Self-denial is a big part of what it means to follow Jesus. On several occasions, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24 NIV). Self-denial is something that doesn’t come easily since even as Christians we still struggle with our sinful nature that is very self-focused. So we need grace, guidance, and the Spirit’s work to help us deny ourselves and follow Christ. Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711) discussed self-denial in a chapter of his systematic theology called, The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Here’s a section of it that I really appreciate. I’ve edited it for length.
“[In self-denial] there must be a denial of the old Adam in general with all his motions and desires.”
- Specifically, one must deny his natural and darkened intellect. We must renounce this corrupt intellect and not give heed to or follow it. “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 NIV).
- We must deny our own will. Man wants to have his own way – no matter what the cost. He wants to do whatever pleases him, and he says, ‘Who is lord over me?’ But we remember what Jesus said, ‘not my will’ (Mt. 26:39), and he teaches us to pray, ‘Thy will be done’ (Mt. 6:10).
- We must deny our inclinations. Natural man is empty and desires to be filled. He does not know God as the all-sufficient One and he has no desire after God. His passions therefore focus on the creature and he says to whoever appears to be capable of entertaining him, ‘be thou my satisfaction.’ However, we must not yield to such inclinations. ‘Dearly beloved, I beseech you…abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul’ (1 Pet. 2:11).
- We must deny our own honor. There is no sin more common to man and more deeply rooted in the heart than a desire to be honored. In all that he does he has honor in view. Such an objective and such a desire we must purge ourselves of. ‘Let us not become conceited’ (Gal. 5:26 NIV); ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.’ (Phil. 2:3 NIV).
- We must deny our desire for possessions. Man’s corrupt nature focuses on the physical. He desires to possess much, puts his trust in it, and determines to live from it. A person who denies himself, however, is satisfied with necessities and purges himself of a desire to have much. If he does not have much, he is well satisfied; if he prospers, he does not set his heart up on it (1 Tim. 6:8-9).
- We must deny our friends. Man will very readily cleave to another person who either loves or pleases him. Father, mother, children, husband, or wife are very dear to the heart. God commands appropriate love in the second table of the law; however, we so readily make an idol of them, and rely upon and put our trust in them. The person who denies himself purges himself of such inordinate cleaving – particularly if it draws him away from the practice of religion and profession of faith in Jesus. ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Mt. 10:37 NIV).
- We must deny our life. It is the duty of a Christian to preserve his life. To cleave to it, however, as if it were tantamount to salvation and felicity itself, and thus to quake and tremble when thinking about death – this kind of cleaving comes from ignorance, lack of faith, or a condemning conscience. A Christian must therefore not be so attached to his life, but by faith commend it into the hands of his Father and rest in this. ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple’ (Lk. 14:26 NIV).
The entire section is found in volume three of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, pages 400-402.