Presumption Produces Self-Deception

“For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:3)

I’ve made the point before that regardless of how well I think I’m doing in the sanctification project or how much progress I think I’ve made since I first became a Christian, like Paul in Romans 7, when God’s perfect law becomes the standard and not “how much I’ve improved over the years”, I realize that I’m a lot worse than I fancy myself to be. Whatever I think my greatest vice is, God’s law shows me that my situation is much worse: if I think it’s anger, the law shows me that it’s actually murder; if I think it’s lust, the law shows me that it’s actually adultery; if I think it’s impatience, the law shows me that it’s actually idolatry (read Matthew 5:17-48). God’s law is like a mirror: it shows us who we really are and what we really need.

We’ll always maintain a posture of suspicion regarding the radicality and hilarity of unconditional grace as long as we think we’re basically OK. Our presumption of “okayness” leads to a self-deception that robs us of the joy of our salvation and the undomesticated freedom that Christ paid so dearly to secure for sinners like me.

Martin Luther shows how probing the problem of presumption is and reveals that our so-called progress may not be as impressive as we think it is:

Presumption follows when a man sets himself to fulfill the Law with works and diligently sees to it that he does what the letter of the Law asks him to do. He serves God, does not swear, honors father and mother, does not kill, does not commit adultery, and the like. Meanwhile, however, he does not observe his heart, does not note the reason why he is leading such a good life. He does not see that he is merely covering the old hypocrite in his heart with such a beautiful life. For, if he looked at himself aright-at his own heart-he would discover that he is doing all these things with dislike and out of compulsion; that he fears hell or seeks heaven, if not also for more insignificant matters: honor, goods, health; and that he is motivated by the fear of shame or harm or diseases. In short, he would have to confess that he would rather lead a different life if the consequence of such a life did not deter him; for he would not do it merely for the sake of the Law. But because he does not see this bad reason, he lives on in security, looks only at the works, not into the heart, and so assumes that he is keeping the Law of God well. (Luther’s Works, St. Louis edition, 11:81 ff)

The Heidelberg Catechism also puts things in perspective:

Question 62: But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part, of our righteousness before God?

Answer: Because, the righteousness which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

“At the cross”, says Gerhard Forde, “God stormed the last bastion of the self, the last presumption that you were going to do something for him.” Genuine freedom awaits all who stop trusting in their own work and start trusting in Christ’s work.

  • theoldadam says:

    “Genuine freedom awaits all who stop trusting in their own work and start trusting in Christ’s work.”


    Not a lot of freedom in churches today.

  • Dennis says:

    Question – just wondering how if “our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” how then can we be rewarded at the Bema Judgement Seat of Christ? Anyone with some insight?

  • theoldadam says:


    I’d leave that up to God. If we start thinking about rewards, even a little bit, when we do our works, then we will surely have defiled them.

    Self-unconsciousness is the goal. Just forget about it (rewards or fear of reprisal) and live your life. Christ has freed you from all of that religious stuff (looking better in God’s eyes by what ‘we do’).

    God bless you, friend. Great question.

  • Irvin says:

    I wish the mirror in my house could do what the photo does!

  • John Dunn says:

    Believing and experiencing Christ’s new alien life *by faith* is a new “self” identity that is completely foreign to us, and does not produce presumption or lead to self-deception.

    If John Dunn is dead, but the “new man” (Jesus Christ) is powerfully alive in him by His *alien* resurrection-life through the Spirit, then why are we so afraid to talk of progress, as though it is something that we have done or accomplished in our own fleshly strength? My “own strength” is completely dead in Christ’s death.

    John’s new *alien* identity and power for living is completely found in Jesus Christ alone, from justification to sanctification to glory!

    This blog rightly champions an alien Grace provided *outside-of-us* on the cross (justification).

    But it seems as though you categorically reject the continuing alien Grace provided powerfully *in us* by Christ’s resurrection-life that is actively working in us, by the Spirit (sanctification).

    There is real life and power in the Spirit. He gives us his active *alien* power (Acts 1:8, Rom 15:13, Eph 3:16, Col 1:11, 2 Pet 1:3).

