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Bunyan Characters Third Series: The Holy War: 16. Young Captain Self-Denial

By Alexander Whyte


      'If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.'--Our Lord.

      'Now the siege was long, and many a fierce attempt did the enemy make upon the town, and many a shrewd brush did some of the townsmen meet with from the enemy, especially Captain Self-denial, to whose care both Ear-gate and Eye-gate had been intrusted. This Captain Self-denial was a young man, but stout, and a townsman in Mansoul. This young captain, therefore, being a hardy man, and a man of great courage to boot, and willing to venture himself for the good of the town, he would now and then sally out upon the enemy; but you must think this could not easily be done, but he must meet with some sharp brushes himself, and, indeed, he carried several of such marks on his face, yea, and some on some other parts of his body.' Thus, Bunyan. I shall now go on to-night to offer you some annotations and some reflections on this short but excellent history of young Captain Self-denial.

      1. Well, to begin with, this Captain Self-denial was still a young man. 'And, now, it comes into my mind, said Goodman Gains after supper, I will tell you a story well worth the hearing, as I think. There were two men once upon a time that went on pilgrimage; the one began when he was young and the other began when he was old. The young man had strong corruptions to grapple with, whereas the old man's corruptions were decayed with the decays of nature. The young man trod his steps as even as did the old one, and was every way as light as he; who, now, or which of them, had their graces shining clearest, since both seemed to be alike? Why, the young man's, doubtless, answered Mr. Honest. For that which heads against the greatest opposition gives best demonstration that it is strongest. A young man, therefore, has the advantage of the fairest discovery of a work of grace within him. And thus they sat talking till the break of day.'

      Now, I have taken up Captain Self-denial to-night because the young men and I are to begin a study to-night to which I was first attracted because it taught me lessons about myself, and about self-denial, and thus about both a young man's and an old man's deepest and most persistent corruptions--lessons such as I have never been taught in any other school. In all my philosophical, theological, moral, and experimental reading, so to describe it, I have never met with any school of authors for one moment to be compared with the great evangelical mystics, especially when they treat of self, self-love, self-denial, the daily cross, and all suchlike lessons. Take the great doctrinal and experimental Puritans, such as John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Richard Baxter, John Howe, and Jonathan Edwards, and add on to them the greatest and best mystics, such as Jacob Behmen, Thomas A Kempis, Francis Fenelon, Jeremy Taylor, Samuel Rutherford, Robert Leighton, and William Law, and you will have the profoundest, the most complete, the most perfect, and, I will add, the most fascinating and enthralling of spiritual teaching in all the world. And I will be bold enough to promise you that if you will but join our Young Men's Class to-night, and will buy and read our mystical books, and will resolve to put in practice what you hear and read in the class, I will promise you, I say, that by the end of our short session you will not only be ten times more open and hospitably-minded men, but also ten times more spiritually-minded men, ten times more Christ-like men, and with your joy in Christ and His joy in you all but full.

      2. The Captain Self-denial was a young man, and he was also a townsman in Mansoul. Young Self-denial and one other were all of Emmanuel's captains who were townsmen in Mansoul. All his other captains Emmanuel had brought with him; but the Captains Self-denial and Experience were both born and reared to their full manhood in that besieged city. 'A townsman.' How much there is for us all in that one word! How much instruction! How much encouragement! How much caution and correction! Our greatest grace; our most essential and indispensable grace; our most experimental and evidential grace; that grace, indeed, without which all our other graces are but specious shows and painted surfaces of graces; that grace into which our Lord here gathers up all our other graces;--that greatest of graces cannot be imputed, imported, or introduced; it must be born, bred, exercised, reared up to its full maturity, and sent forth to fight and to conquer, and all within the walls of its own native town; in short, our self-denial must have its beginning and middle and end in our own heart. Antinomians there were, as our Puritan fathers nicknamed all those persons who glorified Christ by letting Him do all things for them, both His own things and their things too, both their justification and their sanctification too. And there are many good but ill-instructed men among ourselves who have just this taint of that old heresy cleaving to them still--this taint, namely, that they are tempted to carry over the suretyship and substitutionary work of Christ into such regions, and to carry it to such lengths in those regions, as, practically, to make Christ to minister to their soft and sinful living, and to their excuse and indulgence of themselves. I will put it squarely and plainly to some of my very best friends here to-night. Is it not the case, now, that you do not like this direction into which this text, and the truth of this text, are now travelling? Is it not so that you shift back in your seat from the approaching cross? Is it not the very and actual fact that you have secret ways of sin, secret habits of self-indulgence in your body and in your soul, in your mind and in your heart, secret sins that you mantle over with the robe of Christ's righteousness? His spotless and imputed righteousness? In your present temper you would have disliked deeply the Sermon on the Mount had you heard it; and I see you shaking your head over your Sabbath-day dinner at this text when it was first spoken. Lay this down for a law, all my brethren,--a New Testament and a never-to-be-abrogated law,--that the best and the safest religion for you is that way of religion that is hardest on your pride, on your self-importance, on your self-esteem, as well as on your purse and on your belly. You are not likely to err by practising too much of the cross. You may very well have too much of the cross of Christ preached to you, and too little of your own. Why! did not Christ die for me? you indignantly say. Yes; so He did. But only that you might die too. He was crucified, and so must you be crucified every day before one single drop of His sin-atoning blood shall ever be wasted on You. Be not deceived: the cross is not mocked; for only as a man nails himself, body and soul, to the cross every day shall he ever be saved from sin and death and hell by means of it. And, exactly as a man denies himself--no more and no less--his appetites, his passions, his thoughts and words and deeds, every day and every hour of every day, just so much shall He who searches our hearts and sees us in secret, acknowledge us, both every day now, and at the last day of all.

