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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, concerning his approaching passion, and 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 unto his disciples, If any man will come after me;” that is, if any man will be my disciple, and undertake the profession of my religion, he must do it upon these terms of self-denial and suffering.
In the handling of these words, I proceeded in this method.
First, I considered the way 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 it; 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 be resolved to submit to them, well; if not, it is in vain to follow him any longer; for they cannot be his disciples. And to use any other way than this to 238gain men over to religion, is contrary both to the nature of man, who is a reasonable creature; and to the nature of religion, which, if it be not our free choice, cannot be religion.
Secondly, I explained this duty or precept of self-denial, expressed in these words, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross;” which phrase, of taking up one’s cross, is an allusion to the Roman custom, which was, that the malefactor, that was to be crucified, was to take up his cross upon his shoulders, and to carry it to the place of execution.
Now, for our clearer understanding of this precept of self-denial, I told you, that it is not to be extended to every thing that may properly be called by that name, but to be limited by the plain scope and intendment of our Saviour’s discourse; and therefore I did, in the
First place, remove several things which are instanced in by some, as intended and required by this precept. As,
1. That we should deny and renounce our own senses in matters of faith. But this I shewed to be absurd and impossible; because, if we do not believe what we see, or will believe contrary to what we see, we destroy all certainty, there being no greater than that of sense. Besides, that the evidence of faith being less clear and certain than that of sense, it is contrary to the nature of assent, which is always swayed and borne down by the greatest and clearest evidence. So that we cannot assent to any thing in plain contradiction to the evidence of sense.
2. Others would comprehend under this precept, the denying of our reason in matters of faith; which 239is in the next degree of absurdity to the other; because no man can believe any thing, but upon some reason or other; and to believe without any reason, or against reason, is to make faith unreasonable, and infidelity reasonable.
3. Others pretend, that by virtue of this precept, men ought to be content to renounce their own eternal happiness, and to be miserable for ever, for the glory of God, and the salvation of their brethren. But this I shewed cannot be a duty, for this plain reason: because, if it were, there is no argument left powerful enough to persuade a man to it. And as for the two scripture instances alleged to this purpose, Moses’s wish of being blotted out of the book of life for the people of Israel, signifies no more than a temporal death; and St. Paul’s, of being “accursed from Christ” for his brethren, is only an hyperbolical expression of his great passion and zeal for the salvation of his countrymen; as is evident from the form of the expression, such as is commonly used to usher in an hyperbole; “I could wish.” And, in the
Second place, I shewed positively, that the plain meaning of this precept of self-denial is this, and nothing but this; that we should be willing to part with all our temporal interests and enjoyments, and even life itself, for the sake of Christ and his religion. This is to deny ourselves. And then that we should be willing to bear any temporal inconvenience and suffering upon the same account this is to take up our cross. And this I shewed from the instances which our Saviour gives of self-denial, whenever he had occasion to discourse upon it.
Thirdly, I considered the strict and indispensable obligation of this precept of self-denial, rather than 240to forsake Christ and his religion. Without this disposition and resolution of mind we cannot be his disciples; and if we deny him before men, he will also deny us before his Father which is in heaven. And this confession of him and his truth we are to make before kings and governors, and notwithstanding their commands to the contrary, which are of no force against the laws and commands of God. Thus far I have gone. There remains only the Fourth and last particular, which I proposed to speak to; viz. to vindicate the reasonableness of this self-denial and suffering for Christ, which at first appearance may seem to be so very difficult. And this precept cannot be thought unreasonable, if we take into consideration these three things:
I. That he, who requires this of us, hath himself given us the greatest example of self-denial that ever was. The greatest in itself, in that he denied himself more, and suffered more grievous things, than it is possible for any of us to do: and such an example as, in the circumstances of it, is most apt and powerful to engage and oblige us to the imitation of it, because all his self-denial and sufferings were for our sakes.
II. If we consider, that he hath promised all needful supplies of his grace to enable us to the discharge of this difficult duty of self-denial and suffering, and to support and comfort us therein.
