December 12, 2017

Christian Boasting

Don Johnson

Recently I came to a passage in Romans where Paul talks about glorying about the things accomplished in his ministry (Rm 15.17-18). Some versions translate the word for ‘glory’ here as ‘boasting,’ as indeed the kjv does in some passages like James 4.16. As I thought about what Paul was saying about boasting, I was struck by the alternate and opposing meanings of this word. Usually we think of boasting as something negative, done only by the boors among us, those tiresome people who simply can’t get enough of themselves such that they are compelled to overflow in self-effusiveness to all in their earshot. Of course, you and I would never do such a thing, just ask us, we’ll tell you how we aren’t that way at all, why, just the other day, I exhibited great humility when… well, you get the picture, I think!

So how can the apostle talk about boasting in a positive way when the word has such negative connotations?

We are well familiar with the negative connotations of boasting, and the ancients were as well. In fact, the word used in Romans 15.17 is one the philosophers and serious writers of ancient Greek seemed to avoid. But the comic playwrights thought it just fine. They were delighted to speak of the boastful soldier, for example, who bragged of his prowess in warring and wooing. His brag was good so long as, you know, he didn’t actually have to do either one of them. Then his emptiness was on display for all to see. This was part of the joke the playwrights were trying to make — the boastful man was a laughable buffoon.

Yet the word is used in a nobler way in the Bible. It has many synonyms, some of which are almost always used of empty, pretentious pride, extreme arrogance, and the like. Yet this word is somewhat removed from “pure pride,” if you will. In the negative sense, it reflects the emotive delight (“exultation, rejoicing, glorying”) in the focus of pride. If the focus of pride is self, of course the negative connotations come to the fore. But if the focus of pride is something else, outside of self, then it becomes much less negative and even, indeed, noble.

For example, we find that “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.” (Pr 16.31) A certain righteous delight can be taken in many years of faithfulness in the pathways of God. We also see that “Children’s children are the crown of old men; and the glory of children are their fathers.” (Pr 17.6) Children can take pride in their fathers, if they be faithful men. But even more nobly, the people of Israel are called to boast in and glory in this, “But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me…” (Jer 9.24) Here is the worthy object of boasting — the knowledge of God.

And indeed, these are the things Paul boasts of as he comes to the conclusion of Romans. In the context he has been speaking of his reasons for writing. He does not write because he is concerned about the state of the Roman church, indeed, he thinks well of them and their testimony (Rm 15.14). Nevertheless, Paul is compelled to write because God has called him to be a minister to the Gentiles, acting, in a sense, like a priest, as he ministers the gospel to the Gentiles, preparing them through his preaching and teaching to be an offering to God that is acceptable through the working of the Holy Spirit. So in this he glories, in this he boasts, in the things pertaining to God (Rm 15.17), especially those things that God accomplishes through him, that is, using a man like Paul to bring people like the Gentiles to a saving knowledge of God.

God’s work in Paul’s ministry is remarkable. Paul was a man who would not have been voted “most likely to succeed” in any Christian High School. As a young man he was zealous for Judaism, consenting and participating in the imprisonment and even murder of Christian believers. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees (“the mother of all Pharisees”), he was zealous for the Law, and a persecutor of the church. Nevertheless, God picked this man out of the many and made him the apostle to the Gentiles of all people. Here is this former Pharisee, spending and being spent for the sake of winning the “dogs” of the Gentiles to faith in Jesus Christ. God’s work is marvelous, and Paul’s participation in that work is something to boast about.

When you and I boast about our Christianity, what kind of boasting is it? Are we boasting about our great grasp of doctrine? I used to have a professor who would mark me down for using big words in my papers. I’ve never forgotten it. He said, “You aren’t supposed to be using those words in the pulpit.” He meant we should learn our theology so well that we could express it in terms the average person could understand. But aren’t there many among us who seem to be boasting about the things pertaining to Christ, yet we come away feeling that these men want us to know how well they know the things pertaining to Christ? What kind of boasting is that?

Or there are those among us who will never fail to tell us how many folks they are “running” in their churches. Or those telling us how great God is because of how fast their Sunday school is growing. (At least we seem to have gotten away from hearing how many buses are running…) Others want you to be sure to know that they have been out soul-winning, and (isn’t God good) so many have gotten saved. What kind of boasting is that?

On the other hand, when someone tells you with delight about some fellow who was trapped in a lifestyle of sin but he has been convicted of his old ways and now is walking in newness of life, well, what sort of boasting is that? If self is out of the way, it is boasting in God and the ways and works of God, is it not? Or when someone is recounting the glory of seeing the way in which God built a local church, is that not speaking only of what God has wrought by you? There is a subtle difference here.

On the one hand, the one boasting may be preoccupied with what he has done for God. On the other, the one boasting is preoccupied with what God has done through him.

May we find our delight in the work of God and refuse to glory in our own achievements.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

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