The Lord’s Day Morning
February 7, 2010
“The First Lesson in Christ’s
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 9.
We’ll be looking at the twenty third through the twenty seventh verses in
this great chapter together. The
subject of this passage is self denial.
Connie said to me before the morning service that she would be praying
for me because she knew this would be a hard sermon to preach.
Now, I don’t know whether she was implying that self denial would be
particularly difficult for me to address because of my own besetting sins, which
probably would be true. Connie’s too
polite to suggest something like that though.
I think she was probably suggesting that self denial isn’t something that
any of us like to think about. We
live in a self indulgent age. I
think most of us feel that when we look at our parents and our grandparents and
our great-grand parents and we sense that they knew a lot more about self denial
than we do and they practiced self denial in ways that we don’t in this
comfortable era and time that we find ourselves living in.
But of course I’m not just talking about self denial in general, because
the kind of self denial that Jesus is calling His disciples to in this passage I
believe is not a self denial that any unbeliever can actually practice.
I’m not saying that we can’t actually look in our own time and in history
and see marvelous examples of unbelievers demonstrating extraordinary self
denial. I believe that we could
catalogue many, many such instances of those who do not believe in Christ, who
do not believe the Bible, who do not embrace the Gospel, doing amazing feats of
self denial for their families, for their communities, for their countries.
Yes, I believe that we can find those but none of those acts of self denial are
the same as the self denial that Jesus is calling His disciples to here.
This kind of self denial is based upon the Gospel.
It’s only enabled by grace and it has as its goal something only a
believer can strive for or hope for.
And so I want to think with you for a few moments this morning about this call
to self denial from the lips of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
And before we read His words here in Luke 9, let’s look to Him in prayer
and ask for help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word.
We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it and
especially because this Word cuts against the grain and it asks us to set aside
our self preoccupation and die to self and live to Christ, we pray the help of
Your Holy Spirit, not only that we would understand what Jesus is asking us to
do, but that we would want to do it and that we would be enabled to do it by
Your grace, for the right reasons and to the right goal.
This we ask in Jesus’ name.
This is God’s Word. Hear it:
“And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and
take up his cross daily and follow Me.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life
for my sake will save it. For what
does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?
For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words, of him will the Son of Man
be ashamed when He comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the
holy angels. But I tell you truly,
there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.
May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Self denial is at the very heart of Christian discipleship.
You cannot be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ and also choose not to
deny yourself because self denial is at the very heart of Biblical Christianity.
Self denial is part and parcel of the practice of being a Christian
disciple, a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Matthew Henry once said that “self denial is the first lesson in Christ’s
school.” That is, when the Lord
Jesus saves you from your sins by His grace and by His blood, when you by faith
are united to Him, the very first lesson He begins to teach you is self denial
and He never ceases teaching you that lesson.
That’s why Calvin said it a little bit more strongly than Henry.
Henry said that “self denial is the first lesson in Christ’s school.”
Calvin said “it’s the sum of the Christian life.”
Can you imagine that? That
you can sum up the Christian life in these two words — deny yourself.
Deny yourself — the sum of the Christian life.
Now my friends, that’s counter cultural.
I think that’s the closest thing possible to psychological heresy in this
self indulgent age to say, “Deny yourself,” to call upon people to embrace self
denial. And for that very reason I
think we need to pause and give ear to what Jesus is saying.
And there are two or three things that I want you to see this morning.
The first thing that I want you to see is that being a disciple of Jesus means
embracing self denial. Following
Jesus means embracing self denial.
Look at what Jesus says in verse 23 – “And He said to all” — now let me just
stop right there. He’s speaking to
all His disciples, not just to Peter.
Peter’s just said as a representative on the part of the other disciples,
“You are the Christ.” Matthew amplifies what Jesus says — what Peter says — “You
are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
But Jesus is not directing these words just to Peter.
