Tim Challies posted a good article today on discernment. The topic he chose to address in his discernment excercise, self-forgiveness, caught my attention and inspired a few thoughts. You would probably benefit from reading his post first.
I can’t think of a single Biblical example of anyone sinning against himself. It just doesn’t happen. The real motive of “self-forgiveness” is to put it all behind us. We are not supposed to do that. Continuing regret over sins of the past, although forgiven, is a good thing. Three main points come to mind:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” may not be a Scriptural proverb, but it definitely is a truism. Forgetting past sins means forgetting the lessons learned from them. Gratitude to God requires us to remember our sin. How can we remember how much we have been forgiven if we forget our sin? The memory of our sins should serve to increase our love for God (Luke 7:47). The desire to put it behind us is really a desire to justify increased self-love. The memory of our sin should cause us to abound in grace towards those who sin against us (Matthew 18:23-35).
Remembering sin is not the same as wallowing in it. If you’re doing that, your problem is not guilt, but pride. It is only pride that makes you focus on yourself and suffer from so-called low self-esteem. Get over yourself. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith. Remember how much you have been forgiven, and give thanks. Never forget.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks . . . Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts . . . to degrading passions . . . to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper . . . —Romans 1:21–28
Notice in the text [Romans 1:18–32] the steps or stages of (heathen) perversion. The first step of their idolatry is ingratitude: they were not thankful. So Satan showed Himself ungrateful over against His Creator before he fell. Whoever enjoys God’s gifts as though he had not graciously received them, forgotten the Donor, will soon find himself filled with self-complacency. The next step is vanity: they ‘became vain in their imaginations.’ in this stage men delight in themselves and in creatures, enjoying what is profitable to them. Thus they become vain in their imaginations, that is, in all their plans, efforts and endeavors. In and through them they seek whatever they desire; nevertheless, all their efforts remain vain since they seek only themselves: their glory, satisfaction and benefit. The third step is blindness; for, deprived of truth and steeped in vanity, man of necessity becomes blind in his whole feeling and thinking, since now he is turned entirely away from God. The fourth step or stage is man’s total departure from God, and this is the worst; for when he has lost God there remains nothing else for God to do than to give them up to all manner of shame and vice according to the will of Satan. In the same way also, man sinks into spiritual idolatry of a finer kind, which today is spread far and wide, ingratitude and love of vanity (of one’s own wisdom, of righteousness, of, as it is commonly said, of one’s ‘good intention’) prevent man so thoroughly that he refuses to be reproved, for now he thinks that his conduct is good and pleasing to God. He now imagines he is worshiping a merciful God. Whereas in reality he has none, indeed, he worships his own figment of reason more devoutly that the living God. Oh, how great an evil ingratitude is! It produces desire for vain things, and this again produces blindness; and blindness produces idolatry, and idolatry leads to a whole deluge of vices. Conversely, gratitude preserves love for God and so the heart remains attached to Him and is enlightened. Filled with light, he worships only the living God and such true worship is followed immediately by a whole host of virtues. —Martin Luther, Luther’s Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1954), 29–30.
This is one of those reactionary posts that I try to avoid. But I’m not avoiding this one. While I will refer to a particular blog post and blogger, I have refrained from identifying any individual because this is really addressed to a number of people who like to pit the pursuit of doctrinal precision against “what Christians are really supposed to care about”—the poor, etc.
You could say I got up on the wrong side of the bed today. The irritation actually began some time ago, and came to a head a couple of weeks ago when a blogger I used to enjoy reading wrapped up the claims and insinuations of several others in one succinct, sanctimonious post. As much as I have tried to put it out of my head—after all, his screed was nothing new, just more abrasive than previous similar attacks—I woke up thinking about that post today. The point? That those who debate theology and are committed to doctrinal fidelity are really only interested in theoretical Christianity, that our religion goes no farther than the head, never reaching our hands.
The following assertions—entirely unsupported—were made: We don’t pray for those who disagree with us. We don’t care for the sick, lonely, or widowed. We don’t evangelize. We don’t give to material needs. We are not hospitable. We don’t, in fact, make any difference for Christ in anyone’s life. We just sit around arguing.
In the interest of honesty, the author claimed to be intentionally provocative in order to make a point. However, those assertions were the sum total of his post. They were not subtle insinuations. While I have condensed and slightly paraphrased them, he wrote exactly what you see here.
And so I admit, I am angry. I’m not angry because I’ve taken this personally. I could, but that’s none of your business. I have enough trouble keeping from my right hand what my left hand is doing (Matthew 6:3) without putting it down in writing. Being accused of not doing those things doesn’t help in keeping me from thinking about it, either, thank you very much.
