This interview took place during the 2016 Sovereign Grace Churches Pastors Conference where John Piper preached the message, “Put the Attorneys to Work: How to Give the Bible Functional Authority in Your Speech and Writing”. We have done our best to improve the audio quality, but some portions may remain difficult to hear. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Preach Well or Preach Usefully?
00:08C.J. Mahaney: Thanks for taking this time. We really appreciate it, buddy. In the book,The Christian Ministryby Charles Bridges — a book I know that you’re familiar with — in the section on preaching, Bridges draws from the diary of a pastor who is concerned about his heart prior to the preaching event. Here’s what this pastor wrote in his diary, “I have to observe in my mind a sinful anxiety to preach well, rather than a holy anxiety to preach usefully.” I just want to ask you, are you familiar with this sinful anxiety to preach well rather than a holy anxiety to preach usefully? If you are familiar with that prior to preaching, how do you address it?
John Piper: “Yes,” is the easy answer. I don’t think the new birth completely renovates the old heart. It introduces a new reality — a supernatural reality. The Holy Spirit moves in, a new nature is imparted we become creations in Christ. But the old man is ugly and real. I think I’ll be fighting him until I die. I think that’s what Paul meant when he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, I finished my course” (2 Timothy 4:7). You’re saying that right to the end: I’ve been running to the end, fighting to the end, I fully expect to be fighting pride until the end.
“What I pray for is miracles of self-forgetfulness.”
Keller is absolutely right that the best and humblest moments of our lives are not the moments when we think less of ourselves but when we think of ourselves less. So what I pray for is miracles of self-forgetfulness, because if you’re aware of yourself preaching and you don’t like it, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re already aware of yourself. You’re already think about how you’re performing. You’re cooked. You can say, “Stop being aware,” but that’s self-defeating.
That’s why I call it a miracle — to be self-forgetful in preaching is a gift. You can’t make it happen because the effort to make it happen is self-contradictory to being self-forgetful. So I pray. My own most-used strategy in the minutes or say the hour or half hour leading up to preaching is A.P.T.A.T.
My way of stating the problem is: The biggest challenge of living a Christian life is how you act in such a way that another is acting through you. How do you act in such a way that another is acting through you? Let him who serves or preaches, serve or preach in a strength that God supplies so that in everything God may get the glory (1 Peter 4:11). How do you do that? Right now as we are talking, I respond in such a way that it’s God responding through me. That’s the biggest challenge for all Christians I think. That’s when you need to walk by the spirit, live by the spirit, put to test the diseases of the body by the spirit. How do I kill you by the spirit? Pretend that you’re sin.
How do you murder sin by the spirit? Anyway, my answer to that question is A.P.T.A.T. That’s Packer’s answers as well in his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit. I sit there on the pew and I say,
I A, admit that I cannot do what needs to be done here. If it’s left to me I’ll be arrogant, I’ll be proud, I’ll be self-conscious, I’ll be thinking about how well I’m doing or bad I’m doing, and it’s hopeless. I admit I cannot do this; it has to be done for me.
P, I pray. I admit. I pray. I pray for liberty, I pray for self-forgetfulness, I pray for power, I pray for the use of the Holy Spirit, I pray for the gift of prophecy as I understand the gift of prophecy in preaching. I pray for love, I pray for humility, I pray for food, I pray for effectiveness, alternate prayers coming out of my head, APT.
T — This is where I think the rubber meets the road. This one is to trust a particular promise. Really trust a particular promise. I have some generic promises memorized that I fall back on. If I’d just read something in the Bible that morning that’s pointedly appropriate for that moment, I’ll trust that one. My fallback is Isiah 41:10, “Feel not frightened; be not dismayed for I am your God. I will help you.” I just imagine God right there on the front pew ten seconds before I’m about to stand up to preach, “I will help you — Trust me. Trust me. Do you trust me?” If you trust him, he comes through. He takes over and you become free in your preaching. It’s a wonderful experience to be free from yourself in preaching. You trust, T.
