Prof. Gritters is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The beginning of faith is humility…
(Calvin, on Isaiah)
The whole humility of man consists in the knowledge of himself.
(Calvin, on the Psalms)
The grimmest evil in this sad world is the evil of pride. In the maelstrom of that root sin that thrashes families and marriages, divides churches, and separates very friends, God’s power is most evident when He graces His people with humility. If you believe that, you have reason to give serious consideration to what the Reformer said, “The beginning of faith is humility,” and then, “The whole humility of man consists in the knowledge of himself.”
Next to the knowledge of God—chief pursuit of a Christian—is the true knowledge of one’s self. When we know God aright, we can truly know ourselves. Truly, because our hearts are so cunning at self-deception (Jer. 17:9: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?), we must ever be on guard against supposing we are something that we are not.
The Reformation confession of man is the confession of depravity of his old man, his flesh. No theoretical confession about “man” is this confession. The Reformed believer confesses this of himself. I confess this about myself. You must of yourself. Every believer must. Even though he is a re-formed believer—he has been regenerated by the Spirit of God—he is able to confess this humbling reality of depravity: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18). Because he is a Reformed believer—one who confesses Reformational truth—he testifies with experiential conviction of his spiritual tradition: “I am evil, born in sin; thou desirest truth within” (Psalm 51 in the Psalter).
The Reformed Christian’s self-assessment of a grievous depravity takes nothing away from his confession of his faith in Christ and his new life through Christ’s Spirit. He confesses and is fully conscious of his shameful depravity right at the same time that he confesses and experiences regeneration.
The Reformed Christian’s self-assessment of corruption and unworthiness takes nothing away from his conviction that God loves him eternally, has adopted him in Jesus Christ, redeemed him by the blood of His Son, so that he is precious. It undermines nothing of the foundational truth that he has and experiences full justification and complete sanctification (I Thess. 5:23).
Indeed, not in spite of it, but exactly because he experiences the Spirit’s renewing work, does the believer also experience the corruption of his nature and flesh, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal. 5:16) in a painful and on-going battle. His two natures—his flesh, and the life of Christ in him—engage in an all-out, no-holds-barred fight-to-the-death. No non-Christian has this experience.
Our assessment of ourselves is, and must be: “I am evil, born in sin.” Renewing his mind in his Christian transformation (Rom. 12:2), the believer’s first duty is “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (v. 3). “With the lowly is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2).
Over against arrogant clerics in the church of their day, Calvin called on believers to confess that “oil might be extracted from a stone sooner than we could perform a good work” (Inst. III. xiv. 5), and that “sin exists within us as a disease fixed in our nature” (on Psalm 51). At the end of one of his lectures on the Minor Prophets, Calvin’s prayer confessed: “The depravity of our nature” (note: not their nature, BLG) is so great, that we cannot bear prosperity without some wantonness of the flesh… and without becoming even arrogant against Thee.” That he did not mean our nature in a theoretical way becomes clear from his confession that “there still remains in a regenerate man a fountain of evil, continually producing irregular desires” (Inst. III. iii. 10, 11). So evil is our nature that, “If God should discover our secret faults, there would be found in us an abyss of sins so great as to have neither bottom nor shore” (on Ps. 19:12). The Reformation restored this confession in the church.
Over against modern psychology’s promotion of a perverted “self-esteem,” and the modern reverend who advocates a “new Reformation” based on a high self-esteem, the Reformed believer must remember his precious Reformation inheritance.
Characteristically colorful and blunt, Luther reminds us to confess:
The original sin in a man is like his beard, which, though shaved off today so that a man is very smooth around his mouth, yet grows again by tomorrow morning. As long as a man lives, such growth of the hair and the beard does not stop. But when the shovel beats the ground on his grave, it stops. Just so original sin remains in us and bestirs itself as long as we live, but we must resist it and always cut off its hair.
And who can forget (or deny!) Luther’s description of our nature, as it found its way into the Formula of Concord: “The old Adam (is) an intractable, refractory ass”?
These descriptions of our present, sinful condition were codified in every Reformed creed, not because they were the opinion of influential men, but because Reformed churches (synods) themselves were convinced they were biblical.