      3. This same Captain Self-denial, his history goes on, was stout, he was an hardy man also, and a man of great courage. Stout and hardy and of great courage at home, that is; in his own mind and heart, soul and body, that is. Young Captain Self-denial was a perfect hero at saying No! and at saying No! to himself. It is a proverb that there is nothing so difficult as to say that monosyllable. And the proverb is Scripture truth if you try to say No! to yourself. It takes the very stoutest of hearts, the most noble, the most manly, the most soldierly, and the most saintly of hearts to say No! to itself, and to keep on saying No! to itself to the bitter end of every trial and temptation and opportunity. I remember reading long ago a page or two of a medical man's diary. And in it he made a confession and an appeal I have never forgot; though, to my loss, I have not always acted upon it. He said that for many years he had never been entirely well. He had constant headaches and depressions, and it was seldom that he was not to some extent out of sorts. But, all the time, he had a shrewd guess within himself as to what was the matter with him. He felt ashamed to confess it even to himself that he over-ate himself every day at table; till, at last, summoning up all divine and human help, he determined that, however hungry he was, and however savoury the dish was, and however excellent the wine was, he would never either ask for or accept a second helping. And this was his testimony, that from that stout and hardy day he grew better in health daily; 'my head became clear, my eye bright, my complexion pure, my mind and feelings were redeemed from all clouds and depressions. And to-day I am a younger man at fifty than I was at thirty.' Now, if just saying No! to himself and to the waiter at table did work such a new birth in a confirmed gourmand of middle life, what would it not have wrought for him had he carried his answer stoutly and courageously through all the other parts of his body and soul?--as perhaps he did. Perhaps, having tasted the sweet beginnings of salvation, he carried his short and sure regimen through. If he has done so, let him give us his full autobiography. What a blessed, what a priceless book it would be!

      4. Stout Captain Self-denial was commanded to begin his life as an officer in Emmanuel's army by taking especial watch over Ear-gate and Eye-gate; and at our last accounts of our abstemious doctor he had only got the length of Mouth-gate. But having begun so well with those three great outposts of the soul, if those two trusty officers only held on, and played the man courageously enough, they would soon be promoted to still more important, still more central, and, if more difficult and dangerous, then also much more honourable and remunerative posts. Appetite, deep and deadly as its evils are, is, after all, only an outwork of the soul; and the same sharp knife that the epicure and the sot in all their stages must put to their throat, that same knife must be made to draw blood in all parts of their mind and their heart, in their will and in their imagination, till a perfect chorus of self-denials rings like noblest martial music through all the gates, and streets, and fortresses, and strongholds, and very palaces and temples of the soul. I shall here stand aside and let the greatest of the English mystics speak to you on this present point. 'When we speak of self-denial,' he says, in his Christian Perfection, 'we are apt to confine it to eating and drinking: but we ought to consider that, though a strict temperance be necessary in these things, yet that these are the easiest and the smallest instances of self-denial. Pride, vanity, self-love, covetousness, envy, and other inclinations of the like nature call for a more constant and a more watchful self-denial than the appetites of hunger and thirst. And till we enter into this course of universal self-denial we shall make no progress in real piety, but our lives will be a ridiculous mixture of I know not what; sober and covetous, proud and devout, temperate and vain, regular in our forms of devotion and irregular in all our passions, circumspect in little modes of behaviour and careless and negligent of tempers the most essential to piety. And thus it will necessarily be with us till we lay the axe to the root of the tree, till we deny and renounce the whole corruption of our nature, and resign ourselves up entirely to the Spirit of God, to think and speak and act by the wisdom and the purity of religion.'

      5. Stout as Captain Self-denial was, and notable alarms and some brisk execution as he did upon the enemy, yet he must meet with some brushes himself; indeed, he carried several of the marks of such brushes on his face as well as on some other parts of his body. If I had read in his history that Young Captain Self-denial had left his mark upon his enemies, I would have said, Well done, and I would have added that I always expected as much. But it is far more to my purpose to read that he had not always got himself off without wounds that left lasting scars both where they were seen of all, and where they were seen and felt only by Self-denial himself. And not Self-denial only, but even Paul, in our flesh, and with like passions with us, had the same experience and has left us the same record. 'I keep my body under': so our emasculated English version makes us read it. But the visual image in the masterly original Greek is not so mealy-mouthed. I box and buffet myself day and night, says Paul. I play the truculent tyrant over a lewd and lazy slave. I hit myself blinding blows on my tenderest part. I am ashamed to look at myself in the glass, for all under my eyes I am black and blue. If David, after the matter of Uriah, had done that to himself, and even more than that, we would not have wondered; we would have expected it, and we would have said, It is no more than we would have done ourselves. But that a spotless, gentle, noble soul like Paul should so have mangled himself,--that quite dumfounders us. If Paul, then, who, touching the righteousness which is in the law, was blameless, had to handle himself in that manner in order to keep himself blameless, shall any young man here hope to escape temptation without such blows at himself as shall leave their mark on him all his days? Nay, not only so, but after Self-denial had thus exercised himself and subdued himself, still his enemy sometimes got such an advantage over him as left him as his history here describes him. All which is surely full of the most excellent heartening to all who read, in earnest and for an example, his fine history.

