You ought to have friends who disagre with you regularly. For example, my buddy Morgan and I seem to agree about little when it comes to the hot-button theological issues of the day. He’s a progressive Methodist; I’m Reformed. Our rhetorical styles clash, and our forms of argumentation and analysis differ widely. And yet I still learn from our little sparring matches. In fact, often it’s precisely for that reason that I find his engagement so helpful. He helps keep me honest.
I bring up Morgan because one of the big themes he’s always preaching is the way Jesus frees us from our various attempts at religious self-justification. Within that theme, a regular trope he’s identified is the way some theological types will use their doctrine of God as a way of self-righteously posturing as particularly holy and faithful compared to everyone else.
With conservative Reformed types, somtimes we look at the world, see many reject the idea that God is a judge, or has wrath, or would command laws that go contrary to our cultural instincts, and then push back overaggressively to prove our own faithfulness. In other words:
You wanna know how faithful I am? Look at the God I preach. This God is big, HUGE!, sovereign, and full of judgment! His commands are his commands because they’re his commands, and there’s no way I’m gonna stop to explain them if you have a problem with that, because that would be cultural capitulation. And clearly, I’m not a capitulator. I’m one of the faithful as evidenced by the very hard-to-accept portrait of God I’ve just presented you.
If you squint closely, under all of our proclamations of a God who doesn’t just coddle us therapeutically, there is a self-justifying, chest-thumping motive at work.
Maybe you balk at this example and critique. I’ve written a number of times on the issues of God’s wrath, judgment, and so forth, and I don’t believe at bottom I was trying to impress anybody, or even justify my own heart, but to speak to an issue of real concern. What’s more, there is a healthy, biblical instinct to push back where you see truth being sidelined or abandoned, in order that the gospel might be properly proclaimed. All that said, I don’t think we (Reformed, especially) should be too quick to write off the possibility of this kind of rhetorical self-justification.
Let me put it this way: haven’t you seen the same at work in the progressives? Haven’t you seen those writers, or friends, or theologians going on about the “radical” nature of the God they proclaim? You know the type of rhetoric I’m talking about. They might be writing about grace or some sort of revisionism on a current social issue, and you’ll hear a string along the lines of:
You know what scares the “religious,” right? A God of grace. They can’t handle a God who bursts the confines of their petty little religious rules! But God is LOVE! And his love wins out over narrow-minded gatekeepers of religious orthodoxy. And if preaching about this God and his grace gets me in trouble with the “religious,” or the “Pharisees,” then so be it!
Conservatives like myself can look at that line of thinking and see more than a little chest-thumping going on when progressives pride themselves on how gracious, inclusive, and un-legalistic their God is. It’s courageous to proclaim the message of grace the way Jesus did despite the objections of the religious establishment. Wouldn’t you have fun placing yourself in the role of Jesus against the modern-day Pharisees?
So if you see how that sin can work in the self-justifying-God rhetoric of the left, isn’t there just a chance those of us on the more conservative end of things can fall prey to this too? Surely if you have a Reformed understanding of the power of indwelling sin, you can’t ignore this possibility, right?
What are the implications of this temptation, then? I can think of at least two. In the first place, if we’re being tempted to preach a view of God out of self-justifying pride or anxiety, our hearts are in danger. Pride in all its forms is a cancer to be rooted out ferociously. But none is so pernicious and lethal as spiritual pride that can hide behind the wall of righteous doctrine. Please don’t mishear me. I’m not an anti-doctrine guy. I blog about Calvin, study Bavinck’s Dogmatics every Saturday, and get depressed if I haven’t read theology for more than a day. And for this exact reason I know this pride is so dangerous and worth examining diligently to root it out. As Jonathan Edwards once wrote:
‘Tis by this [pride] that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he does not need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it. . . . He that thinks a clear light shines around him is not suspicious of an enemy lurking near him, unseen: and then being proud of their humility, that makes him least of all [aware] of himself in that particular being under the prevalence of pride. (Some Thoughts Concerning Revival)
Second, if this sort of theological self-justification is at work, it can have serious effects on how we proclaim the gospel. If your self-identity is caught up in the fact you proclaim a strong God who commands what he commands and so forth, in order to push back against the culture you may end up overcorrecting and teaching a distorted picture of God. The righteous God who judges sin becomes a fastidious, contemptuous God who barely stomachs sinners; meanwhile, the biblical testimony about his tender love can get sidelined. In our rush to proclaim God’s laws that often correct our cultural logic and don’t instinctively appeal to our fallen reason, we may skip over the reasons he actually does give in Scripture, or miss ways that biblical truth can appeal to certain common grace cultural instincts. This would be disastrous for our witness in the world.
I recently addressed the importance of properly proclaiming “Here is your God!” before moving to “Thus says the Lord.” In other words, for people to obey the commands of God they must know about the good character of the God who commands them. When self-justification is distorting our preaching, we can’t properly reveal this character. For those of us pastors, theologians, and church folk who care about keeping close watch on our “life and doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:16), let us constantly remind ourselves that proclaiming the God of the gospel flows from accepting the gospel for ourselves. We no longer have anything to prove. We’re justified in Christ and need of no self-justification—not even through our own preaching.