Edward Griffin, 1770-1837
"But the tax-collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to Heaven, but beat his breast and said: God, have mercy on me, a sinner!" Luke 18:13
This is a precise description of that approach to the throne of mercy which God approves. Our Savior, whose discourses were always replete with meaning, cast more light on the Christian temper in this single sentence — than is sometimes done in volumes. Not a clause nor a word but is full of significance — every attitude and motion of this humble penitent has a language full of expression. The effect of the whole, is to place before our eyes a perfect specimen of the spirit and demeanor of a praying saint.
Through the whole of His ministry our Savior had to contend with the disgusting pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisees, who were inflated with ideas of their own unrivaled holiness. In the parable before us, He introduces one of that order in company with a wretched tax-collector — one of those Roman tax gatherers who were reputed by the Jews, and not without reason, to be among the most oppressive and profligate of men.
They both went up to the temple to pray. To pray? What has the Pharisee to do with prayer? He has not a sin to confess, not a favor to ask, not a mercy to acknowledge. What then is his business in the temple? It is to trumpet forth his own wonderful sanctity, and to betray his haughty contempt for the rest of mankind. "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." Thus began and thus ended this singular prayer.
It was far different with the tax-collector. He had no good works to plead. He had been a great sinner, and he was now made sensible of it. His eyes were opened to see the solemn majesty and purity of that God in whose presence he stood. He had awoke in a new world, and was astonished to see the number and aggravations of his sins, and the authority and holiness of the great and dreadful God whom he had offended.
These objects appeared, as they will appear to every newly enlightened sinner, so plain and so near that he wondered where his reason had slept, that he had never seen them before. Overwhelmed with shame and awe, he did not press forward to the wall of the inner temple, but stood afar off, as unworthy to approach where others were accustomed to pray. How unlike was this, to the multitude who rush with airy minds into the house of God, and there rise to pray with all the ease and assurance of men transacting their ordinary business. How unlike was this, to those who betray greater anxiety to pray in an eloquent manner, than to offer the prayers of the destitute — whose language, tones, and gestures bespeak greater study to shine before men than to be abased before God.
In the modesty of his self-abasement, he "would not lift up so much as his eyes unto Heaven" He made no demands on justice, but only sought for mercy. Nor did he present himself for mercy as a reformed sinner, nor as a penitent sinner, nor even as a praying sinner — but as a mere naked sinner, stripped of every rag of righteousness. With a single gesture strongly expressive of self-abhorrence, he "beat his breast and said: God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
A sound more pleasing to the ears of God never proceeded from polluted lips. "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other." Our Savior intended to make a distinct impression, that the vilest sinner, if penitent, is readily forgiven, and is far more dear to God than the bigot whose scrupulous strictness and zeal, as great as they may be, are only the gilding of his own righteousness.
The peculiar charm which surrounds this interesting character, is humility. The spirit which this parable represents as essential to the Christian character, is a humble spirit. By the emphasis laid on humility in this account, it appears that this is the grace which chiefly distinguishes the children of God, and that those in whom it does not prevail, whatever may be their pretensions, cannot be Christians. In the person of this tax-collector, our Savior evidently intended to show us at one view, the distinguishing nature of His religion — the whole of His religion in miniature. I am therefore authorized to deduce from the text this doctrine, that humility is an essential property of true religion. In pursuing this subject I shall:
I. Illustrate the doctrine.
II. Offer some reasons for the great lack of this grace in the religion of professors.
III. Exhibit some motives to humility.
I. I shall ILLUSTRATE the doctrine.
Humility, though it is called a grace, is not a distinct exercise, like repentance, faith, and love. It is rather a state of mind resulting from all the graces, and from right views of divine truth in general. Humility is a low but just opinion of ourselves as creatures and sinners, arising from correct views of divine things, and from proper feelings towards God, His government, and Gospel. It is the opposite of pride, and therefore is never desirous of vainglory. Humility is the opposite of self-will and the proud desire of independence — and therefore cheerfully yields the government of the world to God.
Humility is patient under trials and provocations, and regards all men with the meekness of Christian charity. It is unlike that unnecessary degradation of ourselves which in Scripture is called "voluntary humility," and that morbid despondency which undervalues the talents and graces which God has given us.
From this account, it is evident that humility is an essential accompaniment of true religion. It is the necessary effect of right views of God, of ourselves, and of divine things in general. If our religious views do not produce humility — they they are essentially defective. Every divine truth is calculated to humble the soul. The Gospel stains the pride of human glory, and lays men low before their Maker. God has so constructed His plan of grace "that no flesh should glory in his presence," that he who glories should "glory in the Lord."
In like manner, what we call our graces, if they do not humble us, are radically defective. Every Christian grace in its very nature is humble.
