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

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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

Knowledge, Love, and Wisdom (Huss)

  John Huss (b. 1369) was one of the forerunners of the Reformation.  Well before Luther’s day Huss called out many of the abuses and errors in the church: hypocrisy, corruption, the sale of indulgences, and so forth.  Huss was a very powerful preacher and a bright student of the Word, but he wasn’t the leading scholar of his day.  I appreciate his view on knowledge and the Christian faith:

First of all must we learn that which is most necessary to salvation, that which stimulates us to love; for we should learn not for vainglory or curiosity, but to the edification of ourselves and our neighbor, and to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are some who wish to know in order that they may be known of men, and that is degrading vanity; there are others who wish to know for the sake of knowing, and that is curiosity; and there are still others who wish to know in order to sell their knowledge for wealth and honor, and that is ignoble desire for gain. But there are likewise some who desire to know in order to edify, and that is love; and still others who desire to know in order to be edified themselves, and that is wisdom.”

 Kuhns, O. (1907). John Huss: The Witness (pp. 41–42). Cincinnati; New York: Jennings and Graham; Eaton and Mains.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Pride and Loving to Hear the Self Talk (Bernard)

7D78CC05-EC15-43DE-B3A5-6061C54DD524 In his treatise on the steps of humility and pride, Bernard does a good job of explaining how pride and the love of hearing the self talk go hand in hand.   What was true in the 12th century is true today.  Do you know anyone who likes to hear himself or herself talk too much?  Here’s Bernard’s explanation:

“For he is full of talk and the spirit is straining to get out (Jb 32:18). He hungers and thirsts for listeners to whom he can make empty boasts, to whom he can pour out all he feels, and whom he can tell what he is and how great he is.

He finds an occasion to speak. Let us say the subject is literature. He says new things and old (Mt 13:52). His opinions fly about. His words tumble over one another. He butts in before he is asked. He does not answer other people’s questions. He asks the questions himself and he answers them, and he cuts off anyone who tries to speak. When the bell rings for the end of the discussion, even though it has been a long one, he asks for a little more time. He asks permission to come back to the stories later, not so as to edify anyone, but so that he can show off his knowledge (1 Cor 8:1).

He may say something edifying, but that is not his intention. He does not care for you to teach, or to learn from you what he himself does not know, but that others should know how much he knows.

If the subject is religion, at once he has dreams and visions to offer. Then he praises fasting, commends vigils, enthuses above all about prayer. He discusses patience, humility, and all the other virtues at great length, but in utter emptiness. Yet if you were to hear him you would say that he “speaks from the fullness of his heart” (Mt 12:34), or “A good man brings forth good things from his good treasure” (Mt 12:35).

If the talk turns to lighter things, he is discovered to be even more talkative, because this is something he really knows about. You would say if you heard him that his mouth was a stream of vanity, a river of scurrility (vulgarity), so that he stirs even solemn and grave minds to merriment. And to cut a long story short, “When there is much talk there is boasting” (Prv 10:19). Here you have the fourth step described and named. Avoid the thing but remember the name.”

The quote can be found in the Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, page 133.

Shane Lems
Hammond WI

High-minded Self-sufficiency (Kuyper)

 Here’s another great excerpt from Abraham Kuyper’s devotional, To Be Near Unto God:

High-minded self-sufficiency is the canker which gnaws at the root of all religion. It is the futile dream of a little, insignificant world, of which self is the great center, whose mind understands everything, whose will controls everything, whose money can buy everything, and whose power carries everything before it. This makes self a miniature god in a little temple. In this sinful isolation one is, of necessity, icy cold, frozen away from the living God and unfit to dwell under the shadow of his wings.

If in all honesty we can say: Such is not my case, because I feel my dependence, my lack of strength and my utter helplessness, then that we might have fellowship with God, we must unlearn our sinful leaning on people. We need not necessarily cut ourselves loose from every one. Far from it. The faith of another strengthens ours. The courage of another shames us out of cowardice. The example set by another can double our strength. We are disposed to society both in matters of life and belief. But we must give up all sinful dependence upon others. Dependence that takes a man for more than an instrument appointed of God for our help, as long as he allows it, is sinful. We must not build on man, in order when human help fails to turn to the Divine. Our help must always be from God, whether power to save springs from ourselves or comes to us from without. Even in this way, that when at length all human help fails, nothing is lost. For the unchangeable God always remains the same.

