JESUS taught that it is our responsibility to say no to those things which appeal to the self-nature of fallen man. “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Mark 8:34.
Surely our Lord establishes in these words that there must be a constant resisting and rejecting of those things which cater to the physical propensities. Do we imagine for a moment that there will be no struggle or battle involved in this process? The clamor of fleshly desires will turn every life into a battlefield. Satan will take the opportunity to display before the senses those physical attractions which six thousand years of experimentation have proven to be the most powerful in securing the consent of man’s will. Whether a person is converted or unconverted, his fallen nature is tempted by those appeals of the flesh. James describes it this way: “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.” James 1:14. This is just another way of saying that the sinful nature is strongly drawn or “enticed” by such attractions.
Now let’s answer an important question. What does it mean to deny self, and who has the power to do it? The dictionary defines the word “deny” in this way: “withhold, refuse to grant, disallow.” Can’t you see how the will is being appealed to through the fallen nature? Some answer is required-either to refuse or accept. Jesus said that if any man chooses to follow Him and be a Christian, there is only one possible answer to be given. Self must be denied. The will must withhold and refuse to grant the urgent petitions of the self-nature to indulge the flesh!
This self-denial will never be easy, but it is possible, by the grace of God. We can choose our own master. As free moral agents, we can also decide which rules to order our lives by. God has given a simple and complete blueprint in the Bible for living the Christian life. The road map to heaven is laid out so clearly that anyone can understand and follow it. Because we have the power of choice, we are not forced to accept the conditions of salvation. If we don’t like the rules in the Bible, we can simply reject them. God will never compel us to follow them. He gives us perfect freedom to accept any lifestyle of our choice. If we decide to go along with the crowd in the broad road, and live by their uninhibited standards, no one can stop us. We can even sit down and make up our own rules if we so choose. But one fact must be clearly understood: we will never get to heaven by that route. If we are saved IT WILL BE ON GOD’S TERMS ALONE!
Are those terms too demanding? Do they require more than we can give? No. They are simple enough for every person to fulfil if the mind is yielded to Christ. Only two choices finally present themselves to each individual. There are two roads before us-the broad and the narrow; two natures struggle to control us-the spiritual and the fleshly; two voices appeal to us-Christ and the world. There can be no mixture of these two inviting alternativesno pleasant blending of portions from both sides. It must be one or the other and nothing in between. To accept one is to deny the other.
We have no choice about making the choice! Some things we can’t control, but this decision about who rules the mind and will has been left for us to settle. And settle it we must! We didn’t make the choice to come into this world, but if we are not in the next world, it will be our decision alone.
The truth is that all of us are running a race which will decide our eternal destiny, and there are no second prizes or consolation prizes. We either get everything in the end-eternal life-or we lose everything and suffer eternal death.
What a tremendous responsibility rests upon everyone who is engaged in this great marathon event which will determine our destiny! There is a legend about a pack of dogs who were chasing a little rabbit. According to the story, one of the dogs said to all the others in the pack, “Look, you fellows drop out and let me have the glory of making this catch. Let me show you how this thing should be done.” So all the others dropped out and the one dog kept on in hot pursuit of that little rabbit. But the rabbit was faster than the dog and made a rapid getaway. Finally the dog came limping back to join the pack with his tail between his legs, and the other dogs asked, “What happened?” According to the legend, the dog gave this answer, “Well, he was running for his life, and I was just running for my dinner.” Doesn’t that bring a great truth into focus? The little rabbit knew that his very life depended upon his speed and effort. The dog might not have been deeply concerned because he had very little to lose.
Now I’ve seen some people running this race of life as though they didn’t care whether they won or lost. Their interest seemed to be very shallow; they were apathetic about the way they lived; they were swayed by impulse and tides of circumstance. How very earnest we should be about winning this race for eternity! Life and death are the results of our efforts in this contest. Everyone of us is in the midst of battle day by day. There can be no idle bystanders or neutrals in this fight. Every soul will be on one side or the other. Much of the struggle revolves around our own will. Every day we have to choose whether to do right or do wrong. Every moment we are either following emotion or following conviction. We must live either by impulse or by principle. Either Christ or Satan will be at the control center of our life.
Would you like to know who will dominate your life today? The one who is loved the most will always be in charge. Every sin of every person involves one of two things. Either we are trying to please another person or else we are trying to gratify our own selfish impulses. In other words, all sin revolves around either loving someone else more than God, or loving ourselves and our own flesh-pleasing more than God. Think about it for a moment. Every immorality and impurity is rooted here. Who will take the first place? Christ? Or you? Or another person? The Christian life demands total surrender to one Master. If we are willing to give Him first and best of everything-if we love Him that much, there will be no problem with sin. The fact is that we either accommodate self or deny self.
