A Common Reformed Sin: Intellectual Pride

 Reformed theology is robustly biblical and it echoes the truths of Scripture so very well and clearly.  I’m not Reformed because it’s cool or because I grew up that way.  I believe Reformed truths like God’s sovereignty, total depravity, definite atonement, presbyterian ecclesiology, infant baptism, and the regulative principle of worship because they’re rooted in Scripture.  I want to be part of the historic Christian church that has submitted to and followed God’s word.

Reformed and Calvinistic Christians and churches, however, are not perfect. [I’m far from perfect!]  One major blemish found in Reformed and Calvinistic circles is the sin of intellectual pride.  Or it might be called doctrinal pride.  This is when someone who is well-versed in Reformed doctrine lets it go to his or her head.  This person becomes a self-proclaimed expert theologian who begins to look down on others who do not know as much doctrine or who have “inferior” doctrine. Sometimes this kind of person can even become unteachable and very critical of and impatient with other Christians and their views.  It’s even worse when someone who is self-taught gives himself an honorary doctorate in theology!

By contrast, the person who lives a truly Reformed life with a Reformed heart and mind will not be arrogant, but extremely humble and patient.  One essential aspect of Reformed theology is that our sovereign God alone deserves all the glory, honor, and praise and that people are finite, sinful, and completely dependent upon him in every way.  No one who is Reformed or Calvinistic should be doctrinally arrogant at all!

Petrus Van Mastricht (d. 1706) made an excellent point on intellectual humility when he applied the doctrine of God’s omniscience (omniscience is the fact that God knows all things in a divine way that is far, far beyond our understanding).  Here’s a slightly edited excerpt:

[The doctrine of divine omniscience] offers us an argument for being humbled by a comparison of our ignorance and folly with the infinite knowledge and wisdom of God, after the example of Asaph (Ps. 73:22) and Agur (Prov. 30:2-4).

…Here, therefore, what will more effectively batter down our arrogance than to think how much there is that we do not know, especially when we compare our superficial wisdom with the abyss of God’s knowledge and wisdom? What will more effectively invite us to humility?

God instills this humility (Jer. 9:23), teaching us

1) To think that God is most wise since he is the one who made us wiser than brute beasts (Job 35:11).
2) To exclaim to ourselves, ‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you brag as if you did not receive it?’ (1 Cor. 4:7).
3) To take what you have freely received above others and to render it to God with submissive gratitude, and in that way ‘to cast down thoughts and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.’ (2 Cor. 10:5).
4) To think about God’s dreadful judgment upon the arrogance of worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1:19-20).

Again, it’s worth noting that Reformed and Calvinistic Christians are sinful like other Christians. And sometimes we Reformed Christians don’t live out the theology we believe and confess. Sometimes we believe a doctrine but do not apply it to ourselves and live accordingly.  May God help us live out the theology we believe and confess with humility, patience, and a strong desire to see his name be glorified – not ours!

The above quote is found in Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 2, p. 272-3.

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

 

On Pastoral Humility (Newton)

Wise Counsel: John Newton's Letters to John Ryland, Jr.

Since a pastor is often in the spotlight, so to speak, it sometimes happens that he gets a big head. The old Adam in him loves to be noticed, loves the attention, and enjoys the publicity. And sometimes the pastor begins to covet more social media followers, retweets, and sermon “shares.” Along the way humility shrinks and pride grows.

All that to say a pastor needs to pray for humility and cultivate it in biblical ways. For example, he might have to constantly remind himself that his pride is a sin and that his calling is not a call to be popular. He might have to tell himself over and over that his desire for more followers is a tactic the devil can use to mess up his ministry. He needs to remember that his heart has its dark spots and corners.

On this topic, John Newton wrote a letter to his friend who was a Christian pastor. Another pastor they both knew had just suffered a stroke. Newton noted that he hoped the man would recover, since he was a blessing to the church. Then Newton wrote this:

“I hope that he and you and I shall all so live as to be missed a little when we are gone. But the Lord standeth not in need of sinful man. And he sometimes takes away his most faithful and honored ministers in the midst of their usefulness, perhaps (for this reason) among other reasons, that he may show us that he can do without them.”

It may sound harsh, but it’s true and it’s something that we pastors do well to remember.

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 280.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

He Knew He Didn’t Know Everything (Peterson)

 So far I’m very much enjoying Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor.   While I don’t always agree with Peterson’s views, I do appreciate and benefit from his writing.  His memoir, The Pastor, is full of stories, wisdom, insight, missteps, and humor found in Peterson’s Christian life story as told by himself.

Here’s one great story about Peterson’s Ph.D. studies under OT scholar William Albright:

“He entered the classroom one morning telling us that he had awakened having solved the meaning of Moriah while he slept.  Both the meaning and location of Mount Moriah, where Abraham had bound Isaac for sacrifice, had always eluded scholars.  Professor Albright went to the chalkboard and soon had it filled with words from Ugaritic, Arabic, Assyrian, Aramaic, and of course, Hebrew.  He continued, excited and intense, for twenty minutes, at which point Prescott Williams, an older student who had already spent four years with him, interrupted, ‘But Dr. Albright, what about this and this and this [he was making reference to items of grammar and etymology that I knew nothing about].  Do you think that holds up?’  The Professor stopped, stepped back, and stared at the chalkboard for about twenty seconds.  And then he said, ‘Mr. Williams is right – forget everything I have said.’