Then you A, act. My arms are waving, my voice is speaking, my brain is thinking, my heart is feeling — I’m acting. We did a whole conference called “Acting the Miracle” because if it’s happening, if God’s doing this by His power, I’m acting a miracle. I’m acting but he’s really acting. I’m acting but he’s speaking. That’s the other A
And then the T is when I’m done I thank him. Thank you. It wasn’t perfect, but I thank you for what you did. A.P.T.A.T. is my way of acknowledging the truth of that pastor and then fighting against it.
Mahaney: Excellent. Are you familiar with the temptation after you preach? A temptation or tendency to discouragement?
Piper: Both ways. If you think you’ve done well — if you nailed one sentence you were hoping to get right — you might think about one thing and feel good about it, and that’s a frightening moment. Unless it is pervasively thankful, which it isn’t perfectly or pervasively with me usually. It’s got a tinge of thankfulness in it, and I’m sure glad I got that one right. I hope they appreciated that kind of thing. I think there is as much tendency to pride afterwards as there is before.
So your strategy when you’re done is?
To preach to myself that if there was anything of eternal significance that happened there, God did it. God did it. I was a mouthpiece. That’s the way Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 3:6 — one planted, another watered, God gave the growth. So he plants as nothing, he waters as nothing but only God gives the growth. You preach biblical truths to yourself about calvinistic theology — like those people are dead. Don’t you love Ezekiel 37? “Preach to these bones.” I love it. “Preach to these bones” (Ezekiel 37:4). He was up there and he said, “You want me to preach to these bones?” You preach to yourself like that. If bones are going to live, God makes bones live; I don’t.
I mean the reason a lot of pride takes root is because our concept of what needs to happen is too small. In other words, you can grow a church without the Holy Spirit — a big church. Thousands and thousands of people without the Holy Spirit, just like you can make a boat go with a motor and not a sail. If you know that people are dead and you want them to live and you know that can only happen by the power of the Holy Spirit, then it really does put you in your place. I think Paul had such a profound sense of sin and a profound sense of helplessness for those who were listening and for himself.
He knew that if a seed is to come to life — I can plant, another can water — a miracle has to happen to make that seed live. If that’s decisive, that’s the only thing that matters to you. How could you boast? If other things matter to you like a big church, and a lot of Twitter followers, and a lot of money, then you can boast because you’re going to achieve those things. You can’t achieve new birth. It’s getting our goals off onto achievable things that makes pride possible. If your goal stays on impossible things that only God can do, then you won’t be as tempted.
If You Try to Be Clever, Jesus Won’t Look Majestic
11:19Okay. I could happily devote this entire time to preaching, but just one more question about preaching. What advice would you give to a young John Piper on preaching?
“You cannot show that you are clever and at the same time that Christ is majestic.”
I’m trying to remember him. James Denny did give the best advice to John Piper I think when he said, “You cannot show that you are clever and at the same time that Christ is majestic.” Therefore, the tendency to want to put things a certain way in order to sound literary or sharp or pithy or hip. That wasn’t my problem usually, but it is for a lot of guys. I didn’t have a television so I didn’t know how to do it, but I had my own temptations. If you make it your aim to sound a certain way you will sound that way and people will like it and they’ll come back, but Christ won’t be majestic. He won’t be cherished, he won’t be loved, he won’t be admired, because you’re just too distracting. That was really good advice, it didn’t solve our problems but it was very good advice. You can’t make Christ look majestic and make yourself look clever at the same time.
The Church Fails Without the Bible
13:14Excellent. You’ve addressed us this evening about honoring the authority of God’s Word. Giving God’s Word functional authority. You just wrote a book on God’s Word titledA Peculiar Glory, and to read the endorsements is to draw attention to the importance of the book. Some are saying this is today even your most important book, so given all that has been written on the Bible, why did you choose to devote your now to this theme?