But here is a most important fact to remember: only the regenerate, spiritual mind has the ability to say no to self. Those who have the mind of Christ, by being partakers of the divine nature, can be “more than conquerors,” can be led “always to triumph,” and can be “saved to the uttermost” from Satan’s most virulent attacks.
“The soul that is yielded to Christ becomes His own fortress, which He holds in a revolted world, and He intends that no authority shall be known in it but His own. A soul thus kept in possession by the heavenly agencies is impregnable to the assaults of Satan.... Without a personal acquaintance with Christ, and a continual communion, we are at the mercy of the enemy, and shall do his bidding in the end.” The Desire of Ages, p. 324.
What a contrast in the two possible responses to temptation! We are either “impregnable” to the enemy or we are “at the mercy” of the enemy. The difference is conversion and being in “continual communion.” How very necessary it is for every Christian to be in a state of constant surrender to the will of God. Without a daily feeding of the soul through prayer and Bible study, no one can be that impregnable fortress against sin.
But let’s return to the crafty attempts of Satan to displace God’s control of the mind. Even though all the organs of perception are assailed, it is the organ of sight which seems to be the most responsive to temptation. Jesus said, “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.” Matthew 6:22, 23.
Do you understand the implication that the eye can defile the whole being by what it allows into the mind? Consider adultery, for example. Like all other sins it begins with the thoughts or the imagination. Paul speaks of sin as “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” Ephesians 2:3. It is very likely that the largest number of evil thoughts are generated by illicit looking, and the overt acts of sin proceed from those wicked thoughts. So what we look at and how we look has a direct bearing on the actual physical sins committed. Jesus said, “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Matthew 5:28.
It is almost frightening to realize that guilt can be imputed even before the act is carried out by the body. The sin may already be mentally committed and perhaps the body is only waiting for an opportune moment to execute the physical violation. But mark this down and never forget it: MOST SIN, WHETHER OF THE MIND OR BODY, HAS ITS ULTIMATE ROOTS IN THE SENSORY PERCEPTIONS. This helps us understand why Jesus said people could be cast into hell who did not control the eyes and the hands. Yet the impression is quite general among Christians that little needs to be said about these areas of conduct lest we be found “majoring in minors.”
Has Satan indeed exploited the highly emotional physical senses in order to gain control of the mind and will? We have dramatic evidence on this point in the book of Genesis. He used it almost exclusively in his first temptation to make a human being sin. Read the story of Eve as she confronted the serpent at the forbidden tree and you will see how powerfully Satan baited that temptation with sensory appeal. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” Genesis 3:6.
Here we have the unusual combination of sight, taste, and hearing. She saw how beautiful the fruit appeared. Satan always makes the path of sin attractive. Right and wrong can never be tested by what it looks like, feels like, or tastes like. Feelings can be generated and controlled by what we allow ourselves to look at or listen to. Satan spoke flattering words which appealed to Eve’s ego and vanity. What she heard and saw influenced her feelings to such a degree that she became blinded to right and wrong. Inhibitions fell away and deliberate disobedience followed quickly. The fruit tasted so good that she could not believe that it was wrong to eat it.
In this story from the Garden of Eden, the pattern of Satan’s future temptations is clearly set forth. The Old; Testament is filled with recitals of Satan’s conquests and the same sordid plot of sensual appeal lies behind most of) them. Just as Eve stood before the tree looking, so David looked one day onto the roof next door, and saw al beautiful woman bathing. The incident wouldn’t even be recorded in the Bible if David had been ruled by principle instead of impulse. The problem was that he kept looking until he was blinded just like Eve. This man of strength and character gazed so long at that which was forbidden, that he became a puppet of clay in Satan’s hands. He sent for the woman, committed adultery, and finally murder, in order to get what his excited emotions demanded.
Did the evil one continue to attack God’s people through the avenue of their senses? We could talk about dozens of such tragic experiences of compromise and defeat. It happened often to Israel as they journeyed toward the Promised Land. Many times they were enticed by the fleshly forms of pagan temple worship. Repeatedly the nation was punished for accommodating the altars of Baal and bending to the sensual customs of sun worship.
We can delineate only briefly the circumstances which reveal God’s utter abhorrence for everything that related to Baal worship. He commanded His people to destroy every pagan altar and burn all the gods to ashes, “The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee.... Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it.” Deuteronomy 7:25, 26. He also commanded “that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.” Deuteronomy 12:30.
