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Self- Denial

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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Jesus emphasized the necessity of self-denial (ἑαυτὸν ἀπαρνεῖσθαι, Mark 8:34 ff.) and the taking up of the cross if outward following was to become real discipleship. Self-denial looks primarily to the initial struggle by which the disciple cuts himself adrift from his former way of living, renouncing parents, wife, possessions, hating life itself when these stand in the way (Matthew 10:37 f., Luke 14:26 f.). Taking up the cross looks rather to the acceptance of the stern conditions and dread possibilities of the new life itself. By the former the individual tears himself out of the old conditions, by the latter he shoulders the burdens of the new and as yet untried service. The difference between the two may be illustrated from the experience of the man who volunteers to serve his country in war. He has first to wrench himself from the glad associations of home, and then to take his post of hardship, danger, and perhaps death in the ranks and on the field of battle. Both are acts of will characterized by immediacy and decisiveness (aor. Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23, Matthew 16:24); but Luke’s addition of ‘daily’ is psychologically true. The original choice has to be constantly re-affirmed if the acolyte is not to become an apostate.

The best commentary on these two ideas is found in Philippians 3:4-14, where St. Paul describes both his own self-denial and his taking up of the cross. What things were gain to him these he counted loss for Christ, i.e. he gave up friends, privileges, earthly prospects-in reality his old self-and he accepted to the full the conditions of the new service (cf. Acts 9:16), the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and conformity to His death. Similar is the thought in Galatians 2:19 f. The Apostle speaks of what he calls his own death, his own crucifixion, and Christ now living in him.

Thus, although the evangelic phrase ἑαυτὸν ἀπαρνεῖσθαι is not found in the apostolic literature, the idea underlies the whole apostolic view of the Christian life.

(a) The idea was primarily used in the martyr sense of willingness to suffer death or persecution for Jesus’ sake. Death and persecution in themselves have no spiritual value (1 Corinthians 13:3, 1 Peter 4:15), but to deny the ‘name’ or the ‘faith’ (Revelation 2:13; Revelation 3:8) in order to escape them is to renounce Christ. ‘Whoever denies himself to be a Christian and makes that plain by his actions, i.e. by worshipping our gods, … shall gain forgiveness’ (Trajan’s letter to Pliny, Ep. xcviii. [xcviii.], in E. G. Hardy’s ed. of Pliny, Epp. ad Traianum, London, 1889, p. 217). To do that is the very opposite of Christian self-denial in this martyr sense. The Apocalypse is a warning against ‘cowardice’ (Revelation 21:8), and an encouragement to be faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10). The Christian was in constant danger of a violent death for Christ’s sake (Romans 8:36, 2 Corinthians 4:10, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 15:31, 2 Timothy 2:11-13). This νέκρωσις, or dying to the world, was, however, the sure foretaste of eternal life. ‘God cannot deny himself,’ and this Divine moral consistency ensures future glory to those who deny Him not, as it ensures shame to those who do (2 Timothy 2:11-13). Some explain 2 Timothy 2:11 of the Christian’s death with Christ in conversion (J. Moffatt, in Expositor’s Greek Testament , London, 1910), and 1 Corinthians 15:31 of ‘the utter self-denial with which he [St. Paul] devoted himself to the work of preaching Christ’ (T. C. Edwards, 1 Corinthians2, London, 1885, p. 425); but both passages can be as well explained as referring to the danger of violent death and persecution for Christ’s sake. Christian self-denial in this sense is tile assertion of Christ’s unconditional Lordship and the repudiation of all other claims (like the Κύριος καῖσαρ claim) to determine Christian conduct.

(b) Self-denial describes also the initial stage of the Christian life when by faith the individual wholly yields himself to Christ. When St. Paul said: ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6), that is self-denial. Man apart from God is selfish, controlled from below. ‘Homo extra Deum quaerit pabulum in creatura materials vel per voluptatem vel per avaritiam’ (Bengel, on Romans 1:29). While the ὁ ἔσω ἄνθρωπος (Romans 7:22; 1 Peter 3:4) or the νοῦς acknowledges the higher law of God, in actual experience the self is enslaved. To obtain freedom total self-denial is required. This is done by an act of faith in Christ. The old sinful self dies with Christ (Galatians 2:20 f., Romans 6:6, Colossians 2:20). This self-denial is typified by baptism. It is ‘the crucifixion of personal desire and pretension in order to the reception of communicated life’ (T. H. Green, Works5, London, 1906, iii. 194). The death of Christ is the objective condition of this initial act of self-denial. The identification of the personality with Christ is possible because Christ first identified Himself with us. This is the Divine moment in Christian self-denial, and this is what distinguishes it from the Platonic or Hegelian. Plato speaks of the ‘inner man’ (Rep. ix. 589 A.; cf. Plotinus, Enn. i. 1, 10), or the ‘god within.’ This was also a favourite Stoic conception. To the Stoics self-denial was due to the inherent native energy of this Divine element, just as to the Hegelian it is a process immanent in humanity as such. Such a view takes no account of guilt as an infringement of the Divine law, and as something which man per se cannot remove. It is superficial also in its analysis of the actual moral weakness of man. By faith the Christian is united with Christ in His death and so guilt is removed. Death cancels all claims (Romans 6:7-14), and the result is a new man (νέος, καινὸς ἄνθρωπος, Colossians 3:10, Ephesians 4:24, Galatians 6:15). Christian self-denial is not thus simply a bare moral act-it is redemptively conditioned-nor is it an end in itself, nor self-destruction as it seems to be in Buddhism. Its object is self-renewal, self-re-creation in Christ.