      6. The last and crowning exploit of our matchless captain was to capture, and execute, and quarter, and hang up on a gallows at the market-cross, the head and the hands and the feet of his oldest, most sworn, and most deadly enemy, one Self-love. So stout and so insufferable was our captain in the matter of Self-love that when it was proposed by some of his many influential friends and high-in-place relations in the city that the judgment of the court-martial on Self-love should be deferred, our stout soldier with the cuts on his face and in some other parts of his body stood up, and said that the city and the army must make up their mind either to relieve him of his sword, hacked and broken off as it was, or else to execute the law upon Self-love on the spot. I will lay down my commission this very day, he said, with an extraordinary indignation. Many rich men in the city, and many men deep in the King's service, muttered mutinous things when their near relative was hurried to the open cause-way, but by that time the soldiers of Self-denial's company had brained Self-love with the butts of their muskets. And it was the stand that our captain made in the matter of Self-love that at last lifted the young soldier where many had felt he should have been lifted long ago. From that day he was made a lord, a military peer, and an adviser of the crown and the crown officers in all the deepest counsels concerning Mansoul. Only, with the cloak and the coronet of Self-denial the present history all but comes to an end. For, before the outcast remains of Self-love had mouldered to their dust on the city gate, the King's chariot had descended into the street, had ascended up to the palace at the head of the street, and a new age of the city life had begun, the full history of which has yet to be told.

      Remain behind, then, and begin with us to-night, all you young men. You cannot begin this lifelong study and this lifelong pursuit of self-denial too early. For, even if you begin to read our books and to practise our discipline in your very boyhood, when you are old men and very saints of God you will feel that your self-love is still so full of life and power, that your self-denial has scarcely begun. Ah, me! men: both old and young men. Ah, me! what a life's task set us of God it is to make us a new heart, to cleanse out an unclean heart, to lay in the dust a proud heart, and to keep a heart at all times, and in all places, and toward all people, with all diligence! Who is sufficient for these things?

      'Now was Christian somewhat in a maze. But at last, when every man started back for fear, Christian saw a man of a very stout countenance come up to him that sat there with the inkhorn to write, saying, Set down my name, sir! At which there was a pleasant voice heard from those that were within, even of those who walked upon the top of that place, saying,

      "Come in, come in:
      Eternal glory thou shalt win."

      Then Christian smiled, and said: I think, verily, that I know the meaning of all this now.'

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

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See Also:
   The Holy War: 1. The Book
   The Holy War: 2. The City Of Mansoul And Its Cinque Ports
   The Holy War: 3. Ear-Gate
   The Holy War: 4. Eye-Gate
   The Holy War: 5. The King's Palace
   The Holy War: 6. My Lord Willbewill
   The Holy War: 7. Self-Love
   The Holy War: 8. Old Mr. Prejudice, The Keeper Of Ear-Gate, With His Sixty Deaf Men Under Him
   The Holy War: 9. Captain Anything
   The Holy War: 10. Clip-Promise
   The Holy War: 11. Stiff Mr. Loth-To-Stoop
   The Holy War: 12. That Varlet Ill-Pause, The Devil's Orator
   The Holy War: 13. Mr. Penny-Wise-And-Pound-Foolish, And Mr. Get-I'-The-Hundred-And-Lose-I'-The-Shire
   The Holy War: 14. The Devil's Last Card
   The Holy War: 15. Mr. Prywell
   The Holy War: 16. Young Captain Self-Denial
   The Holy War: 17. Five Pickt Men
   The Holy War: 18. Mr. Desires-Awake
   The Holy War: 19. Mr. Wet-Eyes
   The Holy War: 20. Mr. Humble The Juryman, And Miss Humble-Mind The Servant-Maid
   The Holy War: 21. Master Think-Well, The Late And Only Son Of Old Mr. Meditation
   The Holy War: 22. Mr. God's-Peace, A Goodly Person, And A Sweet-Natured Gentleman
   The Holy War: 23. The Established Church Of Mansoul, And Mr. Conscience One Of Her Parish Ministers
   The Holy War: 24. A Fast-Day In Mansoul
   The Holy War: 25. A Feast-Day In Mansoul
   The Holy War: 26. Emmanuel's Livery
   The Holy War: 27. Mansoul's Magna Charta
   The Holy War: 28. Emmanuel's Last Charge To Mansoul: Concerning The Remainders Of Sin In The Regenerate

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