It’s to all of His disciples that He is speaking when He says, “If anyone
would come after Me” — and there He gives the clue again that He’s not just
speaking to Peter. This is for
anyone who would be one of My disciples, anyone who would come after Me, what
does He say? “Let him deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
Now notice the three things in that call to self denial that Jesus
I. Deny self.
The first of the three distinct parts of Jesus’ charge is that we are to deny
ourselves. “If anyone is going to
follow Me, if anyone is going to be a Christian, if anyone is going to be a
follower of Christ, if anyone is going to be a disciple of Mine,” Jesus says,
“let him deny himself.” We are to deny self.
What does that mean? It means
to renounce anything that challenges or trumps our allegiance to the kingdom of God.
It means to renounce anything that challenges or trumps our allegiance to
We are to renounce our yearning to possess things if they trump our
allegiance to the kingdom of God.
We are to renounce our desire for power if it challenges or trumps our
allegiance to the kingdom of God.
We’re to renounce the favor of men if it costs us loyalty to the Lord
Jesus Christ. We are to renounce
human glory if it vies with or diminishes the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and
we are to seek first the kingdom. We
are to deny ourselves.
You know I think it’s one of the interesting contrasts in our day and age that
we read about popular figures. How
often in biographies and in news articles about popular figures — whether
they’re political leaders or whether they’re celebrities — do you hear anyone in
those articles or in those news clips or videos about those popular figures do
you hear anyone draw attention to their character of self denial?
When’s the last time you read a newspaper article about a current
political figure or a celebrity which trumpeted the self denial of that
individual. It’s just unheard of in
our day and age.
And yet I find it fascinating that when Douglas Southall Freeman, newspaper
editor in Richmond Virginia, was writing his four volume Pulitzer Prize winning
biography of Robert E. Lee, at the end of that biography he’s asking himself the
question, “What made this man the man that he was?”
He actually riffles through a catalogue of qualities.
He says, “Well, Lee loved duty.”
Do you remember Lee’s quote about duty?
He says — it’s emblazoned on the walls of the Citadel, the military
of South Carolina, it
says, “Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.”
And he muses about that for a while and he muses about Lee’s kindness.
He was a kind man and he was a humble man and he submitted himself to
God’s will and he goes through all these things.
Lee was an extraordinary figure.
You remember that two years before the Emancipation Proclamation of
Abraham Lincoln Lee freed his slaves.
Why? Because he wanted people
to know that he was fighting for Virginia, not for
slavery. After the war, because so
much of the South was covered in economic misery and desolation, even when Lee
took the presidency of WashingtonCollege and had a very
comfortable income, he refused to live on his full income because of the people
around him who were living in poverty.
And so Freeman — by the way, Freeman’s father fought in the Army of Northern
Virginia. And because Freeman was a
newspaper man he could only write his biography on Saturdays and he would read
drafts of it to his dad and his dad would either say – “No, no.
That’s not right. No, no.
You’ve got to change this.” – because his dad was there.
And whenever he would say anything negative about the northern army that
Lee opposed, the Army of the Potomac, his father would say, “Son, don’t you ever
say anything bad about the Army of the Potomac. The
Army of the Potomac was the finest army on the
face of this earth except for one, the Army of Northern Virginia.”
And he refused to allow Freeman to say anything bad about his opponents.
That was very typical, by the way, of Lee.
But he’s musing on Lee and he says really the quality that made Robert E. Lee
the leader he was, was self denial.
And this is what he says — “Had his life been epitomized in one sentence of the
book that he read so often, it would have been in the words, ‘If any man will
come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’”
And then Freeman says this — “If one, only one, of all of the myriad
incidents in Lee’s stirring life had to be selected to typify his message as a
man to the young Americans of today and the Americans who stood with hushed awe
that rainy October morning as their parents wept at the passing of the Southern
Arthur, who would hesitate in selecting that incident?
It occurred in northern Virginia, possibly on
Lee’s last visit there. A young
mother brought her baby to him to be blessed.
Lee took the infant in his arm and looked at him and then at her and
slowly said, ‘Teach him to deny himself.
That is all.’”
