John Wesley: Christian Self-denial

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Welcome to Lent! Today is Ash Wednesday, a day we focus on prayer, fasting, and repentance. In modern terms, we recalculate the routes of our lives back to alignment with the way of Christ. From now until Easter, may God use the disciplines of fasting, prayer, and giving to shape us into kind and generous people. And, for our material this Lent, I will draw from famous preachers through church history. This one is long, but worth the read. Enjoy!

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Luke 9:23

“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.”

It would be easy to show, in how many respects the Methodists, in general, are deplorably wanting in the practice of Christian self-denial; from which, indeed, they have been continually frighted by the silly outcries of the Antinomians. To instance only in one: While we were at Oxford, the rule of every Methodist was, (unless in case of sickness) to fast every Wednesday and Friday in the year, in imitation of the Primitive Church; for which they had the highest reverence.

Now this practice of the primitive church is universally allowed. “Who does not know,” says Epiphanius, an ancient writer, “that the fasts of the fourth and sixth days of the week” (Wednesday and Friday) “are observed by the Christians throughout the whole world.” So they were by the Methodists for several years; by them all, without any exception; but afterwards, some in London carried this to excess, and fasted so as to impair their health.

It was not long before others made this a pretence for not fasting at all. And I fear there are now thousand of Methodists, so called, both in England and Ireland, who, following the same bad example, have entirely left off fasting; who are so far from fasting twice in the week, that they do not fast twice in the month.

Yea, are there not some of you who do not fast one day from the beginning of the year to the end? But what excuse can there be for this? I do not say for those that call themselves members of the Church of England; but for any who profess to believe the Scripture to be the Word of God. Since, according to this, the man that never fasts is no more in the way to heaven, than the man that never prays.

But can any one deny that the members of the Church of Scotland fast constantly; particularly on their sacramental occasions? In some parishes they return only once a year; but in others, suppose in large cities, they occur twice, or even thrice, a year. Now, it is well known there is always a fast-day in the week preceding the administration of the Lord’s Supper. But, occasionally looking into a book of accounts in one of their vestries, I observed so much set down for the dinners of the ministers on the fast-day; and I am informed there is the same article in them all.

And is there any doubt but the people fast just as their ministers do? But what a farce is this! What a miserable burlesque upon a plain Christian duty! O that the general assembly would have regard to the honor of their nation! Let them roll away from it this shameful reproach, by either enforcing the duty, or removing that article from their books. Let it never appear there any more! Let it vanish away for ever.

But why is self-denial in general so little practised at present among the Methodists? Why is so exceedingly little of it to be found even in the oldest and largest societies? The more I observe and consider things, the more clearly it appears what is the cause of this in London, in Bristol, in Birmingham, in Manchester, in Leeds, in Dublin, in Cork. The Methodists grow more and more self-indulgent, because they grow rich. Although many of them are still deplorably poor; (“tell it not in Gath; publish it not in the streets of Askelon!”) yet many others, in the space of twenty, thirty, or forty years, are twenty, thirty, yea, a hundred times richer than they were when they first entered the society.

And it is an observation which admits of few exceptions, that nine in ten of these decreased in grace, in the same proportion as they increased in wealth. Indeed, according to the natural tendency of riches, we cannot expect it to be otherwise. But how astonishing a thing is this! How can we understand it? Does it not seem (and yet this cannot be) that Christianity, true scriptural Christianity, has a tendency, in process of time, to undermine and destroy itself?”

John Wesley (1703-1791) in “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” Sermon 116.13-17.

Observe a fast this Lent. Fast from food, technology, or something else that your heart frequently desires. Without Christian self-denial, the church will not only lose it effectiveness; it will destroy itself.

Why do people cease too fast? Wesley points to the fact that our faith leads to blessing. We grow rich. Then sadly, we keep the riches for ourselves, and basically, it turns our self-denial into self-indulgence.

Fasting 40 days follows the example of Jesus (cf. Luke 4:1-13). Before His ministry began, He fasted. This enabled Him to set aside His desires for the Father’s will. We must do the same thing.

Lest you think it will be too hard, you get to break your fast and feast on the seven Sundays, and the seventh Sunday of Lent is Easter. Fasting, prayer, and giving help root control, pride, and idolatry from our lives.

Have we forgotten why Jesus died on the cross for us? Lenten disciplines shake and wake us to remember. May the practice Christian self-denial transform us into faithful and fruitful disciples.