Sep 16, 2018

“Self-Denial” 9-16-18

Mark 8:24-37
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 16, 2018

This past weekend, as some of you may recall, our Midwest Presbytery held its final meeting of 2018 at Warsaw EPC in Warsaw, Indiana.  Now there are aspects of presbytery that I always look forward to.  I look forward to renewed fellowship with pastors and elders from other congregations.  I always await with anticipation the reports from EPC World Outreach and our own presbytery’s Church Development Committee.  Pastor Dave Horner chairs that committee and at each presbytery he introduces some of our church planters and redevelopment pastors who share stories of what God is doing in their ministries.  At the same time, though, I must confess that there are aspects of presbytery meetings that expose my need to grow significantly in patience and humility.  While we get to hear reports from missionaries and church planters, typically these are rushed and time-constrained.  On the other hand, the meetings often bog down in what seem like interminably tedious examinations, not only of candidates for ordination to the ministry, but of veteran EPC ministers from other presbyteries. Now, these exams and debates are necessary and it is good that we take the time to “get it right.”   In fact, I’m grateful that there are ministers who thrive on this sort of thing, but I have to confess that I am not one of them.  Sometimes presbytery meetings seem to nudge me toward the “dark side.”

But, even in the mental numbness induced by hours of sitting, relief and light sometimes break through.  This weekend, for example, after hearing a third candidate list the Five Points of Calvinism, one of the commissioners rose and asked him if he could say something about Calvin’s influence beyond the “Five Points.”  Of course, the candidate answered quite competently and the exam moved on to the Book of Order.  But, as I pondered the question about Calvin for myself—putting myself in the candidate’s shoes—I recalled that there was a strong connection between Calvin and today’s sermon text about “denying one’s self.”  Around 1550, one of the chapters of Calvin’s Institutes was published separately under the title “On the Life of the Christian.”  It circulated widely in Europe and Britain and deeply influenced the Protestant understanding of godliness.  In it, Calvin identifies self-denial and bearing the cross as the starting point for Christian living.  Hence, it provides a great introduction to our sermon text:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34)

I would like us to take a close look at Calvin’s discussion of self-denial in the Institutes, but first it is helpful to note his exposition of the text in his commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Calvin explains Mark 8:34 in this way:  “The meaning is, that none can be reckoned to be the disciples of Christ unless they are true imitators of him, and are willing to pursue the same course.”  Thus, for Calvin, self-denial and cross-bearing are part of the imitation of Christ.  Moreover, Calvin understands this self-denial to consist of self-restraint with respect to natural desires.  “ This self-denial is very extensive, and implies that we ought to give up our natural inclinations, and part with all the affections of the flesh, and thus give our consent to be reduced to nothing, provided that God lives and reigns in us…  If we desire to enter into the school of Christ…we must control and subdue all our affections.”  I will return to this in a moment, but it is important to note that Calvin sees self-denial in relationship to what we might call the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, and subduing the desires of the flesh.

Calvin’s treatment of self-denial and bearing the cross in Book III, Chapter 7 of the Institutes follows a similar trajectory.  However, in the Institutes he places self-denial and bearing the cross within the context of the offering of our lives to God in true worship and devotion.   I would like to quote extensively from his introductory comments in Book III, Chapter 7, because these, in their way, have been just as influential in Protestant thought as his teachings that find expression in what became known much later as the “Five Points.”  Hear what he has to say about the foundation of our lives:
The great point, then, is, that we are consecrated and dedicated to God, and, therefore, should not henceforth think, speak, design, or act, without a view to his glory. What he hath made sacred cannot, without signal insult to him, be applied to profane use. But if we are not our own, but the Lord's, it is plain both what error is to be shunned, and to what end the actions of our lives ought to be directed. We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. On the other hand, we are God's; let us, therefore, live and die to him (Rom. xiv. 8.) We are God's; therefore, let his wisdom and will preside over all our actions. We are God's; to him, then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed.

I hope you heard Calvin’s starting point for the Christian life, a starting point that makes it possible to hear Christ’s call to a life of self-denial and bearing the cross.   We are not our own.  We are not our own. We are not our own.  We are God’s.  We are God’s.  We are God’s!  To get a feel for Calvin’s impact on Christianity since the Reformation we need only to turn to one of the most widely used introductions to the faith in its Protestant form, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism, published a year after Calvin’s death in 1564.  It opens with the question about my only comfort in life and death.  The answer: “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior.”  We are not our own.  We are God’s.  This is Calvin’s starting point and those who were most deeply influenced by his teaching made it their starting point as well.  Note especially that the starting point for talking about a life of self-denial—we are not our own—is also the starting point for talking about comfort in life and death.  Calvin’s prose is a bit tedious and heavy going for modern readers, but I would urge you take some time and work your way, as far as you can sustain it, through Book III, Chapters 6-10.   It will reward your efforts.

