This message is a topical interlude in our exposition of the Gospel of John. It has been on my mind for a long time, and in recent weeks I have given versions of it to the Desiring God staff, the pastoral staff, and others. It is a message about the humility that defines a person who is transformed by the gospel of Jesus. It’s about gospel humility.
The reason I am talking about it is that I want to be humble and to see this church marked by humility. As a church, we are human, we are large, we are widely known, and we are sinners. That’s a very dangerous mix. It has almost all the ingredients that go into the recipe of pride.
Humility That God Sees
I know that the best and humblest person who has walked the earth was tortured to death because he was accused of blasphemous arrogance. “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him because . . . he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). So, I don’t expect his followers will ever be able to avoid the accusation of arrogance. If you are the humblest outspoken witness for Jesus as the only way to God, you will be accused of arrogance.
So, avoiding that is not my aim in this message. What I want to avoid is the reality of pride. I want there to be real humility in me, and in this staff, and these elders and this church — the kind of humility that God sees and that spiritually discerning people see, even if the world doesn’t see it.
One evidence of how crucial we feel this to be is that the pastoral staff small groups this coming year will be reading, and praying over and applying C.J. Mahaney’s book “Humility: True Greatness.” The five of us who lead those small groups agreed on this so that the quest to put to death our pride and all its ugly fruit would not be a passing interest with this sermon, but a yearlong focus for us — and then a lifelong passion.
My prayer is that as God works in us, there might be a kind of contagion that infects the church with this happy condition called humility. You certainly are welcome to join us in reading the book, but we are not expecting that the whole church will build your small groups the way we do — though we are praying that all our members move into small groups as the way to be known and cared for in this church.
Six Traits of Humility
So what I would like to do first is not start with a definition of humility, but with six passages of Scripture and a brief comment about each. I think what will come out of these texts is a sense of what humility is. Then, I will draw out some implications for us as a church. And close with the question, “Why is this so important?” and try to answer some objections that the world has to humility. First, then, six texts that open us up to what God means by humility.
1. Humility Gives God the Credit
“Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31)
My point here is that humility agrees and is glad that God gets all the credit for choosing us and calling us according to his purposes, not our merit. And he does this (verse 29) “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God,” but that (verse 31) “the one who boasts” might “boast in the Lord.” Humility agrees and is glad that God acts in a way to take the focus of all boasting away from man and put it on himself. Are you happy about that? Are you glad God does it that way? Humility is glad about that.
2. Humility Recognizes the Gifts of God
“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:6–7)
Humility agrees and is glad that everything we have is a free gift of God, and that this severs the root of boasting in our distinctives. Whatever talents, whatever intelligence, whatever skills, whatever gifts, whatever looks, whatever pedigree, whatever possessions, whatever wit, whatever influence you have, put away all pride because it is a gift, and put away all despair because it is a gift from God.
3. Humility Acknowledges God’s Providence
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:13–17)
Humility agrees and is glad that God governs the beating of our hearts and our safe arrival at every destination. If we get there, God got us there. And if we don’t get there, God willed that we do not get there. Humility gets down under this sovereign providence and nestles there gladly.
4. Humility Cherishes the Gospel
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:12–13)
One of the implications of this text is that our humble willingness to forgive others their offenses is rooted in God’s forgiveness of us through Jesus. In other words, Christian humility is rooted in the gospel. True humility is gospel humility. It is not just copying Jesus in his willingness to die for others; it is enabled by Jesus because he died for us. Humility is rooted in the gospel.
5. Humility Serves Others
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:3–8)
Humility serves. Humility gets down low and lifts others up. Humility looks to the needs of others and gives time and effort to help with those needs. Jesus took the form of a servant and humbled himself, even to the point of death. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Humility measures everything it does by whether it serves the good of other people. Am I feeding my ego or am I feeding the faith of others? Humility serves.
6. Humility Knows Greatness
“Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42–44)
Humility agrees and is glad that this servanthood is true greatness. Verses 43–44: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
Church Survival and Servanthood
So to sum up:
- Humility is glad that God gets all the credit for choosing us so that we boast only in him and not man.