I’m angry because these charges are patently false; because they distort the Gospel and the purpose of the church; they belittle the Biblical charges to “give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1Timothy 4:13), to “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (4:16), to “keep that which is committed to thy trust” (6:20), etc.; they slander a multitude of brothers and sisters who have demonstrated otherwise on countless occasions throughout my life.
I’ve experienced some hard times the likes of which few of you will ever know. Through those times, God has been faithful to provide for me and my family, and he has done it through people, some of them being willing also to contend for sound doctrine. They visited me in the hospital. One of them even argued with me in the hospital, God bless him. They cared for my family in my absence. Some people, I know, made significant sacrifices for us. I couldn’t possibly remember all the kindnesses we’ve received, let alone list them here.
I received the Gospel from teachers for whom doctrinal fidelity was paramount. I will never forget the day when a man who is now the head of a seminary took the time to come out to the backyard where I was playing, kneel in the dirt with my trucks and tractors, and talk to me about Jesus.
I know that not everyone does what they ought. In fact, I know that no one does all that they ought. But I’m very tired of the kind of people who seem to think it is their calling to go about as self-appointed prophets, denouncing left and right, nagging others as though they know exactly what God wants them to do and when.
There are Christians all over the world—yes, even among us evil American capitalists—who contend for sound doctrine, pray for those who disagree with them, evangelize, and care for the needs of those around them. They aren’t rare. They just aren’t writing blog posts bragging about it. So take your sanctimonious diatribes and—just for kicks—apply them to yourselves.*
* In a clever twist of irony, I have inserted an unwarranted insinuation of my own.
Let us learn, therefore, not to become drunk on our foolish hopes. Rather, let us hope in God and in God’s promises, and we will never be deceived. But if we base our hopes on our own presumptuousness, God will strip everything away. This is one of our most essential doctrines, since human nature is so driven by presumptuousness. For we are so influenced by insupportable pride that God is forced to punish us harshly. We think we are so much higher than God that we ought to be more powerful than God. Consequently, seeing how inclined we are toward this vice, all the more ought we to pay heed to what Micah says here: that we must not rest content with the thought that whatever happens will happen. Rather, we must realize that so long as God’s hand is upon us, we are condemned to be miserable. For there is no other cure shy of our returning to God and founding our hopes on his promises. Therein lies our surest remedy, equal to any and all disasters that might befall us. —John Calvin, cited in Steve Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin (Reformation Trust, 2007), 106–107.
A warning about spiritual pride:
This was the sin made [Satan], of a blessed angel, a cursed devil; and as it was his personal sin, so he chiefly labours to derive it to the sons of men: and he so far prevailed on our first parents, that ever since, this sin hath and doth claim a kind of regency in the heart, making use both of bad and good to draw her chariot. First, it maketh use of evil. Pride enters into the labours of other sins; they do but work to make her brave, as subjects to uphold the state and grandeur of their prince. Thus you shall see some drudge and droil*, cheat, cozen†, oppress; and what mean they? O it is to get and estate to maintain their pride. Others fawn and flatter, lie, dissemble; and for what? to help pride up some mount on honour. Second. It maketh use of that which is good. It can work with God’s own tools, his ordinances, by which the Holy Spirit advanceth his kingdom of grace in the hearts of his saints. These often are prostituted to pride. A man may be very zealous in prayer, and painful in preaching, and all the while pride is the master whom he serves, though in God’s livery. It can take sanctuary in the highest actions, and hide itself under the skirt of virtue itself. Thus while a man is exercising his charity, pride may be the idol in secret for which he lavisheth out his gold so freely. It is hard starving this sin, because there is nothing almost but it can live on—nothing so base that a proud hear will not be lift up with, and nothing so sacred but it profane; [it will] even dare to drink in the bowels of the sanctuary, nay, rather than starve, it will feed on the carcasses of other sins. “That sin is with greatest difficult to avoided which springs from a victory of our vices.” This minion pride will stir up the soul to resist, yea, in a manner kill, some sins, that she may boastingly show the head of them, and blow the creature up with the conceit of himself above others. As the Pharisee, who through pride bragged that he was not as the publican—so that pride, if not looked to, will have to do everywhere, and hath a large sphere it moves in. nothing indeed (without divine assistance) the creature hath or doth, but will soon become a prey to this devourer. —William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 1:191–192.
* to work slowly. † to persuade by deceit.
Last week, my wife and I spent three rewarding days in Billings, Montana, attending the Reformation Montana conference. It was a nice little getaway, sharing meals and visiting with friends, and receiving the ministry of the Word through gifted speakers, most of whom we had not heard before. I won't say much about that at this time. I left the laptop in the hotel and made no attempt to take notes, so I want to wait until the messages are made available online and listen to some of them again.