III. He hath assured us of a glorious reward of all our sufferings and self-denial, beyond the proportion of them, both in the degree and duration of it. I shall go over these as briefly as I can.
I. If we consider, that he, who requires us thus to deny ourselves for him, hath given us the greatest example of self-denial that ever was. Our Saviour 241knowing how unwelcome this doctrine of self-denial and suffering must needs be to his disciples, and how hardly this precept would go down with them, to sweeten it a little, and take off the harshness of it, and to prepare their minds the better for it, he tells them first of his own sufferings, that by that means he might, in some measure, reconcile their minds to it, when they saw that he required nothing of them, but what he was ready to undergo himself, and to give them the example of it. And upon this occasion it was, that our Saviour acquaints them with the hard and difficult terms upon which they must be his disciples: (ver. 21.) the evangelist tells us, that “Jesus began to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders, and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.”—“Then said Jesus unto his disciples;” that is, immediately upon this discourse of his own sufferings, as the fittest time for it, he takes the opportunity to tell them plainly of their own sufferings, and that, unless they were prepared and resolved to deny themselves so far, as to suffer all manner of persecution for his sake and the profession of his religion, they could not be his disciples. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me;” that is, let him reckon and resolve upon following that example of self-denial and suffering in which I will go before him. Now the consideration of this example of self-denial and suffering, which our Saviour hath given us, hath great force in it to reconcile us to this difficult duty, and to shew the reasonableness of it.
1. In that he who requires us thus to deny ourselves, hath himself in his own person, given us 242the greatest example of self-denial that ever was. And,
2. Such an example as, in all the circumstances of it, is most apt and powerful to engage and oblige us to the imitation of it; because all his self-denial and sufferings were for our sakes.
1. He, who requires us thus to deny ourselves, hath himself in his own person given us the greatest example of self-denial that ever was; in that he denied himself more, and suffered more grievous things, than any of us can do. He bore the insupportable load of all the sins of mankind, and of the wrath and vengeance due to them. “Never was sorrow like to his sorrow, wherewith the Lord afflicted him in the day of his fierce anger. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; his visage was marred more than any man’s, and his form more than the sons of men:” i. e. he underwent more affliction, and had more contempt poured upon him, than ever was upon any of the sons of men: and yet he endured all this with incredible patience and meekness, with the greatest evenness and constancy of mind, and with the most perfect submission and resignation of himself to the will of God, that can be imagined.
Such an example as this should be of great force to animate us with the like courage and resolution in lesser dangers and difficulties. To see the Captain of our salvation going before us, and leading us on so bravely, and made perfect by greater sufferings than we can ever be called to, or are any ways able to undergo, is no small argument and encouragement to us, to take up our cross, and follow him. The consideration of the unknown sufferings of the Son of God, so great as we cannot 243well conceive of them, should make all the afflictions and sufferings that can befal us, not only tolerable, but easy to us. Upon this consideration it is, that the apostle animates Christians to patience in their Christian course, notwithstanding all the hardships and sufferings that attended it. (Heb. xii. 2.) “Let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who endured the cross, and despised the shame. For consider him, who endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye also be weary and faint in your minds.”
And this example is more powerful for our encouragement, because therein we see the world conquered to our hands, and all the terrors and temptations of it baffled and subdued, and thereby a cheap and easy victory over it obtained for us. By this consideration, our Saviour endeavours to inspire his disciples with cheerfulness and courage in this great conflict: (John xvi. 33.) “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but, be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
2. This example of our Saviour, is such as, in all the circumstances of it, is most apt and powerful to engage and oblige us to the imitation of it, because all his self-denial and sufferings were for our sakes, in pity and kindness to us, and wholly for our benefit and advantage. We are apt to have their example in great regard, from whom we have received great kindness and mighty benefits. This pattern of self-denial and suffering, which our religion proposeth to us, is the example of one, whom we have reason to esteem, and love, and imitate, above any person in the world. It is the example of our Lord and Master, of our sovereign and our Saviour, of 244the founder of our religion, and of “the author and finisher of our faith:” and surely such an example must needs carry authority with it, and command our imitation. It is the example of our best friend and greatest benefactor; of him, who laid down his life for us, and sealed his love to us with his dearest blood; and, even when we were bitter enemies to him, did and suffered more for us than any man ever did for his best friend. If we should be reduced to poverty and want, let us consider him, “who being Lord of all, had not where to lay his head; who being rich, for our sakes became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich.” If it should be our lot to “be persecuted for righteousness sake,” and exercised with sufferings and reproaches, let us look “unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who endured the cross, and despised the shame” for our sakes. In a word, can we be discontented at any condition, or decline it in a good cause, when we consider how contented the Son of God was in the meanest and most destitute, how meek and patient in the most afflicted and suffering condition? how he welcomed all events, and was so perfectly resigned to the will of his heavenly Father, that whatever pleased God pleased him?