Humility then is the scale by which the degree of our religion may be known. Men do indeed inherit from nature different degrees of pride — and some require more religion than others to keep them humble. But other things being equal — our piety is exactly in proportion to our humility. There are those who, while they possess a great deal of religion, have very little of the right kind; as appears from their lack of humility. Their imaginations are sprightly, their animal feelings are warm, and they talk vehemently of religion and of the love of God burning in the heart. What they say is truth, and truth forcibly expressed; yet there is something lacking in their language which renders it unsatisfactory to the humble.
People of such a warm temperament may contemplate the death of Christ with many tears, and with as little humility as would attend the reading of any other tragedy; because they view the subject superficially. Did they contemplate the death of Christ in all its relations to other truths, they would draw from it abundant reasons for humility. They would see in it the majesty and justice of God, the condemnation of sin, their own ill deserts, and how much was necessary to be done to save them from eternal death.
But their views being superficial, their minds are ardent and tender, but not humble. And when they talk of the death of Christ, they address nothing in others but carnal feelings; and though they may be vehement and eloquent, and make their hearers weep, they never make them humble.
There are two very different kinds of religion even among men generally reputed as orthodox.
One is connected with enlarged spiritual knowledge, with solemn, reverential views of God, with a deep sense of the ruin and dependence of human nature, and of the danger of self-deception. It is judicious, deep, and cautious. It is retired, modest, unpresuming, and scarcely lifts so much as an eye to Heaven.
The other kind is more ignorant, superficial, and showy. It consists chiefly in carnal feelings and flights of imagination. It is vehement, brilliant, and rash. It has little self-distrust, because it has little knowledge. If it prays, its breath is ardent and its manner may be popular — but the humble always feel that something is lacking. If it talks of religion, the very truth in its mouth is chilling, and shines and glares without heat. It is always on wing, displaying its splendid plumes — but never creeps silently along in the valley of humility. It evidently appears more studious to shine — than to be abased.
Such a religion, though it may attract the eyes of men and cover its possessors with glory — will never do any good, but will do incalculable mischief. It will never convert or save a soul, but will gradually introduce a fashion in religion, which, if not checked, may lead to a general apostasy as great as that of Rome.
Humble religion has unspeakably the greatest power over the consciences of men. When you are in company with humble Christians, and mark their self-distrust and reverence for God, you feel that religion is a sacred thing, widely different from the spirit of the world, and you tremble at the danger of self-deception. Sins which appeared trivial before, now appear great. You are filled with a solemn concern to examine the foundation of your hope, and begin to pant with unusual desires after growth in grace.
But when you return to the company of superficial Christians, your conscience is relieved, your self-distrust vanishes, and almost anything passes current for religion.
It is not a fiery, splendid religion which God approves — but one that is deep, humble, and still. He loves the man who trembles, not indeed under morbid constitutional glooms, but at His word; who, with a calm and heavenly mind, lies abased before the majesty and purity of the infinite God.
A pompous, radiant religion is the most attractive to men — but a broken-heart is the most pleasing to God. The kingdom of God is widely different in its principles from the world. To be great in the eyes of men, is to mount a showy height. To be great in the eyes of God, is to lie low in the dust. The more the Spirit of God moves upon the mind — the more humble men will be. The the more the spirit of the world swells in their heart — the more they will affect those properties of religion which have the most luster.
Let us beware. The best men have pride enough without the aid of a proud religion. With all the influence which a humble religion can yield, they find enough to struggle with in their own hearts; but when religion itself becomes proud, what is there left to check the pride of man?
II. I shall offer some REASONS for the great lack of humility in the religion of professors.
I am not about formally to account for the pride of man — no reason can be given for this, but his selfishness. I am not about to assign general reasons for the remaining pride of Christians — the single reason is that they have not sufficient holiness. My object is to offer some reasons for the great lack of humility in the religion of professors.
1. The most obvious reason is the lack of spiritual knowledge. All divine truth is humbling — and, as far as it is understood and applied, produces solid and humble piety. But a contentment with superficial views is calculated to nourish a mere carnal religion, replete with passion and pride. For lack of a deep knowledge of God — men fail to be awed by His adorable majesty. For lack of a more thorough knowledge of themselves — they see not the grounds of self-distrust. For lack of a more distinct knowledge of the nature of religion — they neither perceive how difficult it is to be Christians, nor discriminate between the motions of animal nature and sanctified affections. Having little dread of the wood, hay, and stubble of natural passions — they are contented with a religion which has no power to humble the soul. Their religion is passionate and fiery — in proportion to their ignorance.
It has been often remarked that the passions of men are most easily excited in the first ages of society, when knowledge is extremely limited. And I have often observed that Christians whose knowledge does not transcend the first principles of religion, are more easily thrown into religious commotions than Christians of more deep and substantial attainments. Their superficial knowledge of the interesting subjects of the Gospel, supplies them with abundant themes for warm and passionate talk and popular declamation; and in this way they delight to give vent to their ardent feelings. Thus the same ignorance which is the nurse of pride — promotes a passionate religion which leaves pride unhumbled.
