Watching Out For Spiritual Pride

Article by David Nelson

Both James and Paul, in their New Testament epistles, forwardly proclaim that knowledge alone doesn’t prove someone to be a genuine believer. James writes that a belief in the Trinity is the same belief held by demons (James 2:19). Paul writes that knowledge has a tendency to puff up someone rather than to build up others (1 Cor. 8:1).

Why does this matter?

Hope Community Church wrapped up its study on Reformed theology just over a month ago. As someone who adheres to such a theology, I can attest that there are many ways in which pride and narcissism creep into my own mind and life.

It’s in these moments that I must remind myself that the God of the universe is wholeheartedly opposed to pride. Furthermore, it’s important for us as a church to watch ourselves and our conduct if we hope to be grace-filled people as opposed to grace-less theologians.

How do we do this?

A Lesson On Knowledge

Paul follows up his statement on knowledge by plainly stating that, “those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” Paul says the issue isn’t gaining of knowledge, but the way that knowledge is used.

The purpose of knowledge, Paul goes on to say, is for the purpose of love. How does knowledge become used for love? Paul is addressing the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. He says there are church members who rightly understand that it’s OK to eat food sacrificed to idols because they know those idols do not actually exist. They recognize that those sacrifices were made to gods that do not exist and, therefore, the food isn’t impacted.

But, Paul remarks, there are new converts who used to worship those idols and cannot eat such food with a clean consciences. So, Paul says, it is important not to eat food sacrificed to idols around these new converts because it might lead them back into the idolatry from which they came.

What does food sacrificed to idols have to do with the doctrines of grace?

How Knowledge Puffs Up

The problem with knowledge in Corinth was the way people used it: selfishly. When they understood the food in the temples of idols was OK to eat, they went and ate without thinking about the repercussions of their actions. They didn’t think about the weak brothers and sisters who were watching them. They didn’t think how their actions would impact others. In short, these puffed up believers lacked love for their neighbor.

In the same way, there are many people who understand the doctrines of grace and use these doctrines without thinking. They use them to puff themselves up, they use them to demean others, they use them to feel secure about themselves, they use them without training others, they use them without worshipping God. They become self-centered in their approach to Scripture and spend more time meditating on how much they know, rather than how much they are known (1 Corinthians 8:3).

When proud people hear about total depravity and how humans are “dead in our trespasses and sins,” it suddenly becomes a twisted badge of honor for people and they “glory in their shame” (Eph. 2:1, Phil. 3:19). They almost seem to boast about, “Oh, I’m such a worse sinner than everyone else! No one is as depraved as I am! No one is as aware of their sinfulness as I am!”

Jonathan Edwards, in his treatise on The Religious Affections, addresses this awkward issue when he writes, “An eminent saint is not apt to think himself eminent in any thing; all his graces and experiences are ready to appear to him to be comparatively small; but especially his humility.”

The people who boast about their knowledge of God’s electing ways may not struggle with the issue of assurance as many do. Yet is a struggle that can be exacerbated by a harsh word, a struggle needed to be handled with pastoral care and love.

I have read through far too many comment threads online of people genuinely struggling with the electing love of God and being called “reprobate.”

Edwards, in another treatise on spiritual pride, writes that, “It has been the manner of spiritually proud persons to speak of almost everything they see in others in the most harsh, severe language.  It is frequent with them to say of others’ opinion, conduct, advice, coldness, silence, caution, moderation, prudence, etc. that they are from the devil or from hell.”

Of course we must call out heresy. Of course we must exercise church discipline. However, the doctrine we often boast in teaches that we are saved by grace from God, and that it is nothing of our own doing (Eph. 2:8). “Where, then, is boasting?” Paul asks, “It is excluded.” (Romans 3:27)

Moreover, the fruit of genuine faith leads to loving action, not perfect theology.  James remarks that faith isn’t dead on the basis of not understanding certain doctrines, but not caring for the the weak and weary. These actions, of course, are not done perfectly, but they are attempted with a sincere heart of faith.

How Love Builds Up

There are very few things more heartwarming than working through theology with someone struggling to understand it and watching the light bulb go off in that person’s head. You watch them exclaim, “Oh, I get it now!” There are very few things more wonderful than that.

What’s even better though? Watching that person worship God more fully because they understand something. They used to feel shame going before God after they sin until they understand they have a great high priest able to sympathize with their weakness. They used to be worried about walking away from God until they realized God completes the work He begins. This worship of God in truth is the aim of all theology.

Final Warning

With all that said, some might continue to use theology as a sword to cut, rather than like a surgeon’s knife to heal. I’m convinced there is no text as sobering in scripture than Matthew 7:21-23. In a few words, our Lord warns us that many people will come before Him on the day of judgment claiming to know Him, but prove themselves to be hypocrites.

What makes this worse is that the hypocrites in this story thought they were bringing glory to God in their life. They thought they were doing many works in Christ’s name, but they are only self-deceived. Does that not sound like many in Reformed circles today? Do we ever justify blatant sins with justifications pertaining to God’s glory?

A spiritually proud person can be rebuked for not being meek, but claim they don’t want to be someone who “shrinks back.”

A spiritually proud person can be rebuked for not being gentle and respond by saying that they are not cowards like other men.

A spiritually proud person can be rebuked for not being compassionate toward the weak and claim their time is better spent with “true followers of God.”

A spiritually proud person can be rebuked for not having humility and justify it by proclaiming they’re zealous for God’s glory.

The hypocrites in Matthew 7 did many things in Jesus’ name. They spoke about him, performed miracles, and did many other things in Jesus’ name, but their names are not written on His heart. He doesn’t know them and never did.

Hope For The Proud

Jesus weeps for people like this. He wept over proud Jerusalem and proclaimed, “How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (Matthew 23:37).

If those words do not stir our proud hearts to repent of pride, then perhaps the words of the prodigal father will: “Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).

God gives grace to humble people, so let us humble ourselves. Let us repent in dust and ashes. Let us consider how we have rebelled against so gracious a God and gleefully run into the arms of the One who brings us to Him (1 Peter 1:18). Let us lay aside the weight of pride and self-centeredness and consider the one who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

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