Great Themes of the Bible (#21-Self-Denial)

"Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature."

The kingdom (i.e., sovereign rule) of God in a believer's life is a strange, mysterious, and contrary-to-natural-expectation experience. Of course, it is! "Natural" expectations arise from our sinful nature, and spiritual life is strange, mysterious, and contrary to that nature! One could even say that life under God's control is both foreign to our natural desires and contrary to the spirit of the times at any age in the world's history.

What the Bible calls our "sinful nature" (Gk, sarx; KJV, flesh) is simply the ugly, self-centered part of human personality. It is the part of us that chafes at living under Christ's rule and says, "It's my life, and I'll do as I please. Nobody tells me what to do." It is the part of us to which vanity makes its direct appeal by telling us we must look a certain way, dress in a certain style, or live at a particular level of affluence. It is the arrogant spirit of any one of us that thinks things which have destroyed others will not harm us. It is the seething anger that makes a woman yell or gesture at other drivers and causes a man to hit his wife or children.

Is something supposed to happen to our sinful nature when we become Christians? Are we supposed to be what we've always been and know that God's grace has us covered? Or is an element of God's grace the gift of self-denial that will reign over the sinful nature?

An Out-of-Control Culture

Sociologists have joined with theologians and philosophers to point out how out of control we have become in American culture. People won't be punctual for class or work and seem to think very little about failing to keep promises. Our tempers explode, and we rage at one another. We get into so much debt that we stress-out or destroy our families because we can't restrain impulse buying and have to get anything we want the instant the desire for it strikes. "If it feels good, do it" is the guiding maxim for personal behavior, and "If it works, do it again and again" seems to guide our social and business lives.

Something sounds terribly odd and inconsistent when these attitudes and behaviors are named at church. We know they are inconsistent with Christian behavior. We know they are forbidden in Scripture. So some of us are forced to admit that the ideals of our faith are unmatched by the realities of our lives. "Okay. I feel better for the admission," somebody says. "When do we go home?"

Shouldn't the reaction be stronger and more spiritual than that? Shouldn't the question be something about how to learn self-control? Shouldn't we actually pray about and try to imitate Jesus' example of self-denial? A first-century apostle wrote these words: "Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul" (1 Pet. 2:11). Or, as translated in The Message: "Friends, this world is not your home, so don't make yourselves cozy in it. Don't indulge your ego at the expense of your soul."

The Challenge of Scripture

From the words of Jesus and the apostles, we know that something is supposed to happen in the lives of saved people that introduces self-denial and righteousness. So there are texts such as these in the New Testament:

Then [Jesus] said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it" (Luke 9:23-24).

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Rom. 8:9-14).

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor. 9:25-27).
Many people who come to Christ seem not to hear these texts clearly, if at all. And some who do hear them hear them incorrectly and become frustrated by them.

Some people hear these verses as salvation texts and lapse into despair. Since they haven't conquered such out-of-control behaviors as eating or spending, temper or lust, they think God could never save them. These are discipleship texts, not salvation texts. They don't tell people how to get saved, but how saved people should live. The last thing anyone needs to hear as "gospel" is that he or she has to have life mastered and under control in order to be worthy of coming to Christ. If you could do it without him, you might not need him at all!

Some Christians hear these discipleship texts as justification for self- righteousness and judgment of others. Because I don't get drunk, do I have the right to feel superior to someone who is an alcoholic? Because I don't beat my wife have affairs, can I sit in judgment on the person who does? Hardly! My sinful nature may be vulnerable at points and in ways different from yours, but I'm no better than you in dealing with the weaknesses of my flesh.

Then there are always some Christians who take these texts and use them as justification for an austere and ascetic lifestyle that is as displeasing to God as a profligate and extravagant life. Being gaunt and self-abusive in the name of Christ is sinful. "Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence" (Col. 2:23).

Romans 13:11-14

The most helpful section of Scripture I know on this subject is today's text from one of Paul's epistles. He is writing to Christians. He is not telling them how to be saved and to become children of God; he is explaining the life to which they have been called as saved people. Yet he avoids making self-denial sound like arrogant boasting or judgment against people who are still in Satan's clutches. Neither can anyone fairly hear him as requiring the ascetic life of bread and water or shame-based and self-abusive religion.

Instead of looking backward at the pre-conversion lives of some of his readers and telling them they owe it to God to set things right now, he focuses on the future. Since their "night" has passed and the "day [of Christ's full revelation] is almost here," he challenges them to live in the spirit of what lies ahead. Instead of living either to their dark past or their present weaknesses, he calls them to shape their lives in light of the future God has in store for them. Set free from the past, Christians are being drawn into the glorious plan God has for our future.

The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Rom. 13:11-14).
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is coming back to Planet Earth. He has been here once already to secure our redemption from this present evil world. He paid the price of that redemption with his own blood. When that work was finished, he returned to be with the Father and to await the consummation of all things. When that final hour comes, the Father will signal it, and Jesus will bring all people before him for judgment. In the period between the "already" of Christ's first appearance and our redemption by his blood and the "not yet" of his second coming and the fulfillment of our salvation, we are participants with God in revealing the gospel to all mankind. "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 John 3:3).

This process of purification and turning from sin demonstrates self-denial in the areas of alcohol, sex, and relationships. Immoral sex, drunkenness, and anger have no place in our lives. Yet it isn't will-power that overcomes them. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. It is focusing on heaven. It is self-denial, dying to self, and clothing oneself with Christ. Whereas the old man would have focused heart, mind, and energy on gratifying the desires of the sinful nature, the new man puts all that energy into honoring the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sinful Nature vs. Self-Denial

Self-denial is the Holy Spirit-enabled and Christ-honoring attitude that renounces and foregoes any relationship, pleasure, interest, or desire that gets in the way of loving and obeying God. It is the philosophy of life that seeks God and his kingdom first and believes that anything necessary to that purpose will be supplied by the one he loves supremely. Self-denial is laying everything at Jesus' feet whether money, time, or life itself. It is renouncing everything else for the sake of knowing Christ (cf. Phil. 3:7-14).

My sinful nature says: "I'm reasonably intelligent, and it makes sense to me to think that the way to deal with spiritual issues and religion is . . ." Self-denial replies: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil" (Prov. 3:5-7).

My sinful nature says: "God made me the way I am, so there's no good reason I shouldn't do whatever I feel is right in this situation . . ." Self-denial replies: "But God's revealed will runs counter to my instincts and volition, so not my will, Father, but your's be done."

My sinful nature says: "God put this person in my life and led me to love her/him, so I cannot refuse what she/he wants of me and am going to . . ." Self-denial recalls the words of Jesus: "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 10:37-39).

My sinful nature says: "But it feels good, and I should have the right to do whatever I choose with my life because . . ." Self-denial replies: "Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:13-14).


It is typically difficult to comprehend from the result all the time, effort, and discipline that went into some magnificent outcome. Whether it is an athlete on the field, an artist at the piano, or a surgeon at the table, all the movements are purposeful and fluid. Things look so smooth and effortless for these people only because of the hours per day and days per week over years these people have invested in their specialties. Simultaneously with their passionate preparation, however, they were denying themselves other things for the sake of focusing on what they valued and wanted most of all.

Should we really expect it to be different with our spiritual lives?

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