Self – Denial
by Glenn Conjurske

“Then 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. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26).

Self-denial is the first principle of discipleship to Christ. “If any man will come after me, let him DENY HIMSELF.” This is the first step, the one all-essential thing, without which you cannot walk one step with Christ, and without which he will not walk one step with you. Without this you cannot be his disciple, and he will not be your Saviour. It is perfectly plain that the issue in this passage is salvation. “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it.” “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

So John Wesley writes on this text: “None is forced; but if any will be a Christian, it must be on these terms.”

J. C. Ryle writes on a parallel passage: “We learn, for one thing, from these verses, the absolute necessity of self-denial, if we would be Christ’s disciples, and be saved.”

What is this self-denial? To deny self means, in the general, to renounce and repudiate it, and in the specific, to deprive self, to say “No” to all of its lusts and cravings, to all of its dreams and ambitions—-to its will in general. It is the opposite of self-pleasing, self-indulgence, self-gratification. Man departed from God originally by unholy ambition and self-indulgence, and if he is to return to God it must be in the way of self-denial. “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts.” (Gal. 5:24). Man departed from God in the first place by doing his own will instead of God’s will, by going his own way instead of God’s way. To return to God he must give up his own will and way—-give them up entirely, and submit unconditionally to the will and way of God.

To deny self is to go against it. This is an absolute necessity, for the simple reason that our nature is contrary to God. The plain fact is, the human race loves sin. It is for this reason that few are saved. When God prepares the great gospel feast, and invites the human race to partake of it, they all with one consent begin to make excuse (Luke 14:18). Why is this? Because they have no interest in love and joy and peace and eternal life? No, but because, much as they may want those things, they want sin more. If they could have salvation and sin too, many would flock to accept it. Indeed, many do so, filling the churches whose preaching and doctrine allows them both sin and salvation. This includes many evangelical churches. Such people, however, are not saved, but deceived. God preaches no such salvation The salvation which he offers is salvation from sin, not salvation in sin, and this is precisely why self-denial must be the first condition of it.

Observe: Scripture does not require us to change ourselves (though it most certainly requires us to change our ways), but to deny ourselves. I have known sincere souls very much troubled on this point. Someone has preached to them that they must hate their sins in order to be saved—-that unless they hate sin they have no true repentance—-and yet try as they might they find themselves incapable of hating sin. They love sin. They desire it, crave it. Such is their nature, and they have no power to change it. They do have power, however, to deny it, to deprive it, to say “No” to it, and this is exactly what the gospel requires of them. The gospel does not require me to hate sin, but to put it away in spite of the fact that I love it, and desire to cling to it. This is self-denial.

This distinction is of the utmost importance. The gospel requires me to pluck out my right eye, and cut off my right hand, and cast them from me

—-to totally and permanently renounce, in other words, even that which is best and dearest to me, if it is sin, or the occasion of sin. Who ever hated his right eye? That were impossible. Who ever hated his right hand? Another impossibility. To hate them you cannot; to renounce and forsake them you can. This is what it means to deny self—-not to change its nature, but to deny it, not to eradicate its lusts and cravings, but to deny them. All of this is involved in the simple Bible doctrine of repentance from sin, and there is no salvation without it. The only alternative to plucking out the right eye and cutting off the right hand is to be “cast into hell.”

But the self-denial preached by Christ goes deeper than merely renouncing those things which are recognized as sins. A man must deny himself. He must not merely pluck off the evil fruit—-nor merely lop off the branches—-but lay the axe to the root of the tree. He must renounce self-will as such. This is perfectly plain in the context from which we have culled our text. The Lord had just informed the disciples that “he must go unto Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” Peter objected to this, and the Lord rebuked him for it. Then immediately follows our text, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Now to take up the cross can only mean one thing, namely, to bear it out to the place of execution “and be killed.” No cross was ever made for any other purpose, and no man ever took up his cross for any other purpose. The cross was not an ornament in those days, to hang from their ear lobes or mount on their church steeples, but an instrument of death. Neither did any man ever take up his cross merely to endure a little hardship or discomfort, but to die. This is the meaning of taking up the cross—-nothing less than this, and nothing other than this.

The Lord therefore goes on to say, in the verse immediately following, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” To save your life is to shun the cross, to decline to take it up, to refuse to die.

The same is abundantly plain in the other scriptures where the Lord speaks of the terms of discipleship. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26). Observe first, “hate” in this scripture cannot be taken in its literal sense. It cannot mean to bear malice, or ill will, or malignant feelings. I am not one to lightly set aside the literal sense of anything in the Bible. I believe there is but rarely any occasion to do so. And I believe that it is never right to do so unless there are clear and compelling reasons for it—-reasons dictated by the nature of the things spoken of, by common sense, by universal human experience, by other scriptures, or by sound doctrine. There is room, of course, for a great deal of wresting of the Scriptures by means of such principles, where the mind is not spiritual or the eye is not single, but the principles themselves are both sound and necessary. What then are my clear and compelling reasons for declining to take “hate” here in its literal sense?

