Self or Christ; Which Is It?

Adapted from a Sermon by Horatius Bonar, 1867

(7) For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. (8) For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. (9) For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Romans 14:7-9

The words "none of us" show that the apostle is speaking of those who have been delivered from a present evil world. He is contrasting them with the men of earth. Once, our life, he means to say, was the same as theirs; now everything has changed; and instead of resemblance, there is unlikeness in every feature. He does not consider it to be pride to say, we are unselfish, they are selfish; we are of God, and the whole world lies in wickedness.

Each of these three verses brings out a distinct truth. In the seventh verse we have the setting aside of self; in the eighth, the substitute for self; in the ninth, the way in which this substitution has come about.

And so, first, let us look into

I. The setting aside of self.

"For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself." This dying does not refer to the annihilation of self, as some want to believe. There is no such thing, except in the dreams of a vain philosophy, or a self-righteous mysticism. Rather, this verse speaks of giving self is proper place—the place recognized by our Lord, when he said, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt 19:19)

Lawful self-love is not selfishness; yet we may say that selfishness is diseased self-love; and, as such, is the master-sin, the master-curse of man. He lives for self; his estimate of everything is how it affects self; his understanding of everything around him is one derived from self. Self is the horizon which limits all his views. He is not like a man looking round on a noble landscape, and forgetting himself in the beauty of the wide expanse; but he is like a man carrying a mirror with him, into which he is continually looking, that he may see and admire himself; so that every object is seen in connection with self, and is only admired as it helps to highlight self.

The apostle's statement presents the opposite of all this. It shows us the mirror broken, into which we looked so complacently; the eye turned outward instead of inward; the horizon thrown back into the far distance, self forgotten, lost sight of—“none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself." The Christian is done with self, at least, in the way in which we have up until now been connected with it. Self is displaced. It is brought down to its true position and level; it is set aside entirely as an end, or motive; and this, not in one thing—but in everything; for we may take the words, life and death, not merely as expressing the very things that they mean—but as bringing before us the two extremes of man's being, and including, of course, everything between these two extremities. This displacement of self, then, is carried through man's whole being, from one extremity to the other. From his life and from his death, as well as from all in between, this self has been displaced.

Now, mark how this process is carried out.

i) First we see the setting aside of self is in the matter of justification before God;

for, previously, self was the main ingredient in man's theory of justification. His object was to correct self, to improve self, or it might be, to mortify self, in order that in this way he might recommend himself to God. And so self, in the matter of his justification before God, occupied the chief place. The first thing which the Holy Spirit does, when he convinces a man of sin, is to show that this cannot be; that self can contribute nothing towards his acceptance with God. What is conviction of sin but just the setting aside of self; a negative—but still, an important step; showing a man what cannot justify him before showing him what can. And so it is, then, in the matter of justification before God, that the setting aside of self begins.

ii) Secondly, from that point it proceeds onwards throughout a man's whole life.

From life, in all its parts and movements, great and small, his inner life, his outer life, his domestic life, his social life, self is displaced. Life is no longer tinged or shaded, or discoloured by self as it once had been.

iii) And then, in the third place, the close of his life, in a similar way, shows the setting aside of self.

On a sick-bed self is set aside; in dying, self is not allowed to come in. Nor in dying, are we to exhibit self or turn the eye either of ourselves or others to it; or to think merely of enjoyment, or comfort, or reputation among men, our good name, our fame after death—posthumous fame, as men vainly call it. In reference to all these points self is set aside—"none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself." Others may live to themselves—but not we who have been "bought with a price." (1 Cor 6:20) Others may die to themselves—but not we who have been "ransomed ... with the precious blood of Christ." (1 Peter 1:19)

How this elevates life! What was that which degraded life? It was the introduction of self. Now, this element of degradation is set aside, and life is lifted up into its true glory—the true position which God originally designed for man. It is no longer the degraded thing that self has made it—but a glorious thing such as God meant it to be.

