Chapter 10 – Ishmael and Isaac, or the Death of Self

In the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians the Apostle Paul recites the story of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, and tells us that this is an allegory, setting forth profound spiritual truths. The casting out of Ishmael is a parable of sanctification through our death to the law and sin, by virtue of our union with the Lord Jesus in His death and resurrection.

But there is a sequel to the story of Ishmael. It is the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. And this expresses a much deeper experience than our deliverance from the power of sin. The sacrifice of Isaac represents the yielding up of our very self through crucifixion with Christ, and our death, not only to our bad self, but even to our good self.

“There is a foe whose hidden power
The Christian well may fear;
More subtle far than inbred sin,
And to the heart more dear.
It is the power of selfishness,
The proud and wilful I;
And ere my Lord can live in me,
My very self must die.”

This is the experience which the Apostle Paul describes in Gal. 2: 20: “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live.” That covers the experience of sanctification from the life of sin.

But the Apostle advances another stage: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” That is the experience of Mount Moriah, the offering of Isaac, the yielding of self, the giving up even of our new life and the substitution of Christ Himself; a substitution so complete that even the very faith by which it is maintained is “the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

We read in the Book of Joshua of three sons of Anak, the heads of the Anakim, a race of giants who held the city of Hebron before Caleb’s conquest. As the story of Hebron is a type, along with the whole of the Book of Joshua, of our higher spiritual victories, so these Anakim properly represent the great strongholds of our natural and sinful life. The word Anak means “long-necked,” and may well suggest the spirit of self-will, self-confidence, and self-seeking, which are perhaps the worst forms of self-life.

Self-will, or the DISPOSITION TO HAVE OUR OWN WAY AND BROOK NO OTHER AUTHORITY OR WILL, is the most obvious form of the life of self. “Ye shall be as gods” was the promise of the tempter to our sinning parents in the first great moral conflict of the race. And ever since then, man has wanted to be a god unto himself. Therefore the first step in the consecrated life is unconditional surrender, and the utter yielding up of the will in submission and conformity to the will of God. Nowhere do we find a more terrible picture of the tendencies of this spirit than in Saul, the first king of Israel, who seems to have been raised up as a great spiritual object-lesson and beacon of warning on the perilous shores of human experience. His downward career began in the rejection of God’s command for his own preference. Samuel’s judgment upon him makes this very plain, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (or devil-worship) and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, He also hath rejected thee from being king.”

Self-confidence, or self-sufficiency, represents another of Anak’s race. It is the spirit that relies upon its own strength and ignores the grace of God. It trusts its virtues, its emotions, its religious experiences, its own resources. Its type is Simon Peter. Strong in his self-confidence, and ignorant of his real weakness, he honestly meant what he said when he boasted, ” Though all men should deny Thee, yet will not I.” But he had to fail and fall to find out his own helplessness, and to die to his own self-sufficiency. The sanctified heart is not a self-constituted condition, but simply a vessel to be filled with the grace of God, a possibility of which He must be the impelling force, a capacity to hold the divine fulness, and a condition of constant dependence upon the sustaining and all-sufficient grace of God. The word “consecrate” in Hebrew means to “fill the hand,” and finely suggests the idea of an empty hand which God Himself must continually fill.

SELF-SEEKING IS THE NATURAL DEVELOPMENT AND CLIMAX OF SELF-LIFE. It lives for its own pleasure, pride, and glory. Sometimes it manifests itself in desire for human praise. Sometimes it takes the form of that pride which scorns even the praise of man, and is content with its own self-consciousness of superiority. Whatever its form, it is impious self, sitting on the throne of God, and claiming the glory due to Him alone. Perhaps its most flagrant type is Nebuchadnezzar as he cried, “Is not this great Babylon which I have built, by the might of my power and for the honor of my majesty?”

But even the Lord’s servants are not free from the same unholy spirit. It reached its height in Jonah, a prophet of the Lord, honored with unparalleled success, and yet in the very hour of greatest usefulness, so throwing the shadow of his own pride and ambition across his work, that God had to humble him in the dust, and leave him as a spectacle of infamy and warning to all others who might presume to mingle the spirit of self-glorying with the service of a crucified Master.

It is possible to be sanctified from all wilful sin or known evil, and yet to be under the influence of the subtle spirit of self, so that even our very holiness may minister to selfishness and pride. The Holy Spirit wants to probe to the very depths of our being and slay us in the very center of our life. True sanctification is not merely the death of sin, but the death of self. The Apostle does not say, Reckon, therefore, that sin is dead; but “Reckon yourselves dead indeed unto sin.” It is not merely that the sinful principle must die, but the sinful person must be displaced by the divine personality, “Not I, but Christ that liveth in me.”