First of all, so far as it concerns father and mother, wife and children, and brothers and sisters, it ought to go without saying that the Lord can hardly have meant to hate them in the literal sense of the word, of ill will or malignant feelings towards them, for the thing is sinful in itself. Further, that kind of hate is not self-denial at all, but one of the most thorough forms of self-indulgence. And all who hate in that sense are explicitly excluded from the salvation of God. “He that hateth his brother is in darkness.” (I Jn. 2:11). “Whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” (I Jn. 3:10). “He that loveth not knoweth not God.” (I Jn. 4:8).

But further, whatever it is which a man is here required to do towards father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, he is required to do the self-same thing towards “his own life also.” And as it would be sinful to literally hate them, so it would be impossible for him to literally hate his own life. Every man does in fact love his own life supremely, and this love of self is so universal, so strong, and so proper, that God himself makes it the standard of our love to others, saying, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

The word “hate,” then, is to be taken here in a figurative sense. To hate father and mother, and my own life also, is not to feel ill towards them in my heart, but to renounce them by a choice of my will,—-to set aside their desires and claims, in spite of the fact that I love them. This is self-denial.

But observe, though I believe that the Lord used the word “hate” in a figurative sense, I do not therefore believe that he meant nothing by it. “Hate” is perhaps the strongest word he could have chosen, and he assuredly used it advisedly. The renunciation of self and all that belongs to it must be complete and peremptory.

“He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” (John 12:25). This is the self-denial which the gospel everywhere requires of men. It is the giving up of my life in this world, in toto, and in every particular. My plans and purposes, my projects and programs, my pride, my position, my possessions, my people, my pleasures, my pastimes—-all must be set aside, all must be laid upon the altar, all must be nailed to the cross. This is where discipleship begins. This is “if any man will come after me” (Matt. 16:24). This is “if any man come to me.” (Luke 14:26). This is the bare minimum, without which “he cannot be my disciple.” This is the unconditional surrender of all that I am and all that I have to Christ. “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33). This is the complete transfer of all authority and rights over myself to him.

Now observe, this denial of self must be complete in both the general and the particular. In the general: “his life” (Matt. 16:25)—-“his life” (Mark 8:35)—-“his life” (Luke 9:24)—-“his own life also” (Luke 14:26)

—-“his life in this world” (John 12:25). In the particular: “father and mother, wife and children, brethren and sisters” (Luke 14:26)—-“all that he hath” (Luke 14:33). In the general, “the flesh”—-in the particular, “the affections and lusts” (Gal. 5:24).

The flesh, of course, shrinks from this, and will spare itself if it can. Men will find a thousand ways to compromise with self, and so fall short of the complete self-denial which the gospel requires of them. Thus they will deceive themselves in order to spare themselves. That self-deception may take either of two forms—-either to deny myself in the general, but not in the particular, or the reverse, to deny myself in the particular, but not in the general.

The first of these will prove to be a mere empty profession, a theoretical denial of self, while self is still indulged in the actual details of life—-an imaginary hating of my life in this world, while the actual life that I live proves quite the contrary.

The other deception consists of actually denying myself in the details of life—-and it may be in very many of them—-without any unconditional surrender of myself to Christ, or any giving up of my whole will to God. A thousand things may be very properly given up, while one darling sin is yet hugged and caressed, or while self-will yet rules in the general direction of the life. This kind of self-denial may look better than the theoretical kind, but God will not be deceived by it, and the one will no more avail than the other in the day of judgement.

Such is the doctrine of self-denial preached by the Saviour of men. Who preaches such doctrine today? Alas, the Lord’s own doctrine is usually ignored or denied, in order to maintain false notions of grace and faith. Those who do preach the Lord’s own terms of discipleship usually preach them as something optional—-as a sort of favor to be bestowed upon the Lord for having saved us, rather than as the very conditions of that salvation.

I have quoted already the statements of ancient men of God, who hold with me that such self-denial is necessary to be a Christian, and this indeed is obvious enough from the text of Scripture itself. The only way to find your life is to lose it. The only way to keep it unto life eternal is to hate it in this world. But I wish to go deeper, and insist that not only is this self-denial necessary to salvation, but in a real sense it is of the essence of salvation itself. The Son of man, we are told, came to seek and to save that which was lost. The fact is, we were really lost—-really in a state with which the holy God could have no fellowship. The Son of man came to really save us—-not merely to cancel our guilt while he left us in the same “lost” state he found us in—-actually abhorrent to God’s holy nature, and actually unwilling to embrace his ways, or serve him, or walk with him. The Son of man came to save us—-to actually reclaim us from our lost condition, and actually restore us to a state in which God can own us again.

Now that state in which we were lost is described thus: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” This was a state in which we had wrested the rightful authority over our being from the hand of God, and taken it into our own hands. This is indeed the essence of sin, and this is precisely what we must give up in order to be saved from our sin. True repentance is not merely giving up this sin or that, but giving up sin as such, and this means giving up our own way. It means giving up our own will. It means putting the authority over ourselves back into the hands of God, without stint or condition. He that refuses this is not saved at all, but is actually persisting in the very course which constituted him lost in the first place.

Glenn Conjurske

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