It is difficult to define the sin of
presumption. Dictionaries are clogged with the legal definition (it has a
specific meaning in the practice of law.) Various theological sources go on for
some length. Rather than attempt to give you a solid dictionary definition,
let's take it as a working item: giving good advice to God. We shall see some
The Nature of Presumption
We must take this by example. I am indebted to Nave’s
Topical Bible for this list of examples.
We Don't Agree with What God Tells Us
It is not that we don't understand what God has told us;
it's just that we think he made a mistake. Surely, if he understands the
circumstances, he will approve of our edited version. For example:
As the serpent said to Eve in the garden, did God really say
that? Is that what he really meant?
Satan, the serpent, evidently has no qualms about misquoting the Scripture and
twisting the meaning. It seems this is something sinners are rather good at.
Sometimes we make God the reason we disobey him. Sound strange?
Remember Jonah, the fellow who was swallowed by a whale? His excuse was that he
knew God was merciful. And God being merciful, surely he would pardon Nineveh.
So what's the sense in sending Jonah when you know the answer anyway?
At other times we substitute our own ways and means for the ones
God has prescribed. Here's an example from the Old Testament:
Malachi 1:6-9 NASB
" 'A son honors his father, and a
servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a
master, where is My respect?' says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests who
despise My name. But you say, 'How have we despised Your name?' (7) "You
are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, 'How have we defiled
You?' In that you say, 'The table of the LORD is to be despised.' (8) "But when you present the blind for
sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not
evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would
he receive you kindly?" says the LORD of hosts. (9)
"But now will you not entreat God's favor, that He may be gracious to us?
With such an offering on your part, will He receive any of you kindly?"
says the LORD of hosts.
Whether we consider a good advice, or that we presume God
will take care of things when we should, or if we just happen to have a simple
cheaper substitute — it's presumption.
Close, but Not Right
Permit me a war story. One of my students many years ago was
quite Pentecostal beliefs. She came in and told me that God had directed her to
anoint a particular wall in her house, for reasons which I have forgotten. She
announced that she was going to anoint every wall in the house. Perhaps this
was the spirit of God moving, but I immediately told her not to do that. If God
tells you to anoint one particular wall, anoint that wall and no others. Does
this seem strange to you? Then I give to you the example of King Uzziah. For
reasons not specified, he decided that he would offer incense before God's altar
in the Temple.
For his trouble, God gave him leprosy. Now, to our minds this may seem strange:
after all, if a priest offers incense why can't the King? The answer simply is,
because God said so. Offering incense is a good thing — but it is reserved for the
priests. Do it God's way.
Sometimes we are doing something like what God wants, but
not quite following his Commandments. Listen to the story of how King Saul lost
1 Samuel 13:8-14 NASB
Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but
Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him. (9) So Saul said, "Bring to me the burnt
offering and the peace offerings." And he offered the burnt offering. (10) As soon as he finished offering the burnt
offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. (11)
But Samuel said, "What have you done?" And Saul said, "Because I
saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within
the appointed days, and that the Philistines were assembling at Michmash, (12) therefore I said, 'Now the Philistines will
come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not asked the favor of the LORD.' So
I forced myself and offered the burnt offering." (13)
Samuel said to Saul, "You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the
commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, for now the LORD
would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. (14) "But now your kingdom shall not endure.
The LORD has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has
appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD
You can almost hear the excuse coming of Saul's mouth. He
would say something like this: hey, the people were acting up. I had to do
something. You told me to offer sacrifices; it seemed like a good time to do
it. I was just being reasonable. It's a curious thing: often enough God does
not want us to be reasonable. He wants us to be obedient. Reasonable people do
not give money to beggars. But charity is an essential part of the Christian
Sometimes we want to help God out. You might want to
consider the example of the disciples in handling little children. Kids that
size can be a real nuisance, and Jesus was really busy. So the disciples
decided to help him out. They screened his callers. If you recall, Jesus sternly
rebuked them. He seems to be expected them to know that the children would be
especially welcome. They substituted their good business judgment for the love
The Issue Is the Other Guy
Well, sometimes the issue a presumption comes up in our look
at other people. Let's take a look at three:
Do you remember the scene after the resurrection where Jesus
meets the disciples at the lake? We focus on the redemption of Peter; but do
you recall that Peter tried to distract Christ's attention by asking about the
In a sense, it's the statement that reforming me is painful — therefore, let's
focus on the other guy.