Today I want to share with you an unexpected lesson learned as a result of a minor disaster. As you might know, if you have visited the home page of this site since Friday, my home page template was mysteriously erased, leaving nothing but background. In between sessions on (I think) Saturday, Phil Johnson asked me what had happened to it. I explained, and he said, “That's weird. If you were somebody important, I'd suspect you'd been hacked.” Well, what does one say to that? I thanked him for his kind words, and he replied to the effect that he was just a Barnabas kind of guy. We had a laugh, and moved on.
As we were driving home, I thought more about that, and the more I thought, the more I realized that, joking aside, “if you were somebody important” really was an encouraging remark. Allow me to explain.
Popularity is a great enemy of the soul. I've seen what happens when good men are taken in by the illusion of importance, and I've worked hard to avoid becoming one of them (not that I've ever been too much at risk—I just don't have their talent or personality). So, on reflection—and realizing that this might sound like another joke—it is satisfying to know I'm succeeding in that effort.
Still, I'm really no better than the self-important, self-promoting individuals who have served as warnings to me. I possess the same tendency to pride as they do. I suffer from the same urge to point out that “I said it first” or “I said it better.” While avoiding notoriety because I fear the monster it could make of me, I still sometimes crave attention, and worse, think I deserve it. For this reason, much more than the first, it was good to be reminded that I am not important.
John the baptist said, “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Sometimes I get the impression from some of the more popular bloggers that they must increase so that he can increase. It's an absurd notion; none of us is indispensible. God uses means, but no one in particular is necessary or unique. Yet I sometimes do the very thing I hate—become disappointed when something I've written that I think is particularly important isn't shared, retweeted, and generally lauded as a Prophetic Word to the Ignorant Masses—“What's wrong with you people, anyway?”
But I am no one important. I need that reminder. Thanks, sincerely.
Some people love to shout “Amen!” if you’re in the “right” kind of church with the “right” kind of preaching, you’ll hear it a lot, along with expressions like “Preach it, Brother!” and “That’s right, Preacher!”
I am descended mostly from Scandinavian immigrants, and was raised Lutheran, so there is just no hollering “Amen!” gene in my DNA. I, as far as I can remember, have never done it, and likely never will. Thinking it while quietly nodding my head is as expressive as I get, and if you share my heritage, you know what I mean.
If you share my heritage, you also know that very strong feelings are often hidden behind very subtle expressions. Without opening my mouth or shifting the least bit in my seat, I can holler “Amen!” with the best Indy-Fundy Baptist at a KJVO conference. Sadly, like the IFB, my “Amen!” moments have most often come in response to some grand moral declaration applying to someone else. Moral indignation always feels good.
By the grace of God, my “Amen!” moments have a new motivation. I’ve learned the gospel. The gospel kills the kind of pride that loves to denounce the sins of others. The gospel lays us low. It reduces our righteousness to “filthy rags.” I can no longer shout “Amen!” at denouncements of “worldliness” or “backsliders.” It’s tough to shout anything with head hanging, and when every sin named whispers “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” I am simul iustus et peccator, the man Paul described in Romans 7.
I now cry “Amen!” (silently, of course) when the preacher tells me I need to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and assures me that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” who promised, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing . . . and I will raise him up on the last day.” I holler “Amen!” when reminded that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” “Amen!” because I know I am guilty, and “Amen!” because I’ve been pardoned.
When do you holler “Amen”?
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. —Ephesians 2:8–9 For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? —1 Corinthians 4:7
As the undeserving recipients of God’s most extreme favor, Christians ought to be anything but proud. Yet, it is all too easy for us to look around and notice how much better we are than the unbelieving world. How absurd that is. Comparisons to the world are only true and edifying if we have eyes to see our true condition, and what the difference truly is.
Look abroad in the world, and thou mayest see others refused when thou art chosen, others passed by when thou art called, others polluted when thou art sanctified, others put off with common gifts when thou hast special grace, others fed with the scraps of ordinary bounty, when thou hast the finest of the flour, even the fruits of saving mercy. As Elkanah gave to Peninnah, and to all her sons and daughters, portions, ‘But to Hannah he gave a worthy portion, because he loved her;’ so God giveth others outward portions, some of the good things of this life; but to thee, Christian, he giveth a Benjamin’s mess,—his image, his Spirit, his Son, himself,—a worthy portion, a goodly heritage, because he loveth thee. Others have a little meat, and drink, and wages, but thou hast the inheritance; others, like Jehoshaphat’s younger sons, have some cities, some small matters given them; but thou, like the firstborn, hast the kingdom, the crown of glory; others feed on bare elements, thou hast the sacrament; others stand without doors, and thou art admitted into the presence chamber; others must fry eternally in hell flames, and thou must enjoy fulness of joy for evermore. O give thanks unto the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever; to him that chose thee before the foundation of the world, for his mercy endureth for ever; to him that called thee by the word of his grace, for his mercy endureth for ever; to him that gave his only Son to die for thy sins, for his mercy endureth for ever; to him that entered into a covenant of grace with thee, for his mercy endureth for ever; to him that hath provided for thee an exceeding and eternal weight of glory, for his mercy endureth for ever. ‘give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever.’ —George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, Works of George Swinnock (Banner of Truth, 1992), 1:213–214
Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.” —John 13:36–38
We are all Peter. Our advantage is that we can learn from, rather than through, his experience. Will we?
