“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
First Corinthians chapter 10, verse 12, is a powerful passage. It is seldom applied within the church today. It concerns the danger of spiritual pride and sin. For those of us in the Reformed church, do we not sometimes look at ourselves collectively and say, despite numerical weakness compared to former days, that we are spiritually strong? We have been privileged to sit under sound preaching for many years where the Lord has blessed His cause.
May we not also be tempted to look at ourselves individually and say, “I have taken a difficult stand in the church,” or, “I have sought to be faithful. By God’s grace, I am knowledgeable in the Scriptures, active in the Lord’s cause and spiritually strong.”
The Apostle Paul speaks into this very situation with these solemn words of warning: “therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” Ought we not therefore to ask ourselves this question: am I standing or am I falling? To “stand” is to persevere in the faith; and to “fall” is to fall from the faith or to fall into sin.
Advice from a Spiritual Giant
Many years ago, Thomas Chalmers, a spiritual giant in Christ’s church in 19th century Scotland, largely forgotten today, wrote these words to his friend, Thomas Smith,
“Oh do, my much loved friend, cultivate a suspicion of yourself. Keep in firm bond of dependence with the Saviour. Pray unceasingly for the progress of His work in your heart; and while you strive mightily, let it be by His grace working in you mightily.”
To advise someone to, ‘cultivate a suspicion of yourself,’ is far removed from the spirit of our day. Such a statement would be considered by many as outrageously negative and judgemental. Some might suggest we would be better advised to challenge, rather than engage in negativity, to build people up, rather than to tear them down. We live in a day of positive affirmations, self-confidence and self-esteem.
Despite apparently cutting across our modern sensibilities, Chalmers’ advice is in reality remarkably positive. In fact, the sentiment of Chalmers’ words, is in much the same vein as Paul’s words to the Church at Corinth.
Why Cultivate Suspicion?
Spiritually speaking, to cultivate suspicion in ourselves is to recognise our proneness to look away from Christ and to fall into sin. Prior to Paul’s words of warning, in the first 11 verses of 1 Corinthians 10, he reviews events in Israel’s history. He focuses on “Our fathers,” (verse 1) who were delivered from slavery in Egypt, who were divinely provided for and who were in God’s presence, yet nonetheless fell in the wilderness. Only two of those who escaped from Egypt entered into the promised land. They were smitten by God for their sin: “God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (Verse 5), as they “fell” (verse 8) and “were destroyed” (verses 9-10). Paul records these verses as a lesson for future generations to learn from, as these things “were written for our admonition” (Verse 11). We ought to cultivate suspicion as where others have fallen, so may we, if we are not careful. The Scripture abounds with examples of those who have fallen into great sin. Sadly, It is also not uncommon to hear of well-respected ministers and fellow Christians who have fallen into great sin.
To Whom is the Warning Directed?
We may be shocked as Reformed Christians to find Paul saying, “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” Ought we not to be confident and believe that we are standing and persevering in the faith? To be clear, Paul does not speak against being confident in the faith and of standing in Christ. We have every right to think that we stand, if we are truly in Christ and are looking unto Christ.
There is an element in the Church which sees doubting one’s salvation as a virtue – yet this is nowhere to be found in the Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that a Christian cannot have assurance of faith without first having an extraordinarily direct revelation from God, otherwise assurance is not possible. Reformers, such as John Calvin, taught that assurance is the birth right of every believer, though it can be experienced in varying degrees. The Scriptures are clear that Christians can experience and ought to seek assurance of salvation, as we are to, “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:22).
To whom then does Paul direct his words of warning? They are directed specifically towards those with an unholy presumption, those who are careless and stand in their own strength. It is a warning to those who read of the example of Israel in the wilderness, or hear of the fall of a well-respected minister and say, “that could never happen to me.”
When Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him, Peter confidently asserted, “even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You! (Matthew 26:35) The true Christian cannot lose his salvation, but like Peter, we are much disposed to a fall, if we look from Christ and proudly stand in our own strength. As Spurgeon aptly put it, “though the Christian shall not stumble so as to destroy his life, he may break his limb.”
How to cultivate Suspicion?
The man who thinks he stands is in danger that he may fall; and the counsel is to “let him take heed.” We ought to take heed, that as others fell, so may we. We ought to take heed not to trust in spiritual blessings, as did the Israelites in the wilderness, as did the Church in Corinth, as did Peter, and as have many others who have become careless, puffed up with pride and have fallen. We ought to take heed by cultivating suspicion in ourselves.
We can cultivate suspicion by placing “no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). By contrast the man who thinks he stands may put much confidence in the flesh and become full of pride. The Apostle Paul had every reason, by human standards, to place confidence in himself, but he counted all these things as loss for Christ. He refused to put his confidence in his own attainments, but in Christ alone. In other words, as Chalmers put it, “to keep in firm bond of dependence with the Saviour.” We must ask ourselves, what in our lives do we put our confidence in?
We can cultivate suspicion by “denying ourselves and following Christ” (Matthew 16:24). The man who thinks he stands can reach a point where he fails to deny himself and take up his cross. He turns from following Christ and follows the dictates of the world. We must live contrary to the easy believism prevalent in the Church today asking, “how am I denying myself today and taking up my cross?”
We can cultivate suspicion by keeping out of the way of temptation. The man who thinks he stands often thinks lightly of sin and gives place to temptation. This is a tragic way to live our lives as light thoughts of sin are sure to lead to a great fall. We would do well to follow the example of Joseph, as he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife, as he “left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside.” (Genesis 39:12). Should we not ask ourselves where we may be going and what may we be doing that is placing ourselves in the way of temptation?
We can cultivate suspicion, in the knowledge that we cannot keep ourselves. We must pray for the Lord’s upholding, keeping and progressing of us. Let us follow the Psalmist and pray: “Preserve me, O God, for in You I put my trust.” (Psalm 16:1) We ought to pray, as Chalmers wrote “unceasingly for the progress of His work in your heart.” The man who thinks he stands can be so confident in himself and so negligent of spiritual matters. He may find himself little in the secret place and perhaps is found more in prayer in public than he is in private. Let us honestly ask: “What place do I give to prayer in my life?”
Finally, we can cultivate suspicion by being much in the Word, in the knowledge that without the light of God’s Word in our lives each day we are apt to wonder off in the wrong direction. “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path,” (Psalm 119:105). The man who thinks he stands can neglect the Word so much so that he barely gives it a cursory read. How can we hear God if we will not listen to His voice? Are we giving God’s Word its due place in our lives?
Chalmers’ words of counsel, so negative and judgemental to modern ears, were rather words of warmth and care, intended for the spiritual good of his friend. They echo the Apostle Paul’s words to the Church at Corinth. These are words of warning, direct words, like a searchlight into our own lives, aimed at our own spiritual good. Where are the warnings from the pulpits of our land and from fellow Christians concerned at the dangers of spiritual pride and sin? “Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness” (Psalm 119:105).
In cultivating a suspicion of ourselves, we may, under the guidance of the Spirit, recognise and address our spiritual pride, our wanderings into sin and our turnings away from Christ. As Matthew Henry said, “distrust of himself, putting him at once upon vigilance and dependence on God, is the Christian’s best security against all sin.” Will we distrust ourselves and will we put all our trust in Christ?
The Letters of Thomas Chalmers Letters, P.13
Matthew Henry’s Commentary