Now I want to suggest to you that that quality was born of a profound belief in
the Scriptures because Robert E. Lee was a God fearing Episcopalian and he
meditated on that verse over and over and he was ready to live out that kind of
II. Take your cross
And then look at the second thing that Jesus says — “Take up your cross daily
and follow Me.” If you’re going to
be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re going to deny self.
You’re doing to take up your cross.
What does that mean?
To be ready to bear afflictions in this
life knowing that God prepared them beforehand.
Are you bitter about your afflictions in this life?
Are you bitter about your afflictions, especially the afflictions that
beset you daily from which you cannot escape?
Some of you are in the midst of afflictions that you will not be
delivered from until the hour in which you close your eyes in death.
Those afflictions are going to be with you until the day the Lord carries
you home. How do you respond to
those afflictions? Jesus says,
“Take them up. Take them up
daily.” What does He mean?
He means to respond to those afflictions the way that Joseph responded
to his afflictions.
Remember what Joseph said about his brothers?
“You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”
In other words, the affliction that you may be experiencing may be the
result of someone’s evil against you, but even so, you say, “I take this up
because this is God’s will in my life.
He has a purpose for me even in this.
The sin is not his. The sin
is the one who has done it against me, but the purpose is God’s.
He has a purpose for me. I believe that He is working all things for good
for me according to His own purposes.”
Take up that affliction. Bear
up that affliction. Say, “Lord, this
affliction You have put in my life.”
It may not be something that someone has done against you, it may be a loss that
you’ve borne. You may have
lost someone who is nearest and dearest to your heart and there is never ever
going to be a day when that person walks in the door again.
And Jesus is saying, “Take up that affliction.
Take it up. Bear it, knowing
that God has prepared it for you, not only to bear, but to take up and to trust
Him that He has a good purpose in it.”
So you deny yourself and you take up that affliction and then what?
You follow Christ. What does
that mean? It means you look to
Christ, you imitate Him, you follow Him in obedience and examples, whatever
trials may lie in your way.
One of the great areas in which we must do this is forgiveness.
From the cross you remember the Lord Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.
They have no idea what they’re doing.”
I’ve often wondered, and I want to ask the Lord Jesus when I get there,
if that prayer forestalled the immediately destruction in judgment of the entire
world by God because it certainly would have been the deserving of the whole
world to be destroyed and decimated in judgment, in just judgment, by the
Heavenly Father for the sin that was being perpetrated against His Son.
But whatever that prayer means and whatever that prayer accomplished I’m
struck by the fact that there is Jesus, being wronged, and He’s praying,
“Father, forgive them.” And I want
to suggest to you that it may well be that your work in self-denial will involve
You know it’s interesting to me, there’s no part of the Christian life that
doesn’t entail self-denial. You
think about it. Self-denial is a
part of every aspect to the Christian life, forgiveness especially because to
forgive requires self-denial. When
someone has wronged you, what is your tendency?
What is your temptation? You
want to taste their punishment upon your lips. You want them to be set straight.
You want them to get what they deserve.
You want them to get their comeuppance.
You want them to feel the pain that they’ve made you to feel.
And if there’s ever going to be any forgiveness in a relationship what
does it require? It requires you
setting that aside. And what is
that? Self-denial – and taking a
step toward someone who has wronged you.
And then it entails believing that the Father is working in your
No, the Father’s not responsible for that sin that that person has done against
you that you’re having to wrestle with by God’s grace forgiving, but the Father
does appoint everything in your life.
The perpetrator is responsible for that sin but God is sovereign over it
and everything else and He has a purpose in your life even in that affliction of
sin so that with Joseph you can say to his brothers, “You did mean it for evil
against me, but God meant it for good.”
And then you follow Jesus and say, “I forgive.”
There is a true story of an African-American man who was a slave in Virginia before the War Between the States.
He escaped as a young man, maybe in his late teens or early twenties,
from an abusive master and he went to live, I think, in
where he became a minister. After
the war was over and after freedom had come to all of the slaves, this slave
owner eventually became a Christian and he greatly regretted his treatment of
his slaves. And in his latter days
he desired in particular to be reconciled to this slave who had run away but he
was infirm by this time and so he wrote a letter to the man.
