Biblical Humility What It Is and What It Is Not

by Mike Ratliff

3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; Philippians 2:3 (NASB) 

One of the main contentions of all those who are in one or another are “liberal Christians” or “professing nominal Christians” is that it is an arrogant thing to teach from the Bible as if it is absolute truth. They say that the truly humble are those who confess to know nothing precisely, but only in a nebulous sort of way. This is primarily an attempt to appear humble to the world by seeking common ground with everyone, which is only possible if truth is held loosely so there is room for compromise. In the world’s eyes this does appear to be humble, but is this biblical humility?  Here is what Jesus said.

30 As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him.
31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:30-32 (NASB)

Here is v32 in the Greek, “καὶ γνώσεσθε τὴν ἀλήθειαν, καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια ἐλευθερώσει ὑμᾶς.” The words “will know” here is γνώσεσθε, which means to know experientially. It is in future tense, middle voice. This means this is describing action that takes place in the future to the the subject passively or as the result of some other action. Jesus is describing those who truly abide in His Word proving they are truly His disciples. As a result of these two things, they “will know” the truth (ἀλήθειαν) and the truth (ἀλήθεια) will set “you” (ὑμᾶς) “free” ( ἐλευθερώσει). These two forms of the same word for truth describe “truth” as the unveiled reality lying at the basis of and agreeing with an appearance. This is reality clearly lying before our eyes as opposite to a mere appearance without reality. In this case, the context shows us that the truth our Lord was speaking of here is God’s truth as opposed to the “truth” the world believes. In other words, this truth has reference not only to the facts surrounding Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, but also to the teaching that He brought. What does knowing this truth do for the believer? It sets him or her free. The word ἐλευθερώσει describes liberating people from some sort of bondage. In this case our Lord was referring to the true disciples liberation from bondage to sin.

This is just one of countless other examples throughout the Bible that if we dig into them deeply we will see the consistent plan of God for the salvation of His people, how it will become manifest and what the result will be. This is God’s truth. To learn these things does not in any way put us into bondage. It does throw down the false teachings about what true humility is and shows us that to know God’s truth is actually a blessing that only those with the Holy Spirit and who have been cleansed through the washing of regeneration can know. Now, is it arrogant to proclaim this as God’s truth as part of the Gospel? What is true Biblical humility. John Calvin wrote, “It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”1 True Biblical humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness. True, biblical, genuine humility is rooted in God’s holiness and our sinfulness. It has nothing to do with proclaiming God’s truth as the truth.

Sure, we can minister from positions of pride and this is something we must be very careful not to do. As we minister, we should do so as our Lord did. He was gentle, forgiving, gracious, and loving to those who knew they were sinners and not fit for the Kingdom of God. He ministered to them in such a way that it brought down the wrath of those who were actually the ones who were being arrogant and prideful, the Jewish Religious leaders of His day. Did Jesus minister to these men the same way he did to the outcasts of society? No, He was very firm and blunt with them. He never gave an inch with them. He told the truth about their lostness and arrogance and rebellion to their faces, which is what we are called to do in standing firm in our day against those who preach and teach heresy. However, we are to graciously give the Good News of the Gospel to all who will hear, just as our Lord did. This is not arrogance, but biblical humility.

1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:1-13 (NASB) 

The motives for how we are to live this Christian life and minister are found here. All truly in Christ have the mind of Christ and so they are able to walk in repentance and emulate Christ in all parts of their lives. These will do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility (ταπεινοφροσυνη) count others more significant than than themselves. The KJV translates this word in this passage as “in lowliness of mind.” The humble are those who esteem themselves small inasmuch as they are so in relation to God. They do not believe that, in and of themselves, that they are in any way fit for the Kingdom of God. Instead, they know that outside of God having mercy on them and by His grace through the faith given to them to believe and repent, they would in no way be part of the Kingdom. However, this “lowliness of mind” also carries forward to all relationships. We cannot truthfully confess that we are following Christ if we are operating from pride or arrogance in any of our relationships.

Our example is Jesus Christ who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. He went to the Cross to die for His people that their sins would be paid for by His sacrifice. This is the supreme act of humility. Therefore, those in Christ are called to look to this example in how they are to live and minister. This is that part where we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as God works in us both to will and work for His good pleasure. This is a description of us submitting to the sanctifying fires from our Lord so that we will grow in humility as we mortify the sins that cling so close.

Our Lord’s example of humility led to His extreme glorification. God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on the the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. For us, glorification awaits. I see myself as totally unworthy of any glorification. I deserve God’s wrath not eternal life. However, this is true for all truly in Christ.

Now, biblical humility is understanding one’s right standing before God. It is not denying that one knows the truth. Those who proclaim the truth and use proper Biblical exegesis in order to properly teach it are not being arrogant nor are they ceasing from being humble. They most certainly can do their ministry with the wrong motives, but the teaching of God’s Word correctly is not the source of that. Our Lord clearly told us that those who are truly His disciples will know the truth and it would set them free. Throughout the rest of the New Testament, we are commanded to preach the Word and proclaim the Gospel. We do this correctly as all we do is firmly rooted in God’s Word as absolute truth.

Soli Deo Gloria!

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990),38.