From a sermon on First Timothy preached by Pastor Ray C. Stedman
They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth (1 Timothy 4:3).
One of the strange marks of religious error is that it is so often accompanied by ascetic practices, that is, denial of certain normal, natural human enjoyments. One of them is marriage. A number of groups have historically forbidden marriage to their adherents with the idea that sex is unclean, and those who indulge in it are certainly less dedicated than those who refrain.
Foods come under this heading too. I do not mean to imply at all that there is anything wrong with diets. It is obvious that some people need dieting. There is nothing wrong with studies on nutrition and proper eating. Nevertheless, through the course of human history there has been a strange affinity between food restrictions and fads and religious error.
The reason is that at the heart of asceticism is a conviction that self-denial somehow pleases God. It can be very earnest, very sincere. Often Christians fall into this error in their early Christian days, thinking that if they deny themselves in some way God is going to be pleased, and their status in His sight will be advanced. That is why some Christians love to get up early in the morning for Scripture reading or memorize hundreds of verses of Scripture or pray on their knees for long periods of time. These practices, which in themselves are not wrong, nevertheless become wrong because their motive (that of gaining God’s favor by self-denial) is wrong.
This is a good example of the subtlety by which error begins. When a deviation enters a stream of truth, at the first point of deviation, error looks like truth; it is very hard to see it as error. This is what has misled so many people. They never recognize error until they become engrossed in it. Down the line they begin to suspect that it is error, but by that time they are already hooked.
There is a difference between self-denial and denying self. Jesus said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). That is denying self. But that is easily confused with self-denial, which says, I will give up this thing or that thing. I want to gain a special mark of favor before God, and I want to influence God to do something for me in return. When our motivation ultimately is to achieve something for ourselves by our actions, we are no longer denying self but practicing self-denial.
How subtle the differences are! Self-denial is an attempt to earn favor apart from faith in the gift of righteousness which makes us wholly acceptable before God right at the very beginning of our Christian life; denying self is a refusal to heed those silken arguments of the inner ego that appeal to us to show how good we are by giving up something.
What is the difference between self-denial and denying self? Are we careful not to let subtle religious error lead us into a fraudulent faith apart from Christ’s righteousness?