we can not be his disciples. See Matt. xvi. 21-25.
At another time, Christ inculcated self-denying duties on his disci. ples, by telling them that the Son of Man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Matt. II. 28. To the saints at Rome, the apostle says, “Let every one of us please bis neighbor, for his good, to edification.” This exhortation he enforces by the example of Christ : “For even Christ pleased Dot himself.” And to the saints at Philippi, he says, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ.” He then proceeds to show what unbounded self-denial the Redeemer practiced. He who thought it not robbery to be equal with God, made himself of no reputation, and humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. See Phil. ii. 4-8.
The self-denial which is called for in the bestowment of alms, is urged upon us by the example of Christ. “ For ye know," said the apostle, “ the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.” 2 Cor. viii. 9. The self-denial which is required in risking our lives for the good of others, is also urged upon us by the same divine example. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the breth. ren.” 1 John iji. 16.
lu the humiliation and sufferings of the Son of God for the redemption of men, we have the greatest possible display of the spirit of selfdenial. The display was none the less perfect, because the Father, who pleased to bruise him, has also been pleased to exalt him, and give him a name above every name. Such unbounded self-denial could not cod. sistently go unrewarded, or receive any less reward than one which is infinite. Some may suppose that this reward (namely, his own per. sonal exaltation) was the very thing which made him willing to suffer; since the scripture informs us it was for the joy set before him, that he endured the cross. By the joy set before him, which reconciled him to the pain and shame of the cross, we ought not to understand his personal exaltation, so much as the good which he saw his death would be the means of accomplishing. He saw that he should save a great multitude of fallen creatures from sin and ruin; and that their salva. tion, instead of weakening divine government, would gloriously establish it. See Isa. liii. 10–12.
In view of the infinite self-denial which Christ exhibited, can it be a question, whether self-denial is essential to the character of a Chris. tian? Must not a follower of Christ consent to undergo privations, and make sacrifices of time, property, and other things which he deems valuable, for the sake of glorifying God and benefiting his fellow men? And can there be much of the spirit of Christ, where there is not a willingness to practice much self-denial ?