You might remember, a couple of weeks back, we looked at ten reasons why we need the doctrine of unconditional election (that was in APJ 1969). One of those reasons was found in 1 Corinthians 1:27. God’s design for unconditional election is that God gets praised, and we get humbled. The doctrines of grace are fundamentally humbling, ideally, though sometimes that’s not what happens. If we’re not careful, a wrong understanding of Calvinism can breed pride.
That’s Nathaniel’s dilemma. He lives in Tennessee. “Hello, Pastor John and Tony! Thank you both so much for the APJ podcast. It has helped me love Jesus more and to long for his return — to love his appearing! I’m a five-point Calvinist. I believe that God chooses a people for himself before the foundation of the world to be his children, as Ephesians 1:4–6 teaches. I know that God chooses people, owing totally to his free grace and wisdom, and not owing to anything within the people whom he chooses.
“However, sometimes as I begin to overflow with thankfulness to God for choosing me and saving me by his sovereign grace, I sense some arrogance in me in thinking that I am ‘special’ to God because his ‘special grace’ has been extended to me, and not to others. I know that my arrogance is wrong. I did nothing to save myself, and I don’t deserve to be saved at all. My saving faith in Christ is a total gift of God, as Ephesians 2:8–9 says. So, I have no grounds for boasting. I have seen God do some work on my heart in this area recently. So, I am hopeful that he will bring the good work that he started in me to completion (Philippians 1:6). But in the meantime, in addition to swimming in God’s word daily, are there any helpful pointers you might have for me in how I can become a humbler Calvinist?”
Well, not just for Nathaniel in Tennessee, but for me, and for all of us, here’s the frightening thing about the human heart. There is no doctrine, no theology, no set of ideas, no creeds that can provide an infallible protection against the pride and boasting of the human heart — period. The heart can find a way to distort the most humbling circumstances into ego-enhancing circumstances. And the heart can make even the most humbling doctrines a stepping stone to boasting. It can. It does.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Jesus said, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . . pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21–22). Pride. That’s the deepest disease of the human heart. And even in the saved, blood-bought, Spirit-indwelt, mature — yes, mature — saint of God, the disease of pride can raise its head from the grave of mortification and make us ashamed.
Five Points of Humility
The doctrine of unconditional election is designed by God to destroy human boasting. Yes, that’s right. It is.
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27–29)
It’s the same thing with the doctrine of irresistible grace — saving faith is a gift, not an achievement; it’s designed by God to destroy boasting. “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
“The doctrine of unconditional election is designed by God to destroy human boasting.”
It’s the same with the doctrine of total depravity — it’s designed to crush us all to the common ground of hopeless beggars and remove boasting. “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth” (James 3:14).
It’s the same thing with the doctrine of God’s all-pervasive providence over the smallest details of our lives — it’s designed to blast boasting out of our lives.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13–16)
And on and on it goes.
Four Paths away from Pride
The doctrines of grace — the biblical doctrines, the biblical story, the biblical truths — are designed to show God’s rights and God’s prerogatives and God’s power and God’s authority and God’s utterly undeserved grace poured out in our lives. All of them are meant to have this double effect: (1) let no one boast in self, and (2) let him who boasts boast in the Lord. So, what can we do if we find ourselves actually twisting such truths into a platform for self-exaltation?
1. Grieve your sin.
Bemoan our present, ongoing sinning — not just past sins, not just sins in principle, but the ones in my daily life that don’t yield to warfare. This is what caused Paul to cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25). We must be painfully aware of indwelling sin, grieve over it, and with trembling cleave to grace.
2. See your sin in Christ’s sufferings.
We can keep before us the agonies of Christ — and I mean the real, horrible torture and sufferings of Christ — with the awareness, “This is how bad I am. This is what I deserved. This is what it took to save me, this much horrible suffering.” James Denney said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save” (quoted in Between Two Worlds, 325). In other words, self-exaltation and a sense of Christ’s greatness in saving us can’t go together.
3. Shudder at pride’s subtlety.
Let the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector shock us, because the Pharisee prays like a Calvinist: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). He’s giving God the glory for his sanctification. But even though he prayed like he wanted to give God glory for his holiness, it was all a subtle way of self-exaltation. That’s why the story ends, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). This should shock us and make us vigilant.
4. Plead for humility.
We should plead to God for the miracle of humility. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle because it cannot be achieved by us. If we achieve it, we’ll be proud of achieving it. It’s a gift, and the nature of the gift is peculiar. It’s a gift of self-forgetting; if we are conscious of being humble, we’re on the way to losing it.
So, let us pray desperately that good theology would bear good fruit. Let’s pray for this beautiful reality described by Jonathan Edwards. I love this quote of what we’re really after:
All gracious affections . . . are brokenhearted affections. A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is an humble, brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is an humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is an humble, brokenhearted joy, leaving the Christian more poor in spirit, and more like a little child, and more disposed to an universal lowliness of behavior. (Religious Affections, 339)