In the Reformed Baptism Form, we confess that baptism always teaches us “to loathe and humble ourselves before God,” so that we may always “seek our salvation and purification without (outside of) ourselves.” The Reformed Lord’s Supper Form says that true examination of ourselves (the only proper way to partake of the supper, all our life long!) is that the believer “consider by himself his sins, to the end that he may abhor and humble himself before God.” This is no less blunt than father Luther. The same form has us “acknowledge that we lie in the midst of death … (and) feel many infirmities and miseries in ourselves, namely….” Then follows quite a list that may never become routine as we approach the holy table. The Belgic Confession teaches that original sin is a corruption of our whole nature, is like a hereditary disease, and is by no means abolished by baptism, for “sin always issues from this woeful source.” And “a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh.” Think of it: “often to sigh.” Dordt’s Canons (V.2): “Hence spring daily sins of infirmity … which furnish (believers) with constant matter for humiliation before God…” (you must read the rest of the article: Canons V.2). In the PRC, every 13-year old memorizes the confession “that God … will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21). And after a devastatingly clear explanation of the total depravity caused by the fall, Westminster’s Confession of Faith says, “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated…” (vi.5).
But not everyone likes this confession. I don’t. You don’t. Applied to others, I approve it, confess it, even sinfully relish it; applied to myself, I reject it. It is only God’s grace that keeps a church from changing her singing ofPsalm 51 to: “I was evil, born in sin,” as one church reportedly did. God’s grace alone maintains in a believer a confession of total depravity that does not hedge on the confession of it, as many forms of common-grace teaching hedge. My human nature is so disgusted with the need to admit, “without me (Christ) ye can do nothing,” that apart from God’s grace to give me that admission I will leave the church that preaches so, as one did shortly after I preached that text … because of that sermon.
Grace alone in a denomination will preserve this truth from becoming a dead letter. Grace alone will make those who confess this truth really confess it. Without pride. In a way that breaks them. Brings them to their knees. So that they do not despise others, but beat their breasts and beseech God, “Mercy to me!”
The frivolous but foolish attempts to undercut this confession, even attempts that masquerade as a desire to “give the poor man a little self-esteem,” will not help the believer. The fruit these attempts will produce is doubly rotten.
First, the believers will not live in humility as they ought. How ugly is the life, and brutally cruel, that consists of living with “holy blasphemers”—Luther’s description of those who would not remain “pious sinners.” How God-dishonoring are the people who do not strive with all their might to root out pride, the original sin. How self-destructive, for “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” How blind are we who have all our lives read that “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit” (Is. 66:2). “What doth the Lord require of thee … but to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8).
The self-assessment described above humbles, properly. It does not destroy; rather, it furnishes “constant matter for humiliation” (Canons V.2). What a lovely life, full of tearful delight, to live among a people who cannot and will not shrug off the sense of their own unworthiness, so that they may glory with you in the worthiness of Christ. How blessed to experience together that “though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly” (Ps. 138:6) and that “he forgetteth not the cry of the humble” (Ps. 9:12). Charity, the virtue that makes church life among sinners bearable and even joyful, “vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up” (I Cor. 13:4). Beautiful life! Enough to make one sing!
Second, allowing this painful but necessary confession to slip away will lead me from Christ, and from trust in Him. Denial of the real and full depravity of my nature enables me to bring my own gifts to God, for which He owes me. Denying that there is no good thing in my flesh makes me believe that my flesh can merit, and be the reason (at least part of it) that God approves me. Then, denying my natural inability, I will not trust fully in grace for success against sin’s power. Rather, I will suppose there is still some strength in me—in my will, my mind, my heart. Take heed, if you think you stand (I Cor. 10:12)!
But the confession of my real and full sinfulness does two things. First, as the Canons put it, it “furnishes … (me) with constant matter for… flying for refuge to Christ crucified….” Then, it furnishes me with constant matter “for mortifying the flesh more and more….” Understanding my nature, and its potential, I will always live “afar off” with the publican, pleading for mercy—is not that what “flying for refuge to Christ” is? Then I will always be wary of the “enemy within” with regard to temptation. Never letting down my guard, I will always need the prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Only such an assessment of myself leads me to esteem highly my Christ, in whom and through whom and for whom I live and die, happily. He loved me and gave Himself for me. He covers me with His own righteousness, so that God judges me according to Him … and not my sin. Glory! He even gives Himself to me, lives in me, makes me a new man. With Him dwelling in me, I can say, “In Christ I can do all things, who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
That’s not the whole story. But it’s a good start.
… to be concluded.