There are several things — several streams — flowing into that decision. One is legacy and not knowing how much time I have left and trying to think what will keep the church and the mission and worship what it ought to be. The answer is that the only thing that will keep it is a Bible that’s available and believed as authoritative, true, and beautiful. If you pull the Bible out of the equation, the church will last for a little while, but then it will cease to be. When I think about missions, when I think about people groups around the world, if they have the Bible, they always have a chance of finding the truth.
“If you pull the Bible out of the equation, the church will last for a little while, but then it will cease to be.”
I mean you might look at them in one generation and say, “That’s the most whacko theology I’ve ever seen,” but if they have the whole book in front of them, God can raise up a Luther. He can raise up somebody that says, I don’t think that’s in here.” But if they don’t have this, what can they do? We’re just sitting ducks. That’s one piece.
So legacy was huge.
Legacy meaning, if I’m going to leave something behind which would be better: A book that tries to persuade people to go on trusting and looking at this or a book that convinces them that God is sovereign? I think this is more important. Even if a fourth of the people read the Bible that I hold up and become Arminians, because their children might see the truth about God’s sovereignty. If you take the Bible away and just have all this calvinistic deposit left, it gets blown away really quick without this. That’s what I mean by legacy. Another piece was feeling that I had seen something that I hadn’t seen defended except in Jonathan Edwards and John Owen, and therefore, not for our day in a long time.
Michael Reeves who was willing to cross the ocean to make some videos with us on this book he said, “I don’t think this kind of defense has happened since Owen.” Edwards had gripped me with the sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul” 2 Corinthians 4:4. I said, “That’s the key to everything,” as far as getting saved, as far as you knowing that the Bible is true. Those verses are all important. That’s a book that should be written. It was a burden. I felt I had seen something. And the third thing is apologetics is wonderful. It helped me at numerous points in my life. I’m so thankful for the Edward John Carnell types — that was my generation — and others along the way.
They’ve argued philosophically and historically for the credibility of this book and the worldview behind it. And at certain points in our lives, that’s exactly what we need to keep from being knocked over. Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world can’t read that kind of stuff — they never read it. They’re all supposed to be saved, and they’re all supposed to believe every word in this book, and they’re supposed to believe it with warranted belief — not a shot in the dark or leap off the cliff.
I hate Pascal’s wager, and I think that kind of argument is just deadly in the long term. “What have you got to lose? Believe the Bible.” You can’t believe that way. The very nature of faith is you can’t believe that way. You can walk on a path and not the other path that way, but you can’t believe. You can’t consider something beautiful you don’t think is beautiful.
My burden is for the village in Nigeria and all those people that will never read the historical, philosophical apologetics. The person who translates the Bible for them must believe they can look at this and know it is the Word of God. They can know, and it’s a warranted knowing. How so? That’s what I wrote the book to say.
Excellent. Okay so the sequel is titledReading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture. It’s the sequel coming out in April. What’s the point and purpose of that book? Why that book?
As I was doing the first one and arguing that the most fundamental way people have unflinching confidence in this book is because they see — with the eyes of the heart — true glory straining through the meaning of the text, it hit me. If that’s true, there’s a certain way to read this book that would help that happen and there’s a way to read this book that would hinder that from happening. Reading the Bible supernaturally means if we must see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God — if you see that with the eyes of the heart — that is supernatural (2 Corinthians 4:4). What kind of reading sees that? Three hundred pages to answer that question. We all know that reading is about the most natural thing you can do. What could be more natural than reading? You learn grammar with verbs and nouns and objects. There are prepositions and prepositional phrases and clauses and there’s logical structure and there are all kinds of natural brain-processed reading. The last part of the book is about the natural reading of the supernatural Bible.
“I want people to know how you can know the Bible is the Word of God.”
That’s what takes so many pages — that we are called upon to learn how to read when we’re three, or four, or five years old or later — and that is one of the most precious gifts our parents give us. We take that natural ability, and we do something as we read that causes this to be so compelling in it’s beauty — divine beauty — that when we’re done reading, we know we’ve read the Word of God. I want people to know how you can know the Bible is the Word of God, and then I want them, on the basis of that kind of knowing, to read the Bible in a certain way. This does not minimize scholarship, it just maximizes utter dependence on the Holy Spirit and ways of laying hold on him to penetrate to the glory.