How this takes away life's shallowness! What was it that introduced so much narrowness into life, into every part of life, and its daily transactions? It was the infusion of self. It was this that made life feeble and little; that shrivelled it up, and contracted its original greatness. But now that this element is set aside and expelled, life expands to its true dimensions. Its shallowness is gone.

How this establishes and strengthens life! What was the element of our weakness? It was self. Self is really the great element of weakness, because it disconnects us from the foundation of strength. It cuts us off from God. It isolates and makes us stand alone. But now, when self is set aside, life takes on the strength which God meant it to possess. It is "confirmed, strengthened, settled." (1 Peter 5:10)

How this secures us against all failure and disappointment! Why was it that we failed so often in our schemes? Because we lived for self. Why was it that we were often disappointed? It was because we were seeking self; but now that this is gone, we cannot fail; we cannot be disappointed in anything, for we know that, though our plans and wills may fail, yet God's good purpose is carried out, his ends are sure, his will is done. There can be no failure now; no disappointment now; for that which made failure and disappointment necessary and certain--has been wholly set aside. Now we go forward as men who feel that, let whatever may come upon us, upon our land, or upon our world, we cannot fail, nor be disappointed. All must succeed, all must be well.

The second verse brings us to our second heading,

II. The substitute for self.

It is the Lord Jesus Christ who has come into the place of self, filling up its room. In turning from self we do not leave ourselves without an object to live for, or to die for —we get one infinitely more worthy than we possessed before. Instead of self we get the Son of God; the glorious one. He fills us, occupies us, engrosses us from now on. He is all to us what self was before. He takes the place of self in everything from first to last, great or small.

He is the Substitute for self, first of all, in the matter of our standing before God. As the first thing the Holy Spirit does is to set aside self, in the matter of justification and acceptance; so his next is to present to us the Son of God as the true ground of our acceptance. We no longer seek to be justified by self in any sense, or on account of anything done to self; on account of amended self, or improved self; or mortified self—but solely on account of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us and who rose again. Having taken him in the place of self, we find ourselves at once accepted of the Father, "blessed ... in the Beloved," (Eph 1:6) accepted, not because self has been improved—but because self has been set aside and the Son of God substituted in its place.

And in this Son of God, whom we take as a substitute for self, in the matter of our acceptance, we find an object worth living for, an object that we can carry through everything, through every part of life, into every aspect of life. We make him our Alpha and Omega, our first and our last. On a sickbed our object is, that Christ should be glorified whatever becomes of us. On a deathbed our desire is, that Christ should be magnified, and in all that may happen to our name after death, in anticipation either of good report or of bad report among men, our sole wish is, that the name of Christ should be exalted. Thus, in living and in dying, Christ is all. He has come in the place of self, and fills that place entirely. Our life is thus full of Christ, and so is our death; "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" You are not your own at any time, nor in any circumstances—but his, his alone.

What grandeur does life then take on! All its parts, all its movements, are now consecrated to the Lord. Up until the time when this substitution takes place, our life is a wasted one, utterly thrown away. It is dedicated to self, just as some of Egypt's magnificent temples of old were consecrated to the worship of some hideous reptile. But now that self has been cast out, and Christ introduced, our life has become a sacred thing; every part of it is consecrated—made "holy to the Lord." (Zech 14:20)

What dignity this imparts, both to life and death! Let it be the life or death of the poorest, if he is a believing man, a man in Christ Jesus, what a dignity attaches to him; a dignity that attaches to no other being on earth, not even to its mightiest kings. From the moment that he became a man in Christ Jesus, living not to himself but to Christ, all littleness vanished, all narrowness and lowliness were gone, and in their place grandeur, glory, and heavenly magnificence are thrown around his person. What a change!

What importance now attaches to life! All triviality has passed out of it. It has now become an important thing either to live or to die. We have got something worth living for, and something worth dying for; and in circumstances such as these, there can be nothing unimportant about life. The end we live for, the end we speak for, the end we act for, raises life up to an importance which nothing else could have done. There can be nothing little now about anything that we think, speak, or do.

