The Just Shall Live By Faith

Error message

Following last week's memorial service for PCA pastor Petros Roukas I received a copy of the text of Bryan Chapell's funeral sermon titled, "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit." The sermon, though well-intentioned, was a gloss on the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3).

Mr. Chapell did speak of Petros's suicide as sin. And though Mr. Chapell rightfully held out biblical hope for Petros's salvation, he spoke clearly of the act of suicide as sinful, an act of Biblical fidelity for which I am grateful.

Yet, poverty of spirit is fundamentally different from depression. Poverty of spirit, in fact, is depression's cure and the answer to the suicide's despair. And though it is understandable that Mr. Chapell would wish to give comfort and hope on such an occasion, his use of this text as the basis of his message was disingenuous.

I suspect Mr. Chapell knows that "poverty of spirit" is not the kind of hopelessness which drives us to despair of God's faithfulness and thus to make violent end of ourselves, and had Mr. Chapell not seen fit to permit the publication of his sermon I would have thought these things privately without commenting on them here.

Unfortunately, Mr. Chapell has chosen not only to permit public dissemination of the text of his sermon, but the editorial staff of By Faith Online, the Presbyterian Church in America's online news site, recently made his sermon the most prominent link on their home page.

It would be fitting to memorialize a martyr who died by faith this way. But this was suicide. This was sin. And in his sermon Mr. Chapell comes perilously close to describing such faithless despair as "blessed" of God. And now this sermon has been published. I wish it had not. I wish By Faith Online had not given it such prominent treatment.

But it must now be said that Mr. Chapell's sermon is misleading, and that despite his looking into the pit by proclaiming suicide a sin in his sermon, he did not look long enough or hard enough, and whatever wounds he healed by preaching thus are likely healed lightly rather than fully. I say this because Scripture is clear: "The just shall live by faith."

In the meantime, what is poverty of spirit? According to Thomas Watson:

"Poor in spirit then signifies those who are brought to the sense of their sins and seeing no goodness in themselves despair in themselves and sue wholly to the mercy of God in Christ...Poverty of spirit is a kind of self-annihilation. Such an expression I find in Calvin. 'The poor in spirit (says he) are they who see nothing in themselves but fly to mercy for sanctuary.' Such an one was the publican: 'God be merciful to me a sinner.'

"He that is poor in spirit is weaned from himself. 'My soul is even a weaned child.' (Psalm 131:2) It is hard for a man to be weaned from himself. The vine catches hold of everything that is near, to stay itself upon. There is some bough or other a man would be catching hold of to rest upon. How hard it is to be brought quite off himself! The poor in spirit are divorced from themselves; they see they must go to hell without Christ....

"The poor in spirit is content to take Christ upon His own terms. The proud sinner will article and indent with Christ. He will have Christ and his pleasure, Christ and his covetousness. But he that is poor in spirit sees himself lost without Christ, and he is willing to have Him upon His own terms, a Prince as well as a Saviour: 'Jesus my Lord' (Philippians 3:8). A castle that has long been besieged and is ready to be taken will deliver up on any terms to save their lives. He whose heart has been a garrison for the devil, and has held out long in opposition against Christ, when once God has brought him to poverty of spirit, and he sees himself damned without Christ, let God propound what articles He will, he will readily subscribe to them. 'Lord what wilt thou have me to do?' (Acts 9:6)." (Thomas Watson, The Beatitudes)

According to Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

"That, then, is what is meant by being 'poor in spirit.' It means a complete absence of pride, a complete absence of self-assurance and of self-reliance. It means a consciousness that we are nothing in the presence of God. It is nothing, then, that we can produce; it is nothing that we can do in ourselves. It is just this tremendous awareness of our utter nothingness as we come face-to-face with God. That is to be 'poor in spirit.' Let me put it as strongly as I can, and I will do so on the basis of the teaching of the Bible. It means this, that if we are truly Christian we shall not rely upon our natural birth. We shall not rely upon the fact that we belong to certain families; we shall not boast that we belong to certain nations or nationalities. We shall not build upon our natural temperament. We shall not believe in and rely upon our natural position in life, or any powers that may have been given to us. We shall not rely upon money or any wealth we may have. The thing about which we shall boast will not be the education we have received, or the particular school or college to which we may have been. No, all that is what Paul came to regard as 'dung', and a hindrance to this greater thing because it tended to master and control him. We shall not rely upon any gifts like that of natural 'personality', or intelligence or general or special ability. We shall not rely upon our own morality and conduct and good behaviour. We shall not bank to the slightest extent on the life we have lived or are trying to live. No; we shall regard all that as Paul regarded it. That is 'poverty of spirit.' (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount)

The truth of suicide is that it betokens a lack of this poverty which Christ commends to us. It is self-reliant. It is proud. It is not the spiritual self-annihilation that Watson describes. It is the epitome of self. Yet God is gracious; He does save sinners and there is hope even for the suicide in Christ.

But in an age which seeks to call "righteous" the very acts of murder for which God says He will exact vengeance, we must be careful not to establish any defense for the act of self-murder. For this reason I reluctantly challenge Mr. Chapell's application of this passage to these circumstances.