I had the privilege and joy of reading the manuscript. I know of no other book quite like this book, so I want to encourage all of you to obtain this book, to devour it personally and to encourage church members to read this particular book. I’m not aware of another book quite like it? Are you aware of another book quite like it? Was there another book that inspired you?
I’ve seen some titles that are very similar to it recently, but I haven’t read them so that’s why I don’t know whether the content would be similar or not. I don’t know. In fact, I hope so. I mean I hope I’m not the only one. I think if I’m the only one saying these things it’s probably a problem.
One Must Have a Good Nose
22:46You’ve served us well with that book. You’re consistently saying you are a painfully slow reader. If that’s accurate, then how do you —
There’s no doubt about it.
Okay. How do you determine, besides Scripture then, what books to read? What counsel would you have for pastors about how to read consistently and wisely?
I’m so bad at answering that question. I don’t have a very good method. What have you read lately?
Apparently more than you.
That’s the point. One of my answers is people that I respect recommending books. I was standing one day in the library with one of my professors in Germany. And this is just a small library of the evangelical faculty at the University of Munich. It has maybe fifteen or twenty thousand volumes 00:23:52. And we’re standing there looking at these. The bibliothek downtown has four million volumes and that’s just liberal arts. I said, “How do you choose what to read? He said, Man muss eine gute nase haben. Somebody want to translate that? Man muss eine gute nase haben — one must have a good nose.
What he meant was, you don’t read unless you smell that it’s going to be good. I think for him, it meant a quick sniff like that a dog. He’s got eine gut nase — he’s got a good nose. No bones in there.
Here’s another answer. That’s answer number one. Answer number two is what’s burning in here [my heart] that needs some fuel? Right here in this point of my life the Bible feels big to me. I chose this sermon, I wrote these two books, I’m in Andy Stanley’s face because of how he handles the Bible. The Bible is real big to me right now.
And I saw that Mark Knoll wrote a volume on the Bible in early America. I like Mark. He’s a classmate of mine from Wheaton and probably the best historian alive in America today from a Christian angle, and I bought it. I’m eighty pages in. But really I bought it because I like to have Mark Knoll on my shelf. It looks good.
You do that too? Excellent.
Nobody comes to my study though. I bought it and when I started reading it I saw insights of how the Bible has been read, — from the Reformation into England and now I’m in Colonial America — how it functioned politically. It’s functioning and it’s misuses and abuses are so illuminating, I can only put it down. It’s heavy duty history — you know how he writes. That’s one, what’s going on in here that feels like it needs fuel.
Another one is I read for soul food, not intellectual soul food, but soul food. I’ve got in my phone right now Audible. So I pay fifteen bucks a month for Audible books. One of them right now I’m listening to —
I think it is! It’s just digital! At any rate, I’m listening to Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity because it’s half Bible. It’s half Bible. He makes a point and quotes Scripture. Makes a point, quotes Scripture. It’s catechetical. I don’t listen to it straight through I listen fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there because it’s so dense with the Bible. That’s pure soul food for me. He sees things. Puritans see things in the Bible nobody else sees. I need help. I’m a sheep, and I need pastors. Puritans are generally my pastors.
Last thing I would say is imaginative literature — fiction — has had over the years for me a salutary effect, I think, in quickening my awareness of human life, and nature, and all the things that make life amazing from a human standpoint. So, I’m generally listening on my phone here to some fiction. Wouldn’t you like to know what I’m listening to right now?
Absolutely. Given that high price you’re paying.
Right. I’m listening to Gulliver’s Travels.
Why? In all seriousness, why?
Because I’m a lit major and I never read it. Evidently it’s supposed to be good because it’s a classic and I want to know. I just finished Moby Dick. I’ve never read Moby Dick. Whoa.