2. Another reason is, that carnal religion, which is always proud, is more congenial with human nature than the humble religion of Christ. Men are more pleased to have their natural feelings excited — than to be convicted of sin by clear views of a holy God. They would rather hear a sweet, melting tale — than a pungent, soul-humbling sermon. The excitement of their natural passions does not disturb the serenity with which they pursue the world. Carnal religion is therefore far more natural and pleasing to men — than the soul-abasing religion of the Gospel. No wonder then that so much of it prevails, even in minds imbued with a better principle.
3. A total lack of genuine piety is doubtless the reason in many cases of the prevalence of a proud religion. Men whose natural pride and selfishness are not reduced by the power of God — wish to take the world along with them to Heaven. They wish to have a religion which will not disgust worldly men, nor disturb their own worldly minds. They seek a religion that will shed a luster around them, while it accords in so many respects with the natural feelings of men as to excite no disgust. Precisely such a religion is that of the imagination and passions. This therefore is the religion which they choose. This they can wear without any mortification to their pride. It even gratifies pride by the luster which it sheds around them.
But the meek, unassuming, retired religion of the tax-collector, which has little value in the eyes of men — this they do not choose. It would be an intolerable cross to their pride. It requires great self-denial for a man who is able to attract attention by the brilliancy of his religion — to descend to the noiseless tenor of Christian humility.
4. In some parts of the Church I doubt not that this evil is promoted by the manner of preaching. Instead of wholesome and humbling doctrines — addresses to the imagination and passions are so often made, and so elegantly wrought, that people get accustomed to go to the house of God to admire talents, rather than to offer the prayer of the tax-collector. When they sit in their seats — they are waiting for an arrow that will glitter in their eye, rather than for one which will pierce their hearts. They are waiting for something that will make them weep, rather than for a truth which will make them humble. And if they make any exertion upon themselves, it is to constrain themselves to be affected rather than to be abased. Their pleasure is greatest, when they can go from the sanctuary commending the elegance of the sermon; and it is least, when they go away penetrated with a sense of their own guilt. A manner of preaching which tends to nourish these propensities, tends strongly to promote a religion void of humility.
III. I shall briefly present a few MOTIVES to humility.
1. This is a grace most lovely in itself, and very dear to God and godly men. The approbation which men yield to the humble man, is not altogether pure. It is partly because his modesty in their presence, flatters their pride. Yet they do approve and love him. While they most admire the splendid, they most love the humble. And the humble are the only men that are beloved of God. "Though" He "be high — yet has he respect unto the lowly; but the proud he knows afar off." "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." "Thus says the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones."
2. The opposite of humility is a most restless, contemptible, and ruinous sin. Pride is the parent of the most corrosive passions of the human heart. It is the parent of anger, envy, discontent, self-will, impatience of contradiction, tyranny, insatiable thirst for distinction and applause, and all the pomp and pageantry of luxury. Destroy pride — and you wither at a stroke all these abominations, and free the soul forever from their torture and pollution.
Besides these direct effects — pride leads to many falls, which are permitted to humble the haughty heart, and are sometimes necessary to humble even the children of God. It is pride which prevents our submission to the government of God, and our acquiescence in the Gospel of Christ. By the undignified petulance and baseness of its malice towards men — it often shames and defeats itself. Its impotent vaunts under mortification form a most impressive contrast with the dignity of what the apostle emphatically calls " the meekness of wisdom."
3. Humility is recommended by the peace which it brings. When the soul sits calmly under its sheltering shade, no tumultuous passion, no restless desire, disturbs the composure of its peace. It sweetly resigns the world to the direction of God without an opposing wish. It acquiesces, with a fullness of joy, in the Gospel of Christ, and smiles with serene and silent transport as it leans on His bosom. If anything can breathe upon the soul the airs of paradise, and spread over it the calm and the sunshine of Heaven — it is this same blessed humility — this meek-eyed child of Jesus.
4. We have all cause enough for humility. We have sinned against God; we have sinned against Christ and the Holy Spirit; we have sinned against our own souls. We have committed the same sins that have plunged many of our race in eternal burnings. Could we witness their agonies, could we hear their cries, it might break our hearts to think that we have sinned as well as they. In the light of Hell, and in the looking-glass of Calvary — the nature of our sins is seen. O for a word from Heaven to humble the pride of man, and to lay a blushing world silent and weeping at their Redeemer's feet!
5. Humility is the only means by which we can obtain pardon and communion with God. No man since the fall ever saw a smile on the face of Heaven, but when he lay prostrate in the dust. No convicted sinner, no wandering and benighted saint, ever found peace, no feeble Christian ever had his strength renewed, in any other place or posture. To be abased is the first step towards relief — whatever be our character or whatever are our needs.
Allow me then, my dear hearers, to entreat you to humble yourself in the dust at the feet of God. There lie and mourn for your sins. Take all shame and blame to yourselves — and settle your purpose to walk softly before Him all the days of your life. There lie until He shall lift you up. And He will lift you up when, with the humility of the tax-collector, you shall smite on your breast and say, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"