The Power of Piety is in Self-Denial

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For Lord’s Day, January 4, 2015

Dear Saints,

Happy New Year!

As we prepare to worship together for the first time in the two thousand and fifthteenth year of our Lord, it is always helpful to renew ourselves in the new man by review:

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. (Revelation 21:5)

It is this new holy life in Christ that makes an aroma pleasing to the Lord.  It is called godliness. It is called piety.  Without piety, as we will see tomorrow, and without whole hearted praise, we are not a pleasing perfume to God nor our brethren. But with godly devotion, we please the LORD and, help His Body to smell good, and, in fact, empower ourselves.

In the book, The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art, Erroll Hulse spends some time addressing the common causes of “Pastoral Anxiety” in his contributed chapter, “The Preacher and Piety”.  The causes were not so surprising to me, nor would I think they would be to you.  However, the first remedy or cause of relief was surprising, but in an empowering way.  Reminiscent of the advice given by Jeremiah Borroughs in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment and in Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot, Hulse focuses not on the behavior of others, but our own reactionary behavior as pastors, to identify the ultimate first cause of pastoral breakdown, which is a lack of self-denial.

Wow.  The way to not have a nervous breakdown is to break ourselves down.  We do the opposite of the world.  We do not pamper ourselves, but prop ourselves up with pious self-sacrifice.  If we don’t, he warns:

The influence of a materialist, pleasure-loving, prosperous society can be so strong as to erode the piety of ministers.  Gradually and unwittingly they conform to wordily standards and self-indulgence.  In other words the world molds them more than they mold the world … as soon as we overindulge, we commit sin.

And sin never brings blessing upon us (Romans 6:23; Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 152).  Hulse goes on to say that the pastor should be a model for others to follow.  And that example should be imitating Christ in self-denial, which he says must be “universal and constant”, while recognizing, “It often involves pain.”  But you remember the adage, “No pain, no gain”.  This is true for us in the process of sanctification and the stripping away of things that can break us down as much as any area in life in which we want to perform well and reap the rewards of excellence.  Self-denial’s immediate pain prepares the way for the delayed and lasting gratification of contentment walking with Christ, which is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6).

Hulse illustrates what we should imitate in dealing with our hardships, quoting Thomas Boston’s diary from Sept. 13:

Being under some discouragements at home … I began to be uneasy and discontent with my settling at Simprin–finding myself hereby carried off my feet as a Christian, I resolved to spend some time on the morrow in fasting and prayer.

You recognize, with me, that this is sadly the opposite of how we often deal with anxiety and its potential physical breakdowns and mental meltdowns in our modern day of vain, quick fixes.  We too often knee-jerk to gluttony and complaining, or should we say, we resign in both forms of self-centeredness. But such childish behavior stinks of Satan, and such tarnishing, treacherous actions based on stinking thinking only suffocate sanctified breathing.  May we instead give ourselves away to Christ by giving up our standard ways of dealing with disappointments, and find anew that we can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us (Philippians 4:13, or, as Hulse shares, William Hendrisken aptly translates it as ” …. who infuses strength into me.”).  Christ renews us in Himself, but we only find Him anew in the pious giving over of ourselves to Him.

Should you not want to apply this remedy of resolve and just continue to react, don’t expect change that blesses when you live in the old self that Paul says to put off so that you can put on Christ and walk in His newness of life.  Only piety empowers, and piety is godliness, and godliness–imitating Christ Jesus–is self-denial and serving others.  If you are tempted to dismiss this wisdom and decline to empower yourself with piety, perhaps it will be helpful first to consider the other aspects Hulse lists as what leads to our own self-imposed breakdowns; he breaks it down into the following categories: our self breakdowns are not only due to a lack of self-denial, but are also caused by nervous tension, moral failure, pride and selfish ambition, and deviation from the truth and from reliance on the instituted means of grace.

May we prepare for Lord’s Day worship and the Lord’s Supper, by preparing to meet with the Lord in advance applying the sermon point of tomorrow’s sermon on Exodus 30:22-38 regarding the typology of the priestly Anointing Oil and Incense: “Perfume Yourselves with Piety and Praise.”  And may our motivation be, in addition to God’s glory as primary, our own enjoyment of Him and our own sanctified scent, for as Hulse also writes, “Piety is the guardian of the soul, not only the supporter, but also the nourisher …”

Semper Reformanda,

Pastor Grant