The Word of the Cross
By Watchman Nee
Dying with the Lord to self
In our experience, death to self is deeper and more advanced than death to sin. Usually God's children pay much attention to overcoming sins. They suffer much the harassment of sin. They know very well how that after they sin, their regenerated life grieves over the evil and bitterness of sin. They have tasted much of this, and they hope very much to overcome sin and to be no longer a slave of sin. Therefore, after they have received the light, and have realized how to die with the Lord, and how to reckon themselves dead to sin, they rely on the power of the Holy Spirit and begin to seriously reckon themselves dead, and to allow the victory of the cross to be expressed in their heart and through them. Yet, frequently there is something lacking: after they have the experience of victory over sin, they think that it is the highest form of life and that nothing can be higher. They pay too much attention to their sins. As a result, once they overcome them, they become satisfied. It is right for us to pay attention to our sins, and it is right for believers not to neglect their sins. Victory over sins is the basis of all righteousness and is the key to proper Christian living. If sin has dominion over us, we cannot expect to have any spiritual progress. But this does not mean that we can stop at victory over sin, and can draw a boundary line and call an end to our advance. We have to know that this is only the first step of the regeneration of a Christian. There is still a long way before us. Do not consider it an end! After overcoming sins, the immediate problem facing the believers is how to overcome the "self."
Believers often misunderstand the true meaning of "self." Some confuse self with sin. They consider self as sin and believe it should be but to death. Naturally, self and sin have a lot to do with each other, but self is not sin. They use the yardstick with which they measure sin to measure every outward behavior. Anything they consider wrong they condemn as sin and regard such a thing as self and as the "mother" of sin, and that it ought to be crucified. Little do they realize that as bad as the self is, it is not always evil. It is true that everything that springs from the "mother" of sin is sin, and is corrupt and defiled, and it is also true that what is expressed by the "mother" of sin through the self can in no way be good. However, sometimes when the self is expressed, it can appear very good in man's eyes and can appear very virtuous, very kind, and very righteous. If we take the yardstick with which we measure sin to measure the self, we will surely eliminate the evil part of the self and keep its good part--good, of course , according to man's view. Because believers are unaware of the source of self and do not realize that it can produce that which both God and man condemn as evil, as well as that which is recognized by man as good, they remain in the realm of the "self" and fail to enter into the enjoyment of the full and rich life of God. Satan is most subtle; he hides this fact and keeps the believers in darkness, causing them to be contented with the experience of victory over sin and to stop looking for a higher experience-- the experience of victory over the self.
The self life is just our natural life. The natural life has been affected by Adam's fall and has become very corrupt. Through Adam's fall, man has acquired the sinful nature. This sinful nature is intimately interwoven with the natural life, which is the self. Our self is just our ego; it is what constitutes our own individual personality. In other words, it is our soul. Because the sinful nature is so intimately related to the self, it is difficult to separate the two in their operation, that is , in their acts of sins. They are so united that as soon as the "mother" of sin moves, the self agrees and executes, and man commits the outward sins.
Of course, we can never make too clear a separation between self and sin. With an unbeliever, self and sin are as one, and it is very hard to separate them. the self is already able to transgress by itself. But sin, being so powerful, affects the self, dominates the self, suppresses the self, and forces the self to come up with more ideas to sin. Under the influence of Adam's fall, the self is already corrupt to the uttermost. Now when it collaborates with sin, the two have little reason for conflict. Even though sometimes the conscience makes a very faint protest, it is so short and weak that it disappears in no time. The self and sin cooperate with each other so well that in unregenerated persons, the two are mixed together. To them, sin is just self incarnated. To them, self is just the many evils that appear in the fallen human life; it is just the root, the branches, and the leaves of sin. To them, self is not only the origin of sin, but the very life of sin. To them, sin is self, and self is sin. After a man is regenerated, in the initial stage of his Christian life, he still finds it difficult to differentiate in experience between sin and self. Later, as he receives more grace from God, and as the work of the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit become more apparent in him he begins to separate sin from the self. Along the way in their Christian life, God's children are gradually able to differentiate the self from sin. Those who have experienced Romans 6:11 will realize that though a man may have overcome sin, he may still not have overcome the self. To those believers who are advanced in life, victory over sin is easy, while victory over the self is very difficult. If a believer has the full experience of victory over the self, he will have attained the life that the apostles had.
