Thursday, November 11, 2010

Humility Always Precedes Conversion

Over the next few blogs I want to insert some material from a manuscript I am preparing for publication by P&R . It concerns the importance of humility for the Christian life. The first reason humility matters is that it is necessary for conversion.

God saves those who believe, not those who work. But the belief that saves always includes some level of humbling. However, millions confess Christianity whose faith accomplished little or no humbling. Millions attend church regularly that have never been humbled under the doctrine of sin. According to R. C. Sproul, over 75% of North American professing Christians don’t even believe in Original Sin. But true faith, the faith that saves, always humbles. If there is no humbling, it is unlikely that saving faith exists.

This insight began with Augustine (354-430). He suggested that humility is the soil from which all the virtues grow and pride the soil that produces the vices. Up until the Reformation this was generally accepted. John Calvin (1509-1564), who was a student and fan of Augustine, suggested a deeper analysis. Just as unbelief is the source of pride, faith is the beginning and source of humility. Think about it. Real heart-felt faith in the gospel always humbles. After all, it is a message about man in sin, under judgment, standing before an angry God who wants to be our friend. Our predicament is so bad that we cannot improve it with human effort. God is the only One that can solve our problem, and God commands us to respond not by “trying harder.” Rather, we are to abandon all confidence in human effort. We are to merely believe, repent, and live by unmerited favor. No matter how you slice it, this is humbling. By contrast, failure to believe says “I am good enough. Surely, if God exists he will accept me. After all, I am every bit as good as my neighbor.” These express arrogance.

In other words, biblical faith always initiates a humbling process. By contrast, unbelief leaves us in our arrogance. You can profess belief in an orthodox creed and lack this humbling faith. If the above is true, it stands to reason that God has designed the gospel to produce this faith, to humble men and women, to bring them face to face with their moral and spiritual bankruptcy and God’s gracious solution.

That is the contention of this book. I hope to convince you, and change the way you conduct ministry.

In order for this humbling to happen saving faith must assent to several vital truths. For example, I am justified by faith alone. Justification by faith alone implies that I am hopelessly lost, that my moral condition is so desperate that my best efforts will avail me nothing. I am a sinner and cannot save myself. I can only be saved by casting myself on God’s mercy. I find God’s favor by believing not working. This is a humbling message.

Saving faith also confesses that I am not smart enough to make my own rules for life. It agrees with the Bible about who God is, the sinfulness of sin, man’s nature, God’s sovereignty in creation, the nature of Jesus Christ, and a host of other issues. Saving faith confesses that Hell is real, that I am in deep trouble with God, and that I will end up in Hell unless I put my trust in Christ’s sinless life and substitutionary death. Saving faith confesses that Christ is Lord and decides to obey him. Each of these confessions makes us smaller and Christ larger.

Therefore, we should not be surprised at these texts. "You save a humble people” (Psalm 18:27). "The Lord…adorns the humble with salvation" (Psalm 149:4). "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). “Poverty of Spirit,” is a synonym for humility. Later Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). Becoming childlike implies simplicity, dependence, and above all humility. Each of these texts implies one thing: Humility is a precedent to conversion. If that is the case, our message should provoke a faith that humbles. To do this our gospel must begin with the Bad News and then progress to the Good News.

None of this should surprise us. If the great sin is pride, God must have designed the mechanics of conversion to produce its opposite—humility. Jonathan Edwards noted that humility “is a great and most essential thing in true religion.” Then he notes, “The whole frame of the gospel, and everything appertaining to the new covenant, and all God’s dispensations towards fallen man, are calculated to bring to pass this effect [humility] in the hearts of men. They that are destitute of this, have no true religion, whatever profession they may make, and how high soever their religious affections may be.”

The Pharisees were Jesus’ enemies. They resisted him at every turn. Why? They were proud, and their pride barred them from salvation. They refused to do what those that get saved do. They refused to humble themselves. With this in mind Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). For the Pharisee salvation meant renouncing confidence in their righteousness. It meant admitting that, despite their formidable self-discipline, they were “sick.” This they were unwilling to do.