Sometimes it's worse. Sometimes we see someone else doing
something that is an act of utter devotion to Christ, and the comparison to
ourselves is rather bothersome. For example:
Matthew 26:6-9 NASB
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, (7) a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of
very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. (8)
But the disciples were indignant when they saw this,
and said, "Why this waste? (9) "For
this perfume might have been sold for a
high price and the money given to the
They were indignant — because Christ was honored.
Of course, the most common example is rather petty. It is
rather amusing that the fellow named Diotrophes is an extremely minor character
in the New Testament – precisely because he wanted to be a big shot.
Washing the Feet
We can now examine an event in the life of Peter which
reflects such presumption.
John 13:3-11 NASB
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given
all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going
back to God, (4) *got up from supper, and
*laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. (5) Then He *poured water into the basin, and began
to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was
girded. (6) So He *came to Simon Peter. He
*said to Him, "Lord, do You wash my feet?" (7)
Jesus answered and said to him, "What I do you do
not realize now, but you will understand hereafter." (8) Peter *said to Him, "Never shall You wash
my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I do not
wash you, you have no part with Me." (9)
Simon Peter *said to Him, "Lord, then wash
not only my feet, but also my hands and my head." (10) Jesus *said to him, "He who has
bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean,
but not all of you." (11) For He
knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, "Not all of you are clean."
Why this Peter behave this way?
He Doesn't Understand the Situation
One of the keys to understanding Peter's behavior is
impatience. You have to start with the fact that he does not understand the
situation. From his point of view there is no teaching going on. As any parent
knows, your children are always learning — even if you think you're not
teaching. Peter's problem starts with the fact that he won't wait on events.
Instead of letting Christ complete his work, and then asking what it meant, he
presumes. He thinks he understands. In this, he makes two mistakes:
He is more concerned with dirt than with sin.
He is more concerned with "me" than "us."
The reason is simple: he assumes that Christ's actions have
no connection to Passover. Since he is at a Passover supper, this seems rather
strange. One way to avoid such presumption is to assume that our Lord is always
teaching us — and we should always be asking him what the lesson is about.
He Doesn't Understand Christ
Trudeau once made a comment about the Canadian view of living next to the
United States. He said it was like sleeping back to back with an elephant –
really cozy, until the elephant decides to roll over. Peter, in this
circumstance, has forgotten something like this. He has forgotten the awe due
to the living Christ. Perhaps this comes from confusing small power with great
power. Small power – as displayed by petty tyrants in offices everywhere –
constantly reminds its underlings that fear is due. Great power can afford
humility; small power cannot. Those of us who live with small power every day
sometimes mistake humility for weakness. This is not a foot bath; it is the
supreme power of the universe giving us an example.
If Peter forgets the power of Christ, he has also forgotten
the mission of Christ. Christ came to establish the kingdom of God; his actions
tend to that purpose. Therefore, when you see him in action, you may assume
that this is for the establishment of the kingdom of God. Even in these washing
He Doesn't Understand Himself
If there is one type of person Americans cherish, it is the
man of action. Particularly in the church we treat those who think as if they
had nothing better to do. The person we really like is the dynamic man of
action: ready, fire, aim. Peter is that kind of man. And it is a frequent
occurrence that that kind of man has no understanding of himself and no idea
why he has just shot off both of his feet.
There is one advantage to being a man of action: you avoid
those quiet moments of the soul, in which introspection may be painful. It's
sort of like avoiding your dental appointment. If nothing is hurting right at
the moment, or at least not severely, the man of action says I don't need a
dentist. Eventually the pain comes, and the dentist says, "I wish you had
come in earlier." It's like my mother used to say: "don't do dumb
One other factor must be considered. It is likely that
Peter, very much like your author, is not a particularly graceful individual.