The self life is just the soul life. The self is our personality and everything contained in our personality. Out of the self grow our personal opinion, taste, thought, longing, bias, love, and hatred. The self life is the power by which one lives. We must keep in mind that the self is just ourselves plus our likes and dislikes. Its life is the natural power by which we perform good and do work. The self is a life, because it lives in the believers whose self has not been removed. Even in the believers who have died to their self, it often attempts to rise up. The self life is a life that centers on one's own self.
After the believers receive the dealing of the cross with respect to sin, the body of sin will be paralyzed and will not be able to act anymore. However, because no attention has yet been paid to the self life, the latter still lives. At this stage, the self life is like the life of Adam before the fall. It was not spiritual because it was not transformed by the fruit of the tree of life; and it was not fleshly because it had not sinned. It belonged to itself, and as such it could sin if it wanted to sin, and it could be spiritual if it wanted to be spiritual. The believers' life at this time is very similar to this. It is not spiritual because his spirit is still not free and it has not reached a walk according to God's higher life. It is not fleshly because the person has received the accomplishment of the cross and has reckoned himself dead to sin. He is of the self, soulish, natural, and untransformed. If he is not careful, he will fall and will be contaminated by the sin of the flesh. If he goes forward and claims the accomplishment of the cross, he will become completely spiritual. Nevertheless, if believers stay in the realm of the self, they will mostly fall and will many times become fleshly.
At this time believers are in a most vulnerable condition in their Christian life. On the one hand, they must protect themselves from falling; on the other hand, they must resolve to have some practical righteous works. The danger then is to do good by self effort. It may not necessarily be obvious; sometimes it can be very obscure and hidden. Sometimes it takes God a long time to show the believers that they are still in the self and are still trying to carry out God's will by their self effort.
The self includes many things. Our will, emotions, love, and intelligence are within its domain. The self is our ego. The life of the self is the power by which we live. The self is also the soul; it is an organ. The life of the self is the life of the soul; it is the power that motivates this organ. When a man is in the self, the life of the self will impart power, that is, the self's own power, into the various parts of the man--the will, the emotions, the love, the intelligence, etc., and will cause the man to do good and to work. Its will is strong enough to resist the outward temptations. Its emotions make one happy and cause one to think that God is very close to him. Its love to the Lord is deep and sincere. Its intelligence causes him to come up with many wonderful Bible teachings and many methods for doing God's work. But, after all, these are done by the self and not by the spiritual life of God. During this time, God often gives special grace to the believers so that they receive many wonderful gifts. By realizing that all these gifts are from God, it is hoped that a man will turn completely away from himself to God. However, in experience, what a believer does is completely opposite to what God intends. Not only does he not turn completely to God, he takes advantage of these gifts for his own use. As a result, these gifts become a help for prolonging the life of his self. Therefore, God has to work many days and years before such a person will give up himself and turn to Him completely.
After a believer is brought by God to a deep realization of the evil of the self, he will be willing to put his self to death. But what is the way for the self to die? There is no other way but by the cross. We have to read two passages of Scripture to understand the relationship between the cross and the self.
"I have been crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20). "If anyone wants to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23).
What Galatians 2:20 speaks of is something accomplished once for all. After we realize that our self needs to be put to death, we should then by faith acknowledge in a definite way that "I have been crucified with Christ." The word in the original text is ego, the "I," the self. Besides the cross, there is indeed no other way to put the self to death. We should also pay attention to the words "with Christ." The crucifixion of the self is not an independent act of the believers. Believers are not to crucify the self on the cross by themselves in their own strength. The crucifixion of the self is to be joined to Christ and in conjunction with Christ. This is not to say that we help Christ to put the self on the cross. Rather, it means that Christ has already accomplished this fact, and I now merely acknowledge and believe its reality. Here the main focus is Christ. This is why it says: "I have been crucified with Christ," and not "Christ has been crucified with me." It is not that we want to put the self to death, and that Christ comes merely to accompany us. Rather, it was Christ who in His death brought all our "ego," our self, to the cross and nailed it there. Therefore, I am not crucifying the self again but am merely acknowledging the fact. The two words "have been" show us that it is a fact and not a wish. A life that dies to the self is possible, real, and attainable. The apostles in the ancient time obtained that kind of life already; their self passed the test. Therefore, it is possible for us to obtain this life also. However, we should remember that this is "crucified with" and not "crucified alone." Apart from the Lord we can do nothing. To crucify the self with the strength of the self is an impossible task and can never be done. If we are not united with the Lord in His death, our self will never die. Christ alone brought all the old creation together with every part of it to the cross in His death. If we try to find another way besides the Lord's way, and to try to accomplish anything besides the Lord's accomplishment, we are not only foolish but are also wasting our time. Therefore, we are to do nothing but come to the Lord with full assurance of faith and acknowledge the Lord's accomplishment as ours; following this we should pray for the Holy Spirit to apply in us the work of the Lord's cross and to express this very work from us.