It dishonors God and PUTS SELF AS A RIVAL ON GOD’S THRONE. “Ye shall be as gods” was the devil’s deep delineation of the true character of fallen man, for ever since the Fall man has tried to be a god unto himself. Whenever we act because it is our own will, or for our own interest and ends, we are disobeying the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” And when we put self upon the throne, we become the very antithesis of God, for “God is love ” and love is the opposite of selfishness. Human selfishness, therefore, not only mimics God, but proves its utter unfitness to occupy His throne because of its unlikeness to His nature.

The self-life is akin to the Satanic life. Satan’s own fall began in a form of self-love. Made to be dependent on God, he became independent; and contemplating his own perfection, and counting it his own, he became separated from the source of his being, and fell into eternal rebellion and disobedience. So, still, any soul that becomes self-constituted, occupied with its own virtues and independent of the Lord Jesus, will share the devil’s fearful fall. How awful the tragedy of Saul! He began with Saul and ended with Satan. So self always ends.

The self-life is INCONSISTENT WITH TRUE SANCTIFICATION. The seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is a dramatic picture of the good self struggling with the bad self. The good self wants to do right, but is not equal to the struggle, and is constantly dragged into defeat and humiliation. The two “I’s” are in deadly conflict, but neither is strong enough to overcome the other, and the chapter ends with an emphatic statement of the very best that “I myself” can accomplish. That is: “With the mind I serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” That is the best that the good self can do.

But when we pass into Rom. 8, self is left behind, and it is now a man in Christ, and a man with Christ in him, and it is all holiness, victory, and joy. This is the danger of resting in what is sometimes called Adamic perfection, if there be such a thing. If we could receive Adamic perfection today, like Adam we would lose it tomorrow. But if we take Christ to be our sanctification, He will be in us “the same yesterday and to-day and for ever.”

The spirit of self is fatal to harmony with our brethren, and the source of strife, suspicion, envy, jealousy, sectarianism, bigotry, and the whole brood of social grievances that afflict the Church of God. Like the fly in the ointment, it defiles the holiest things and destroys the body of Christ. It is just as bad for holiness people as for worldlings, and splits them up into sects and factions with endless controversies and strivings. It takes the spirit of the world into the pulpit, the Sunday school, and every form of Christian fellowship and work.

And it mars all our work for God. It seeks even the baptism of the Holy Ghost and the gifts of heavenly power for man’s own glory and ambition. It builds up the Church and Kingdom of Christ in the spirit of rivalry and emulation. It makes the house of God a theater for the display of dress or musical talent or oratorical ability. It would even, like Jonah, rather see Nineveh perish than have the prophet lose his reputation. So long as the spirit of self dominates the Christian worker, God can scarcely afford to bless him without compromising His own glory and ministering to human pride.

The only remedy for it is death. It is inveterately bad, and is the very root and essence of the carnal mind and the sinful soul. It cannot be improved. You may educate it, but like the tiger’s cub it would some day strike the very hand that would caress it, and prove that still it has the tiger’s heart.

But you cannot kill it yourself. You may try, like Nero, to commit suicide and stab yourself a hundred times, but you will always miss the vital part. All that you can do is to hand it over to Christ, to pronounce the sentence of death upon it, to sign the death warrant, to give Him the right to slay it, and then to reckon it nailed to His cross and dead through His dying. “For if one died for all, then all died; and He died for all that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him that died for them and rose again.”

Then not only will self pass out with Jesus on the cross, but love will come in with Jesus in the resurrection; and Christ’s life and Christ’s love will displace the old life of self and sin. What a marvelous power love has even in a human life to lift above the tyranny of self! We have seen sometimes a petted and selfish girl surrounded by wealth and admiration until she was wholly spoiled and became the center of the circle in which she lived, her whole being perverted by a refined selfishness. But we have seen that girl in after years a self-denying, loving wife and mother, devoted to the happiness of her husband, sharing his poverty, toiling for his comfort, and with a love that never wearied and a heart that never grew cold or tired nursing the little children that have come into her arms. What has cast out the idol of self from the throne of her heart? Nothing but love. A noble, beloved human friend came in and took the place that self had occupied. So the love of Jesus, when truly revealed by the Holy Spirit, wins the heart and makes us content without the things that once we demanded, because His smile is our sunshine and His love our heaven. It is Christ that displaces self, and turns the earthly heart into a land of Beulah and a Hephzibah of love and joy.

But this can only come through the coming of Christ Himself. Are we willing to believe that He is waiting to win, to occupy, and to satisfy these hearts of ours with His life of love, and the expulsive power of that new affection that will enable us henceforth to live “not unto ourselves but unto Him that died for us and rose again”? Only by the surrender of self can you really find the satisfaction of true self-love. While we seek for happiness we always miss it, but when, as Abraham laid his Isaac on the altar of Moriah, we lay down our life, then we find, as Abraham did, that what we gave – that we have, and what we would have kept – that we should have lost.”For he that saveth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for My sake shall keep it unto life eternal.”