Grace invites presumption.
For example, a starving man asks you for food and you feed him. He is exceedingly grateful and profuse in his expressions of gratitude. So you offer him the opportunity to eat regularly at your table. He is incredulous that you would be so generous. Later you offer him the chance to become part of your family. Delirious with appreciation he accepts. Within three months be is telling you how to run your family.
This is the nature of man, and so it is in our relationship with God. We are overwhelmed with gratitude to God for His sa1vation, but not long into our new relationship with Him we begin to tell him how to run His business.
We take exception with certain of His commands, suggesting they were relevant and applicable for the day in which the Bible was written but certainly not for today. We seek to protect Him from the irresponsible way in which He dispenses His grace. In short, we are a highly presumptuous people!
For this reason I want to take the next three issues on grace and elaborate more fully on the problem of presumption and how it influences our lives. Because I have done a great deal of thinking on the issue of relativism, you will see an overlapping between grace, presumption and relativism. It seems to me that one of the symptoms of presumption is to appeal to reason when questioning revelation and thus to consider God’s commands relative. When the Christian does this, he presumes on God’s grace.
Another possibly more frequent manifestation of presumption is the assumption that grace means a life free from restraint. Since grace means I don’t pay for my sin, then restraint may be nice, but not essential, in my relationship with God.
Freedom from sin is not license but slavery to Christ. In salvation we didn’t experience autonomy but a change of masters. The life of grace is a life of self-denial. If gratitude is the believer’s first line of defense against presumption, self-denial is a close second.
SELF-DENIAL AND THE GRACE OF GOD
Let’s begin by exploring self-denial in the life of one whom is the object of God’s grace. Paul cautions the Corinthians in I Corinthians 6:12,
“All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”
This statement is obviously limited by what the Bible calls wrong. This Paul makes clear in verses 9-10. It is wrong to break the specific commands of God.
So also, Paul warns in verse 13, it is wrong to be enslaved to any appetite. If this is so, what does he mean when he says that “all things are lawful”? Is Paul not taking back with his left hand the grace that was offered by his right hand?
Deciding the difference between what is “lawful” and what is “expedient” is what self-denial is about. Self-denial is not specifically called for in the Old Testament, because the people were under the law. Jesus introduces the idea of self-denial in the Gospels. For example, Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
The rest of the New Testament writers in general and Paul in particular (in passages such as I Corinthians 6) argue that grace does not mean license. Freedom in Christ does not lead to a life of prolifacy. The believer is to live a life of restraint. But in what areas of his life? What does this look like? This is the difference between law and grace.
When under the law the limits of man’s personal action were determined by God. Under grace the believer is free to determine his own limits, with the exception of the few commands contained in the New Testament, as already indicated. Both law and grace restrict the behavior of the believer.
Self-denial is a common duty, but it differs from law in that it is free to express its application according to one’s own convictions. An exact standard of self-denial is the same as being under the law.
For example, if you say that I must deny myself by eating one meal a day, never owning an auto and memorizing 100 verses each week, you put me under the law. But if I say that I will deny myself by doing these very same things, this is not law but self-denial. Both law and self-denial are obligatory, but law originates from a source outside of self while self-denial originates from within one’s own convictions.
BODY AND SOUL
In I Corinthians 6 Paul further develops his argument of self-denial by noting that we belong to Christ, body and soul. Although both body and soul belong to Christ, and both are eternal (we believe in the resurrection of the body), nevertheless body and soul are different.
So also, mind is different than matter, ideas are different than action, and thought is different than deed. But all meet in the body and soul. This is why self-denial is so important.
For example, a baby does not reason with its appetites. When hungry, he cries for food. With the urge, he defecates. With maturity, the bodily appetites cease to be mere animal instincts. The mind controls matter, thought controls deed, and ideas control action. In other words, the soul controls the body. This is maturity.
The marriage of the soul and body is eternal, and this is why self-discipline is necessary. We are best prepared for heaven by disciplining our bodies to do what our souls know they ought to do. In this we see the need for restraint and self-denial even while living under grace. It is in our own best interest! I do not allow my body to rule my soul, but rather the soul the body.
In seeking to define self-denial in general terms let us note that there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of circumstances: (1) Those over which you have no control, and (2) those you control, i.e. you can say “yes” or “no” to them.
You return from the office after a day’s work and meet your wife who tells you that she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is a circumstance over which you have no control.