What did you study then as a lit major?
This is an easy question to answer. I’ve skipped all the novels courses because they’re too long. Seriously, I couldn’t read it all. They give you a stack of eight or ten novels to read in a semester. There’s no way I can read . . . I can read maybe one novel in a semester, but eight? I never took these courses — ever. I took 17th century poetry. Little teeny sonnet.
That’s what I should have done.
It’s never too late. Except it costs a lot of money.
I can’t afford that.
No. Don’t do it. But seriously — this is mostly encouraging for slow readers, right?
Yes, that’s one of my desires.
Okay. The reason I’m a pastor instead of a teacher in university or college is because I get to take one short paragraph a week.
Yeah I know.
And you know why I’ve written so many books? Because I don’t read anything. Saves a lot of time. I have Audible, and I jog, and I brush my teeth. There’s more truth there than you know. When I’m getting done the truth will come out. “He tricked us. We always thought he was a scholar.”
He is a dope like C. J.
Worse! You read like crazy. Way more than I do and remember it.
No. I don’t retain. It’s discouraging. It’s been three years, has it not, since you transitioned from pastoral ministry?
The Thrill of Seeing Souls Saved
32:34What did you enjoy the most about pastoral ministry?
A story that somebody had professed faith. The moments where I felt the most gratified would be those moments when I heard that on Easter someone sitting in the balcony there was made to live — was alive. Or that when — his name goes right out of my mind now — but he used to sit right there in front of me in the balcony in the old sanctuary with his wife. He was an unbeliever. He told everybody I’m an unbeliever. I come here because she wants me to. And every time we’d have communion, I would say if you are not trusting Jesus just let the tray go by. And I look right at him — not condemningly just longingly — because I would say, “You know, between now and when the tray gets there, you can be a new person.”
I remember him just because it was so stunning. This is what gave me happiness: One day, I’m standing at the back, and they are coming down the balcony steps, and he stops and takes my hand and he says, “We need to talk.” I said, “Anytime anywhere.” I said how about here, Wednesday night? There are a lot of testimonies being given in the service, and I’ll meet with you after at 8:30. You can come listen to them if you want. So he sat through about ten testimonies of how people came to faith, and then I met him in my room afterwards and he said, “I think I want to believe.” At about 11:30 that night, the deal was closed.
I baptized him a few weeks later, and he dropped dead of a heart attack some months later. His wife has been so happy ever since. There aren’t a lot of those stories, not as many as I would like. Even to this day, if you ask me what gets me excited at Desiring God, it’s letters that people are coming to faith through sermons or Ask Pastor John or whatever.
And my second answer would be preaching, I lived to preach. It was a thrilling thing to announce the Word of God. I felt more alive in the pulpit than anywhere else. I worshiped God more, loved him more, enjoyed him more in the pulpit than anywhere else.
A close second — the worship leaders here will appreciate this. A close second would be the thirty or forty minutes before I preach because to me it was all one piece. What we are doing there in going hard after God in song and reading and what I did are seamless. That’s my view of preaching. My view of preaching was I get to continue that over the Bible. That’s all I want to do. I just want to continue that over the Bible. So my definition of preaching is expository exultation.
Yeah, great definition.
“In corporate worship God struck me down with hope. He struck me down with hope, and he did that with the gospel.”
I think I’m still married because of corporate worship. We would have periodic, real struggles — not communicating, hurting each other with our words, feeling hopeless that we could be happy. And I would go to church under those awful conditions, and I’m supposed to preach. And in those moments of singing his greatness, his mercy, the gospel I would genuinely be melted and I would feel hope. I would feel like, “What an idiot” that you’ve made that much of that. That’s what happened to me repeatedly in song. In corporate worship, God struck me down with hope. He struck me down. “You proud, arrogant, selfish jerk!” And he did that with the gospel. And then he picked me up, enabled me to preach and go home and press on. We’re quite happy today, by the way. These are good days.
