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Sinful Humility (Colossians 2:18-19)

February 11, 2010

When the Revivalist movement swept Canada and the United States, holiness and humility got a little extra face time.  And, as far as that goes, we’re fine with holiness and humility getting some props.  We certainly need to emphasize these things.  So long, that is, as we emphasize them Biblically.  And that brings up one of the glaring ironies of the Revivalist movement, still strongly promoted in some circles in our day.  Because the “holiness” and “humility” preached among the Revivalists is not true holiness or humility.  In fact, we might argue that they are sinful holiness, and sinful humility.

Revivalistic holiness is not Biblical holiness.  It is nothing more than moralism.  Moralism sets up a false standard.  Rather than preaching what is right and acceptable according to the standard of God’s Word, moralism preaches what is moral according to the times.  A false standard produces a false holiness, and false holiness is sinful holiness.  As we have discussed previously, we must presuppose the authority of God’s Word in defining our standards of righteousness and holiness.  “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.”  Paul warns us to “beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”

There might not be any one man who has been more guilty of preaching the rudiments of the world and the traditions of men than Charles Grandison Finney.  Finney absolutely denied the doctrine of original sin, preached that man was basically good, denied the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement, denied that Christ’s atonement paid for the sin of any man, denied that the new birth was supernatural, believed that Christ died for a purpose not for people, and preached that salvation is the result of men repudiating sin, continually repenting and staying clean, in order to keep in good standing with God.  In short, Finney based his theology on logic rather than on Scripture.  As a result, Finney developed standards of holiness based on moralistic values and the traditions of men, rather than presupposing the pure standard of God’s Word.  Finney preached a form of Christian perfectionism that exalted the self and relied on the flesh in order to obtain holiness.  This kind of holiness, the kind that is generated from the sinful flesh, can only be sinful.

But we like Finney.  And Finney wanted holiness.  We want holiness, so we like the holiness that Finney preached.  Do you want to defend the Finney standards?  Do you think that a wrong standard is better than no standard?  Or perhaps you would defend Finney by saying, “at least he preached holiness.”  Then perhaps you should consider this… So did the Pharisees.  Finney is not the first to develop his own standards of holiness.  The Pharisees, in fact, beat him to it by more than a millenium.  What do you think of the kind of holiness that the Pharisees indulged in?  Would you consider Pharisaical holiness to be true holiness?  Christ didn’t (Matthew 23:3).  To be sure, they were very tedious about keeping all of the traditions and laws that they had invented.  They were expert gnat-strainers.  They also excelled at heavy-burden-binding (Matthew 23:4).  But they were not so scrupulous about keeping God’s law, especially the weightier matters (Matthew 23:23) like judgment, mercy, and faith.  Their kind of holiness is very unholy, for it fails to observe the whole of God’s law.

The same can be said for the kind of humility — I believe our modern day apostles of revivalism call it “brokenness” — preached by the revivalists in the Finney tradition.  The humility they promote mirrors the kind of humility that Paul was speaking of in Colossians 2:18.  Granted, he was referring to Gnostic humility.  But false humility is false, whether Gnostic, Finneyistic, or perfectionistic.  In the case Paul describes in Colossians, they were worshipping angels, as if they could not go directly to the Lord but instead relied on an intermediate agency to bring their requests to God.  They promoted this kind of thing in the name of “humility.”  They believed that praying through angels made them more humble.  But their humility was not the result of a Scriptural understanding of God.  Rather, it was a “voluntary humility.”  The Greek word for “voluntary” is a participle form of the word thelos, which means “will” or “desire.”  It means to take delight in, to devote oneself to a thing, delighting in it.  The idea is that they were humble for the sake of being humble, because they delighted in humility, rather than because they were humbled by a proper view of God.  It was a gratuitious kind of humility, and they developed a fixation on humility itself as an end.  This kind of humility is sinful.  This kind of humility actually produces pride and makes a man more self-absorbed, because he becomes enamored with his own humility.  This is the kind of “brokenness” or humility promoted amongst the modern-day Finneyists.  This kind of humility strips a man of all actual humility, and instead vainly puffs him up by his own fleshly mind.

Paul said, “Let no man beguile you of your reward” in this sort of humility.  The phrase “beguile you of your reward” comes from a single Greek word, katabrabeuo.  The prefix kata means “against,” and brabueo means “to act as a judge or empire.”  A.T. Robertson tells us that the word brabeus is used for the judge at the games, and the word brabeion is used for the prize awarded to the victor.  The Gnostics warned these Colossian believers that if they did not humble themselves and seek the mediation of angels, that they would lose their reward.  But Paul warns the Colossians that if in fact they followed Gnostic teaching, the Righteous Judge would strip them of their prize.

Instead, they need to hold fast the Head, which is Christ (v. 10).  From the Head, all the body by joints and bands has nourishment ministered to it.  By the Head, the body being knit together (v. 2), increaseth with the increase of God.  Revival, holiness, and humility, contrary to what Charles Finney taught, are not natural results of human effort.  Rather, they are the result of God working in us, producing in us that vital life and communion that increases us with the increase of God.

