Atonement and The Method of Methodism-Part 2: Self-Denial

By Steve Manskar

John Wesley believed Jesus clearly stated the responsibility that comes with the blessing of his atonement in Luke 9:23

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

This verse describes the “method” of Methodism in a nutshell. Versions of this saying are found in all three synoptic gospels. Wesley was drawn to Luke’s version because it is the only one in which Jesus insists our cross must be taken up every day.

Self-Denial & Love

Jesus gives the church a compass heading for how to respond to the love of God revealed in his death on the cross. Because he defeated the powers of sin and death we are able, by grace, to respond to the invitation to join him in his mission to prepare the world for the coming reign of God. Rather than living in and by the agenda of the world, we can have new life in Christ and become channels of grace for the world.

Jesus tells us what we must do in Luke 9:23. John Wesley took this teaching to heart. He was convinced that one could not truly follow Jesus without participating in his atoning work through practicing self-denial:

It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our ‘coming after him’ and ‘following him’, insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not 'take up our cross daily', we do not 'come after him', but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own 'fleshly mind' (Col. 2:18). If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following him; we are not treading in his steps, but going back from, or at least wide of, him.

Late in his life, at 86 years old, Wesley completed a tour of Methodist societies in Ireland and England. He found a lack of missional vigor among the Methodist societies. In the sermon Wesley subsequently published in the Arminian Magazine he attributed the current malaise to a lack of Christian discipline, self-denial, and increasing prosperity among the Methodists. Regarding the importance of self-denial Wesley wrote:

Why has Christianity done so little good, even among us? Among the Methodists? Among them that hear and receive the whole Christian doctrine, and that have Christian discipline added thereto, in the most essential parts of it? Plainly because we have forgot, or at least not duly attended to those solemn words of our Lord, 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.' It was the remark of a holy man several years ago, 'Never was there before a people in the Christian church who had so much of the power of God among them, with so little self-denial.' Indeed the work of God does go on, and in a surprising manner, notwithstanding this capital defect; but it cannot go on in the same degree as it otherwise would: neither can the word of God have its full effect unless the hearers of it 'deny themselves, and take up their cross daily'.

Wesley defined self-denial to be “the denying or refusing to follow our own will, from a conviction that the will of God is the only rule of action to us. And we see the reason thereof, because we are creatures; because ‘it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves’ (Psalm 100:3).” Wesley believed loving God with all the heart, soul, and mind requires us to set aside our own will in favor of the will of the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.

If we truly love God then we set aside our ways in favor of his. Such self-denial is born of faith in God who created and redeemed us. When we practice self-denial we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit who works in us to root out the remnants of inbeing sin and restore the image of Christ so that love can reign in our hearts. Practicing self-denial leads to holiness of heart and life. This is the importance of self-denial for Wesley.

Love necessarily requires self-denial. It is essential for any significant relationship. We must understand that practicing self-denial does not mean that Jesus expects his followers to be “doormats.” It does not mean that Christians must allow others to take advantage of or abuse them. Self-denial simply means that we put the needs and interests of others ahead of our own. Jesus provides an illustration in Luke 10:30-37. In the parable of the Good Samaritan he tells the story of a man from Samaria travelling on the Jericho road. When he encountered a man who had been robbed, beaten and left to die he stopped to help. He cleaned and bound the man’s wounds and took him to a local inn. Before continuing his journey the Samaritan gave the inn keeper money to cover the cost of caring for the man, with the promise of more upon his return.

The Samaritan put the needs of the wounded man ahead of his own. He interrupted his plans and gave assistance to a man who needed his help. Jesus told this story to illustrate the meaning of his command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Because the Samaritan loved God he was compelled to deny himself and live out that love by caring for a stranger whom he knew God loved.

Self-denial is essential to genuine love – love that is a reflection of God (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). After all, God denied himself in the incarnation. Paul describes God’s self-denial as self-emptying love (kenosis) in Philippians 2:5-8

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Paul encourages Christians to be imitators of Christ, just like the good Samaritan. As we submit ourselves to following Jesus through self-denial we become fully the persons God created us to be; the mind of Christ, the way of Jesus, will become our way and we will become the persons God created us to be as we learn to love as God loves.