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The First Lesson in Christ's School of Discipleship

Series: Luke

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 7, 2010

Luke 9:23-27

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The Lord's Day Morning

February 7, 2010

Luke 9:23-27

“The First Lesson in Christ's School of Discipleship”

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. Amen.

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 kingdom of God.’”

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 announces.

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 the kingdom of God. 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 university 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 self denial.

II. Take your cross daily.

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 forgiveness.

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 affliction.

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 Pennsylvania 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 given up.”

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 given away.

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.

Let's pray.

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. Amen.

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 Christ. Amen.

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1. Philip Henry (1631-1696), father of well known preacher and Bible commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714), was credited with a very similar saying. In The 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 lose."

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