You return from the office after an-exhausting day’s work and meet your children who want your time. You feel like taking your shoes off and reading the paper in some quiet corner and have to decide whether you will do this or give the children the time they want. This is a circumstance over which you do have control.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each kind of circumstance. In the first kind the disadvantage is the fact that, more often than not, such circumstances are hurtful. That is, they are contrary to how you would naturally want things to happen. The advantage is, you are not asked by God to vote on them. There is no self-denial in that, like the law, it is forced upon you from without. Therefore, the only decision you must make is how you are going to respond to the circumstance.
The disadvantage to the second kind of circumstance is seen in the fact that you must decide whether you will vote against yourself in an expression of self-denial and meet the needs of those asking, or whether you will listen to your flesh and read the paper. The advantage is, you, in the grace of self-denial, get to decide. The decision is not forced upon you from some external source.
When called upon to deny yourself, you wrestle with the question, “Does this call come from God or does it come from some other source?” To what degree do you allow these calls to be viewed in the same way as circumstances over which you have no control, i.e. providence?
Or possibly more importantly, if you do not respond in self-denial to circumstances over which you do have control, will God force self-denial on you through circumstances over which you have no control? This is the “downside” to the self-denial of grace. It is the reason law is so attractive. With law there is no ambiguity, no uncertainty. Everything is clear, straightforward and easily understood.
LOSING ONE’S LIFE
In Matthew 10:39 Jesus said: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Again, our Saviour said in John 12:24-25:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”
This is the theme of Paul in Romans 6-8. Romans 8:6-8 is merely illustrative;
“For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.”
To be carnally minded, to live after the flesh, is to seek to save one’s life rather than lose it. It is allowing the body to control the soul rather than vice versa.
What does living after the Spirit, losing one’s life, and living in self-denial look like? It can be defined in general terms, but any attempt towards specificity is to leave grace for law. Law is specific and has a source outside of self. Self-denial, the fruit of grace, is not specifically defined in the Bible and has as its source the Holy Spirit living within self.
Most people think of self-denial in terms of stewardship. “If I am a good steward of the temporal possessions entrusted to my care, I will deny myself by giving liberally of them to others.” We tend to see self-denial in terms of sacrificial financial giving.
Knowing that life is hard on most people, e.g. famine, natural disasters, disease, etc., does self-denial for the financially privileged play a special role? Most would answer with an unequivocal “yes.”
Accepting this answer, we are still faced with the question of how much. Assuming that God does not want us to live on either extreme of giving everything and giving nothing, where is the balance? This again is the difference between law and self-denial. The answer must come from within one’s own conscience.
As important as the sacrificial giving of our physical possessions is, I suggest that it is only part of a much broader picture. It seems to me that a more profound expression of self-denial is found in death to self, the willingness to view my life in its totality as a resource in the hands of God for the meeting of people’s needs.
When comparing the difference between how the world and God perceive greatness, Jesus said in Matthew 20:26-28,
“But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus came to give His life in exchange for the needs of others and suggests that His disciples should do the same.
This is the same theme found in Jeremiah 45:5 where God says to his servant,
“And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not: for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the LORD: but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.”
There is a lot of confusion regarding this verse because of the word prey.” It is the thing hunted and devoured by the hunter. Greatness, as the world defines greatness, is not the route to go, warns the Lord. For He will destroy all the works of man’s hand. But God’s servant can have the privilege of giving his life as Jesus gave His — as a prey in meeting the needs of others.
Blending this with the “two kinds of circumstances,” to be a prey means to vote against self in meeting the needs of others when you have legitimate reason to say no. For example, you return from an exhausting trip, having suffered from sleep deprivation. At 11 p.m. you are awakened from a sound sleep by someone who is emotionally hemorrhaging and needs your help. You suggest tomorrow, and he insists that he needs you tonight. It is at times like this you have opportunity to decide the degree to which you want people to “devour” you.
This is the life of self-denial. This is what it means to say no to the flesh and die to self. It may be argued that financial self-denial was of central importance in the ministry of Jesus, but finances are merely illustrative of a larger issue.
Most see finances as the means to control circumstances. Financial independence is first and foremost independence from God. It is symptomatic of an unbiblical value system. The question is not, “Am I willing to drive a Chevrolet rather than a BMW?” Rather, the question is, “Am I willing to live for a cause greater than I, and am I willing to allow God to choose that cause for me?”
It is for this reason that God links self-denial to grace. It is gracious of God to allow us to live for something other than temporal mediocrity. That God gives us the opportunity to exchange our lives for the same thing for which He gave His life is grace.
The beautiful thing about the grace of self-denial is, although it is not optional, it is also not forced upon us. It is a decision that we make of our own volition. Not only so, it is unlike law in that we get to decide what it looks like in our own lives.
“All things are lawful, but not all things are expedient.” You are free to live for self, but the expedient thing is to die to self.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (Jim Elliott)