And surely in no case is example more necessary than in this, to engage and encourage us in the discharge of so difficult a duty, so contrary to the bent and inclination of flesh and blood. A bare precept of self-denial, and a peremptory command to sacrifice our own wills, our ease, our pleasure, our reputation, yea, and life itself, to the glory of God, and the maintenance of his truth, would have sounded very harsh and severe, had not the practice of all this been mollified and sweetened by a pattern of so 245much advantage; by one, who in all these respects denied himself, much more than it is possible for us to do; by one, who might have insisted upon a greater right, who abased himself, and stooped from a greater height and dignity; who was not forced into a condition of meanness and poverty, but chose it for our sakes; who submitted to suffering, though he had never deserved it. Here is an example, that hath all the argument and all the encouragement that can be to the imitation of it,
Such an example is of greater force and authority than any precept or law can be: so that well might our Lord, thus going before us, command us to follow him, and say, “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” For if he thus denied himself, well may we, who have much less to deny, but much more cause and reason to do it. He did it voluntarily, and of choice; but it is our duty. He did it for our sakes; we do it for our own. His own goodness moved him to deny himself for us; but gratitude obligeth us to deny ourselves in any thing for him. We did not in the least deserve any thing from him; but he hath wholly merited all this, and infinitely more from us. So that such an example as this is, in all the circumstances of it, cannot but be very powerful and effectual, to oblige us to the imitation of it. But the reasonableness of this precept will yet farther appear if we consider, in the
Third place, That God hath promised to all sincere Christians all needful supplies of his grace, to enable them to the discharge of this difficult duty of self-denial, and to support and comfort them therein. For the Spirit of Christ dwells in all Christians, and the same glorious power that raised 246up Jesus from the dead, works mightily in them that believe. (Eph. i. 19.) “That ye may know (saith St. Paul, speaking in general to all Christians) what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead.” Of ourselves we are very weak, and the temptations and terrors of the world very powerful; but there is a principle residing in every true Christian, able to bear us up against the world, and the power of all its temptations. “Whatsoever is born of God (saith St John) overcometh the world; and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome; because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.”
And this grace and strength was afforded to the first Christians in a most extraordinary manner, for their comfort and support under sufferings; so that they were strengthened with all might, according to God’s glorious power, unto all long-suffering with joyfulness, as St. Paul prays for the Colossians, chap. i. 11. And these consolations of the Spirit of God, this joy in the Holy Ghost, was not peculiarly appropriated to the first times of Christianity; but is still afforded to all sincere Christians, in such degree as is necessary and convenient for them. And whenever God exerciseth good men with trials more than human, and such sufferings, as are beyond the ordinary rate of human strength and patience to bear, he hath promised to endue them with more than human courage and resolution. So St. Paul tells the Corinthians: (1 Cor. x. 13.) “He is faithful that hath promised; who will not suffer you to be 247tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” And why should we be daunted at any suffering, if God be pleased to increase our strength, in proportion to the sharpness of our sufferings?
