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OF SELF-DENIAL AND SUFFERING FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.—Matt. xvi. 24.
“THEN said Jesus to his disciples;” that is, upon occasion of his former discourse with them, wherein he had acquainted them with his approaching passion, that he must shortly go up to Jerusalem, and there suffer many things of the “elders and chief priests and scribes,” and at last be put to death by them: “then said Jesus to his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
“If any man will come after me,” or follow me; that is, if any man will be my disciple, and under take the profession of my religion; if any man choose and resolve to be a Christian; he must be so upon these terms, he must “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me;” he must follow me in self-denial and suffering.
In the handling of these words, I shall do these four things.
I. I shall consider the way and method which our Saviour useth in making proselytes, and gaining men over to his religion. He offers no manner of force and violence to compel them to the profession of his religion; but fairly offers it to their consideration and choice, and tells them plainly, upon what 221terms they must be his disciples; and if they be contented and resolved to submit to these terms, well; if not, it is in vain to follow him any longer: for they cannot be his disciples.
II. I shall endeavour to explain this duty of self-denial, expressed in these words, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
III. I shall consider the strict and indispensable obligation of it, whenever we are called to it; without this we cannot be Christ’s disciples: “If any man will come after me, or be my disciple, let him deny himself.”
IV. I shall endeavour to vindicate the reasonableness of this precept of self-denial and suffering for Christ, which at first appearance may seem to be so very harsh and difficult; and I shall go over these particulars as briefly as I can.
I. We will consider the way and method which our Saviour here useth in making proselytes, and gaining men over to his religion. He offers no manner of force and violence to compel men to the profession of his religion; but fairly proposeth it to their consideration and choice, telling them plainly upon what terms they must be his disciples; if they like them, and are content, and resolved to submit to them, well; he is willing to receive them, and own them for his disciples: if not, it is in vain to follow him any longer: for they cannot be his disciples. As, on the one hand, he offers them no worldly preferment and advantage to entice them into his religion, and to tempt them outwardly to profess what they do not inwardly believe; so, on the other hand, he does not hale and drag them by force, and awe them by the terrors of torture and death to sign the Christian faith, though most undoubtedly true, 222and to confess with their mouths, and subscribe with their hands, what they do not believe in their hearts. He did not obtrude his sacraments upon them, and plunge them into the water to baptize them, whether they would or no, and thrust the sacrament of bread into their mouths; as if men might be worthy receivers of the blessed sacrament, whether they receive it willingly or no.
Our blessed Saviour, the author and founder of our religion, made use of none of these ways of violence, so contrary to the nature of man, and of all religion, especially of Christianity, and fitted only to make men hypocrites, but not converts; he only says, “If any man will be my disciple;” he useth no arguments, but such as are spiritual and proper to work upon the minds and consciences of men. For as his kingdom was not of this world, so neither are the motives and arguments, to induce men to be his subjects, taken from this world; but from the endless rewards and punishments of another. The weapons which he made use of to subdue men to the obedience of faith were not carnal; and yet they were “mighty through God,” to conquer the obstinacy and infidelity of men. This great and infallible Teacher, who certainly came from God, all that he does, is to propose his religion to men, with such evidence and such arguments as are proper to convince men of the truth and goodness of it, and to persuade men to embrace it: and he acquaints them likewise with all the worldly disadvantages of it, and the hazards and sufferings that would attend it; and now if upon full consideration they will make his religion their free choice, and become his disciples, he is willing to receive them; if they will not, he understands the nature of religion better 223than to go about to force it upon men, whether they will or no.
II. I shall endeavour to explain this duty or precept of self-denial, expressed in these words, “Let him deny himself and take up his cross,” These are difficult terms, for a man to deny himself, and take up his own cross, that is, willingly to submit to all those sufferings which the malice of men may inflict for the sake of Christ and his religion. For this expression of taking up one’s cross, is a plain allusion to the Roman custom, which was this; that he that was condemned to be crucified, was to take his cross upon his shoulders, and to carry it to the place of execution: this the Jews made our Saviour to do, as we read John xix. 17, till that, being ready to faint under it, and lest he should die away before he was nailed to the cross, they compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry it for him, as is declared by the other evangelists: and yet he tells them, they that will be his disciples must follow him, bearing their own cross; that is, being ready (if God call them to it) to submit to the like sufferings for him and his truth, which he was shortly to undergo for the truth and their sakes.