    He gives us his active *alien* life (Rom 8:10-11, 2 Cor 3:6).

    He gives us his active *alien* righteousness (Rom 8:4, Rom 8:10, Rom 14:17).

    He gives us his active *alien* love, which is the true fulfillment of the Law (Rom 5:5, Gal 5:22, Eph 3:16-19).

    He gives us his active *alien* mortification of sin/old man (Rom 8:13, Gal 5:16, Gal 5:24).

    He gives us his active *alien* indwelling and sealing (John 14:17, Rom 8:9, 1 Cor 3:16, 2 Cor 1:22, Eph 4:30).

    What more *alien* grace and power could we possibly need for actively walking in the *new* Christ-empowered Life that is quantitatively and qualitatively transforming? (2 Cor 3:18)

    Why should we wallow in our own miserable Adamic self-identity, when the old Adam is completely dead and the fulness of Christ’s new *alien* life has been provided for us (on the cross) and in us (by his Spirit)?

    I would posit that our lack of faith on these matters is because our theological systems and confessions demand it. As long as men see themselves still under the Law to any degree, and not completely dead to it in Christ (as Paul says we are), they will continue to gaze sorrowfully on the self-reflecting Law-mirror and not rejoicingly in the Christ-reflecting Grace-mirror, by faith.

    “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

  • Matthew Morizio says:

    Thank you, John… for bringing to light the fuller realities of the new covenant life of Christ crucified, risen and reigning (depositing the Spirit, who is life in us!).

  • Chris says:

    Dennis and theoldadam,

    For your consideration, I’d recommend reading 1 Corinthians 3:5-15, 2 Corinthians 5, and if you’d like some commentary on the judgment of God and our works, I’d consult Packer’s Knowing God, chapter 14, “God the Judge.”

    I think these are good questions to consider and think about deeply, especially since Paul discusses them in the two places mentioned above.

    God bless.

  • Brian says:

    @John Dunn. Who’s wallowing? I don’t read that here or in anything TT writes and I’m fairly confident that he would not only exclaim “Yes and Amen” to your post but he has written as much elsewhere.

    However, have you been in a mainline Evangelical church lately and listened to what is being preached? For 27 years I was told that it was MY efforts, MY life, MY morality and MY self betterment that is of most importance to God. That I can (and should) have victory over my sin. This is what I believe he is speaking to.

  • Mandy R. says:

    Thank you, Tullian, for pointing us to Christ and His finished work. Your teaching has helped me so much.

    In response to some of these comments, I am wondering a few things:

    1. Is it possible that some of this debate stems from the definition of the Gospel itself? Does the essence of the Gospel, meaning Jesus doing for me what I could never do for myself, culminate with his His resurrection or does it continue on to end with Jesus’ ascension and the sending of His Spirit to dwell in us?

    2. If the Gospel is complete at the point of Jesus’ resurrection, then are we (those who are in Christ) left to look to at Jesus’ finished work as our motivation for loving one another?

    3. If the Gospel includes the gift of Jesus sending His Spirit, then is it His Life (His Spirit joined to ours) in us that animates us in loving one another (verses being motivated?) If so, I am wondering if this is what Paul means in Romans 8 when he teaches us to walk in the Spirit vs walking in the flesh?

    I may be wrong, but I think I am learning that when I am walking in the flesh, I am doing things out of my natural strength (willpower, etc.) It always results in pride or arrogance when I supposedly succeed, or it results in defeat when I fail. This shows me I was walking in the flesh. Walking in the Spirit is living in dependency on Christ ONLY as I grow in my awareness of the utter weakness of my flesh. This dependency on Him is the only thing that helped me experience peace, joy, love. It is coming from an internal source that I know it is not of me. I have become terrified of who I am apart from Christ (my flesh.) Of course, taking any credit for the fruit would be clear evidence I was “working” out of my flesh/natural strength, and not reliance on Him.

    Last, I think TT addresses much of our Union with Christ in his Colossians series. It is GREAT!! Col. 3:4 “When Christ who is your life…” is central in His series.

    I’m so thankful for the discussion and this blog!