And, blessed be God, many of our persecuted brethren at this day have remarkably found this comfortable assistance and support; though many likewise have fallen through fear and weakness, as it also happened in the primitive times. But wherever this promise is not made good, it is (as I have formerly said) by reason of some fault and failing on our part. Either men were not sincere in the profession of the truth, and then no wonder if, “when tribulation and persecution ariseth, because of the word, they are offended,” and fall off. Or else they were too confident of themselves, and did not seek God’s grace and assistance, and rely upon it as they ought; and thereupon God hath left them to themselves (as he did Peter), to convince them of their own frailty and rash confidence; and yet, even in that case, when there is truth and sincerity at the bottom, there is no reason to doubt, but that the goodness of God is such, as by some means or other to give to such persons (as he did to Peter) the opportunity of recovering themselves by repentance, and a more steadfast resolution afterwards
Fourthly, If we consider, in the last place, that our Saviour hath assured us of a glorious and eternal reward of all our self-denial and sufferings for him; a reward infinitely beyond the proportion of our sufferings, both in the degree and duration of it. Now the clear discovery of this is peculiarly owing to the Christian religion, and the appearance of our 248Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light by the gospel.
And as our blessed Saviour hath assured us of this blessed state of good men in another world; so hath he likewise assured us, that greater degrees of this happiness shall be the portion of those who suffer for him and his truth: (Matth. v. 10, 11, 12.) “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all manner of evil against you falsely, for my name’s sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven.” And nothing surely can be more reasonable, than to part with things of small value for things of in finitely greater and more considerable; to forego the transient pleasures and enjoyments, and the imperfect felicities of this world, for the solid and perfect and perpetual happiness of a better life; and to exchange a short and miserable life, for eternal life and blessedness: in a word, to be content to be driven home, to be banished out of this world into our own native country, and to be violently thrust out of this vale of tears, into those regions of bliss, where are “joys unspeakable and full of glory.”
This consideration St. Paul tells us supported the primitive Christians under their sharpest and heaviest sufferings: (2 Cor. iv. 16) “For this cause (says he) we faint not, because our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; whilst we look not at the things which are seen, but the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 249So that our sufferings bear no more proportion to the reward of them, than finite does to infinite, than temporal to eternal, between which there is no proportion.
All that now remains, is to draw some useful inferences from what hath been discoursed concerning this great and difficult duty of self-denial for the sake of Christ and his religion; and they shall be these following.
I. To acknowledge the great goodness of God to us, that all these laws and commands, even the hard est and severest of them, are so reasonable.
God, as he is our maker, and gave us our beings, hath an entire and sovereign right over us, and by virtue of that right might have imposed very hard things upon us, and this without the giving account to us of any of his matters, and without propounding any reward to us, so vastly disproportionate to our obedience to him. But in giving laws to us, he hath not made use of this right. The most severe and rigorous commands of the gospel are such, that we shall be infinitely gainers by our obedience to them. If we deny ourselves any thing in this world for Christ and his religion, we shall, in the next, be considered for it to the utmost, not only far beyond what it can deserve, but beyond what we can conceive or imagine; for this perishing life, and the transitory trifles and enjoyments of it, we shall receive “a kingdom which cannot be shaken, an in corruptible crown which fadeth not away, eternal in the heavens.” For these are faithful sayings, and we shall find them to be true, that “if we suffer with Christ we shall also reign with him;” if we be persecuted for righteousness sake, great shall our reward be in heaven; if we part with our temporal 250life, we shall be made partakers of eternal life. He that is firmly persuaded of the happiness of the next world, and believes “the glory which shall then be revealed,” hath no reason to be so much offended at “the sufferings of this present time,” so long as he knows and believes, that “these light afflictions, which are but for a moment, will work for him a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
II. Seeing this is required of every Christian, to be always in a preparation and disposition of mind to deny ourselves, and to take up our cross; if we do in good earnest resolve to be Christians, we ought to sit down and consider well with ourselves, what our religion will cost us, and whether we be content to come up to the price of it. If we value any thing in this world above Christ and his truth, “we are not worthy of him.” If it come to this, that we must either renounce him and his religion, or quit our temporal interests, if we be not ready to forego these, nay, and to part with even life itself, rather than to forsake him and his truth, “we are not worthy of him.” These are the terms of our Christianity, and therefore we are required in baptism solemnly to renounce the world: and our Saviour, from this very consideration, infers, that all who take upon them the profession of his religion, should consider seriously beforehand, and count the cost of it. (Luke xiv. 28.) “Which of you, (says he) intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Or what king going to war with another king, cloth not sit down and consult, whether with ten thousand he be able to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand. So, likewise, 251whosoever he be, that forsaketh not all he hath, cannot be my disciple.” You see the terms upon which we are Christians: we must always be prepared in the resolution of our minds to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, though we are not actually put upon this trial.