We should come before God to rebuke our self and should offer up everything to Him. By the Spirit of the Lord, we should put to death everything that is included in our self life. We should tell God, "Hereafter it is no longer I, no longer my own likeness, opinions, tastes, or preconceptions. I will put all these on the cross. Starting from today, I will live only according to Your will. O Lord! It is You...not I." We should submit to the Lord in such a way as to put all we have to death. But this does not mean that from now on we have the self exterminated. The self cannot and will not be exterminated; it always exists. Why then do we say to nail the self on the cross? Here we must know one important thing: the question before us is one that has to do with the spiritual life. For this kind of question, we must emphasize spiritual experience more than mere literary accuracy. There are many things which seem to contradict one another in semantics and which seem utterly incompatible. Yet they fit very harmoniously together and have no awkwardness of any kind in the realm of the spiritual life. This is what happens here. According to the literal meaning, if the self is dead already, how can it not be exterminated? We have to know that the word "dead" here refers to a kind of process in the spiritual experience. The self being dead does not mean that the self is from now on non-existent. It means that the self will hereafter submit to God, that it will not allow its likes and dislikes to take over, but that it will allow the cross to crucify and terminate all its selfish thoughts and activities. To stop the self life from driving the self means that the living which is derived from the self life is dead, and that there is no more self life and self living, and that only the shell of the self remains. The self includes the will, the emotions, and the intelligence, etc. This does not mean that when we believe in our self being crucified with Christ, our will, emotions, intellect, etc., will be annulled! No one can annihilate the few faculties which make up his being just by believing in his having been crucified with the Lord! To die with the Lord simply means to no longer allow the self to be the master, to no longer act according to one's own will, emotions, and thoughts, and to no longer allow the self life to have its way; it means to allow the Lord's Spirit to rule over everything that the self encompasses, so that a person will obey God's life within. As long as the self is not dead, it will not yield to the Holy Spirit. Once the self walks away from the cross, it will right away resume its old posture. Believers have neither the power nor the way to subdue themselves. Galatians 2:20 sheds a lot of light on this point. "I [the self] have been crucified with Christ,...and the life which I now live in the flesh..." Does not the Scripture speak very clearly here? In his first sentence Paul made it very clear that his self had been crucified on the cross, yet in the second sentence did he not say that his self still existed? Therefore, the crucifixion of the self does not mean the extermination of the self; rather, it means to cease from the activities of the self and to allow the Lord to be the Master. This should be very clear.
What has been said above was achieved once for all. But is it enough for us only to believe once that we have been crucified with Christ? Will this solve the problem once for all? This leads to the second passage of Scripture: "Let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23). This verse points out that the three things we ought to do are actually not three but one thing divided into three steps. The first step is to deny the self. Denying means rejecting, discarding, ignoring, and not acknowledging one's demand. The meaning of denying the self is simply to disallow the self from being the lord. This step is a definite act; it is to believe specifically that "I have already been crucified with Christ." In order to maintain the work of this step, we must carry out the second step, which is to "daily" take up the cross. This means that since we have given the self over to the cross willingly once and have disallowed it from being the lord, we should then continue to deny the self daily. Denying the self should be "daily" and uninterruptedly. This matter of denying the self cannot be accomplished once for all. The Lord must give us a daily cross for us to bear daily. The self is very alert, and Satan who takes advantage of the self is also untiring. Every moment, the self is looking for an opportunity to restore itself and will never let even the slightest chance pass by. Therefore, it is extremely important to bear the cross daily. This is where the believers must be watchful. We should "daily" and moment by moment bear the cross the Lord has given us; we should continuously acknowledge that the Lord's cross is our cross and should not give any room to the self or allow it to assume any position. The third step is to follow the Lord; this is to positively honor the Lord as Lord and to completely obey the Lord's will. In this way, the self will have no chance or possibility to develop itself. These three steps are all based and centered upon the cross. The first step of denying the self is on the negative side. The second step of taking up the cross is negatively positive. The third step is following the Lord is on the positive side.