Discouragement in Ministry
38:12Excellent. Yes, they are, and it brings me great joy. What responsibilities or tasks or pressures did you find most difficult in pastoral ministry or even discouraging?
“Even discouraging?” That reminds me of a song in the 60s.
I’d live for you,
I’d die for you,
I’d even climb the mountain high for you.
Is that ridiculous logic or what? That’s what you just said. I’d live, I’d die, I’d even climb the mountain high. I don’t think he meant to say that. It just sounded cute. Now I forgot what you just said you said. Oh, right, what was even discouraging.
There was a distinction between difficult and discouraging.
Discouragement is a given. That’s why I said what I said. It could even make you want to quit. Even make you suicidal.
Don’t talk to me. This is where I’m gifted: to respond to nonsense like that.
I would like to see it.
I care about you. I’m here to serve you. I’m the person interviewing. I’m modeling humility. You can’t do that.
Okay, yes. I’ll just say it in passing because it won’t help to linger over it. Probably the most discouraging things in ministry are family things. We have already said Noël and I had struggles. And when things are hard at home, everything’s almost impossible. If things are good at home, you can survive anything, right. That’s why home things, kid things, and wife things are the most deadly things in the ministry. If it’s sweet at home — if the kids are where they need to be spiritually, if the wife is happy — bring it on Satan. That’s so obvious it hardly needs to be said, but I resonate with anybody dealing with that.
“If things are good at home, you can survive anything.”
Winston Churchill, who perfected the art of the clever put-down, once described a political opponent as “a modest little man who has a good deal to be modest about.” The last part of his remark is an accurate description of me — though I can’t say I’m humble, I certainly have much to be humble about! My general ineptness is well known to all who have even a casual acquaintance with me, and that’s no exaggeration.
If you were to speak to any of my friends, they would confirm how I continually surprise them with fresh discoveries of my inadequacies. I even provide them a certain degree of entertainment, especially when it comes to the hands-on and the mechanical.
A while back, someone informed me that my car’s rear left tire — or was it the rear right? — was low on air. Now, in fact, I had no idea how to put air in a car tire. (Really). So I turned to a friend — a close friend, I’ll have you know — and asked for his help.
In such a moment, the godly and servant-hearted response from a friend would be to cheerfully answer, “Yes, let me help you.” Instead, my good friend exclaimed, “I cannot believe it. I cannot believe it! You don’t know how to put air in your tire?”
SEE ALSO: ...But Gives Grace to the Humble
On and on like this he went, until he faced me squarely and added, “You, my friend, are a moron.”
My friend was merely having fun at my expense, but the truth of the matter is that on a previous occasion I had actually tried, on my own, to put air in my car’s tire. As I knelt to place the air hose on the stem — or whatever that little dealy’s called where you attach the hose to the tire — the extremely loud noise that erupted was an intimidating PHHHHT! PHHHHHHT!
Then a loud ringing started: DING DING DING DING! I was suddenly consumed by an intense fear that my tire was only seconds from blowing up. It’s going to explode, I told myself, and you’re going to die. And at your funeral, all your friends — while wiping away tears in the midst of their mourning — will be shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “What an idiot!”
I’m convinced that the sum effect of my attempt that day was only to let out more air than I put in. And as I drove away from the station with a badly underinflated tire, I could almost hear the faint sound of the station attendant’s laughter following me home.
SEE ALSO: God Opposes the Proud
Against All Logic
Now you might assume that in a normal human being, such ineptness couldn’t possibly coexist with any significant measure of pride. Someone as unskilled as I am would, naturally, be humble, right? However, let me assure you beyond doubt that both incompetence and pride are very evident in my life. Let me illustrate with another story.
One day my daughter informed me that our car was making a strange noise, so I went out to investigate. She tried to prepare me, but in no way did I anticipate the violent shrieking that assaulted my ears upon starting the car. I immediately turned off the engine.
In such a moment, wisdom demands one course of action only: Get out of the car, walk back into the house, and call a trustworthy auto-repair service.
