TWO | Self-Denial in the Christian Life


QUOTE OF THE WEEK

If we are not our own but the Lord’s, it’s clear what errors we must flee, and what we must direct our whole lives toward. We are not our own; therefore, neither our reason nor our will should dominate our plans and actions. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make the gratifications of the flesh our end. We are not our own; therefore, as much as possible, let us forget ourselves and our own interests.

Rather, we are God’s. Therefore, let us live and die to Him. We are God’s. Therefore, let His wisdom and His will govern all our actions. We are God’s. Therefore, let us—in every way in all our lives—run to Him as our only proper end. How far has he progressed who’s been taught that he is not his own—who’s taken rule and dominion away from his own reason and entrusted them to God. For the plague of submitting to our own rule leads us straight to ruin, but the surest way to safety is neither to know nor want anything on our own, but simply to follow the leading of the Lord.

22-23

SUMMARY

In chapter 2, Calvin sets his sights upon “an even more precise rule than what’s given in the precepts of the law” for properly ordering our lives: our duty to present our bodies “as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.” The essence of the Christian life is self-denial and devoting ourselves to the glory of God. From Titus 2:11-14, he points out that such a life means shunning ungodliness and worldly passions, while walking in self-control, uprightness, and godliness. The latter half focuses, first, on how our self-denial ought to promote our love of others and, second, our faith and reliance upon God.

DISCUSSION

Being the longest chapter of this little book and addressing a topic that is intensely against our fallen human nature make discussion a bit difficult since there is so much here that we might discuss. In fact, we could spend our entire time only upon the two paragraphs that I cited above (which, by the way, is my favorite portion of the entire book). Nevertheless, I will dive into several passages that were particularly notable to me and would love to hear which ones most stood out to you (and why).

Calvin begins with a premise that every Christian should believe and that is fundamental for understanding the call to self-denial: “The law of the Lord is the best and most suitable instruction for the proper ordering of our lives” (21). If Scripture is true and God is indeed the Creator of everyone and everything, then how could this not be true? Having established the foundations of the cosmos, complete with understandable wonders such as the laws of physics, should we not also assume that His commands for the structuring of our daily lives, conduct, and behavior would be similarly authoritative and trustworthy? Of course, ever since the rebellion of Adam and Eve, the default human condition is to trust in our own fleeting wisdom rather than in the wisdom of the Eternal One. Even still, sinful as we are, as believers we must acknowledge and strive toward displaying in our lives that God’s law is what is best for us. Only when we believe this basic premise can we then move onto the deeper gospel rule that is denying self and offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God.

Calvin later goes on to elaborate on the rule of self-denial, saying, “This is great progress in the Christian life—that we nearly forget ourselves, that in all matters we hold our own concerns in less esteem, and that we faithfully strive to devote our energies to God and His commands” (24). While selfism is a perpetual religion in the heart of mankind, our present-day seems to be particularly filled with such worship. Self is center stage, whether self-care, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-acceptance, and on and on. The kingdom of God, however, is upside-down to how the world functions; its King, after all, did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for His people (Mark 10:45). Indeed, He is a king who conquered not by shedding the blood of His enemies but by allowing His own blood to be spilled in order to make His enemies into His bride. Following the pattern that He set for us, He has instructed that within His eternal and unfading kingdom the last will be first, while the first will be last. Those who seek to keep their lives will lose them, while those who lose their lives will gain them. Just as the world calls us to be first and guard our lives, it also tells us that the path to happiness is found through self-gratification, self-discovery, etc. Our Lord, however, calls us to give every breath over to the glory of God and even to count others as more significant than ourselves. Self-denial and self-forgetfulness are the path to true joy and peace as we follow in imitation of our God and Savior.

Indeed, in our war against sin, Calvin remarks, “You won’t find any proper remedy to such vices other than to deny yourself, to disregard your own ambitions, and to stretch your mind to seek wholly those things that the Lord requires of you—and to seek them because they are pleasing to Him” (27). This is a wholly true statement, since behind every sin lies some hope of selfish gain in some form or another. Hatred, lust, lies, idolatry are all sins that stem from self-desires that conflict with what God has commanded. But even while we know this, “nothing is more difficult than saying goodbye to carnal reason and subduing—indeed, conquering—our desires and joining ourselves to God and our brothers. We are, essentially, contemplating the life of the angels even as we trudge through the mire of earth’s filthiness” (29-30).