It was an act of humility that I would soon learn was characteristic of Dr. Albright.  Everyone in that room knew he was capable of dismissing Williams and bluffing his way none of us would have known he was bluffing.  We all knew he knew everything.  But he knew he didn’t know everything and let us know he didn’t.”

I love those last two lines – especially the last one.  It’s a kind of humility that all Christians should have: whether professor, pastor or parishioner.

The above quote is found on pages 63-64 of The Pastor.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christ’s Spirit, the OT Prophets, and Sobriety in Learning (Calvin)

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)Of the various aspects of John Calvin’s writings that I appreciate, I always love to hear him talk about modesty and humility when it comes to the study and interpretation of God’s Word.  More than a few times he mentions how we should never go further than God’s Word because that’s dangerous territory.  Here’s a similar exhortation from his commentary on 1 Peter 1:10-12:

…He [Peter] does not say that the prophets searched according to their own understanding as to the time when Christ’s kingdom would come, but that they applied their minds to the revelation of the Spirit. Thus they have taught us by their example a sobriety in learning, for they did not go beyond what the Spirit taught them. And doubtless there will be no limits to man’s curiosity, except the Spirit of God presides over their minds, so that they may not desire anything else than to speak from him. And further, the spiritual kingdom is a higher subject than what the human mind can succeed in investigating, except the Spirit be the guide. May we also therefore submit to his guidance.

John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 39.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Pride in Titles, Degrees, and Education? (Hutchinson)

 Christians struggle with pride just like people who are not Christians. We all know what pride looks like in real life.  It’s that man always talking about his acheivements, it’s that woman showing off how much and how far she jogs, it’s that guy on the team who think’s he’s #1.  The list goes on.  Christopher Hutchinson mentions that we can even become proud about our titles and degrees (MDiv, PhD, Dr., Rev., etc.).  I appreciate Hutchinsons’ comments on this topic:

Of course, it is possible for pastors to wear their academic strikes humbly, and for unlettered people to take a perverse pride in their lack of credentials. As a general rule, I think stripes and titles tend to feed pride and hinder humility, especially when unduly emphasized.

My current congregation is blessed to have many men and women with doctorates and amazing accomplishments. Yeah, we are even more blessed to have people from all walks of life and educational levels. When we gather to worship, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, period. No distinctions are made at all. The joy and the fellowship of being together as equals all saved by the same grace is tangible. That is the sort of thing a conscious focus on humility can do in the church. For we have one Father who is in heaven, and one teacher, our Lord Jesus. I am blessed to lead a congregation where one has to work to find out whether someone has a doctorate or not. In some cases, it was years before a brother or sister told me, and in every case I remember, it was only because I asked them. That is the kind of humility that bind the congregation together in Christian love. Are pastors not to be as Paul, preaching not with lofty words of wisdom, but rather to know nothing but Christ and him crucified?

Christopher Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility, p.152.

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

Thinking Rightly of Ourselves

 Followers of Christ should not be narcissists.  We should keep our eyes on Jesus and not on ourselves.  The Apostle said it like this: “Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us” (Rom. 12:3 NLT).  These words are ones we should take to heart as we walk the path of following Christ.  Matthew Henry wrote some good comments on Romans 12:3:

Pride is a sin that is bred in the bone of all of us, and we have therefore each of us need to be cautioned and armed against it.—Not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. We must take heed of having too great an opinion of ourselves, or putting too high a valuation upon our own judgments, abilities, persons, performances. We must not be self-conceited, nor esteem too much our own wisdom and other attainments, not think ourselves to be something, Gal. 6:3. There is a high thought of ourselves which we may and must have to think ourselves too good to be the slaves of sin and drudges to this world. But, on the other hand, we should think soberly, that is, we must have a low and modest opinion of ourselves and our own abilities, our gifts and graces, according to what we have received from God, and not otherwise. We must not be confident and hot in matters of doubtful disputation; not stretch ourselves beyond our line; not judge and censure those that differ from us; not desire to make a fair show in the flesh. These and the like are the fruits of a sober opinion of ourselves.

The words will bear yet another sense agreeable enough. Of himself is not in the original; therefore it may be read, That no man be wise above what he ought to be wise, but be wise unto sobriety. We must not exercise ourselves in things too high for us (Ps. 131:1, 2), not intrude into those things which we have not seen (Col. 2:18), those secret things which belong not to us (Deu. 29:29), not covet to be wise above what is written. There is a knowledge that puffs up, which reaches after forbidden fruit. We must take heed of this, and labour after that knowledge which tends to sobriety, to the rectifying of the heart and the reforming of the life. Some understand it of the sobriety which keeps us in our own place and station, from intruding into the gifts and offices of others. See an instance of this sober modest care in the exercise of the greatest spiritual gifts, 2 Co. 10:13–15. To this head refers also that exhortation (v. 16), Be not wise in your own conceits.

It is good to be wise, but it is bad to think ourselves so; for there is more hope of a fool than of him that is wise in his own eyes.

 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2226–2227.

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

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