The human heart inclines to all kinds of evil, and the flesh is a slippery beast. And as the Church has broadly acknowledged over the centuries, pride is the root of this inclination, the wriggling super-chameleon beneath all our schemes and sin. Pride can shove and take a fall. Pride can strike and be struck. Pride can stand tall and cower mournfully. Pride can switch sides, change alliances and strategies mid-stride, mid-stroke. Pride can turn on a dime. Pride drives a man to sin, and at a split second misstep, pride can slink into the confession of the same sin.
Part of the power of pride’s duplicity is in its parasitic nature: it latches on to genuinely good things, gifts from God, and pride so maneuvers and blends into the surroundings that we are deceived into believing that confessing certain forms of pride would be to confess virtues and gifts and truth. And so we let the tape worm grow for fear of poisoning the body. We refuse to remove the leech out of a blind love for arms and legs.
The sin of Judaizing was the sin of pride in the first century church all dressed up in a pious Jewish yamaka. It was pride disguised as theological and even political conservatism. Judaizers accepted Jesus as the Messiah, as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, but they refused to believe that this would mean the end of Israel as it had been for centuries. They refused to believe that this relativized the centrality of sabbaths and purification laws and circumcision. But beneath all of these pious sounding objections was the slithering serpent of pride, of the flesh that despised the free grace of God. And pride is the father of all sinful divisions, sectarianism, hatred, and even murder. It was the sin of the older brother in the parable, bitter that God was not a penny-pincher and only loved his sons for who they were and not for what they had done. But pride hates that because it means that there is no room for glorying in the flesh, no room for boasting in self, no room for pride. The grace of God is the poison of all pride; it vaporizes the flesh and rejects every parasitic pride. In fact, grace is, if nothing else at all, God’s great war on human pride. Pride is not merely the lonely outlier that finally falls to Grace’s conquering rule, pride is the throne of all human rebellion against God. Pride is the enemy. Pride is the Serpent. Pride is so insidious and treacherous because it is the heart of darkness, the slick tyrant on the throne of every sinful heart, and Jesus will not rest until the filthy dictator falls, until the sword of the Spirit strikes it’s head off and lifts up the corpse, dead for all to see. Pride is grace’s primary target.
And this is why Paul spoke and wrote and acted with such vehemence when addressing the Galatians and Peter and others caught up into the Judaizing heresy. The gospel was at stake because to proclaim a truce with grace is to neuter grace. To allow grace a mere share in the operations is only to deny grace. To leave room for any flesh, any boasting, any pride is to remain in the darkness, to remain opposed to the Light of grace.
All of this is good and true and wonderful, but I want to turn and look in another direction. I want to take a stroll down an important lane in the Kingdom. Now, do not think for a moment that because you have been transferred from the domain of darkness into the the Kingdom of the Son of God’s love that you are out of reach from the darkness, out of reach from the life-sucking deceptions of the Evil One. Yes, he cannot ever truly drag you back down into his kingdom, but this will not stop him from trying and in the meantime, he may use your flailing and hypocrisy to cause others to stumble, to cause others to doubt, and he may by your lack of vigilance and wisdom assure many others that it really is best to stay in the dark, to remain in the soft, familiar lair of the traditional, of the past, of the way we’ve always done things, where we can be reasonable and not so radical or liberal.
So you must remain vigilant, but you must also grow in wisdom. Wisdom is the child of the Fear of the Lord. Wisdom is the skill that grace teaches. But wisdom is perilous. Wisdom is the skill needed for walking in Christ, from the first faltering baby steps onward. But wisdom can just as easily be or be mistaken for that old demon pride. For who is it that has discovered this wonderful truth of Calvinism or infant baptism or postmillenialism or Christian education or six day creation? And of course it is “all grace,” but you don’t have to repeat that mantra but six or eight times before you’re starting to feel a small wave of warmth wash over you and all those other Christians who place their accents and punctuation marks in different places really are to be prayed for and pitied, and well, perhaps they are even doing damage to the Body of Christ, to the testimony of the Church. And one false step can quickly lead to the next and without any sign of an explicitly prideful, fleshly thought, there you are backing up and getting ready to plop back into the throne of the flesh all in the name of grace!
But there is another danger from the opposite direction and that is the danger of mistaking grace for pride, or better, mistaking wisdom for pride. True, godly wisdom is the fruit of rich, blood-bought grace. True, godly wisdom holds the gifts of God like a kid contemplates Christmas morning: exuberant joy, excitement, and gratitude. And this is my final point: God expects His people to grow up into maturity, into the mind of Christ. This must be firmly grounded on the Word of God and not allowed to wander from that foundation, but this wisdom and maturity must be led by the Spirit to apply that Word to specific moments and situations. And this wisdom must understand the significant distinction between the biblical principle which does not change and the concrete application which may. And what I mean is that while a man may come to the Lord and be plagued by pride in his family or in his church or the liturgy or particular doctrinal distinctives, the solution is not to abandon families, churches, liturgies, or doctrinal distinctives. The solution is to abandon pride. The solution is to exterminate the vermin, to exorcise the demons and plant the flag of gratitude in its place.
In other words, it certainly would be possible for a people to boast in themselves at their greatness in inventing this holiday called Christmas. It certainly is possible and most certainly occurs. But there is another way to celebrate that is, if you can imagine, actually more fierce, more militant, more determined. But it is not the determination of the human will, the militance of human flesh, or the fierceness of pride (which turns out to be rather flimsy in the end). Rather, it is the ferocity of grace, the militance of gratitude, the determination of the Spirit. And so, as wisdom takes it’s first feeble steps in the light, or even as the experienced believer walks casually down the street of the kingdom, it is possible to love Calvinism, to love one’s church, to love Christ-centered education, to love the gifts that Jesus has given you and to receive them for what they are, piles and piles of grace, and to exuberantly commend them to the saints. And though some may suspect that you’re drunk on the pale ale of pride and going down the path of the old tribalistic Judaizers, all you can do is shrug and smile and insist that if your heart is merry, it’s from the dark wine of the Spirit.