God forbad Israel to bring any of the objects of Baal worship into their tents or homes, and He especially commanded that none of their pagan customs ever be used in connection with His worship. Does God still feel the same toward those glamorous appendages of heathenism today? If so, how does He relate to the pagan Sunday which was transferred directly from Roman sun worship? And what does He feel regarding Christmas and Easter with all their symbolic links to idolatry and immorality? And what about the wedding ring which represented special devotion to the pagan sungod? It is hard to imagine how divine approval could ever be extended to these accessories of ancient blasphemy just because they are now attached to modern forms of Christian worship.
I’ve often wondered how the watery rationalizations of modern theologians sound in the ears of angels who watched Israel sell out to the false gods for whom those customs were invented. Has the passing of a few years or a few hundred years caused the heavenly witnesses to forget the way in which they evolved from the rites of Satan-worship to rites of Christian worship? Has time removed the revulsion which God expressed for those same symbols as they were utilized in earlier orgies of Baal worship? We often hear this explanation: “I know these customs come from paganism, but we aren’t observing them to honor Baal or Ishtar or Mithras. We are using them to worship Yahweh, the true God.”
That may be true, but it ignores the repeated commands of Jehovah to reject everything related to those despised practices. We are not to measure them by our easily impressed senses, but by the declared counsels of the unchanging God. The beautiful forms of nostalgic pagan holidays and customs have blinded us to the extreme measures which God used to utterly annihilate every vestige and reminder of the counterfeit religions in which they were honored.
In order to preserve His people from being overcome by the highly sensory appeal of those pagan forms of worship, God allowed them to have no relationship with the nations around them. Intermarriage was forbidden. All the tribes who inhabited Canaan were to be driven out, or else totally exterminated. We almost shudder at the radical processes by which God protected Israel from contamination by contact. Sometimes entire tribes were ordered killed-including women, children and infants. They had become so hardened in rebellion and sin that they could not be permitted to remain as a source of temptation for Israel. We can only understand such drastic action in the light of God’s concept of holiness by separation. God had only one way to communicate His truth to the inhabitants of the earth-His people, Israel. The vindication of His character required a people who would overcome sin, and reflect His righteousness to the world. Because He understood the weakness of fallen human nature and its powerful response to external stimuli, God provided the conditions under which the Israelites could maintain a victorious, sanctified experience. He ordered them to remain apart from the corrupt influences of the heathen nations.
Does God have the same plan and purpose for modern Israel? Is He still seeking to produce a remnant who will disprove Satan’s charges against Him? Is it necessary today for His people to maintain a distinct and absolute separation from the fallen, satanic world of the flesh in order to reveal His perfect righteousness?
“The warnings given to the Hebrews against assimilating with the heathen were not more direct or explicit than are those forbidding Christians to conform to the spirit and customs of the ungodly.” Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 458.
No one can believe that the nature of today’s carnal society is measurably different from the perverse neighbors of ancient Israel. Our highest social and professional leaders have given approval to the same vices which led God to destroy those nations. Homosexuality, incest, fornication, Satanism, astrology and a dozen other current evils were the basis for capital punishment under the theocracy of the Old Testament.
Because immediate execution is not decreed in the New Testament, are we to believe that such sins are more acceptable to the same God today? Do we indeed find similar drastic measures commanded by Jesus in avoiding pollution by those practices? There can be no question that He recognized the dangers of sensory temptation, and laid down safeguards that sound almost as extreme as those which governed His people of old. “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Matthew 5:29, 30.
In these verses, Jesus was talking about the things the eye focuses on, and the occupation of the hand, but the forceful language indicates that the faculties will need to be rigorously curbed and disciplined in order to remain pure. What a contrast to the easygoing, accommodating spirit of many presentday religionists! No emphasis is placed on such efforts to control the way we act, what we look at, how we eat or dress, etc: With an air of great spirituality, young people are admonished that to give attention to these things is “behaviorism” and “works oriented.” Such concern can be destructive of the beautiful righteousness by faith experience, which, we are told, consists of nothing more than belief in the objective work of Jesus on the cross.
The words of our Lord indicate that He recognized the avenues of attack which Satan would still be following in attempting to conquer the mind and will. They also reveal the urgent necessity of strong, determined action in plucking out and cutting off every influence which might lead into sin. Indeed it is better to lose the physical organs of perception than to lose both body and soul in the fires of hell.