He discovered where he lived and he wrote a letter to him saying that he
would like to come to him but he was physically unable, and so he wondered
whether this man would consent, as his expense, to come and visit him so that
he, the slave owner — former slave owner — could ask forgiveness of this former
slave who is now a minister. Now,
here’s where the story gets interesting.
The former slave who is now a minister had heard of his former master’s
conversion and had frankly struggled with bitterness because this man had done
him much hurt, and his heart was not softened to that man when he heard of his
conversion to Christ because of his understandable anger towards his treatment.
And so it was something to receive that correspondence from a man who
wanted to ask his forgiveness. And
he thought about it long and hard and he agreed to go.
And the meeting between these men is recorded for us for posterity.
The slave owner was in the bed. The
former slave stood at his bedside.
The man who was his former master began to confess his sins to his former slave.
His former slave interrupted him and said to him, “But I must ask you
forgiveness for I have harbored bitterness and hate to you in my heart for the
way you treated me.” And the two men
actually argued with each other for a bit about who needed to be forgiven more
and they were reconciled. But do you
understand that that reconciliation required self-denial on the parts of both of
those men? That former slave had to
humble his pride to even grant forgiveness to one who had done him wrong.
And that slave owner had to see in his pride what he had done wrong in
order to seek forgiveness from this man.
Forgiveness requires self-denial.
I wonder if there’s someone that you need to forgive — maybe it’s your husband
or your wife, maybe it’s your parents, maybe it’s your children, maybe it’s
someone who was a dear, dear friend but from whom you have now been estranged —
you’ve been wounded; you’ve been done wrong.
Maybe it’s someone in this congregation.
It will require self-denial for you to take the first step of forgiveness
and reconciliation, but hear what Jesus is saying to you — “If anyone will
follow Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and come after Me.”
The second thing I want you to see is this — those who refuse to deny themselves
and instead seek their own satisfaction will never find it.
Those who refuse to deny themselves and instead seek their own
satisfaction will never ever find it. Those who seek for their own
self-preservation and their own self-interest in this life, those who seek
primarily for their own satisfaction will be utterly thwarted.
Jesus promises it. Look at
what He says — verse 24 — “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever
loses his life for My sake will save it.”
Jesus is saying that the only way to experience, to gain, true life is
giving yourself away, is giving your life away, is losing your life, is denying
yourself. Those that live for
themselves never ever get the satisfaction that they seek.
In fact, what happens is their souls get smaller and smaller. They shrivel up.
They become turned in on themselves.
Have you ever met someone like that who’s lived that way for many, many
years and is now on the brink of eternity?
It is not a pretty sight. But
those who deny themselves, their souls are enlarged.
Their souls grow. They become
filled with love. They care about
things that are eternal. They’re
able to forgive. They’re able to
experience a joy that no one else could imagine.
You see, all Jesus’ disciples learn to say, “Not my will but Thy will be
done,” because Jesus’ prayer, “Not My will but Thy will be done,” which is a
prayer of self denial — “Lord, Your way not my way.
Lord, Your way not my way.” — that prayer was necessary for Him to
experience what Paul says He experienced in Philippians 2 — That “to Him, the
name which is above every name was given, that at His name, the name of Jesus
the Lord, every knee should bow and every tongue should confess that Jesus
Christ is Lord.” That prayer, “Not
My will but Thy will be done,” was necessary for that achievement to occur.
And so it is in the Christian life. If
you pursue your satisfaction, you will not get it.
If you pursue His kingdom, you will, except it will be greater than any
satisfaction you can imagine. Do you
remember what Jesus says to the disciples in the gospels?
“No one will give up mother, father, family, farm, or lands for Me who
will not receive in this life and in the age to come a hundred fold of what he’s
Do you see what Jesus is saying?
He’s saying that when you deny yourself for Him you do not lose the satisfaction
that you would have had, you gain a satisfaction that you couldn’t have had
except in Him. And I want to say
that that’s a very important part of the self-denial that Jesus is calling us to
because He’s not simply calling us to have a stiff upper lip and deny ourselves
and recognize that we’re never ever going to have the satisfaction that we’ve
And He emphasizes this — look especially at verses 26 and 27 — He speaks of when
He comes in glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels and He
speaks of our seeing the kingdom of God.
