There has been a certain amount of concern expressed over the lack of depth of conversions in recent years, particularly in North America. Statistics have shown that the moral climate among evangelical young people is almost no different than that among non-believers. And among evangelical churches, the rate of family break-ups has now surpassed that of the general population. Could it be that there has been a major ingredient missing in the preaching and teaching of the church? “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” James 4:6b). Could it be that this element, that grace only comes to the humble, is missing in our evangelism and discipleship? Are we a people who have built on a foundation of faith that is without grace because we have bypassed the truth that humility is essential to receiving grace?
If grace is given to the humble, and the scriptures enjoin humility, then there should be an emphasis on humility in the presentation of the Gospel. But is there? John Calvin stated that “humility is absolutely necessary in order to obtain forgiveness of sins.”[i] Yet there is, at least in North America, a conscious omission of repentance (which is logically an extension of humility) in many gospel presentations. For example, Dave Hunt, a popular writer in conservative circles, defended his decision to omit any reference to repentance in a gospel presentation. “Since the Bible doesn’t specify repentance as part of the gospel whereby sinners are saved, I dare not do so either.”[ii] And Charles Swindoll printed a booklet which included a presentation of the gospel with no reference to repentance or humbling of self before God.[iii]
It is possible that some go on the assumption that humility and repentance are understood as part of turning to Christ. It is also possible for repentance to be misunderstood. Augustine noted that there may be faulty notions of repentance, which can actually omit humility before God.
“For when Judas had said, “I have sinned, in that I have betrayed the innocent blood,” yet it was easier for him in despair to run and hang himself, than in humility to ask for pardon. And therefore it is of much consequence to know what sort of repentance God pardons. For many much more readily confess that they have sinned, and are so angry with themselves that they vehemently wish they had not sinned; but yet they do not condescend to humble the heart and to make it contrite, and to implore pardon.”[iv]
Another possibility could be that some fear an emphasis on repentance and humility could confuse the hearers. Wesley recognized that problem.
“As such thou shalt be brought unto the ‘blood of sprinkling’ as an undone, helpless, damned sinner. Thus ‘look unto Jesus’! There is ‘the Lamb of God, who taketh away thy sins’! Plead thou no works, no righteousness of thine own; no humility, contrition, sincerity! In no wise. That were, in very deed, to deny the Lord that bought thee. No. Plead thou singly the blood of the covenant, the ransom paid for thy proud, stubborn, sinful soul.”[v]
Wesley, in his care to keep from confusion, actually pointed to the proper humility for the penitent, in emphasizing the recognition that he has only one argument for his “proud, stubborn, sinful soul.”
But that is not the case in many modern gospel presentations. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to keep from offending sinners. Whatever the reasons, there is seemingly little emphasis on urging people to humble themselves to God when they are invited to respond to the gospel. Robert Schuller, for example, was overt in his criticism of anything negative in calling people to Christ. He suggested that the failure of Christian evangelism is that it causes people to feel badly about themselves.
“What is the basic flaw? I believe it is the failure to proclaim the gospel in a way that can satisfy every person’s deepest need—one’s spiritual hunger for glory. Rather than glorify God’s highest creation—the human being—Christian liturgies, hymns, prayers, and scriptural interpretations have often insensitively and destructively offended the dignity of the person.”[vi]
Schuller deliberately steered away from anything that would tend to humble or debase a person. (An example of an “insensitive” hymn could be Isaac Watts’ “At the Cross,” which refers to the sinner as “such a worm as I” and places himself humbly in contrast with “that sacred head.”)
Schuller was influenced in his thinking (and in his approach) by Norman Vincent Peale, who became influential not in small part because of his book The Power of Positive Thinking, which promoted inner change not by the traditional “acknowledge sin, repent, and believe” motif, but in a new way. “You may permit a fact to overwhelm you mentally before you start to deal with it actually. On the other hand, a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.”[vii] Repentance and humility were set aside in favor of positive thinking. “You can depend on it,” continued Peale, “an inflow of new thoughts will remake you and your life.”[viii]
Peale’s positivism, though popular, was not universally accepted. Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, was not taken with such a positivist approach.
“To profess a gospel of love without letting that gospel convict each one of us of sinful selfishness means merely that we suffer from the illusions that our actions have been brought into conformity with the ideal we profess, when in reality our ideal merely obscures the ethically indifferent character of our motives.”[ix]
Niebuhr’s concern for repentance of “sinful selfishness” was warranted, and his assessment that the church was going about things with a warped emphasis seems rather prescient in retrospect. “The basic difficulty of the church” he had written, “is that it is not facing the central moral problems of our era.”[x] The contrast between Niebuhr’s view of the basic difficulty (confronting sinful selfishness) and Schuller’s view of the basic problem (be careful not to offend the dignity of the person) can hardly be more vivid.
Although Schuller has been considered as suspect in certain ways among more conservative Christians, his ideas reflect an attitude that appears throughout much of evangelicalism, and it shows up in the general absence of preaching humility as responsibility of the sinner in response to the gospel call.
Since humility is a condition for reception of grace, its omission is serious. R. Duane Thompson said unequivocally, “[God] cannot save anyone who does not humbly make his way to the foot of His Son’s Cross. The radically erring and the slightly erring, if proud, forfeit the hope of heaven.”[xi] Some would argue that this is a great failure in American evangelization. If so, that goes a long way to explain what is wrong with evangelicals.
(The preceding is an excerpt, with some minor revisions, from the dissertation Toward a Definition of Humility, David A. Gordeuk, 2004.)
[i] John Calvin , Harmony of the Gospels Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke Vol. 2 trans. William Pringle [CD-ROM] Books for the Ages (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1997), 257.
[ii] Dave Hunt, “Q&A,” The Berean Call (January 2000): 4.
[iii] Charles R. Swindoll, Destiny: Choosing to Change the Course of Your Life, (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1982).
[iv] Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homolies on the Gospels, Philip Schaff, ed. The Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers vol. 6 [CD-ROM] Books for the Ages (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1996, 1997), 72-73.
[v] John Wesley, “Justification by Faith” Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds., John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 121
[vi] Robert Schuller, Self Esteem: The New Reformation (Waco: Word Books, 1982), 31.
[vii]Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York: Prentice Hall, 1952), 13.
[viii] Ibid., 217.
[ix] Reinhold Niebuhr, Essays in Applied Christianity (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), 71.
[x] Ibid., 69
[xi] R..Duane Thompson, James eds. Charles W. Carter, Ralph Earle, W. Ralph Thompson The Wesleyan Bible Commentary. vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 227.