Critical Calvinists and Pride (Hughes, Bridges)

Preaching the Word: Sermon on the Mount—The Message of the Kingdom  One thing I’ve noticed over the years is the fact that some Calvinists are also very critical of others.  I know that some people in general are critical by nature, but to me it seems worse when someone who holds to the doctrines of grace is always super critical about others.  Maybe you’ve seen it: these people are always pointing out the flaws in someone’s theology, they’re quick to find fault in someone’s beliefs, they generally don’t give others the benefit of the doubt, and you won’t hear this type of person speak loving or kind words to those with whom they disagree.  To be honest, I sometimes struggle with a critical spirit, so I’m not claiming the higher moral ground here!  My point is that a critical spirit is not a Christian attitude or mentality.  And further, the more we understand the truths of the doctrines of grace, the more our critical spirit should decrease and decline.  Why?  Because the doctrines of grace kill pride and produce humility.

I appreciate how Kent Hughes describes this as he comments on Matthew 7:1-5:

A critical spirit, a judgmental, condemning spirit, is endemic to the human situation. The media, our social relationships, our schooling, and our work situations are immersed in it. And though we often joke about it, experiencing it is most unpleasant. Few things are more exhausting and debilitating than harsh, unloving criticism.

Even sadder, the church of Jesus Christ is itself full of those who make a habit of criticism and condemnation. Some seem to think their critical spirit is a spiritual gift. But the Lord does not agree. In the opening verses of Matthew 7 (the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount), our Lord sets the record straight in no uncertain terms. He tells us how we should relate to our brothers and sisters in this matter of judgmentalism, especially in respect to the fact that we will all undergo a final judgment.

…When a critic discovers faults in another, he feels a malignant satisfaction and always sees the worst possible motives in the other’s actions. The critical spirit is like the carrion fly that buzzes with a sickening hum of satisfaction over sores, preferring corruption to health.

…We see critical spirits all around us—in our media, in our schools, in our social relationships. But it should not be a part of the church. May God purge it from our lives and from our churches. We would each do well to ask ourselves, who have I been critical of this week? Has my focus on their faults blinded me to my own? Then we need to ask God to help us see ourselves as we are. (R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 227–228.)

Jerry Bridges also wrote well on this when he discussed sins like pride, bitterness, envy, and an unforgiving spirit:

One of the most difficult defilements of spirit to deal with is the critical spirit. A critical spirit has its root in pride. Because of the “plank” of pride in our own eye we are not capable of dealing with the “speck” of need in someone else. We are often like the Pharisee who, completely unconscious of his own need, prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). We are quick to see—and to speak of—the faults of others, but slow to see our own needs. How sweetly we relish the opportunity to speak critically of someone else—even when we are unsure of our facts. We forget that “a man who stirs up dissension among brothers” by criticizing one to another is one of the “six things which the Lord hates” (Proverbs 6:16–19).

All of these attitudes—envy, jealousy, bitterness, an unforgiving and retaliatory spirit, and a critical and gossiping spirit—defile us and keep us from being holy before God. They are just as evil as immorality, drunkenness, and debauchery. Therefore, we must work diligently at rooting out these sinful attitudes from our minds. Often we are not even aware our attitudes are sinful. We cloak these defiling thoughts under the guise of justice and righteous indignation. But we need to pray daily for humility and honesty to see these sinful attitudes for what they really are, and then for grace and discipline to root them out of our minds and replace them with thoughts pleasing to God.  Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978), 122.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

2 thoughts on “Critical Calvinists and Pride (Hughes, Bridges)”

  1. Thanks for this. I share this honestly… My personal theology distinctly leans toward Calvinism. I have been so helped in my life of faith by theologians in this camp. So many books on my shelves! However, I have long attended Wesleyan-Arminian churches (Nazarene, Methodist) because, well, I have not found Calvinists in person (or online) to be very nice – they are often cold, and lacking in kindness. If you don’t share their beliefs EXACTLY, there is no place for you. While the Wesleyan-Arminians are more kind, humble, warm, and exude more fruit of the Spirit. I am speaking generally – and there are, of course, exceptions on both sides – but my experiences broadly and consistently reflect this.

    “the more we understand the truths of the doctrines of grace, the more our critical spirit should decrease and decline. Why? Because the doctrines of grace kill pride and produce humility.” — Do you have any personal analysis here?? I agree that the doctrines of grace should kill pride and produce humility – what is going wrong?? Why are these doctrines more often creating pride and a harsh spirit?

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    1. I suppose there are various reasons…immaturity being a major on in my opinion.

      Also, some popular Reformed or Calvinistic teachers have been quite critical/cynical, so their readers/students sometimes follow in their shoes.

      Sometimes Reformed folk are critical because they’ve come out of an circle or church that was full of poor or no theology, so they are sensitive to those things and quick to point out bad theology. It’s very personal for them.

      And I suppose sometimes Reformed or Calvinistic preaching is doctrine heavy and application light. Hearers of those kinds of sermons will know doctrine, but won’t necessarily know how to live it out.

      Finally, and sadly, I think that some very critical Calvinists have not truly understood the beauty of God’s sovereign grace in saving ungodly sinners.

      Anyway, I’m no expert – those are just some thoughts. Thanks for a good question!

      Blessings in Christ!

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