I teach an ABF (Sunday School) class at my church. During one my recent lessons I included this snippet from D. A. Carson’s Book Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians:
“I would like to buy about three dollars worth of gospel, please. Not too much—just enough to make me happy, but not so much that I get addicted. I don’t want so much gospel that I learn to really hate covetousness and lust. I certainly don’t want so much that I start to love my enemies, cherish self-denial, and contemplate missionary service in some alien culture. I want ecstasy, not repentance; I want transcendence, not transformation. I would like to be cherished by some nice, forgiving, broad-minded people, but I myself don’t want to love those from different races—especially if they smell. I would like enough gospel to make my family secure and my children well behaved, but not so much that I find my ambitions redirected or my giving too greatly enlarged. I would like about three dollars worth of gospel please.”
The part of the paragraph that really caught my attention was that “cherishing self-denial” business. Quite frankly, I didn’t get it. Why would anyone cherish self-denial? I mean, I practice self-denial in my day-to-day life, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, right? It’s hard. Usually it involves giving something up that I very much want to have or do. As I was travelling down this train of thought, I suddenly wondered, “Is self-denial part of the fall? Or would it have been part of the way humans interacted even if our first parents hadn’t sinned?” Could it be that God intended Adam to always be sacrificing something (time, effort, thought) in his love for Eve? And in her helping of Adam, would Eve have had to do difficult and good things she would normally not have done? To be sure, there would be no crying or pain involved, but it seems impossible to define love without the giving up of something one could do for oneself to do something for another. In fact, wasn’t this exactly what God had required of Eve—”Deny yourself this one fruit in loving obedience to me?” Indeed, Adam and Eve’s sin was not practicing self-denial for the one they loved.
“So what,” you say? Well, if self-denial was to be the norm, then we would expect the gospel (“the good news”) to include something that brings us back to that loving norm. And it does. It’s called regeneration and it’s chief result is the freedom to think and do righteously. Regeneration is when God gives spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead. Like Israel of the future kingdom (Eze 36:26), our hard hearts of stone are exchanged for compassionate and loving hearts of flesh. Thus we become God’s “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). Our heart’s motivations and desires, once inclined toward selfishness, become inclined increasingly toward selflessness. When we were dead, we couldn’t care less about God’s glory (and why would we?). We wouldn’t go tell other people to love Jesus (we didn’t love him ourselves, Col 1:21). And we certainly wouldn’t give away our money to God (I’d rather spend it on me, right? Matt 6:24). All of those things are part and parcel to self-denial. Stated another way (and here’s my point), in regeneration, God gives us the desires to cherish self-denial. Through the Spirit we have the freedom to deny ourselves for the sake of others. So for freedom’s sake, let’s throw sin under the bus—just for the pure joy of finally being alive! Because God’s love constrains us, we are finally enabled to experience pleasure in loving others sacrificially. That’s the way it was always supposed to be. When sin so passionately protests that we will lose some integral part of ourselves if we give up some temporal pleasure, let’s call out the lie—me thinks sin doth protest too much! Sin can no longer take us captive, cajoling us into believing it’s offers of pleasure or hasty rationalizations. Rather the Spirit convicts us and opens our eyes to the truth. We now have no compelling reason for believing sin’s lies—we are alive and free to believe and do righteousness!
The apostle Paul states these things quite powerfully in Romans 6:12–13. In these verses Paul urges us not to present ourselves “to sin as instruments for unrighteousness,” but, because we “have been brought from death to life,” we should present ourselves to God as “instruments for righteousness.” We are freed from sin and its powerfully persuasive lies so that we can get back to glorifying God by doing righteous things (cf. Rom 6:18, 22).