In applying self-denial to our love of others, Calvin quickly deduces the grand problem: “Everyone flatters himself and carries, as it were, a kingdom in his breast” (32). How sadly true is that statement! The lowliest of beggars is just as capable of viewing himself as king of his own life as actual royalty. If we would obey the commands of Scripture to love our neighbor, we must first relinquish the petty kingdoms that we construct within our own hearts. To do this requires a proper view of self and of others, as Calvin notes:

By constant recognition of our vices, let us return to humility. By so doing, there will be nothing left in us to puff us up, but, on the contrary, there will be much to put us in our place.

On the other hand, we are called to respect and commend whatever gifts of God we see in others and to honor those in whom such gifts reside. For it would be shameful for us to withhold honor from those whom God has deemed worthy of honor. Moreover, so as not to insult those to whom we owe honor and goodwill, we are taught to overlook their vices—though not, of course, to encourage their vices by admiring them. In this way, we will act not only with moderation and modesty, but with grace and friendliness toward others.

34

Self-denial is the answer. We ought to remember that Christ has given us our gifts, resources, and talents for the good of others and for the edification of the body of Christ. “We are merely stewards of whatever gifts God has given to us in order to help our neighbors” (37). This applies to all people because all people are made in the image of God yet especially so with “those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Calvin’s warning in the section that runs from 42-45 is especially important to remember. “For it might happen that someone fully performs his obligations as external duties go, and yet he is far from performing them for the right reason” (43). Anyone can do good, even sacrificial good, whenever they believe that they will ultimately benefit from it, yet we must be ready to do good for others even when there is no earthly benefit whatsoever to be gained. This can only come through the kind of self-denial that God’s Word describes.

I particularly enjoyed how Calvin describes the nature of helping others within the body of Christ:

The help that different members of the body mutually offer one another should not—according to the law of nature—be considered a favor, but rather as an obligation that would be unnatural to refuse.

44

Calvin’s primary point when describing our self-denial in relation to God is “how self-denial forms us to be calm and patient in this life” (45). The modern world has made life much more comfortable in many ways. Refrigerators, air conditioners, transportation vehicles, antibiotics, and much more inventions have revolutionized the way we live our lives. But the modernity and specifically the digital era are not often described as calm, patient, or tranquility. Indeed, as the world (statistically) gets safer and safer, anxiety and depression seem to be rising out of control. Nearly five hundred years ago, Calvin put his finger on why this is the case:

Our lust is furious and our greed limitless in pursuing wealth and honors, chasing after power, heaping up riches, and gathering all those vain things which seem to give us grandeur and glory. On the other hand, we greatly fear and hate poverty, obscurity, and humility, and so we avoid these realities in every way. Thus, we see that those who order their lives according to their own counsel have a restless disposition. We see how many tricks they try, how many pursuits they exhaust themselves with in order to secure the objects of their ambition or greed, while trying to avoid, on the other hand, poverty and humility.

46

Is that not, in many ways, a fitting description of our present-day? Our society literally celebrates pride as though it were a virtue, so it is no wonder that we would be surrounded by a world full of people with “a restless disposition.” But it ought not to be so among God’s people. Knowing both the goodness and sovereignty of our God, we ought to have our greed and pride checked by the knowledge that “a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). Such knowledge should also give us the fortitude to endure with joy any affliction that befalls us. “Indeed, the believer should accept whatever comes with a gentle and thankful heart, because he knows that it is ordained by the Lord” (53).

All of this is much easier said than done, as Calvin repeatedly affirms. Self-denial is a kind of living death, the daily slaying of ourselves, of our own will and desires. God’s will, however, is far greater than our own. Let us stake our lives upon the reality of that truth and live accordingly.

We are God’s. Therefore, let us live and die to Him. We are God’s. Therefore, let His wisdom and His will govern all our actions. We are God’s. Therefore, let us—in every way in all our lives—run to Him as our only proper end.

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