In this way, what an imperishable character is imparted to life! Everything we do, whether in living or in dying, becomes imperishable, now that we live to the Lord and die to the Lord. In the past it was self, which ruined everything, which made everything connected with us crumble down and waste away. But now it is entirely different. The Lord has come in to occupy the place of self. He is come in, who is "the same yesterday, today, and forever," (Heb 13:8) and he imparts his immortality to us, in all we are and do. Now nothing dies—but everything lives, and that forever, for it is done to the Lord. Every word spoken for him has an eternal being. Every action done for him carries its results forward into eternity; and every step we take, if taken for him, is a step whose effects are immortal, as is our being, and as is the being of him who has, by his oneness with us, attached to all we do, his own imperishable character.

What an incentive to zeal this gives us! We now have got something to do that is really worth doing; an object worth living for and worth dying for. There is nothing so heartless as to have no object in life, or a poor object; and, on the contrary, there is nothing so enlivening, so animating, as to have a worthy object. How mighty, then, must be the motivation, when we can feel that our life is a life to the Lord, that our death is a death to the Lord.

What a reason for consistency and holiness of life! Everything we do reflects, not merely upon our comfort, or on our earthly prospects, or on our good name—but upon the glory of Christ. We have now become so connected with him that everything we speak or do has an effect on him and his cause. The consistency of a holy life honors him, and brings a good report of him to our neighbours. How watchful, then, ought we to be; how jealous over ourselves, for fear that self should assume the place that belongs only to the Lord; how anxious to follow the doctrine of God our Savior in all things; how desirous that our life should be a consistent witness-bearing for Christ, that our light should shine before men!

You who are not in Christ, I speak now to you. What are you living for? What has your past life been? What is your present life? What are your goals in living? What is your hope in dying? The very utmost, I fear, is this—to enjoy present things as much as possible, and to escape hell at last. Have your ideas, your hopes, your aspiring, ever risen beyond these two things? You who are without Christ, what are you living for? For self! Is that all? What a poor object, what a base and narrow aim; and what, in such a case, must your end be but utter disappointment and eternal failure? Man without Christ, what a poor life must yours be, and what a poor death! What an insignificant, empty being is yours, and to what a more hollow, more empty departure out of it are you hastening.

And yet how different it might be. Why should not you, even you, begin to live to the Lord? What a rich, noble life might yours become. Instead of a wasted, shrivelled, useless, perishable thing, you might have a life filled up for God, and filled up with God; filled up for Christ, filled up with Christ; a life which, though in so far as this world is concerned, may be a life of poverty and obscurity, yet would be, in all other respects, a foretaste of everlasting life, the pledge of the endless glory.

And what stands between you and that life? It is self, the accursed thing.

What separates you from God? It is self, your love of self, your admiration of self, your confidence in self.

What is it that stands between you and the forgiveness of your sins? It is self; your confidence in self.

What is it that comes between that eye of yours and the vision of the eternal glory? It is self. It is self that is blinding and bewildering you.

What is it that is dragging you down, and making you cleave to the dust? It is self.

And what is it that will before long be your everlasting ruin? It is self.

Would that you would begin to make the great substitution of Christ for self. Put Christ where self is, in the matter of your justification before God, and all is well. Put Christ in the place of self, in regard to the forgiveness of your sins, and you are immediately forgiven. Jesus says "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." (John 10:10)

In the last place we see

III. The MANNER in which this substitution is carried out.

"For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living." Christ's claim over us as God is eternal, and nothing can be added to it. As the Eternal Son he has always been Lord both of the dead and living, of heaven, earth, and hell. But his claim over us as the Christ is different from his Lordship over us as God. His claim over us as the Christ is an additional claim. It is not something which cancels out his former claim; it is simply something added to it. This claim of headship over us he has made good by his death and resurrection. “For to this end Christ died and lived again." He received the resurrection-life that he might have a legal claim to Lordship both over the dead and living; so that there might be no part of a man's being, whether pertaining to his life or his death, over which the Christ might not have the right of Sovereignty.