But though these terms seem very hard, yet they are not unreasonable, as I shall shew in the conclusion of this discourse. Some, indeed, have made them so, by extending this self-denial too far, at tending more to the latitude of the words, than to the meaning and scope of our Saviour’s discourse: for there is no doubt but that there are a great many things which may properly enough be called self-denial, which yet our Saviour never intended to oblige Christians to. It is, no doubt, great self-denial for a man, without any necessity, to deny himself 224the necessary supports of life; for a man to starve and make away himself: but no man, certainly, ever imagined that our Saviour ever intended by this precept to enjoin this kind of self-denial.
It is plain, then, that there is no reason or necessity to extend this precept of our Saviour, concerning self-denial, to every thing that may properly enough be called by that name; and therefore this precept must be limited by the plain scope and intendment of our Saviour’s discourse; and no man can argue thus such a thing is self-denial, therefore our Saviour requires it of his disciples; for our Saviour doth not here require all kinds of self-denial, but limits it by his discourse to one certain kind, beyond which self-denial is no duty by virtue of this text; and therefore, for our clearer understanding of this precept of self-denial, I shall do these two things:
First, Remove some sorts of self-denial which are instanced in by some, as intended in this precept.
Secondly, I shall shew what kind of self-denial that is, which our Saviour here intends.
First, There are several things brought under this precept of self-denial, which were never in tended by our Saviour. I shall instance in two or three things, which are most frequently insisted upon, and some of them by very devout and well-meaning men; as that in matters of faith, we should deny and renounce our own senses and our reason; nay, that we should be content to renounce our own eternal happiness, and be willing to be damned for the glory of God, and the good of our brethren. But all these are so apparently and grossly unreasonable, that it is a wonder that any one should ever take them for instances of that self-denial which 225our Saviour requires; especially considering that in all his discourse of self-denial, he does not so much as glance at any of these instances, or any thing like to them.
1. Some comprehend under self-denial the denying and renouncing our own senses in matters of faith: and if this could be made out to be intended by our Saviour in this precept, we needed not dispute any of the other instances. For he that renounceth the certainty of sense, so as not to believe what he sees, may after this renounce and deny any thing. For the evidence of sense is more clear and unquestionable than that of faith, as the Scripture frequently intimates, as (John xx. 29.) where our Saviour reproves Thomas for refusing to believe his resurrection upon any less evidence than that of sense—“Because thou hast seen thou hast believed: blessed are they which have not seen, and yet have believed;” which plainly supposeth the evidence of sense to be the highest and clearest degree of evidence. So likewise that of St. Paul: (2 Cor. v. 7.) “We walk by faith, and not by sight;” where the evidence of faith, as that which is more imperfect and obscure, is opposed to that of sight, as more clear and certain. So that to believe any article of faith, in contradiction to the clear evidence of sense, is contrary to the very nature of assent, which always yields to the greatest and clearest evidence.
Besides that, our belief of religion is at last resolved into the certainty of sense: so that by renouncing that, we destroy and undermine the very foundation of our faith. One of the plainest and principal proofs of the being of God (which is the first and fundamental article of all religion) relies upon the certainty of sense; namely, the frame of 226this visible world, by the contemplation whereof we are led to the acknowledgment of the invisible Author of it. So St. Paul tells us, (Rom. i. 20.) that “the invisible things of God, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.”
And the great external evidence of the Christian religion, I mean miracles, is at last resolved into the certainty of sense, without which we can have no assurance that any miracle was wrought for the confirmation of it.
And the knowledge likewise of the Christian faith is conveyed to us by our senses; the evidence whereof, if it be uncertain, takes away all certainty of faith. “How shall they believe, (saith St. Paul, Rom. x. 14.) how shall they believe in him, of whom they have not heard?” and, ver. 17. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” So that to deny and renounce our senses, in matters of faith, is to take away the main pillar and foundation of it.