The Pharisees were the neediest people in Israel. They were sinners under the wrath of God, hurtling head long towards final judgment, yet they refused to humble themselves and believe. Why? They were convinced of their goodness. They thought they could merit God’s favor. It is no different today. The default condition of every unbeliever is Pharisee to the core.

If this is true, we should seek to humble those to whom we communicate the gospel. In later chapters we will see that this is exactly what God has designed the gospel to do. We will also discuss ways to help those to whom we minster humble themselves so that they can be converted.


  1. if this is true, you, pastor bill, are not saved. you are one of the most arrogant people I have ever met.

  2. Son of Screwtape12/7/10, 5:15 AM

    My dear anonymous,

    While I admire your desire to inflict pain with the "arrogance" comment (it does feel so good, doesn't it), I warn you of trifling with a subject such as Bill Farley. We've been watching him for decades now and find him a difficult subject to divert. It is almost easier to derail the Edinburgh 5:55 to Glasgow Queen Street than it is Mr. Farley. TAKE CARE.

    Also contending a subject is the opposite of what he is intending to achieve in others (i.e., "you are not saved") does not help further our cause. Controversy spawns curiosity. You've now got more people reading his blog; people who don't have the strength of character we do to recognize this talk of humility and justification by faith for what it really is. Over time they'll come to believe what he's preaching. Then where will we be? We've already gone through one round of layoffs. It's tough for handsome, impudent fellows like ourselves to find jobs in times like these without you losing more subjects from our dominion.

    So tread lightly and take care lest you do more good than bad.

    Affectionately yours,
    Son of Screwtape

    P.S. Do continue to use the shield of anonymity. So many under my tutelage have dropped that shield (against my advice) only to find themselves "humbled and justified by grace." I shudder to think what the boss will do to me should I lose you!

  3. Dear Son of Screwtape and Anonymous,

    My congratulations, S of S, on a creative and enjoyable contribution. I just love it when Screwtape and Friends make such valid points in the service of their Enemy Above and to the consternation of further torture of their Father Below!

    Anonymous, would you have the courage to tell Mr. Farley to his face what you contend behind your cloak of anonymity and computer screen? Even more exacting of courage, would you be willing to listen to his response after you accused him of arrogance to his face?

  4. Bill, when you say that "Humility Precedes Conversion", and when you say "we should seek to humble those to whom we communicate the gospel", it sounds like you are proposing adding humility to the ordo salutis. Is this your intention?
    The gospel alone (with our need for salvation presented included first) is enough to humble those whom God has elected, so I get a little nervous when I read that "we should seek to humble...". I think it's just the choice of language here. I've been long convinced that the only person I should try to humble is myself, and that it is arrogance to try to humble others, something only God can do anyway. Unless by humbling others you mean simply to speak the truth of the Scripture to man's true condition. Am I just reacting to your word choice? I really appreciate every other part of you blog, especially that humility is a characteristic of true saving faith!

  5. Anne:
    Comment well taken. No, I do not want to add to the ordo salutis. I probably should restate the above. We are saved by faith plus nothing. But the content of the faith that saves should be humbling. That is the idea. The full gospel, which includes the bad news, humbles us and prepares us for the joy and privelege of God's gracious forgiveness.

  6. Trusting Christ to save is at the same time an act of faith and humility. It is an acknowledging of my helplessness and Christ's sufficiency. Real faith and true humility are inseparable.

    James 1:5-6 speaks of the generosity of God that is received by faith. James 4:6 really says the same thing another way when it says, "But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'"

    Is proud faith really faith at all? I don't mean faith mixed with pride, for we all have that. I mean "faith" that does not acknowledge (to some degree) our helpless estate and Christ's power to save.

    Isn't it a true statement to say that to grow in faith is to grow in humility and also the converse that to grow in humility is to grow in faith?