The teaching in these two passages should not be separated from one another. If we consider them together and practice them together, we will have the overcoming experience all the time. However, we should allow the Holy Spirit to do His own work and should allow the accomplished work of the cross to be wrought into us.
Our common thought is that we are very willing to give our bad, filthy, sinful, and satanic things over to Christ and to have them nailed on the cross with Him. We are very willing to get rid of the evil things in the self. However, our frequent problem is that we think we should keep the good things of the self. In the sight of God, the self is totally corrupted and is deeply affected by the fall of Adam. According to God, He cannot heal the life of self, nor can He remedy it . There is no other way but to crucify it with Christ on the cross. The world is willing to let everything go and is willing even to sacrifice its own money and time, yet it finds it too difficult to deny the self and to crucify it. We always consider that the self is not all bad. This is the human viewpoint. Of course, the natural man has no intention of retaining only its goodness. However, unconsciously and unwittingly, one keeps the good part of the self and puts the evil part of the self to death. Little do we realize that the self is either totally alive or totally dead. If the good part of the self is kept alive, there is no guarantee that the evil part of the self will be dead. Therefore, believers have a serious lesson to learn here. They have to be willing to crucify with Christ both the good and the evil parts of their self. Many people's natural self is honest by birth. Some are very patient, and some are loving. It is very hard for those people to put all their self to death. Subconsciously, they keep their honesty, patience, and love, and let the other wrong things be crucified with the Lord. These believers must be taught by God to realize that they themselves are not trustworthy. Only then will they submit themselves to the Lord. We can learn a lesson from Peter on this point. Before he experienced the death and resurrection of Christ and the filling of the Holy Spirit, he truly thought that his love toward the Lord was right. However, was his promise to "die with the Lord" carried out? Peter's failure was caused by his total trust in himself; he trusted in his own goodness. Yet he did not realize this. After all, it is difficult to realize the self. We should trust in God's evaluation of ourselves and should put the self on the cross.
If we consider God's evaluation of the world, we will be more sure about this fact. God said, "There is none righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). To the world, is there really none righteous? There are quite a few righteous persons according to the world's point of view! The reason God considers none righteous is that all their righteousness is produced by themselves. The self is deeply cultivated by Adam's nature. "Does the spring, out of the same opening, gush forth sweet and bitter?" (James 3:11). Man thinks that he has what the world approves as righteousness. Yet, "they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, did not submit to the righteousness of God" (Rom. 10:3). The self righteous ones are not righteous. They are also sinners destined to perdition. Only those who receive the entire person of the Lord Jesus are the righteous ones.
We can look into another portion of the Word which tells us how the goodness of the self life should be put to death before one can bring forth good fruit. This passage, however, deals more with the self life than with the self itself.
"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). Here the Lord is speaking to His believers. That is why this word is a calling. "If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me" (John 12:26). After He spoke these words, He did not leave us in darkness, but He continued by explaining: "He who loves his life [in the original, his soul life] loses it [i.e., in eternity bears no fruit], and he who hates his life [in the original, his soul life] in this world shall keep it [i.e., not being barren] unto eternal life [in the original, the spiritual life]." The teaching here is that the self life should be put to death.
Life is very precious. One can suffer the loss of everything except life. Yet here is a call for us to lose our life. Our self life is endowed to us by birth; it is legitimate and is good. Yet here the Lord requires that we put it to death.
What is this life? This is a natural life, a life that we have in common with all animals, a life with mobility. Our intellect, love, and emotions are all dominated by this life. Every faculty of our body is controlled by this life. Every part of our being is controlled by this life. Although it is not wrong to exercise our intellect, love, and emotions, this dominating life, this life which comes by our natural birth, is not spiritual life. Unless a spiritual life becomes the expression and the motivation power of all the faculties of the believers, a believer will "lose" his life, that is, he will never bear fruit.
This self life is beautiful and attractive. Our Lord uses wheat as an illustration. The exterior shell of a grain of wheat is very attractive. Its color is golden yellow. Although it is beautiful, it is useless if it remains merely a grain. It must be separated from (or go together with) its companions and fall into the ground--a dark, hidden, suffering place--and die there. When it dies, it will lose its beauty and all it has. It will no longer be an object of man's praise as before.