2. Others, almost with equal absurdity, would comprehend under our Saviour’s precept of self-denial, the denying and renouncing of our reason in matters of faith. And this is self-denial with a witness, for a man to deny his own reason; for it is to deny himself to be a man. This, surely, is a very great mistake; and, though the ground of it maybe innocent, yet the consequences of it, and the discourses upon it, are very absurd.
The ground of the mistake is this: men think they deny their own reason when they assent to the revelation of God in such things as their own reason could neither have discovered, nor is able to give 227the reason of: whereas, in this case, a man is so far from denying his own reason, that he does that which is most agreeable to it. For what more reasonable than to believe whatever we are sufficiently assured is revealed to us by God, who can neither be deceived himself, nor deceive us?
But though the ground of this mistake may be innocent, yet the consequences of it are most absurd and dangerous. For if we are to renounce our reason in matters of faith, then are we bound to believe without reason, which no man can do; or. if he could, then faith would be unreasonable, and infidelity reasonable. So that this instance, likewise, of self-denial, to renounce and deny our own reason, as it is nowhere expressed, so it can not reasonably be thought to be intended by our Saviour in this precept.
3. Nor doth this precept of self-denial require men to be content to renounce their own eternal happiness, and to be willing to be damned for the glory of God, and the good of their brethren. If this were the meaning of this precept, we might justly say, as the disciples did to our Saviour, in another case, “This is a hard saying, and who can bear it? The very thought of this is enough to make human nature tremble at its very foundation. For the deepest principle that God hath planted in nature is, the desire of our own preservation and happiness: and into this the force of all laws, and the reason of all our duty, is at last resolved.
From whence it plainly follows, that it can be no man’s duty in any case to renounce his own happiness, and to be content to be for ever miserable; because if once this be made a duty, there will be no argument left to persuade any man to it. For 228the most powerful arguments that God ever used to persuade men to any thing, are the promise of eternal happiness, and the terror of everlasting torments: but if this were a man’s duty, to be content to be miserable for ever, neither of these arguments would be of force sufficient to persuade a man to it.
The first of these, namely, the promise of eternal happiness, could signify nothing to him that is to be eternally miserable; because, if he be to be so, it is impossible that he should ever have the benefit of that promise: and the threatening of eternal misery, could be no argument in this case; because the duty is just as difficult as the argument is powerful, and no man can be moved to submit to any thing, that is grievous and terrible, but by some thing that is more terrible: for if it be not, it is the same thing whether he submit to it, or not; and then no man can be content to be eternally miserable, only for the fear of being so; for this would be for a man to run himself upon that very inconvenience which he is so much afraid of: and it is madness for a man to die for fear of death. Quis novus hic furor est, ne moriare, mori?
By this it plainly appears, how unreasonable it is to imagine, that by this precept of self-denial, our Saviour should require men to renounce everlasting happiness, and to be content to be miserable for ever, upon any account whatsoever; because this were to suppose, that God hath imposed that upon us as a duty, to oblige us whereto there can be no argument offered that can be powerful enough.
As for the glory of God, which is pretended to be the reason, it is an impossible supposition; because it cannot be for the glory of God, to make a creature for ever miserable, that shall not by his 229wilful obstinacy and impenitence deserve to be so. But this is only cast in to add weight.
The other reason of the good and salvation of our brethren, is the only consideration for which there is any manner of colour from Scripture; and two instances are alleged to this purpose, of two very excellent persons, that seem to have desired this, and to have submitted to it; and therefore it is not so unreasonable as we would make it, that our Saviour should enjoin it as a duty. The instances alleged are these. Moses desired of God that he might be blotted out of the book of life, rather than the people of Israel, whom he had conducted and governed so long, should be destroyed: and, in the New Testament, St. Paul tells us, that “he could wish that himself were accursed from Christ for his brethren;” so earnest a desire had he of their salvation.
But neither of these instances are of force sufficient to overthrow the reasons of my former discourse; for the desire of Moses amounts only to a submission to a temporal death, that his nation might be saved from a temporal ruin. For the expression of “blotting out of the book of life,” is of the same importance with those phrases, so frequently used in the Old Testament, of “blotting out from the face of the earth,” and “blotting out one’s name from under heaven,” which signify no more than temporal death and destruction; and then Moses’s wish was reasonable and generous, and signifies no more, but that he was willing, if God pleased, to die to save the nation.