That would have been the appropriate and prudent response. Instead, I followed the arrogant male instinct, which requires at bare minimum that the male lift the hood and stare intently at the engine. After all, neighbors might be watching, and we want to at least give the appearance that we have some mechanical knowledge.
But given my personal history, what groundless self-assurance could possibly motivate me to lift the hood to examine my engine? The only thing I actually know how to do is check whether the container for window-washer fluid needs refilling! So I checked that — with great authority. (It was more than half full).
Then I shut the hood (also with great authority) and, proud fool that I am, got back into the car and turned the ignition once more — as if my having merely stared at the engine was sufficient to repair it; as if the broken parts were now calling to one another, “He’s seen us! Get back together, quick!”
Yet as I turned the key again, the same violent shriek issued forth.
Only at this point did I finally go back in the house to do what I should have done earlier: I telephoned the repair shop to notify them of my car’s condition — fully ready to pass along to them my firm conviction that the problem was not the window-washer fluid container.
Doesn’t pride have a strange way of ignoring reason altogether? The sad fact is that none of us are immune to the logic-defying, blinding effects of pride. Though it shows up in different forms and to differing degrees, it infects us all. The real issue here is not if pride exists in your heart; it’s where pride exists and how pride is being expressed in your life. Scripture shows us that pride is strongly and dangerously rooted in all our lives, far more than most of us care to admit or even think about.
In his essay, “Pride, Humility & God,” John Stott wrote the following: “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.”
In the previous column, we saw the promise of humility — the gracious support of God. But we must also be aware of the great perils of pride — not just occasionally or under certain circumstances, but at every stage and in every sphere. Throughout our time on this earth, and in every arena of our lives, you and I share a common greatest enemy: pride.
The First Sin
Pride has quite the history, one that precedes Adam and Eve.
Pride, it seems, was the very first sin. Isaiah 14 records the downfall of a king, but not a mere earthly ruler. This king is the embodiment of God-defying arrogance, but the language used here apparently references the rebellion and fall of Satan himself.
In Isaiah 14:13, the motivation behind Satan’s rebellion is exposed: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high.’” Led by the prideful Lucifer, powerful angelic creatures possessing beauty and glory far beyond our comprehension arrogantly desired recognition and status equal to God Himself. In response, God swiftly and severely judged them.
Pride not only appears to be the earliest sin, but it is at the core of all sin. “Pride,” John Stott writes again, “is more than the first of the seven deadly sins; it is itself the essence of all sin.”
Indeed, from God’s perspective, pride seems to be the most serious sin. From my study, I’m convinced there’s nothing God hates more than this. God righteously hates all sin, of course, but biblical evidence abounds for the conclusion that there’s no sin more offensive to Him than pride.
When His Word reveals those things “that the LORD hates” and “that are an abomination to him,” it’s the proud man’s “haughty eyes” that head up the list (Proverbs 6:16-17).
When the personified wisdom of God speaks out, these clear words are emphasized: “I hate pride and arrogance” (Proverbs 8:13, NIV).
And consider the divine perspective on pride revealed in Proverbs 16:5: “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.”
Stronger language for sin simply cannot be found in Scripture.
Contending with God
Why does God hate pride so passionately?
Here’s why: Pride is when sinful human beings aspire to the status and position of God and refuse to acknowledge their dependence upon Him.
Charles Bridges once noted how pride lifts up one’s heart against God and “contends for supremacy” with Him. That’s a keenly insightful and biblical definition of pride’s essence: contending for supremacy with God, and lifting up our hearts against Him.
For purposes of personal confession, I began adopting this definition of pride a few years ago after I came to realize that, to some degree, I’d grown unaffected by pride in my life. Though I was still confessing pride, I knew I wasn’t sufficiently convicted of it. So rather than just confessing to God that “I was proud in that situation” and appealing for His forgiveness, I learned to say instead, “Lord, in that moment, with that attitude and that action, I was contending for supremacy with You. That’s what it was all about. Forgive me.”
