Written by: Ian Hamilton (Minister, Cambridge Presbyterian Church)
Of all the dangers that can overtake a Reformed church. pride is surely the worst and most serious. There is, of course, a right kind of pride, a thankfulness to God for our history or heritage. But the pride I am thinking of is that ugly, self-righteous, self-preening brute that says with the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (“We are not like other churches!”) Such self-regarding censoriousness, is particularly the preserve of the privileged and blessed. You see it often in the lives of the great and the good. Sadly, tragically, such pride can also be seen in the very circles where it ought never to be seen, in the circle of Christ’s disciples.
Of all people, Christians, and Reformed Christians in particular, have the least to be proud about. In rebuking some Christians in Corinth for their pride, Paul exclaimed, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” What have we indeed to boast about? Were we not “dead in trespasses and sins” when God in his grace sent his Son to save us? Were we not guilty, hell-deserving sinners, God’s very enemies, when he “commended his love towards us” and gave up the Lord Jesus Christ to die that sin bearing, wrath-quenching death of the cross to deliver us from a ruined eternity and bring us ultimately to glory?
Total depravity and unconditional election are not merely doctrines to confess, they are truths to humble us to the dust. And yet, how easily, only too easily, can we allow our vast gospel privileges and blessings to turn us into self-regarding, narrow-hearted men and women.
One incident in the Gospels illustrates the point. John saw a man driving out demons “in (Jesus’) name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38ff). Not one of us!! Jesus’ response was swift and categoric: “do not stop him…” The disciples had become narrow-hearted and exclusive. After all, they were Christ’s disciples, his hand-picked apostles. They were “the men.” And anyway, who was this stranger who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name? “He was not one of us,” of that much John and the others were sure. An exclusive spirit had overtaken the disciples; this man did not belong to their privileged group and so they told him to stop what he was doing. The man, however, was clearly doing a good work; he was fighting on the same side as John and the others. He was not in their little group, but he belonged to Jesus!
What are we to make of this incident? Bishop Ryle had this to say: “Here is a golden rule indeed, and one that human nature sorely needs, and has too often forgotten. Men of all branches of Christ’s Church are apt to think that no good can be done in the world, unless it is done by their own party and denomination. They are 50 narrow minded, that they cannot conceive the possibility of working on any other pattern but that which they follow.
They make an idol of their own peculiar ecclesiastical machinery, and can see no merit in any other.” Ryle is not saying, and I am not saying, that Christians should turn a blind eye to sin and evil in other Christians (though we have a marked propensity to see clearly in others what we are blind to in ourselves – at least so said our Saviour). But we must diligently guard our churches from becoming infected with a self-preening, self-regarding spirit, that imagines we are the people and wisdom will die with us (Job 12:1)! We must see beyond ourselves to all who are fighting the good fight of faith and warring against our great enemy, the devil. We must cultivate a brotherly spirit towards all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity and truth.
Of course there will be tensions and difficulties! We all have cherished and prized distinctives – all of us. And, I have no doubt that it is ten thousand times easier to preach this than to practice this, but practice this we must. What else is the Holy Spirit teaching us from this Gospel incident? The fundamental issue is not, ‘Is he one of us?’ but, ‘Is he one of Christ’s?’ If nothing else, such large-heartedness will help save us from self-preening censoriousness towards fellow blood-bought brothers and sisters. Our differences will no doubt remain, but the spirit in which we engage in our differences will honour our Saviour.