Benjamin Morgan Palmer – the Paradox of the Bold Humility of the Christian Life

This past Sunday, in my Sunday School class on the doctrine of the person and work of Christ, we talked about the importance of humility to our work as theologians. We are called to hold firm convictions about what the Bible teaches, and at the same time we are to have a humility about us – for we are finite in understanding, we do not know everything, and we may well be wrong about some of what we believe. We are to hold and speak the truth without looking down on those who differ with us. For what makes us to differ, but the grace of God? It is only the Holy Spirit of illumination that has given us any knowledge we possess.

The following was published on March 31, 1870, by Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a 19th century Southern Presbyterian, as the first of a four part series on Christian paradoxes. In this brief article he discusses the reality of the Christian’s humility and dignity/boldness. Though his application is not to the way we do theology per se, yet what he says has bearing on that topic. May the Lord use these words to make us bold and to make us humble.

A paradox is not, as many suppose, a statement contrary to fact, but only an assertion contrary to appearance. It is often the most precise and energetic form in which a truth can be put: requiring both accuracy of thought and a measured use of language, for its due expression. It is simply bringing together two or more statements, which, though in seeming hostility, have a real but hidden ground of reconciliation. The contradiction in language serves as a note of alarm, which rouses the sluggish mind to note the truth concealed beneath. Hence, it is a form of speech abounding in earnest writings, and occurs with great frequency in the epistles of Paul. Take the following examples in Galatians, “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live – yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” So in Colossians, “for ye are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Again, in Corinthians, “for when I am weak, then am I strong”: while in the sixth chapter of the same epistle, he strings a number of them together: “as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known: as dying, and behold we live: as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”

            To the child of God, who has been taught in the school of experience, all this is exceedingly plain; and he carries within him the double sense of all these expressions. But to the men of this world, the mystery is inexplicable, and the whole Christian life is a riddle. Much of our testimony however consists in presenting these very paradoxes to their attention: and the reproach of practical religion is cancelled, the moment it is discovered how Divine Grace combines the most opposite elements in the character of the believer. We propose to submit a few of these strange contradictions to the reader, in several successive papers.

            Consider then the profound humility and self-renunciation of the Christian, united with true loftiness of soul and the consciousness of dignity. Experimental religion founds upon a thorough conviction of sin and guilt. The Holy Spirit takes the sinner in the midst of his complacency up into the presence of the pure and holy God, that in the light of the terrible contrast he may see how vile he really is. The law is faithfully applied as the instrument of conviction, to his whole character and life – which, however honorable and discreet in the judgment of men, is seen to lack the formal principle of obedience. It is a terrible disclosure to the soul, when the mask of self-deception is once removed and the real enmity against God is felt to exist. Conscience, which has long lain dormant, and which before undertook to deal with the principle of sin, rouses itself to the performance of judicial functions; and the trembling culprit quails before its decision, as though it were the decree of the last day. Then comes this act of faith, as soon as Christ is revealed, in which is necessarily involved the entire renunciation of self-righteousness. “In me,” cries the sinner in the first hour of his trust, “in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing”; and whilst his heart rejoices in hope, his testimony is, “by the grace of God, I am what I am.”

            It is very difficult new [sic: should be “now”?] to conceive how all these convictions of personal ill-desert can be indulged, without a corresponding depreciation in character. It is just this, which scandalizes the man of the world. When these melancholy confessions are poured into his ear, such as may be heard in any prayer-meeting, and are uttered even more pathetically in the closet, he is tempted to discredit them himself, and to doubt whether they are truly felt by those from whose lips they fall. He could entertain no such opinion of himself, without being overwhelmed with mortification and shame. He reasons that parties, who under such avowals, ought not to be able to lift up their heads any more among men, but to hide in the corners of concealment under the oppressive sense of their own dishonor. Instead of this, he beholds the Christian, after these depositions before God, mingling with others with undaunted front, and exhibiting a loftiness of character and a dignity of carriage, such as he has associated only with the highest consciousness of worth and merit. The whole thing is to him an enigma. For upon his view of the case, such humiliation, if it be really felt, must draw after it the loss of all self-respect; which, in the estimation of the world, is the basis of integrity, and without which the most rapid and complete demoralization is bound to ensue.

            This then is the paradox. The noblest specimens of human character are to be found amongst men who profess the deepest sense of personal unworthiness, and boldly avow it in the presence of all creatures. The explanation is twofold:

            1. That the standard of judgment is not human opinion, but the law of God, which holds the entire race under the same charge of guilt. The shame therefore and the confusion of face, which overtake the penitent, are felt only in the presence of the great God, against whom this evil has been done. As regards man, no other sentiment is cherished than of regret that all eyes cannot be opened to make the same discovery, and all hearts finally take refuge in the same precious salvation. The sneers and reproaches of the world are not dreaded, simply because nothing is required to extort the same wholesome confessions from every human lip, but the saving power of the Holy Ghost upon the heart, “convincing of sin, of righteousness and of judgment.” Where all are equally involved in condemnation, none are in a condition to become accusers of the rest.

            2. The believer rejoices in a full sense of pardon and acceptance with God, which takes away his dishonor. Just as clear as may be his conviction of sin, just so distinct is his conscious appropriation of an offered righteousness. If in himself he is condemned, in Christ he is justified.

            “And lest the shadow of a spot
              Should on my soul be found,
              He took the robe the Savior wrought
              And cast it all around.”       

            Surely, whilst singing this stanza to the praise of Divine Grace, the believer can rejoice in the glory of his righteousness, no less than he mourns over the shame of his sin. It is this consciousness of being clean before God in the obedience of his Son, which the world is unable to estimate – and it is just this experience of pardon through the Redeemer, that arrests the process of deterioration which in the case of the impenitent sinner would undoubtedly occur.

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