As for St. Paul’s wish of “being accursed from Christ,” it is plainly an hyperbolical expression of his great affection to his countrymen the Jews, and 230his zeal for their salvation; which was so great, that if it had been a thing reasonable and lawful, he could have wished the greatest evil to himself for their sakes; and therefore it is observable, that it is not a positive and absolute wish, but expressed in the usual form of ushering in an hyperbole: “I could wish:” just as we are wont to say, when we would express a thing to the height, which is not fit nor in tended to be done by us,—I could wish so or so; I could even afford to do this or that; which kind of speeches, no man takes for a strict and precise declaration of our minds, but for a figurative expression of a great passion.
And thus I have done with the first thing I proposed for the explication of this precept, or duty, of self-denial, which was to remove some sorts of self-denial, which by some are frequently instanced in, as intended by our Saviour in this precept. I proceed now to the
Second thing I proposed, which, is to declare positively, what that self-denial is, which our Saviour here intends; and it is plainly this, and nothing but this: that we should be willing to part with all earthly comforts and conveniences, to quit all our temporal interests and enjoyments, and even life it self, for the sake of Christ and his religion: this our Saviour means, “by denying ourselves;” and then (which is much the same with the other) that we should be willing to bear any temporal inconvenience and suffering upon the same account: this is to take up our cross and follow him.
And that this is the full meaning of these two phrases, of denying ourselves, and taking up our cross, will clearly appear, by considering the particular instances, which our Saviour gives of this 231self-denial, whenever he hath occasion to speak of it; by which you will plainly see, that these expressions amount to no more than I have said. Even here in the text, after our Saviour had told his disciples, that he that would come after him, must deny himself, and take up his cross; it follows immediately, “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” You see here, that he instanceth in parting with our lives for him, as the highest piece of self-denial which he requires. And he himself else where tells us, that “greater love than this hath no man, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Elsewhere he instanceth in quitting our nearest relations for his sake. (Luke xiv. 26, 27.) “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple; and whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, he cannot be my disciple.”
Which expressions, of hating father and mother, and other relations, and even life itself, are not to be understood rigorously, and in an absolute sense, but comparatively; for it is an Hebrew manner of speech, to express that absolutely, which is meant only comparatively; and so our Saviour explains himself in a parallel text to this. (Matt. x. 37, 38.) “He that loveth father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me; he that loveth son or daughter, more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” In another place our Saviour instanceth in quitting our estates for his sake. (Matt. xix. 29.) “Every one that shall forsake houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or 232children, or lands, for my name’s sake;” by all which it appears, that this self-denial which our Saviour here requires of his disciples, is to be extended no farther, than to a readiness and willingness, when ever God shall call us to it, to quit all our temporal interests and enjoyments, and even life itself, the dearest of all other, and to submit to any temporal inconvenience and suffering for his sake. And thus much for the explication of the precept here in the text. I proceed in the
III. Third place, to consider the strict and indispensable obligation of this precept of self-denial, and suffering for Christ and his truth, rather than to forsake and renounce them. “If any man will come after me, or be my disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me;” that is, upon these terms he must be my disciple, in this manner he must follow me; and in the text I mentioned before he declares again, that he that is not ready to quit all his relations, and even life itself, for his sake, is not worthy of him, and cannot be his disciple; and whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after him, cannot be his disciple; so that we can not be the disciples of Christ, nor be worthy to be called by his name, if we be not ready thus to deny ourselves for his sake: and, not only so; but if for fear of the cross, or of any temporal sufferings, we should renounce and deny him, he threatens to deny us before his Father which is in heaven, i. e. to deprive us of eternal life, and to sentence us to everlasting misery. (Matth. x. 32.) “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess before my Father which is in heaven: but whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven;” and (Mark viii. 38.) “Whosoever shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father, with his holy angels:” that is, when he cometh to judge the world, they shall not be able to stand in that judgment; for that by his being ashamed of them, is meant, that they shall be condemned by him, is plain from what goes before: (ver. 36, 37.) “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” and then it follows, “Whosoever, therefore, shall be ashamed of me, and of my words.”
