A Touch of the Grace of Humility
Although the tendency to self-congratulation is no new phenomenon, the outlets for it have increased enormously. News of the so-called success of a congregation or a Church can speed round the world in minutes. The growth of the megachurches in the USA or the spread of the ‘New Calvinism’ is constantly to the fore. The air of triumphalism is not lacking in some quarters in the UK. There is much made of targets reached in church-planting programmes. There are some congregations that are held forth as ‘models of growth’. On a denominational level one prominent leader claimed of his Church, as a result of a division, ‘we actually advanced 20 years in two’.
In an age when there is a low state of godliness it is not surprising that self-esteem and self-publicity should be prevalent. A. B. Bruce in The Training of the Twelve said: ‘The whole aim of Satanic policy is to get self-interest recognized as the chief end of man.’ Self-exaltation was the aim of Satan himself: ‘Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty’ (Ezek. 28:17). He looked upon his own beauty and wisdom. He wanted to glorify himself rather than God. He did not want to serve but to be served. He is cast down to the earth: ‘For thou hast said in thine heart I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God’ (Isa. 14:14)
Satan tempted our first parents after the same manner. He said ‘ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ (Gen. 3:5). They wanted to exalt themselves and to rob God of his glory. As a result all mankind fell into sin. Man could only be saved in a way that would restore all the glory to God. Christ, the last Adam, was able to say: ‘I restored that which I took not away’ (Psa. 69:4). As the new Representative Man he restored the glory to God in his obedient life and atoning death. ‘By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous’ (Rom. 5:19). It is all in Christ.
A. A. Hodge declared: ‘All self-consciousness is of the very essence and nature of sin’.1 The aim of the gospel is to turn us from self-consciousness to Christ-consciousness. Sin is self-love. There is no humility or meekness before there is sin-consciousness. Humility is the logical corollary of sin-consciousness. It is the man who is poor in spirit and mourns for his sin who is humble. A man can never be meek unless he sees himself as a vile sinner. The meek man is not proud of himself, he does not in any sense glory in himself. God is glorified in man’s dependence, as Jonathan Edwards eloquently proclaimed.2
Augustine in an answer to a persistent enquirer said: ‘This way is first humility, second humility, third humility.’ In another place Augustine declared:
Humility is the foundation of all other virtues, hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.
Where will this humility reveal itself?
1) True piety
It will be seen in true piety. ‘What is piety?’, asks Professor John Murray, and he answers:
It is godliness. Godliness is God-consciousness, an all pervasive sense of God’s presence, of his judgment, of our relation to him and his relation to us, of our responsibility to him and dependence upon him.
Paul was determined not to know any thing save Jesus Christ and him crucified. God ordained this so that ‘no flesh should glory in his presence’ (1 Cor. 1.29). Dr J. I. Packer said:
The experimental piety of the Puritans was natural and unselfconscious because it was utterly God-centred; our own (such as it is) is too often artificial and boastful, because it is so largely concerned with ourselves. Our interest focuses on religious experience as such and on man’s quest for God, whereas the Puritans were concerned with the God of whom men have experience, and in his manner of dealings with those who he draws to himself.
2) A well-grounded assurance
In the article mentioned, A. A. Hodge says:
There is nothing in the world that works such satanic, profound, self-defiant pride as false assurance; nothing works such utter humility, or brings to such utter self-emptiness, as the child-like spirit of true assurance.
If the modern ‘gospel’ gives man a part to play in his salvation then he has somewhat to glory in himself. Hodge goes on to say: ‘if there is any evidence of pride in connection with his claim it is a most deadly mark – it is the plague-spot that marks death and corruption.’ The convicted sinner knows that it is only in union with Christ, the Representative Man, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension that he can be saved. He will not rest in any scheme that does not give all the glory to God. It is all in Christ. ‘I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish’ (John 10.28).
3) A humble assessment of ourselves
Dr D. M. Lloyd-Jones in his magisterial work on the Sermon on the Mount says:
Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself . . . The man who is truly meek is the one who is truly amazed that that God and man can think of him as well as they do, and treat him as well as they do.3
What a gulf there is between that attitude and the idea so prevalent in the US in recent decades, epitomized in Robert Schuller’s Self-Esteem: the New Reformation (1982). We all have to watch against pride. ‘God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble’ (James 4:6). As John Bunyan reminds us, ‘He that is down need fear no fall.’ Some counsel from Jonathan Edwards is worth reflecting on:
Humility tends to prevent an ostentatious behaviour. If the truly humble man has any advantage or benefit of any kind, either temporal or spiritual, above his neighbours he will not affect to make a show of it. If he has greater natural abilities than others, he will not be forward to parade and display them, or be careful that others shall know his superiority in this respect. If he has a remarkable spiritual experience, he will not be solicitous that men should know it for the sake of the honour he may obtain by it; nor does he affect to be esteemed of men as an eminent saint and a faithful servant of heaven; for it is a small thing with him what men think of him.4
- ‘Assurance and Humility’ in The Banner of Truth, No. 72 (September 1969), p.39.
- In a sermon of this title preached in Boston in July, 1731 [The Works of Jonathan Edwards (repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), Vol. II, p.3].
- Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (1959), Vol I, pp.68-69).
- Charity and its Fruits (repr. London: Banner of Truth, 1969), p.139.
Rev. John J. Murray is a retired minister of the Free Church of Scotland Continuing.
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