Judson’s Ground of Self-Denial

By Evan D. Burns

On May 10, 1836, Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) preached his only English sermon in Burma; it was for the ordination of the missionary printer, S. M. Osgood (1807-1875).  This lengthy sermon is a definitive presentation of the inherent relationship in Judson’s spirituality between the example of Christ and Christian minister’s mandatory self-denial in imitation of Christ.  Preaching from John 10:1-18 about Christ as the Good Shepherd, Judson began by saying that though Christ is the “Exemplar” of all his people, he is especially the “Exemplar” of his “subordinate shepherds.”  He urged Osgood to “look continually to the chief Shepherd” for emulation.  First, Judson instructed, the minister ought to imitate Christ’s wholesale denial of worldly desires.  Christ gave up his life for the good of his flock, and in the language of disinterested benevolence, Judson said the minister ought to imitate Christ by surrendering all worldly ambitions, pleasures, and gains “that he may, by all means, save some.”  Second, Judson taught that the minister ought to imitate Christ by showing affection and brotherly love to the flock.  Third, Judson said the chief duty of a minister in imitation of Christ is to indiscriminately call out Christ’s elect; then once they come in through the universal preaching of the gospel, the minister ought to make disciples through teaching them to observe the commands of Christ, of which the minister ought to be the greatest example of obedience.

Though the minister’s chief duty should be doing good, Judson went on to elaborate on the dominant motivation of such duty.  He explained that Christ’s “supreme regard to his Father’s will” and “the love of God” were the controlling themes of Christ’s life.  Judson tied Christ’s example of supreme love to the Father and a supreme desire to please the Father to the responsibility of the minister to esteem the will of God above all other good things.  He said no good works of self-denial or charity “are truly estimable, but just so far as they spring from regard to the will of God.  All true virtue has its root in the love of God.  Every holy affection looks beyond self . . . and finds its resting place in God alone.”  Then he went on to wax eloquent about God’s God-centeredness and righteous love for himself above everything else.  In light of God’s supreme happiness in God, Judson said it was fitting that Christ would “have supreme regard to the will of the Father,” greater than his regard for perishing souls.  Therefore, every minister must submit to the will of God.  In light of Christ’s example of supreme submission to the infinitely wise and loving will of the Father, the most God-centered Being in the universe, Judson issued a decisive verdict for his spirituality of self-denial:  “On this ground we rest the doctrine of self-denial, renunciation of self-interest, abandonment of self.  Still further, even our compassion for souls and our zeal for their salvation must be kept in subordination to the supreme will of God.”[1]  In his self-denying imitation of Christ, “Judson was indeed a Gethsemane soul.”[2]

[1]Francis Wayland, A Memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, D.D., vol. 2 (Boston: Phillips, Samson and Company, 1853), 486-94.

[2]John Brush, “The Magnetism of Adoniram Judson,” Andover Newton Quarterly 2, no. 3 (January 1, 1962): 3.


Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons.  They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.