From “Self-Denial,” Some Sermons on the Words of Christ (1868)
Kneeling at the foot of the Cross, the soul perceives the range and force of two lines of truth, each of which is clearly stated in the New Testament, and both of which lead to the practical conclusion before us.
Of these, the first is the necessity of conformity between Christ the head of renewed humanity, and ourselves its members. If he had merely washed away our sins by his precious blood, leaving us pardoned but unsanctified, this conformity would not exist. The figures which Scripture uses to show that we are very members incorporate of his body, that we and he form in the divine mind one organism — I had almost dared to say, one creature — imply that we must perforce be at least like Him. “We are members,” says St. Paul, “of his body, out of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph. 5:30)!
“It will not do,” exclaims St. Bernard, “for the body to be tended delicately while the head is crowned with thorns.” And God has predestinated us “to be conformed to the image of his Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). “The image of his Son”! It is in truth an image of unspeakable moral majesty; but it is also and pre-eminently an image of suffering. Conformity to Christ rising from the tomb, and ascending beyond the stars, is impossible unless there be also conformity with Christ insulted, scourged, scorned, crucified. We cannot select one side of that divine life, and eliminate the other. We cannot be like Christ the true philanthropist, yet not like Christ the man of sorrows. “If any man will come after me” — it is not said, let him be benevolent, active, courteous, genial; these are right and necessary; but —”let him deny himself, and take up his cross.” This is the test of a living and perpetuated union with Christ, the voluntary acceptance of suffering for the sake of and in profound sympathy with the divine Savior of the world.
It is of course possible to lounge throughout life upon an ottoman, and to admire in a heartless aesthetic way the Crucifixion as described by the evangelists, just as one might admire it as painted by a Guido or a Van Dyck. But to do this alone is to have no part with Jesus. Burke says somewhere, when he is insisting upon the relations of the passions to man’s physical frame, that it is impossible to feel earnest indignation while you are lying back in an easy chair with your mouth open. It is at least not more impossible to do so than to lead a self-indulgent life, and have a real living understanding of and a true spiritual part in Christ crucified.
This is borne out and explained by the other truth which the soul learns at the foot of the Cross. It is, that pain — which, apart from revelation, is so dreadful, so unexplained a mystery in the creation of the Good God — has been blessed and sanctified by the great sufferer, and has distinct functions assigned to it in the kingdom of the new creation. Nature shrinks from pain; grace embraces it and makes the most of it. This could not well be otherwise, if indeed Christians are artists who have their eyes fixed on Christ crucified and are imitating him.
And thus self-denial, which is voluntary pain on a small scale, is not merely the expression of penitent and grateful love. It is the knife whereby a true love of Jesus prunes away the proud-flesh of the old unregenerate man, and fashions within him more and more perfectly the divine image of the Crucified. It is the appropriation of the sanctifying as distinct from the cleansing virtue of the Cross.
The misery of the Fall consisted, among other things, in this, that it detached man from his true center, God, and led him to seek and form a new center, self. Self is the center of the unregenerate man, as God is the center of the new man created in Christ Jesus. To the one his own thoughts, views, feelings, impulses, passions, are everything. To the other the divine mind and heart and will revealed in Jesus is the absolute type of beauty and truth to which he determines, by God’s strength, that his own shall be conformed.
But this conformity can only be achieved by a stern war waged at all points upon the principle of self. Self is always plotting a revolution, even in the most holy souls, whereby God might be driven from his throne, and the reins of power might be seized by a committee of the passions under the presidency of self. And self is not really to be coaxed into loyalty to God; it is profoundly disaffected towards his rule. Self therefore must be repressed; and the repression of self is always painful; it is a taking up the cross. Still, a Christian looks upon the repression of self as his proper business; and Christ by his grace makes it a means of his progressive sanctification. Self-denial, then, is the common-sense of a genuine Christian life, just as self-indulgence is the common-sense of a mere natural or heathen life. The love of God lives in the soul in exactly an inverse ratio to the strength of the natural passions and inclinations; the sanctification of the soul is achieved by, and depends upon, what St. Paul terms a being “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
And these two truths,—the necessity of a conformity between the head and the members of renewed humanity, and the achievement of sanctification by pain applied to the repression of self — are not hostile to the prerogatives of the Redeemer’s Cross. They are not in conflict with the truth that he alone pardons us; they are an illustration, an extension, of his complete victory. Self-denial is the natural expression of a love that can never repay its debt of gratitude to a transcendent charity. It is an expression of the conviction that Christ died for all, that they who live should not henceforth live unto self, but should by the repression of self be made like to Jesus Christ.
Henry Parry Liddon (1829-1890) was an influential Catholic Anglican theologian, one of the most acclaimed preachers of Victorian Britain. He was professor of scriptural interpretation at Oxford University and, for twenty years, chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.