On Self-Denial

“Even though the law of the Lord provides the finest and best-disposed method of ordering a man’s life, it seemed good to the Heavenly Teacher to shape his people by an even more explicit plan to that rule which he had set forth in the law. Here, then, is the beginning of this plan: the duty of believers is ‘to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him,’ and in this consists the lawful worship of him (Rom 12:1)…” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.7.1)

How important is self-denial in Calvin’s theology? Which Scriptures shape his understanding? How should self-denial be related to self-care? In other words, what, if any, are the limits of self-denial?

The Context

3.6.1 Calvin aims to briefly summarise the duties of Christians.

3.6.2 Since we have been united to God, we should seek to enjoy holy fellowship with him (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 1:15-16).

3.6.3 Jesus Christ is our example. We should respond faithfully to Christ’s work for us and in us.

3.6.4 We must not only be Christians in name. We must seek to follow our Saviour from our hearts.

3.6.5 We cannot attain perfection in this life but we should daily strive to grow in goodness.

The Content

3.7.1 We are to present ourselves to God as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). We are not our own but the Lord’s (1 Cor 6:19). So, firstly, we must deny ourselves and our own worldly desires.

3.7.2 We must, secondly, devote ourselves to the Lord, seeking to do his will, and seeking to display his glory. We must look to our Lord in all things. We can only do this if we have denied ourselves.

3.7.3 Paul reminds Titus about this (Titus 2:11-14), urging him to turn from ungodliness and worldly desires; commending a sober, upright and godly life; and pointing to the joy of our Lord’s return.

3.7.4 Self-denial concerns our attitude to men. We are to consider others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3). We are to seek their good (Rom 12:10). This is difficult since we are so easily filled with pride.

3.7.5 We will only be willing to serve our neighbour once we have denied the urge to serve ourselves. We receive gifts from God for the good of others (cf. Exod 23:19; 1 Pet 4:10; 1 Cor 12:12-31).

3.7.6 We must seek to do good to all people without exception. Every person is made in the image of God.

3.7.7 We must seek to do good out of a sincere love for others, not seeking anything in return.

3.7.8 Self-denial, also, chiefly, concerns our attitude to God. We must renounce worldly ambitions and fears. We must seek our prosperity and security in the Lord.

3.7.9 Once we realise that all true happiness arises from the Lord’s blessing, we will not pursue worldly goals by worldly means.

3.7.10 If we deny ourselves, we will be able to praise the Lord even in times of trouble (cf. Ps 79:13).

The Cross

3.8.1 Jesus Christ calls us to bear our own cross (Matt 16:24), meaning that we must be prepared for hardships in the Christian life. Through these hardships we are conformed to Christ (Rom 8:29).

3.8.2 The cross demonstrated Christ’s obedience to his Father. It keeps us from pride.

3.8.3 The cross demonstrates the Father’s faithfulness. He gives us the strength to endure.

3.8.4 The cross teaches us patience and obedience.

3.8.5 The cross keeps us from forgetting our Lord, which otherwise, in our prosperity, we would be tempted to do.

3.8.6 The hardships we experience are sometimes a form of fatherly discipline to correct past transgressions (1 Cor 11:32; Heb 12:5-8).

3.8.7 It is not only those who proclaim the gospel who suffer persecution but also any who seek to uphold the cause of righteousness. Those who suffer for Christ’s sake are blessed.

3.8.8 We should rejoice even while we suffer, knowing that we have great consolation in our God.

3.8.9 We groan and we weep, yet we do so with joy and peace (Matt 5:4).

3.8.10 We painfully endure what we would rather avoid, for the sake of our Saviour (cf. John 21:18).

3.8.10 Our afflictions are for our good. Therefore “the bitterness of the cross” should always “be tempered with spiritual joy.”

Further reading

Calvin writes more about self-denial in 3.3.8; 3.15.8 and 3.18.4.

Theological Reflections

Self-denial is an essential part of Calvin’s teaching on Christian living. It must be twinned with devotion. We deny ourselves so that we might be devoted to God. Self-denial involves suffering but it is not without joy. There is the joy of knowing that we are following the example of our Saviour, and the joy of knowing that we are living under our Father’s blessing. The key texts are those cited above, especially Rom 12:1-2; 1 Cor 6:19 and Titus 2:11-14.

Our Heavenly Father gives us many good gifts to enjoy in this life. We must seek to use these good gifts in the right way. This is the subject of Calvin, Institutes, 3.10, and, God-willing, the subject of the second part of this post.