  • Paul ST Jean says:

    XI. Of the Justification of Man.
    We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings, Wherefore,that we are justified by Faith only,is a most wholesome Doctrine,and very full of comfort,as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

    The Book of Common Prayer: Articles of Religion

  • Paul ST Jean says:

    Article IV:
    Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength,merits,or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ,who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes as righteousness in his sight(Rom 3:4.)
    Augsburg Confession

  • theoldadam says:


    Our works were judged at the Cross. And found lacking. Your best was put to death with Christ.

    It is He who lives, and not us. Forget about the works stuff. Be an unself-conscious doer of what needs to be done.

  • anonymous says:

    I appreciate this blog picture,too, to consider potential deception that I may see myself as ‘in shape’ even though I don’t ‘eat right or exercise’

    but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. 1 Cor 9:27

  • James says:

    Wow! what a moving experience on your latest sermon Because…therefore pt 2. All I can say is after hearing that I let it sink in for awhile…and later I went back to a book I’m reading called “simple faith” (A misnomer) and if I may here’s 1 more on the Faith called into action or one’s personal definition –

    Faith Called Into Action –
    The faith given by God in regeneration is called into action by the effectual call of the gospel. The first act of God-given faith is faith acting as the result of having been effectually called by the gospel. It is embracing Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior thus experiencing a true conversion. The person with the ability to believe does not act until the call of the gospel comes, and the effectual call of the gospel brings the God-given faith into action. This God-given faith, which is subjective, reaches out to trust what the gospel message has to say about Jesus Christ, His Person, and Work. The last act of faith is the Christian’s realization that the time has come for him to step out of time into eternity, and he readily submits himself to the Lord’s will. The first act of faith has been called a great venture, but the word venture is a poor choice of words. Venture is an undertaking involving risk, uncertainty, or a business enterprise in which loss is risked in hope of gain. This is not a good term to use to refer to embracing Jesus Christ as Savior. The only way the word venture could be Scripturally used to refer to faith would be in connection with the last act of faith in reference to venturing into a strange place. All we know about eternity is what the word of God reveals to us, and the word has not revealed all that we shall experience. When we step out of time into eternity, we will step into a place strange to us because we have not been there before. We are not running a risk by embracing Jesus Christ. Arminians in their theology would be taking a risk, because they make human faith a contribution to their salvation experience. On the contrary, God-given faith gives the ability to believe. By this God-given faith we embrace Jesus Christ, but it is not a human contribution to our deliverance. The writer of Hebrews wrote of a living faith that does not draw back or avoid responsibility to God. This faith has been approved because of the truth it embraces. Hebrews 11
    records the path of faith (vv. 1-7), the perseverance of faith
    (vv. 8-22), and the power of faith (vv. 23-40). In the prologue of this chapter, the writer described faith as “the assurance of
    things being hoped for, the certainty of things not being seen.
    For by this [faith] the elders were approved” (vv. 1, 2 —
    translation). Good also.

  • J. Dean says:

    Thank you for that entry, Pastor T. I loved especially the quote from Martin Luther, and have argued that it would do Reformed believers a world of good to more frequently look at the law/gospel distinction the way that the Lutheran bretheren do, as it would shake from us the Arminian/mainline evangelical understanding of sanctification that seems to have infiltrated its way into some Reformed camps.

  • PAUL says:

    Brother Dunn said: “But it seems as though you categorically reject the continuing alien Grace provided powerfully *in us* by Christ’s resurrection-life that is actively working in us, by the Spirit (sanctification)”.

    John, I don’t wallow and I don’t look in the mirror for a progressive santification. I’m one of those lucky riff-raff’s (with Christ’s imputed rightousness)that gets off scott free and loving it. All I do all day long is rest in Christ finished work and the fruits of the Spirit comes out naturally allowing me freedom to love my neighbor. “God rest when we work and works when we rest”. Joseph Prince. Pastor T, you should consider having Pastor Prince as a speaker at one of you conferences. God Bless.

  • […] rejoinder to any Christian political debate, spring conference speaker Tullian Tchividjian posted an excellent little piece at The Gospel Coalition on the inverse relationship between presumption and (experienced) grace, […]

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