Now, having shared with you my deep appreciation for Calvin’s insight into the foundation of the Christian life, I want to suggest, with all humility, that there is an aspect of the Lord’s call to self-denial and cross-bearing that Calvin misses.  Let me express it this way:  Calvin understands the call to self-denial as a call to deny ourselves certain things.  I understand the call to self-denial as a call to deny ourselves.  Period. 

What do I mean by this?  The best way to explain it is to draw your attention to the one other incident in the synoptic gospels where this word “deny” occurs.  This is, of course, Peter’s denial of Jesus three times while Jesus is being questioned by the Jewish council.  Three times in Mark 14:66-72 different people accuse Peter of being one of Jesus’ followers.  Three times he denies it, saying—even with a curse—“I don’t know this man.”   That is what “deny” means.  It means to renounce, to reject, and to repudiate any connection between ourselves and someone or something.  

There is one place in Scripture where we are urged to deny certain kinds of desires and behaviors.  In Titus 2:11-12, St. Paul says that the grace of God trains us to “renounce [literally ‘deny’] impiety and world passions.”   But note that in Titus 2 Paul does not say that we are to renounce or deny ourselves, but that we are to renounce these attitudes and desires. 

Appreciating this seemingly slight distinction can help us grasp the full impact of what Jesus says in the renewed call to costly discipleship in Mark 8.  Essentially, Jesus says this:  “The time will come when your connection with me will put you at risk.  The time will come when there will be a price to pay for identifying as one of my followers.  When that time comes, you will have to make a choice.  You can say of me, “I don’t know him.”  Or, you can say of your fearful, hesitating self, “I don’t know you!”  Jesus is saying, “If you want to be my follower, you need to decide at the outset who you will renounce when your connection to me becomes costly.”   This places the whole notion of “self-denial” in a far different light than just restraining our desires and appetites. 

The invitation to deny oneself and take up the cross is issued after Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ.  It functions, then as a kind of “reset” button for Jesus’ followers.  Up to this point, they have all been cherishing their own set of expectations concerning what the appearing of the Kingdom of God would look like and what it would mean for them.  We can safely assume that these expectations were full of immediate temporal glory and advancement.  But, once Jesus confirms Peter’s confession that he is the Messiah, he begins to plainly teach what he had only hinted at earlier.  The way of Messiah’s victory was the way of rejection, suffering, death and resurrection.  His followers should not expect that there would be a different path for them.

So Jesus uses Peter’s confession to renew the invitation to follow him.  He makes it clear that discipleship will involve costly loyalty.  But, the path by which one seemingly stands to lose everything is, in reality, the way to find life and gain the Kingdom.   Note especially that Jesus’ words function as an invitation and not a warning.  “If anyone wants to follow me” is an invitation to consider what is most precious in life and in particular our estimation of the Kingdom and Jesus himself.  Following Jesus means taking up the cross.  The cross is serious business.  It is a place to die.  It is, as the hymn says, “the emblem of suffering and shame.”  But, in taking up the cross, it is with Jesus that we get to journey.   What price will we put on that?  Is it worth losing one’s life to find it in Christ? 

There is a parallel here with John 6 and the Bread of Life discourse that we considered during the month of August.  That section ends with disciples reconsidering their commitment to Jesus, and many walking away.  Jesus turns to the Twelve and says, “Will you also go away?”  Peter famously answers, “To whom shall we go.  You alone have words of eternal life.”  Then he confesses Jesus as the Messiah. 

The invitation to deny oneself and take up the cross is an invitation to entrust our lives into the care of the savior so that we might truly live.  It is here that we remember our only comfort.  I am not my own, but I belong to my faithful savior.  We deny ourselves and take up the cross, knowing that we belong to the one who went to the cross, was buried and descended into hell for us.  Because he rose again for us, we know that the one to whom we belong holds us safe and will bring us safely through.  The call to self-denial sounds to our unbelief like a summons into the abyss.  As the call of Jesus, though, faith hears it as the gracious invitation to life that is truly life.



Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906