But because some have the confidence to tell the world, that our Saviour doth not require thus much of Christians; but all that he obligeth us to, is to believe in him in our hearts, but not to make any outward profession of his religion, when the magistrate forbids it, and we are in danger of suffering for it; I shall therefore briefly examine what is pretended for so strange an assertion, and so directly contrary to the whole tenor of the gospel, and to the express words of our Saviour.
The author of the book called the Leviathan tells us, that we are not only not bound to confess Christ, but we are obliged to deny him, in case the magistrate requireth us so to do: his words are these—“What if the sovereign forbid us to believe in Christ?” He answers, “Such forbidding is of no effect, because belief and unbelief never follow men’s commands. But what (says he) if we be commanded by our lawful prince to say with our tongues we believe not, must we obey such commands?” To this he answers, that “profession with the tongue 234is but an external thing, and no more than any other gesture, whereby we signify our obedience, and wherein a Christian, holding firmly in his heart the faith of Christ, hath the same liberty which the prophet Elisha allowed to Naaman. But what then (says he) shall I answer to our Saviour, saying, ‘Whosoever denieth me before men, him will I deny before my Father which is in heaven?’ his answer is, “This we may say, that whatsoever a subject is compelled to in obedience to his sovereign, and does it not in order to his own mind, but the law of his country, the action is not his, but his sovereign’s; nor is it he that in this case denies Christ before men, but his governor, and the laws of his country.”
But can any man, that in good earnest pays any degree of reverence to our blessed Saviour and his religion, think to baffle such plain words by so frivolous an answer? there is no man doubts, but if the magistrate should command men to deny Christ, he would be guilty of a great sin in so doing: but if we must obey God rather than men, and every man must give an account of himself to God, how will this excuse him that denies Christ, or breaks any other commandment of God upon the command of the magistrate? And, to put the matter out of all doubt, that our Saviour forbids all that will be his disciples upon pain of damnation to deny him, though the magistrate should command them to do so, it is very observable, that in that very place, where he speaks of confessing or denying him before men, he puts this very case of their being brought before kings and governors for confessing him: (Matt. x. 17.) “Beware (says he) of men; for they will deliver you up to the councils, and 235they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the gentiles.” But what testimony would this be against them, if Christians were bound to deny Christ at their command? But our Saviour goes on, and tells them how they ought to demean themselves, when they are brought before kings and governors: (ver. 19.) “But when they shall deliver you up, take ye no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that very hour what you shall speak.” But what need of any such extra ordinary assistance in this case, if they had nothing to do but deny him, when they were required by the magistrate to do it. And then (proceeding in the same discourse) he bids them: (ver. 28.) not to fear them that can “kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do;” that is, not to deny him, for fear of any temporal punishment or suffering the magistrate could inflict upon them; but to fear and obey him who can destroy body and soul in hell. And upon this discourse our Saviour concludes: (ver. 32, 33.) “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven: but whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” And now can any thing be plainer, than that our Saviour requires his disciples to make confession of him before kings and governors, and not to deny him for fear of any thing which they can do to them? But let us in quire a little farther, and see how the apostles, who received this precept from our Saviour himself, did understand it. (Acts iv. 18.) We find Peter and John summoned before the Jewish magistrates, who 236“strictly commanded them not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” And when they still persisted in their course, notwithstanding the command of the magistrate, and were called again before the council, (chap. v. 28.) and “the high priest asked them, saying, Did not we straitly command you, that you should not teach in this name? and behold ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine:” they return them again the same answer: (ver. 29.) “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.”
And let any man now judge whether our Saviour did not oblige men to confess him even before magistrates, and to obey him rather than men. And, indeed, how can any man in reason think, that the great king and governor of the world should invest any man with a power to control his authority, and to oblige men to disobey and renounce him, “by whom kings reign, and princes decree judgment?” this is a thing so unreasonable, that it can hardly be imagined, that any thing but downright malice against God and religion could prompt any man to advance such an assertion.
I should now have proceeded to the fourth and last particular, which I proposed to speak to, namely, to vindicate the reasonableness of this precept of self-denial and suffering for Christ, which, at first appearance, may seem to be so very harsh and difficult. But this, together with the application of this discourse, shall be reserved to another opportunity.237
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