His social skills do not extend to the gracious way of getting out of an
awkward situation. So having stuck his foot in his mouth, he keeps it there.
Sometimes it's the best thing we can do.
Get Thee behind Me
Matthew 16:21-28 NASB
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem,
and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be
killed, and be raised up on the third day. (22)
Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You." (23) But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me;
for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." (24) Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny
himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. (25)
"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it;
but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (26) "For what will it
profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a
man give in exchange for his soul? (27)
"For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory
of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS
DEEDS. (28) "Truly
I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste
death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
This is the area in which Peter gives us the clearest
definition of presumption: giving good advice to God. We shall take it step by
Peter's Point of View
Presuming that Peter actually thought this out carefully
(which I doubt), he probably reasoned it this way:
Jesus is imbued with great power. This cannot be denied.
Jesus is innocent. This cannot be denied.
The innocent should not suffer. Note that this is a moral
That last is the problem. We use it as a moral guideline for
things like "rules of engagement" in warfare. In general, the
suffering of the innocent is to be prevented when it is possible. It's a good
guideline for man; God has other responsibilities. The classic example of the
suffering of the innocent in the Old Testament is Job. We might well ask why
Job suffered. When asked the question God never explained anything. We know
what was going on behind the scenes, spiritually — but Job was never given such
As Augustine said, God allows no suffering out of which he
cannot bring a greater good. So in God's view, the suffering of the innocent is
indeed permissible if needed to bring a greater good. The supreme example of
this is the Cross. So while we can sympathize with Peter's "logic",
we can also see that something greater was at work — and he should have
The Foolishness of God
Indeed, from the human point of view the problem seems to
lie with God. Paul went so far as to describe this as the foolishness of God:
1 Corinthians 1:20-25 NASB
(20) Where is the wise man? Where is the
scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom
of the world? (21) For since in the wisdom of
God the world through its wisdom did not come to
know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached
to save those who believe. (22) For indeed
Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; (23)
but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles
foolishness, (24) but to those who are the
called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (25) Because the foolishness of God is wiser than
men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
It is a central paradox of the faith: the ultimate source of
wisdom is so wise as to display his foolishness to us. If you seek the miracle,
he shows you the ordinary growth of the kingdom. Changed lives? Not a
miraculous thing, but a marvelous thing. Remember that Paul's readers had seen
miracles. We sometimes think that if we saw miracles we would have so much more
faith; those who saw them often did not. The scientific thinker, the
reductionist, has a similar problem. What God does simply does not make sense
to the limited mind of man. What is clear is simply this: the death, burial and
resurrection of Jesus Christ. The answer to "why" lies only in the
love of God.
Why does God do it this way? I submit there are at least
First, so that we see Christ rather than the miracles. The bread
of life is put before us, and often what we ask for is bread from the bakery.
Second, so that we learn to do things God's way. This applies
even if we do not understand why God wants it done that way.
Third, that we may accept the grace of Christ and its abounding
humility. Grace gives humility; knowledge puffs up.
Take up the Cross
So what should we do about it? Christ gives us the answer in
this passage in three steps:
First, deny yourself. Deliberately decide that you are not number
one in your life; Christ comes first. Read the Scriptures to find out how you
do this and how it applies to you, but first you must make that decision.
Take up the Cross. If you accept self-denial, you will be handed
a burden to bear. He tells you that his yoke is easy and his burden is light
(for he will help you carry it), but it is still a burden. Sometimes he
accompanies it with a gift of the Holy Spirit. If your gift is teaching, teach.
Follow him. This is not a system of rules and regulations, but a
personal devotion to Jesus Christ. It was not through the commandment and
obedience that Mary Magdalene poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet. It was
The Sword of the Spirit lies before you. As Christ might say
to the Airborne Ranger, "pick up your weapon, and follow me."