Not long ago, I read the true story of Nick Lannon, Editor-in-Chief of LIBERATE, who was serving as a chaplain at a VA Hospital in Pittsburgh. The story goes that Nick walked into the room of a sick man. And when he asked the sick man how he was doing, the man said, “Son, I’m dying.” Nick was actually shocked at this man’s brutal honesty, and Nick said, “Well, how do you feel about that?” And the sick man said, “Well, I think I’ve lived a good life. I’m just not sure it was good enough.” After telling that story, Nick writes this:
God never looks at a Christian and says, “Good enough.” There’s no such thing. Instead of waiting for us to become something we can never be, God gives that which he requires: perfection. In exchange, he takes our imperfection onto himself. He speaks a loving word over his righteous son, and that word is applied to us. He calls us perfect, he calls us holy, and he calls us beloved. And since God’s words call into being the thing which he speaks, we become what are naturally not: perfect, holy, and beloved.
It is this exchange that forms the center of Christianity and allows Christians to be honest, with themselves and with others. … We can say, “I am a liar.” We can say, “I am selfish.” We can say, “I am a sinner.” Finally, we can say, “I am dying.” Into the darkness of those admissions comes the fire of new truth: though I am not good enough, Christ was good enough for me.
At my church, we went through a sermon series on how we grow in grace in the Christian life—how we mature as believers. Sometimes we get the wrong idea about maturity. We think maturity is simply being able to obey God more and more. Of course, that’s what we want. We don’t want to sin. We don’t celebrate failure. We want to see the fruit of our faith in Jesus. At the same time, though, our obedience cannot be our only measure of faith.
Why? Because it will lead us down one of two roads—either we’ll look at our fruit and say, “Man, I’m pulling this off. I’m a pretty good guy now.” And it leads to pride, self-righteousness, and the sense that we can be less dependent on Jesus. Or it could lead the opposite way. We could say, “Whoa! There’s a lot of commandments in here. Even the two commandments that sum everything up—love God and love my neighbor—I’m not doing that perfectly. I could never be good enough. God, how can you still accept me? Broken as I am? A sinner. Every bit in need of your grace as I was the day I first trusted you?” And it leads to shame and guilt and despair. We forget that Christ is good enough for us.
I want to look at three different letters that Paul wrote to the church, and, through these letters, we’ll see what Donald Grey Barnhouse called Paul’s “strange advancing knowledge of sin.”
The Already But Not Yet
Let’s consider that we live in a time of great tension. We live in what’s called the “already but not yet.” As believers in Jesus Christ, we have already been saved from our sins. We have already been set free from our chains. Christ has already come to pay our debt in full on the cross, but we have not yet arrived into the future kingdom that God promises us in his Word. There is still a future hope that we look forward to. We are on what John Bunyan called The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The tension is that we have been set free from sin, but we have not fully arrived. Even though we are no longer under condemnation for our sin, as Romans 8:1 affirms, we still struggle. In this in-between state, this “already but not yet,” we give in to temptation each and every day. We are not there yet. We have not yet reached the glory that God promises.
We see this more clearly in Paul’s letters to the church. We have two natures at war against one another. We have the old nature—the one where we were born in sin. That’s our sin nature. Then we have the new nature in Christ, which belongs to the Holy Spirit. We are being re-created by the Spirit, re-fashioned back into the perfect image of God. Yet, that old, pesky nature of sin continues to pull us back down.
So Paul said in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And in Galatians 5:17 he says, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
This is what Martin Luther and others meant by the Latin phrase simul justus et peccatur, which simply means we are simultaneously righteous and a sinner. Because of Christ’s finished work on the cross and resurrection from the dead, we are declared righteous before God. The Bible calls us saints. But we sin daily, and we are still affected by our old, sinful nature. So we are still sinners in daily need of grace.
