By Jonathan Sam
In his book The Method of Grace in the Gospel Redemption, the English Puritan John Flavel notes that: “They that know God will be humble, Isa. 6:5. And they that know themselves cannot be proud, Rom. 7:9.”
This statement had been made in the course of John Flavel’s discourse on Christ’s humility as a pattern for God’s people to imitate and served as the explanation for his understanding that the “Ignorance of God, and of yourselves, gives rise and being to this sin [of pride]”. Put another way, the more we learn about God and ourselves through the study of God’s Word, the more we ought to recognise the greatness of God and our unworthiness before Him. It is only fitting that such growing understanding should lead us to greater humility.
Sadly, the converse is often true. I recall some years back when I had first become interested in the study of scripture. I listened to sermons, read books and commentaries, and became involved in Bible Study Fellowship. However, instead of growing in humility, I became a part of the many believers known as “cage-stage” Christians. Believers in this category are so named because they are, as the late R. C. Sproul put it, “so aggressive and impatient that they should be locked in a cage for a little while so that they can cool down and mature a little in the faith”.
Whenever someone had a slightly different understanding of something, I argued with them simply to prove them wrong. I looked up to only a few “select” preachers and dismissed others. I was smug, thinking I knew better and was not like that person from that particular church. At times, I even questioned whether any good could come out of a particular person or church.
In many ways, I was just like the Corinthian Christians, imagining myself spiritually mature when my very actions revealed that this could not be further from the truth. Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians applied directly to me: “for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:3-4).
Our recent studies in 1 Corinthians 1-3 have reminded me of several fundamental truths as to why my above-described behaviour was unbecoming of a follower of Jesus:
1. It is God alone who saves, and apart from the work of God no one may be saved;
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
2. It is God alone who grants understanding, and apart from the work of God no one may understand the things of God; and “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
3. It is God alone who matures His people, and apart from the work of God no one can grow in faith. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)
The sum of the above is that there is simply no room for pride to operate at all, much less the ironically christened “spiritual pride”. It is only by God’s grace that I commenced my walk with Him, and it is only by His grace that I shall continue in it unto completion. These are by no means new or unfamiliar truths, but how easy they are to forget in the heat of the moment!
1 Corinthians 1-3 were great reminders to me of the absurdity of petty pride amongst the people of God. All believers are but recipients of God’s grace, built on the same foundation which is Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11), belonging to God and receiving every spiritual blessing in Christ. As Paul reminded the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23,
“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.”
There is simply no reason that anyone should derive pride from his or her spiritual state, and I pray by God’s grace that the words of John Flavel will ring true in all our lives. May we grow in humility even as our knowledge of God increases, and when we do boast, let it be in the awesome power of God bringing dead sinners to life (1 Corinthians 1:31).