And rather than confessing to another person, “That statement was prideful on my part; will you please forgive me?” I began saying, “What I just did was contending for supremacy with God,” and only then asking for the person’s forgiveness. This practice increased a weight of conviction in my heart about the seriousness of this sin.
Pride takes innumerable forms but has only one end: self-glorification. That’s the motive and ultimate purpose of pride — to rob God of legitimate glory and to pursue self-glorification, contending for supremacy with Him. The proud person seeks to glorify himself and not God, thereby attempting in effect to deprive God of something only He is worthy to receive.
No wonder God opposes pride. No wonder He hates pride. Let that truth sink into your thinking.
God’s Active Opposition to Pride
Now let me ask you: What do you hate?
I’ll tell you what I hate. I’ve got two lists. One is a silly list that begins with foods that I sometimes think must be products of the Fall. I detest meat loaf. I loathe sauerkraut. And I hate cottage cheese. I even hate it when anyone eats cottage cheese in my presence; it ruins my appetite.
I also despise any and all professional sports teams from New York City — that’s simply part of my heritage, being born and raised in the Washington DC area.
But that’s just the beginning, a little sampling of my silly list of things I hate. I also have a serious list of things I hate. I’m sure you have one, too.
I hate abortion.
I hate child abuse.
I hate racism.
What do you hate?
You and I hate nothing to the degree that God hates pride. His hatred for pride is pure, and His hatred is holy.
In his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, John Calvin wrote, “God cannot bear with seeing his glory appropriated by the creature in even the smallest degree, so intolerable to him is the sacrilegious arrogance of those who, by praising themselves, obscure his glory as far as they can.”
And because God cannot bear with this arrogance, He reveals Himself in Scripture as actively opposed to pride.
“God opposes the proud, ” says James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5. “Opposes” in this statement is an active, present-tense verb, showing us that God’s opposition to pride is an immediate and constant activity. The proud will not indefinitely escape discipline.
We would do well to note pride’s peculiarly destructive power. In his Advice to Young Converts, Jonathan Edwards called pride “the worst viper that is in the heart” and “the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ.” He ranked pride as the most difficult sin to root out, and “the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts.”
Despite this thorough understanding of its ugliness, Edwards himself constantly battled his own pride (a fact which gives me hope, knowing I’m not alone in this struggle). “What a foolish, silly, miserable, blind, deceived poor worm am I, when pride works,” Edwards once wrote in his diary. In his sermons and in his vast writings he constantly warned against pride, especially spiritual pride, which he viewed as the greatest cause of the premature ending of the Great Awakening, the revival that had brought so much spiritual vitality to the church in Edwards’s day.
Pride also undermines unity and can ultimately divide a church. Show me a church where there’s division, where there’s quarreling, and I’ll show you a church where there’s pride.
Pride also brings down leaders. “Pride ruins pastors and churches more than any other thing,” Mike Renihan writes in his essay “A Pastor’s Pride and Joy” from Tabletalk. “It is more insidious in the church than radon in the home.” When you read about the next public figure to fall, remember Proverbs 16:18 — “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” That person’s situation might appear circumstantially complicated, but at root it’s not complicated: Pride goes before a fall.
God’s Merciful Warnings
The warnings from Scripture about pride could not be more serious and sobering. But they’re an expression of God’s mercy, intended for our good.
Don’t you think God is merciful to warn us in this way? He reveals this sin to our hearts and identifies its potential consequences. He is merciful, and He intends to protect us. So throughout His Word, God exposes pride as our greatest enemy.
By unmasking pride — as well as introducing us to humility, our greatest friend — God lays out for us the path to true greatness, a path that we see most clearly in our Savior’s life and death. We’ll begin walking that path together in the next column.
Excerpt from Humilityby C.J. Mahaney. Used with permission.
C.J. Mahaney leads Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church-planting ministry with a growing international family of churches. He also is the author of several books and a contributor to the Together for the Gospel blog. This column is adapted with permission from his book,Humility: True Greatness(Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, OR).