III. What hath been said is matter of great comfort and encouragement to all those who deny themselves, and suffer upon so good an account: of whom, God knows, there are too great a number at this day, in several parts of the world; some under actual sufferings, such as cannot but move compassion and horror in all that hear of them; others who are fled hither, and into other countries, for refuge and shelter from one of the sharpest persecutions that perhaps ever was, if all the circumstances of it be duly considered. But, not to enlarge upon so unpleasant a theme, they who suffer for the truth and righteousness sake, have all the comfort and encouragement that the best example and the greatest and most glorious promises God can give. They have the best example in their view: “Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, who endured the cross, and despised the shame.” So that how great and terrible soever their sufferings be, they do but tread in the steps of the Son of God, and of the best and holiest man that ever was; and he, who is their great example in suffering, will likewise be their support, and “their exceeding great reward.”
So that though suffering for Christ be accounted great self-denial, and he is graciously pleased so to accept it, because, in denying things present and sensible for things future and invisible, we do not only declare our affection to him, but our great faith and confidence in him, by shewing that we rely upon 252his word, and venture all upon the security which he offers us in another world; yet, according to a right estimate of things, and to those who “walk by faith, and not by sight,” this which we call self-denial, is, in truth and reality, but a more commendable sort of self-love; because we do herein most effectually consult and secure and advance our own happiness.
IV. and lastly, Since God hath been pleased for so long a time to excuse us from this hardest part of self-denial, let us not grudge to deny ourselves, in lesser matters, for the sake of his truth and religion, to miss a good place, or to quit it upon that account; much less let us think much to renounce our vices, and to thwart our evil inclinations, for his sake. As Naaman’s servant said to him concerning the means prescribed by the prophet for his cure, “If he had bid thee do some great thing, wouldst thou not have done it? how much more, when he hath only said, Wash and be clean?” So, since God imposeth no harder terms upon us, than repentance and reformation of our lives, we should gladly and thankfully submit to them.
This I know is difficult to some, to mortify their earthly members, to “crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts” of it; it is like cutting off a right hand, and plucking out a right eye. Some are so strongly addicted to their lusts and vices, that they could with more ease despise life, in many cases, than thus deny themselves. But, in truth, there is no more of self-denial in it, than a man denies himself when he is mortally sick and wounded, in being content to be cured, and willing to be well. This is not at all to our temporal prejudice and in convenience, and it directly conduceth to our eternal 253happiness; for there is no man that lives a holy and virtuous life, and in obedience to the laws of God, that can lightly receive any prejudice by it in this world. Since God doth not call us to suffer, we should do so much the more for him. Since he doth not put us to testify our love to him by laying down our lives for him, we should shew it by a greater care to keep his commandments.
God was pleased to exercise the first Christians with great sufferings, and to try their love and constancy to him and his truth, in a very extraordinary manner, by severity and contempt, by the spoiling of their goods, and the loss of all things; by bonds and imprisonments; by cruel mockings and scourgings; by the extremity of torments, and by resisting even unto blood; by being “killed for his sake all the day long, and appointed as sheep for the slaughter.” God was pleased to make their way to heaven very sharp and painful, and to “hedge it in,” as it were, “with thorns on every side,” so that they could not, but through many tribulations enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Thus we ought all to be in readiness and resolution to submit to this duty, if God should think fit at any time of our lives to call us to it. But if he be pleased to excuse us from it, and to “let this cup pass from us,” (which may lawfully be our earnest prayer to God, since we have so good a pattern for it) there will be another duty incumbent upon us, which will take up the whole man, and the whole time of our life, and that is to “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our lives.”254
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