 Kuyper, A. (1918). To Be Near unto God (pp. 78–79). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Pride, Celebrity, Self-Flattery, and Donkeys

 Andreas Kostenberger has a nice section about humility in his book Excellence.  He notes that humility is one of the “cardinal virtues in the Christian life and in academic work.”  In the chapter Kostenberger quotes Calvin:

I was always exceedingly delighted with that saying of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility”; and yet more pleased with that of Augustine: “As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What is the third? Delivery: so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.”

Kostenberger also spends some time saying that we should be humble in our academics and ministry because 1) we could be wrong, 2) we are not nearly as brilliant as scholars before us, 3) our ministry is at most a mere footnote in history that will barely be mentioned by others in the future, and 4) in the overall scheme of things we are not that important.  Our life is a vapor (James 4:14).  Kostenberger then talked about celebrity pastors and near the end of this section on humility he noted a great quote by Luther:

[If] you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it– if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.

Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, ‘See, see! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.’ That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels. To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this Book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (1 Pet. 5:5); to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.

The above quotes came from chapter 15 of Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue by Andreas Kostenberger.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Causes of Spiritual Decline (Newton)

Sadly, there is such a thing as backsliding in the Christian life.  It’s also called wandering from the path of following Jesus.  Indeed, we are prone to wander!  There are various reasons why Christians do sometimes wander or backslide.  We could put it in the form of a question: What are some of the causes of spiritual decline in the Christian life?  John Newton gave a few helpful answers.  I’ll summarize them below:

  1. One of the chief causes of spiritual decline is error.  There are some errors that may be compared to poison.  Thus the Galatians, by listening to false teachers, were seduced from the simplicity of the gospel.  The consequence was that they quickly lost the blessedness they had once spoken of.  Poison is seldom taken alone, but if it is mixed with food, it is not suspected until it is discovered by the effect.  Whoever is prevailed upon to believe what is false, though it is mixed with the truth, is already infected with a disease; and his religion, unless the Lord mercifully interposes, will degenerate into either licentiousness or formality.  [We live in a day when too many people are tossed to and fro by various winds of doctrine.  Therefore those who want what is best for their own souls must be on their guard against that spirit of curiosity and adventure, which the apostle describes as having itching ears – which is a desire of hearing every new and novel teaching.]
  2. Spiritual pride and a high regard for self is also a cause for spiritual decline.  Even if a person believes right doctrine and has experienced the power of the gospel, pride causes spiritual decline.  If our knowledge and gifts give us a good opinion of ourselves, as if we were wise and good, we are already ensnared and in danger of falling with every step we take unless the Lord mercifully interposes by restoring us to a spirit of humility and dependence.  It is the invariable law of his kingdom that everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.  We have nothing but what we have received from God, and therefore to be proud of titles, wealth, or any temporal advantages we enjoy by the providence of God, is sinful.
  3. A third prevailing cause for spiritual decline is an inordinate desire and attachment to the things of the world, or worldliness.  Unless this evil principle be mortified in its root, by the doctrine of the cross, it will in time prevail over the most splendid profession.  The love of the world manifests itself in two different ways.  The first is covetousness or greed, which can be seen in Judas and Demas.  The second is not hoarding, but squandering money under the power of a worldly spirit.  In whatever degree the love of the world prevails, the health of the soul will proportionably decline.

Newton does say quite a bit more about these three causes for spiritual decline, and he gives a few others as well.  He shared them – as I’m sharing them – to help Christians avoid and fight spiritual decline: “It is sometimes said that the knowledge of a disease amounts to half a remedy.”  This is the case in spiritual decline as well: if you and I do suffer from any of these “diseases,” thankfully we can go to the Great Physician for help and cure!

This entire essay, called On a Decline in the Spiritual Life, is found in volume 6 of Newton’s Works.

Shane Lems