Jonathan Edwards’ short essay on Undiscerned Spiritual Pride1 is something that should be read by all pastors or Christians in leadership positions. In that work Edwards writes, “The first and the worst cause of errors, that prevail in [our day], is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion.”2 There are few issues harder to talk about and more insidious than spiritual pride. How do you recommend an article on spiritual pride to someone without being accused of spiritual pride? How do you write an article on spiritual pride without being subject to spiritual pride? Even talking about it is a danger. But it must be talked about.
There is one specific kind of undiscerned spiritual pride that I think is not often discussed and is especially hard to recognize—the danger of doctrinal righteousness. Sadly, I think it’s a particularly prevalent danger among Reformed, theologically-minded Christians. It’s a danger I have fallen into at times. By doctrinal righteousness, I mean trusting in your doctrinal correctness as your righteousness, as opposed to trusting Christ as your righteousness. The difference can be very subtle, and, of course, will be marked by humility or pride.
Knowing About God vs. Knowing God
In the face of an anti-intellectual and a-theological, shallow evangelicalism, Reformed Christianity has been rightly concerned about the importance of theology. The Bible is a theological book. To know God requires us to know about God. Our relationship to him requires doctrine.
But it’s also possible to trust in your knowledge about him more than trusting in him personally. You can have a theoretical knowledge of something and not an experiential knowledge of something. Some people know a lot but it does not lead to faith, hope, and love. To paraphrase a Tim Keller saying, “There’s a difference between having the truth, and the truth having you. There’s a difference between trusting your grasp on him, rather than trusting his grasp on you.” (The Apostle Paul often emphasizes this nuance - “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” - Gal.4:9).
When you ‘have’ the truth, you own it; you have mastery over it. When the truth ‘has’ you, you are under it, humbled by it, shaped by it; it masters you. One is based on pride; the other leads to humility. Some people can implicitly treat their theology as something grasped on the basis of their own strength and intellect, rather than a personal knowledge of God received by grace through faith that is humbling and shaping them.
Discerning Doctrinal Righteousness
Edwards makes the point that spiritual pride can be hard to discern and easily hidden because it can look like righteousness and concern for truth. It looks right, until it doesn’t. He says, “Spiritual pride in its own nature is so secret, that it is not so well discerned by immediate intuition on the thing itself, as by the effects and fruits of it… Spiritual pride disposes to speak of other persons’ sins… Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others; whereas an humble saint is most jealous of himself, he is so suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart.”3
Doctrinal righteousness is much the same. It is more accurately discerned in its fruit: by someone’s manner of communication, by their response to criticism or correction. The idol of doctrinal righteousness is especially exposed in an angry and hostile defensiveness whenever it is questioned. This is because it has become a matter of identity and personal righteousness. To echo Edwards, here are some possible evidences of a doctrinally righteous person:
- Prone to criticism and suspicion of the doctrinal faithfulness of others.
- Spending an inordinate amount of time in the critique of others’ positions, rather than a positive promotion of the beauty of the Gospel.
- Believing that doctrinal correctness is a requirement for personal salvation.
- Having a narrow and formulaic understanding of theological doctrines, with a quickness to be suspicious and attack any formulation that does not exactly comport with one’s own language.
- Becoming quickly defensive, angry, and impatient when questions and concerns are expressed regarding your doctrinal position; taking it personally.
- Correcting others with harshness and impatience.
- Spending inordinate time arguing (actually quarreling) about theology online (or offline), while neglecting personal devotion, prayer, family, relationships, service, etc.
- Treating every article of theology in every discussion as a hill to die on.
- Loving truth and ideas more than people (and God).
- Downplaying and being suspicious of an emphasis on the "experiential" in the Christian life.
- Justifying theological study while neglecting or downplaying the role of relationships, counseling, and serving others in the church.
- Believing that pastoral ministry involves study and preaching to the exclusion of hospitality, personal ministry, discipleship, counseling, etc.
- In doctrinal debate, believing that Historical Theology should take the primary role; referring to Confessions and Creeds first and primarily, even over the Bible.
- Believing that Confessionalism is a sufficient guide and solution to doctrinal drift and personal spirituality.
- Being blind to personal sins, because of certainty on correct doctrine. Assuming that doctrinal correctness must ensure ethical rightness, wisdom, and personal morality.
- Not believing that doctrinal righteousness is even a possibility or legitimate concern.
- Writing articles on doctrinal righteousness to affirm your own spiritual virtue. (Can you see how pernicious this is?)
Lest the point is misunderstood, being ‘Valiant for Truth’ is a good thing. Being zealous to defend doctrine is not automatically prideful. Those vocally defending biblical doctrine should not be automatically assumed or judged as doctrinally righteous. In fact, biblical doctrine needs to be valiantly and robustly defended and asserted. Similarly, historical theology and Reformed Confessionalism is crucially important—a ‘Creedal Imperative’! A negative attitude towards historical theology and a downplaying of the importance of Confessionalism is dangerous. Such an attitude by itself reveals its own problem of self-reliance and lack of humility.
But that is what makes doctrinal righteousness among orthodox men and women so particularly pernicious! It can look so righteous! It can be the doctrinally concerned and faithful who can be in the most danger of doctrinal pride. You can be right, and be fighting the right battles, and still be wrong. Sadly, history repeatedly shows us men who were down-the-line theologically orthodox, Confessional men, who fought for truth in the right battles…and yet, who proved themselves to not even be Christians, who abandoned the faith or fell into unrepentant sin. How does that happen? Zeal for truth can sometimes prove to be completely selfish and abstracted from any real faith in God. It’s frightening how easy it is to put confidence in the wrong place.
C.S. Lewis profoundly warned that “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” It is from those with a higher calling, vision and zeal “that something really fiendish can be made; an Inquisitor, a Member of the Committee of Public Safety. It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become merciless fanatics… For the supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities of both good and evil. From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility, the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal… Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst. Of all created beings, the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God.”
Without Love, I Am Nothing
We cannot think that knowledge gets us to heaven or ensures us of our place. The Apostle Paul rightly warned that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor.8:1). “If I…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor.13:2). Paul anticipates that you can understand much and not have it be real and powerful over your heart. Knowledge by itself can be a danger and a deception.
So he constantly argues that the true fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control” (Gal.5:22-23). He repeatedly says of Christian teachers, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim.2:24-25). These things are just as important as the content of what is taught! There should be no false dichotomy between speaking the truth and doing it in love. There cannot really be one without the other. A true zeal for truth is shaped by brokenness before the Cross.
The antidote to doctrinal righteousness is a personal faith and hope in Christ alone, which leads to personal humility and compassionate love. Theology doesn’t save you; Jesus does. And that creates humility and grace in the heart.
John Newton was right when he said, “If I ever reach heaven, I expect to find three wonders there: First, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had thought to meet there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there!” May God grant us such humility, reliance, and wonder at God’s grace.
1. Part IV, Section I of his larger work, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion, Edwards, J. (1974). The works of Jonathan Edwards (Vol. 1, p. 398-403). Banner of Truth Trust.
2. Ibid. p.398-399.
3. Ibid. p.399.
Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church. Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He currently serves as the Chairman of the General Assembly for the Reformed Baptist Network, as secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and as lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which be found here. Matt and his wife, MaryScott, have four children: Katy (2002), Darsie (2004), Liam (2007), and Molly (2010).