Now those passages are of course part of a warning, but I want you to see
this positive side. Jesus is saying
that everyone, everyone who gives up their own satisfaction for His sake and for
the kingdom’s sake now will receive a satisfaction that transcends anything that
this world can give. Jesus is
saying, “Do the math! Deny yourself
now, temporally, and I will satisfy you fully, forever.
This life is a vapor and it’s passing away, and if you’ll deny yourself
now I will give you pleasures forevermore.”
That’s one part of Christian self-denial.
You know I find, I do find Christians, especially older Christians who have
learned the Christian virtue of self-denial, and I find that they do know what
it is that they need to deny themselves, but I often find, even in those who do
practice self-denial and who deny themselves, I find in them sometimes a lack of
a full appreciation of just how much satisfaction is being stored up for them
and how everything that they’ve lost will be repaid to them in a currency that
they cannot even conceive. It’s part
of the Christian hope.
III. If we fail to deny
our selves in this life, we will lose our souls.
But here’s the last thing I want you to see my friends.
If we do not go the way of self-denial, we will lose our souls, for there
is no temporal gain that can compare to the loss of the soul.
“What does it profit” — look at verse 25 — “What does it profit a man if
he gains the whole world and yet loses or forfeits himself?”
What does it matter to have ease and comfort and popularity and beauty
and prestige and success and power and money and influence without true life?
What does it matter? And what
are we investing ourselves in?
It’s not just about forgiveness, is it?
It’s about our stewardship. I
must say that I look at our houses and then I look at the houses of our parents
and I often ask myself that question, “What do our houses tell us about
ourselves in comparison to them?
What do we really care about? What’s
most important to us? Is the kingdom
most important to us, or is our ease most important to us?”
The Lord Jesus Christ tells us that selfishness causes the soul to
contract but love makes it expand and enriches it and fills it to overflowing
with assurance and peace and joy.
That’s why Jim Elliot could quote the old Puritan1
saying, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he
cannot lose.” That is the Christian
algebra of self-denial. You see in
the end, it’s not denial of self equals loss of satisfaction and so we grin and
bear it for Jesus. It’s denial of
self does bring real and often lifelong lasting depravation, which then becomes
an eternity filled with satisfaction that we could not imagine.
And sometimes even that satisfaction bleeds back into this age so that we
enjoy foretaste of that glory which fill up every void which has been left in
our life by the self denial.
Jesus says, “If you’re My follower, you will deny yourself.”
He’s not saying, “Deny yourself and you’ll be saved,” else we’re all in
trouble. He’s saying — and you know
this, by the way, because He’s just preached about the cross and then He speaks
about self-denial — He’s saying, “If you have become a Christian by My cross and
by God’s grace, the life that God is calling you to is a life of self-denial, a
life that you can only live because of the Gospel, a self-denial that you can
only practice because of My grace.”
And He’s saying, “Come, die with Me daily.
Live for Me daily. Deny
yourself daily and I will satisfy you in ways that you could not possibly
imagine, now and forevermore.” It is
an adventure worth beginning.
Lord God, this
is a hard word — who is sufficient to it?
We ask that by Your grace You would enable us to take the first step down
this road and to keep on walking until travelling days are done.
This we ask in Jesus’ name.
Let’s sing Jesus’ words back to Him and mediate on what they mean for us using
number six hundred ten — “Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said”
Our Lord Jesus Christ never ever calls us to give up more than He gives to us,
so receive His rich and full blessing upon you.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus
Philip Henry (1631-1696), father of well known preacher and Bible
commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714), was credited with a very similar saying.
Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry..., published in 1833,
is a biography of Philip by Matthew. The original biography had apparently been
published in 1699. On page 35 of the volume, Matthew is recalling his father’s
acts of kindness and charity and how he used to say, “He is no fool who parts
with what he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with what he cannot
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