Contrary to the Fundamentals of Revivalist Preaching, revival is never the result of meritorious power with God.  Obtaining new heights of holiness and new degrees of humility do not make us especially powerful with God.  I believe that Charles Spurgeon was addressing the perfectionism preached by Finney when he said, in his sermon “Power with God,”

when we speak of having power with God, we must not suppose that any man can have any meritorious power with God. It has been thought, by some people, that a man can attain to a certain degree of merit, and that, then, he will receive heaven’s blessings; — if he offers a certain number of prayers, if he does this, or feels that, or suffers the other, then he will stand in high favor with God. Many are living under this delusion; and, in their way, are trying to get power with God by what they are, or do, or suffer. They think they would get power with God if they were to feel sin more, or if they were to weep more, or if they were to repent more. It is always something that they are to do, or something they are to produce in themselves, which they are to bring before God, so that, when he sees it, he will say, “Now I will have mercy upon you, and grant you the blessing you crave.” O dear friends, all this is contrary to the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ! There is far more power with God in the humble acknowledgment of sinfulness than in a boastful claim of cleanliness, — much more power in pleading that grace will forgive than in asking that justice should reward; because, when we plead our emptiness and sin, we plead the truth; but when we talk about our goodness and meritorious doings, we plead a lie; and lies can never have any power in the presence of the God of truth. O brethren and sisters, let us for ever shake off from us, as we would shake a viper from our hand, all idea that, by any goodness of ours, which even the Spirit of God might work in us, we should be able to deserve anything at God’s hands, and to claim as right anything from the justice of our Maker! [1]

He went on to point out the pride of those who think themselves to have obtained a higher sanctification…

Have you ever tried to go to God as a fully-sanctified man? I did so once; I had heard some of the “perfect” brethren, who are travelling to heaven by the “high level” railway, and I thought I would try their plan of praying. I went before the Lord as a consecrated and sanctified man. I knocked at the gate; I had been accustomed to gain admittance the first time I knocked; but, this time, I did not. I knocked again, and kept on knocking, though I did not feel quite easy in my conscience about what I was doing. At last, I clamoured loudly to be let in; and when they asked me who I was, I replied that I was a perfectly-consecrated and fully sanctified man; but they said that they did not know me! The fact was, they had never seen me in that character before. At last, when I felt that I must get in, and must have a hearing, I knocked again; and when the keeper of the gate asked, “Who is there?” I answered, “I am Charles Spurgeon, a poor sinner, who has no sanctification or perfection of his own to talk about, but who is trusting alone to Jesus Christ, the sinners’ Savior.” The gatekeeper said, “Oh, it is you, is it? Come in; we know you well enough, we have known you these many years, and then I went in directly. I believe that is the best way of praying, and the way to win the day. It is when you have got on your fine feathers and top-knots that the Lord will not know you; when you have taken them all off, and gone to him, as you went at the first, then you can say to him, —

“Once a sinner near despair
Sought thy mercy-seat by prayer;
Mercy heard, and set him free,
Lord, that mercy came to me;” —

“and I am that poor publican, who dared not lift so much as his eyes towards heaven, but smote upon his breast, and cried, ’God be merciful to me a sinner,’ and he went home to his house justified rather than the brother over there, who talked so proudly about the higher life, but who went home without a blessing. “Yes, my brother, you are strong when you are weak, and you are perfect when you know that you are imperfect, and you are nearest to heaven when you think you are farthest off. The less you esteem yourself, the higher is God’s esteem of you. [1]


[1]Spurgeon, Charles H.: Spurgeon’s Sermons: Volume 52. electronic ed. Albany, OR : Ages Software, 1998 (Logos Library System; Spurgeon’s Sermons 52)

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  1. February 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    What I’ve heard is that “you have to really want it.” You’re obviously not humble enough or you would have it. And then if you did have it, you would see explosive growth. You don’t see explosive growth, so you don’t have it, and that’s because you don’t want it enough. If you were desperate enough, you could get it, but you’re too proud for that kind of desperation. I speak as a fool.

  2. February 12, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Finney was humble enough, and he was just the sort of man to say so. He was humble enough to see that his new measures were working, and he was humble enough to tell his detractors to buzz off, and don’t bother bringing up what the Bible says either. That would, no doubt, be prideful, to be quoting the Bible and stuff. Finney was always humble enough to tell everybody else that whenever their methods worked as well as his, then and only then would he think about maybe listening to them. Never a more arrogant humility to be found.

  3. Bobby
    February 13, 2010 at 11:59 am

    I used to think I just hadn’t paid the price. Then I remembered that “Jesus paid it all.” 2 Peter 1:2,3

  4. March 2, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    What does Matthew 23:3 mean, especially when it comes to refuting legalism and false piety? On one hand it says “observe and do”, then Jesus says “do not ye after their works.” Does that mean we observe their preaching/standards, but not live their example? I admit this verse has confused me a bit.

  5. Joshua
    July 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    If God has given to us eternal life, why should we not enter into, and take possession of it? The gift is absolute; our eIder brother, the Lord Jesus Christ, has it in possession, and holds it as a trustee, or surety, or guardian, and invites and continually urges us to accept it. And why, with such an inheritance as this, should we go about like swine, and wallow in the filth of sin, instead of at once entering upon our inheritance, and taking hold of the fulness of gospel salvation? Take hold, at once. Christ, your eIder brother, has in possession, this eternal life. Believe in Him–believe now, at once, without any preparatory process whatever. Believe the record “that God hath given to us, eternal life, and this life is in his Son,” and you shall now enter into the rest of faith.

    “Let it be remembered, understood, realized and felt by every one of you, that this bequest is made. The testator has died and sealed it with his blood. The infinite treasure–the pearl of great price lies before you, waiting for your acceptance. Take it–receive it–hold fast to it by faith.” (Charles Finney)

    Considering Christ told us to be perfect as He is perfect, and considering He told us to be holy, to disagree with this statement means you have not truly found Christ. Seek Him while He may be found!

  6. Les Barrett
    January 14, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Thanks for this work! It truly reinforces the concept that our salvation is through faith in the finished work of our Lord on the cross; God is looking for our hearts to change to please Him, but we get caught up trying to impress people, thinking that we can earn His love better than others who don’t “match” our works!

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