(c) This leads to another self-denial, which is the gradual life-long process of sanctification negatively viewed, just as the former self-denial ‘which is its root’ is ‘the one decisive ideal act’ taking place at conversion (Sanday-Headlam, International Critical Commentary , ‘Romans’5, Edinburgh, 1902, p. 158). We must not separate the two and make the one forensic and the other ethical. ‘Paul never presents Christ’s death as a substitution for ours in the sense that we need not die as well’ (Green, iii. 194). It is equally true-and this is what Green does not sufficiently emphasize-that he never thinks of our dying as possible apart from the prior substitutionary death of Christ for us. The modern tendency is to over-emphasize in St. Paul’s teaching what Green neglects. J. Weiss (Paul and Jesus, Eng. translation , London, 1909), e.g., makes it a radical distinction between St. Paul and Jesus that for St. Paul the ethical content of the new life is an effect of Divine acts, while for Jesus it is an effect of man’s own ethical endeavour. But to St. Paul it is an act both of will and of Divine working at one and the same time (Philippians 2:12-13).

The self to be denied is the sinful self and its works. The phrases used for this self-denial are to ‘put off’ (ἀποτίθεσθαι), ‘to cleanse’ (καθαρίζειν), ‘to slay’ (θανατοῦν) the flesh and its works. The new life of the Christian in virtue of his faith and of the presence of the Holy Spirit is hid with Christ in God, it is a walk in the Spirit, it is Christ in us and we in Him. Hence, it is inconsistent that the fruits of this new life should spring from the flesh. The Christian life is not a life of moral indifferentism, τὸ ἀδιαφόρως ζῆν (Clem. Alex. Strom. iii. 5. 40), as some of the early sects held. It is because this moral indifferentism was associated with intellectual error concerning Christ that John, Jude, Peter, and Paul (Col. and Pastorals) oppose Christian self-denial to intellectual error and to moral delinquency. Self-denial in this sense is the personal regaining, through conflict, of all the personality and of society for God. It is the gradual realization of all that is involved in our dying with Christ in conversion and our rising with Him to newness of life.

(d) But Christian self-denial rises to even higher heights. The Christian life is one of self-denial in the sense that the life of Jesus was also one of supreme self-denial. His life was one of complete obedience to His Father’s will (Hebrews 5:8; cf. Mark 14:36). It was a life of self-emptying for the sake of redemption (Philippians 2:7), and the Christian is under law to Christ (ἔννομος Χριστοῦ, 1 Corinthians 9:21). The law of Christ is that each one must bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2). The Christian law of self-denial is thus that we serve one another through love (Galatians 5:13). The example of Christ constrains us to renounce privileges, liberties, ease, even life itself, for the sake of bringing blessing to others-‘we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 John 3:16). How far this may go we can judge from Romans 9:3 f., a ‘spark from the fire of Christ’s substitutionary love’ (Dorner, quoted in Expositor’s Greek Testament , London, 1900, in loc.). It is in this light that we must view the giving up of property by Barnabas and others. This self-denial is not consciously directed against sin as described above (c), but is rather the out-flowings of Christ’s love in the heart. St. Paul connects the example of Jesus often with this self-denial, and this example is not simply a human example but that of One who, though He was rich, for our sakes became poor; of One who, though He was Divine, yet became obedient unto death, the death of the Cross. The Christian life of self-denial is motived by love. This is the immanent principle which is present all along and which unifies in one Christian experience all these forms of self-denial. Without this all is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:3). It was in Christ that this love dawned on men. It is the love of Christ shed abroad in our hearts.

Literature.-W. F. Adeney, article ‘Self-Surrender’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iv.; W. L. Walker, The Spirit and the Incarnation., Edinburgh, 1899, Index, s.v. ‘Self-Renunciation’; J. Köstlin, Christliche Ethik, Berlin, 1888-89, p. 119; A. Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Eng. translation , London, 1904, vol. i. bk. i. ch. iii.; T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics4, Oxford, 1899, bk. iii. ch. 5.; see also various Commentaries on passages quoted.

Donald Mackenzie.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Self- Denial'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​s/self--denial.html. 1906-1918.
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