Why cannot I follow thee now? . . . This expression of Peter shows the opinion which we entertain from our very birth, which is, that we attribute more to our own strength than we ought to do. The consequence is, that they who can do nothing venture to attempt every thing, without imploring the assistance of God. Wilt thou lay down thy life for me? Christ did not choose to debate with Peter, but wished that he should grow wise by his own experience, like fools, who never grow wise till they have received a stroke. Peter promises unshaken firmness, and indeed expresses the sincere conviction of his mind; but his confidence is full of rashness, for he does not consider what strength has been given to him. Now since this example belongs to us, let each of us examine his own defects, that he may not be swelled with vain confidence. We cannot indeed make too large promises about the grace of God; but what is here reproved is the arrogant presumption of the flesh, for faith rather produces fear and anxiety. The cock will not crow. As presumption and rashness proceed from ignorance of ourselves, Peter is blamed for pretending to be a valiant soldier while he is beyond arrowshot; for he has not yet made trial of his strength, and imagines that he could do any thing. He was afterwards punished, as he deserved, for his arrogance. Let us learn to distrust our own strength, and to betake ourselves early to the Lord, that he may support us by his power. —John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVIII (Baker Books, 2009), Commentary on the Gospel according to John, 2:78–79.
Remember Lot’s wife. —Luke 17:32
It doesn’t seem fair. All Lot’s wife did was take one little look behind her. What’s the big deal?
That look was a little thing, but it told of proud unbelief in Lot’s wife. She seemed to doubt whether God was really going to destroy Sodom: she appeared not to believe there was any danger, or any need for such hasty flight. But without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). The moment a man begins to think he knows better than God, and that God does not mean anything when He threatens, his soul is in great danger. When we cannot see the reason of God’s dealings, our duty is to hold our peace and believe. —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 225.
Have you ever had an argument with your spouse (If you aren’t married, replace “spouse” with anyone else)? I don’t mean the good kind of argument, in which there is a free and civil exchange of opposing opinions. I mean the kind that devolves into irritation, anger, and possibly, unkind words. If you have—just admit it, you have—you know how difficult it can be to clean up the mess. And you know that the difficulty is not usually some external obstacle, but rather is an internal conflict with pride—yours, the other party’s, or quite likely, both.
I like it best, naturally, when I’m not at fault, when I’m able to restrain myself and behave decently when everything in me is urging me to release my passions and strike back. It’s still unpleasant, but at least my conscience is clear. Even then, though, it’s almost impossible not to feel some unexpressed outrage over the injustice I’ve been dealt. Then there is the pride that often accompanies the knowledge that I’ve controlled myself and been “good.” I don’t always feel that way, but too often, I do. And hidden sins are still sin.
The easiest conflicts to resolve are the ones in which I alone am at fault. Once I come to that conclusion, it’s a relatively simple matter to confess it and say, “I’m sorry.” I still hate it, but I can do it. I must do it, and I will not be happy until I do. I can resolve those conflicts, because it’s entirely in my hands to do so. And it’s difficult to go away proud.
The hardest conflicts to resolve are those in which I believe the fault is shared, especially if I didn’t start it (yes, that’s as juvenile as it sounds). Yes, I know I did wrong, but I (maybe) didn’t start it, and after all, I was provoked. I’m not the only one who owes an apology. I’m offended, too! So I sit and stew over it. Yes, I know I should confess, and yes, I even want to, but it’s not fair! What if I’m the only one who admits my fault? What if I don’t receive an apology in return? I’ve worked hard to avoid making phony “I’m sorry, but . . .” statements, and I don’t think I’ve done that in a very long time, but time and practice have done nothing to change how much it absolutely kills me. I want to say “but.” I want to explain myself, to mitigate my guilt. Yes, I was wrong, but it’s perfectly understandable, don’t you see? Alright, I’m sorry, but where is my justice?
It seems natural in those situations to think of myself as only half of the problem, bearing only fifty percent of the blame, but God doesn’t see it that way. He looks at me and what I have done independently from what anyone else has done. He didn’t see two people cooperating in a sin; he saw two people sinning independently against each other and against him. That leaves me with one hundred percent of my own guilt. It’s only when I see that, when I can separate my sin from another’s, that I feel its full weight. Only then will my pride be killed. Only then can there be sincere confession and genuine repentance. Only then can I take the full weight of my guilt to the cross, and leave it there.