- Humility happily admits that everything we have is a free gift from God so that we can’t boast in it.
- Humility is glad to affirm that God sovereignly governs our heartbeats and safe arrivals, or non-arrivals.
- The root of Christian humility is the gospel that Christ died for our sins. That’s how sinful I was. That’s how dependent I am.
- Humility gives itself away in serving everyone, rather than seeking to be served.
- And humility is glad to affirm that this service is true greatness.
If God would work this humility in us — Oh, how freely we would serve each other. One of the reasons I am praying and preaching toward humility is that the church survives and thrives by servanthood. Every member of Christ is gifted in some way to serve. In a church of 4,500 people, the army of servant-volunteers that make our ministry possible is hundreds and hundreds of people.
The All-Pervasive Effects of Humility
My point here is that without humility we won’t serve, or we will serve for the wrong reasons. It seems almost impossible to overstate how pervasive are the effects of humility in our lives. Listen to the way John Calvin describes the importance of humility in the words of his heroes:
“I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom: ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility,’ and still more with those of Augustine:
“As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery: so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.” (Institutes2.2.11)
Why is that? Why is humility so pervasive as to be the first, second, and third precept of Christianity? It is the work of God under everything that makes all other good things in Christianity possible. For example:
Faith. Would anyone depend on Christ as a needy, weak, and sinful person, if God hadn’t made him humble?
Worship. Would anyone earnestly make much of the worth of God, instead of craving to be made much of himself, if God hadn’t made him humble?
Obedience. Would anyone surrender his autonomy and submit obediently to the absolute authority of Scripture, if God had not made him humble?
Love. Would anyone seek the good of others at great cost to himself, if God hadn’t made him humble?
And on and on it goes. Every good thing in the Christian life grows in the soil of humility. Without humility, every virtue and every grace withers. That’s why Calvin said humility is first, second, and third in the Christian faith. And he could have said fourth, fifth, sixth, and more. It is pervasively effective.
Answering the World’s Objections
So in closing, and to give you a fuller flavor of what the humble life is like, let me try to answer briefly a few objections that the world may have to this emphasis on humility.
Objection 1: Humility makes a person gloomy, dismal, downcast, and unhappy.
Answer: No, gospel humility frees you from the need to posture and pose and calculate what others think, so that you are free to laugh at what is really funny with the biggest belly laugh. Proud people don’t really let themselves go in laughter. They don’t get red in the face and fall off chairs and twist their faces into the contortions of real, free laughter. Proud people need to keep their dignity. The humble are free to howl with laughter.
Objection 2: Humility makes you fearful and timid.
Answer: No, the world thinks that, because they think the best source of courage is self-confidence. It’s not. God-confidence is the best source of courage. And only humble people lean on God for confidence. “I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker” (Isaiah 51:12–13). In other words, fear of man is a sign of pride, not gospel humility.
Objection 3: Humility makes you passive and removes the driving motor of achievement.
Answer: No, the world thinks that because for them the driving motor of achievement is feeding the ego with accomplishments. But Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “By the grace of God I am what I am … I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
The power of God’s grace in the heart of the humble believer who depends utterly on God produces incredible energy and industry. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
The Paradox of Protestantism
The legacy of John Calvin in the Western world is one of absolute dependence on the sovereign grace of God and, because of that, the unleashing of a tidal wave of energy and creativity and industry and profoundly meaningful, culture-shaping labor to the glory of God.
Call it a paradox, if you wish, but it is biblical and historical. Deep, humble dependence on the sovereign grace of God has produced world-changing achievements. Thousands have said with the apostle Paul in Colossians 1:29, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
This is not ego-exalting pride; this is Jesus-exalting faith.
So the answer is no. Gospel humility, grace-based humility, Jesus-exalting humility does not make you gloomy, or timid, or passive. It makes you joyful, and courageous and industrious.
It makes you a servant — like Jesus. Only God can do it. And he does it through Jesus in the gospel. May he work this in us and unleash a tidal wave of service in our church and in the world.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.
A version of this article appeared on the desiringgod.org website.
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