If we are truly willing to die, and if we truly die, we will lose many praises of man. Our natural beauty will be destroyed. Formerly, we might have had the intelligence to come up with many new reasonings and theories. When the self dies, we will have to wait for the Lord's direction and leading, and will not dare to depend upon our own intelligence anymore. Formerly, we might have had love and could have loved many. We could have motivated ourselves to love the Lord. When the self dies, we will have to let the Lord's love love through us, and we will have to allow the Holy Spirit to permeate our heart with the Lord's love. We will not dare to be motivated by our natural love. Formerly, we might have had emotions and could be joyful, angry, sad, and happy at will; we could fellowship with the Lord through our feelings and could sense His joy. With the death of the self, we will have to let the Lord control our emotions. We will be sorrowful when the Lord is sorrowful. We will be happy when the Lord is happy. We will have to let the Lord have the freedom in us. Even though at times we will lack the sense of the Lord, yet we will have to remain faithful, and we will not change our attitude. We will not dare to change because of the emotions. What seemed profitable to us before will be counted loss for Christ's sake. When we die with the Lord to sin, we let go of the unlawful things. When we are crucified with the Lord to self, we let go of the lawful things. This step is indeed hard to take. Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, and few there are who find it.
What kind of death is this death? This is the death of the cross. The Lord said this Himself (John 12:33). Therefore, we do not have any other choice except to fall into the ground willingly and to die. We should die joyfully with the Lord and participate in the fellowship of His cross. Every day we should maintain the attitude of hating the self life so that we can keep it unto life eternal, that is, bearing fruit unto life eternal and bringing forth many grains. This is not an overnight matter. If this were so, it would have been easy. But our Lord's word is, "...he who hates his life in this world..." We should hate our self life as long as we live in this world. If we practice this unceasingly, our craving self will be stripped of its power.
We must not consider the word "death" lightly. It is not enough to be a grain of wheat alone. As a born-again son of God (Matt. 13:38), one is merely a babe and cannot do much for God. It is not enough just to fall into the ground, for even if one is willing to suffer and to be hidden, he is still not dead and is still one grain; there is still no increase. Death unlocks the gate of life. Death is the only requirement for fruit bearing. Death is indispensable. And yet how many are there who truly experience this death? Death terminates all activity. Death is the end to our human life. After death, there remains no room for the activity of the self life. This death is not a reluctant death, because the Lord said we should "hate" this self life. To hate is a kind of attitude; it is a lasting attitude. Therefore, we should willingly put this life to death; we should have a full understanding of the poverty of this life and should hate it.
What is the result of the death of this life? The result is many grains. The reason, the very reason, the Lord cannot use us is that we work by our intellect, love, etc. This soul life is a low-level life; it is not a high-level life. As such it can hardly bear fruit. Although it contains some merits, yet only "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." The self life, and everything that comes with it, is completely useless. If we really put ourselves, our self life, that is, all that we can do and all that we are, completely on the Lord's cross, we will see how the Lord will use us. If we are empty within, there will not be any blockage to the gushing out of God's living water from us. This kind of fruit bearing is different from the ordinary fruit bearing because the fruit that we bear is "many." Our fruit bearing depends totally on our death.
Therefore, believers, just as our self had filled us even so now must Christ fill us. Otherwise, we have not yet received the full salvation. The key for us to receive our salvation and the key for us to be saved is to be delivered from the self. It is easy for a believer who is in the self to fall into sin. This is why in order to die completely to sin, one must die completely to self. Christ is not only our Savior who frees us from sin; He is also our Savior who saves us from the self. To die to self is the only pathway for out spiritual living. Yet, besides God, no one can put our self life to death. However, if we are not willing, God can do nothing. The activity of the self is sometimes quite hidden under a spiritual veil. A believer may not recognize it at first by himself. This is why God has to remove the veil through all kinds of outward circumstances in order that the believer will come to know himself. The most difficult thing for a person to do is to know himself. We do not know ourselves. This is why we have to go through God's dealing hand before we realize the evil of the self. If in our experience we have not died to self, we have not made any real progress in our spiritual life. If you and I are willing to let the Holy Spirit of the Lord apply the death of the self in us and to work it out of us today, we will see a great progress in our lives.
Brothers! May we declare together in one accord, "Not as I will, but as You [the Father] will!" (Matt. 26:39).
The above article deals with questions of the spiritual life. May the reader not consider this as a kind of theory. One should compare his spiritual experience with the words here. If he does this, he will understand these words. We are all babes in Christ. May the Lord guide us step by step. If we do not have the experience of the death of the self, it is better to say we do not have it. But we must never take the self life as the spiritual life. May God bless us.
To Home Page