Nor can anyone dispute his claim or present a competing one, for no other has done what he did to secure it. He died and rose again—may he not demand entire Lordship over us in living and in dying? Does not every part of our being therefore owe him allegiance? To whom do we owe homage--except to him? Who has done for us what Christ has done? Has self done anything like this? Has the flesh done this? Has the world done this? Has any angel done this? Has any fallen man done this, that we should serve them, and that they should have lordship over any part of our being? No, none of these. He alone can ask homage and headship; for He only has the divine and everlasting right. He has won the dominion, which no one can dispute, by dying and by rising.

Self, then, has no claims upon us, for it has done nothing for us—nothing either for soul or for body. It has been an iron wall between us and Christ. Is that a reason that we should serve it? It has been a mountain of ice between us and the world to come. Is that a ground of claim over us? No, truly, self has done nothing to make us either live to it or die to it. It never can do anything; will we then bow to it; will we serve it; will we do it homage?

The Lord has every claim. We have asked--What has self done? We ask on the other hand--What has the Lord not done? What unbreakable, countless bonds are there between us and him, as the living, the dying, and the rising one. He claims to be loved, to be served. Have we satisfied ourselves as to the ground upon which that claim rests? Have we acknowledged it, and is our whole life in every point an acknowledgment of this claim? The whole of our life is to be his, as his life was for us. Surely he has earned this, if he has earned anything at all. The least that we can give him is our life; the undivided service of our being, in every part; in our doing, in our speaking, in our planning, and in all our daily round of business, so that every part of our life will be a witness-bearing for him.

Our death is to be his. In dying he thought of us; so in dying let us think of him. Our death is to be for his glory. Our last testimony is to be a testimony for Christ. Do we not often, in looking upon death-beds, forget this? We desire from the dying, satisfaction as to their hope, as to their peace— but that is all. How rarely do we go beyond that, and remember that there is to be no dying for self, even as there is to be no living for self; and that there is something beyond getting satisfaction of our friend's state, and that something is, that Christ be glorified, that the saint's testimony be not merely as to his own peace, or as to his own prospects—but as to the glory of him who "was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Rom 14:9)

Our eternity is to be his. He ever lives for us; let us look forward to living forever for him. It is not merely that we will be forever with the Lord; though that is well; but it is that we will forever glorify him, forever live to him. Our whole eternity is to be one of obedience, love, service—all for his glory, for "Christ is all, and in all," (Col 3:11) whether in heaven or on earth. He is so, even here, in some poor measure, to those who have tasted that the Lord is gracious—but in the eternal kingdom he is to be still more fully so. Our life here, and still more our eternity to come, are to be for him. He is the Alpha and Omega of our life here; still more the Alpha and Omega of the life to come.

To you who live for the earth, what is your eternity going to be? If your life here is life without Christ, is your eternity to be the same? Think what such an eternity will be to you. Even if there were no hell, what will be an eternity without Christ?

Perhaps you think little of that; and you say to yourself, "I can do without Christ here, and I will be able to do without him later." But no, in truth, that is not the case. You can do without him here, because you can manage to forget him—to forget him in the world, in pleasure, and in business; and this makes you to cope without him here.

But in eternity there will be no drowning of your senses in such things as these, so as to prevent the conviction of your infinite loss. Then the full knowledge of your loss will come up before you, and it will not be a lost heaven merely, a lost kingdom, a lost inheritance—but it will be a lost Christ! That will be the eternal sting; the sense of what you have lost in losing Christ. It will be the very bitterness of the cup of gall and wormwood that will then be given you to drink. The everlasting sense of what you have lost in losing Christ, will be the very sting of the undying worm, and the very torment of the ever burning fire!

“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:12)