As Jono Linebaugh said, “The Christian, in him or herself, is totally a sinner while at the same time being, in Christ, totally righteous before God. In other words, Christians are fully human—real people with real problems and real pain. But Christians, at the same time they’re sinners, are fully and savingly loved.”
Living in this state of “already but not yet” is scary. We are often afraid of our real selves. On our church’s men’s retreat last year, Nate Larkin told us how, as a minister, he would regularly look at pornography. And then it escalated to soliciting women to satisfy his desires. So he lived this double life of good Christian minister by day and sinful adulterer by night. He said he was simply playing the role of Jekyll and Hyde. And he was afraid of what would happen if someone found out about the real Nate Larkin. But it was only when he presented the real Nate Larkin to Christ that he was able to begin to repent and heal.
Advancing Knowledge of Sin
Paul did advance in life, but Paul did not advance to a state of arrival in the Christian life. As he progressed through life, he gained a greater awareness of himself—his own sin and need for constant renewal.
On Paul’s third missionary journey, he wrote to Corinth.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:3-10a)
He’s saying, “This is the gospel that I’ve been preaching to you. Christ died, was buried, was raised, and appeared to many people. And then he appeared, last of all, to me.” Paul understood the grace of God. He understood that if it were not for an act of sovereign grace, he would still be spiritually dead in his transgressions and sins and dragging Christians off to be persecuted. So he proclaims in 15:9, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle.”
But then if we turn over to Ephesians 3, we see how Paul’s self-awareness evolves. Again, Paul talks about how he was called to be a minister of the gospel. He says, “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:7).
Look at that again. “The very least of all the saints.” Not just last of the apostles, unworthy to be an apostle. Now it’s “very least of all the believers in Christ.” The way Paul speaks here is not simply in the past tense. It’s not, “Well, I used to be least in the kingdom, but now I’ve matured.” No, it’s just the opposite. Paul’s maturing faith leads him to the conclusion that, like King David said in Psalm 51, his sin was ever before him. He wasn’t worthy to be counted as great in God’s kingdom, much less as an apostle, a witness to Christ’s resurrection.
That leads us to 1 Timothy, where Paul is nearing the end of his life. He says in verses 15-16,
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
Do you see the progression? “I am the least of the apostles.” “I am the very least of all the saints.” “I am the worst sinner.”
Not long ago, I was reading through the Gospel of Matthew and came to chapter nine. Jesus healed a paralytic, and then he called Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him—to be his disciple. Jesus ate with Matthew and his tax collector and sinner friends. The Pharisees saw that this happened and said, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus responds in Matthew 9:12: “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
And after I read that, I found myself asking, “Am I a Pharisee?” Now, we all do this, don’t we? We read about what the bad guys do in Scripture, and we say, “Yeah, I do that sometimes. I grumble. I complain. I sin in this way and that way.” But what I’m saying is that, for the first time, I was identifying as a Pharisee. Not simply like a Pharisee or one who has Pharisee tendencies. I am a Pharisee. I desire sacrifice over mercy.
There’s nothing wrong with sacrifice. But desiring it over steadfast mercy and love toward others is what the Pharisees were guilty of. It’s what I am guilty of. I love being right and following the rules, and it’s often at the expense of loving my wife, my children, my friends, the church, or my neighbor.
So then I get to this place of, “Man, I’m worse than I thought I was. I’m not just Pharisee-esque. I am a Pharisee. I don’t just sin. I am a sinner.” So as you progress in your Christian maturity, you may find yourself saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize how selfish I am when I drive. I used to think it was everyone else around me.” Or maybe you think, “I was never aware of how unloving I was to my wife. It always seemed like she was just critical of me.”
Christian maturity is not advancing from one stage of goodness to another, but, by God’s grace, recognizing more and more our need for faith and repentance—recognizing our need for the Holy Spirit to renew us from the inside out. Why is that? Well, I love how the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A #115 helps us out here:
Q: “If in this life no one can keep the ten commandments perfectly, why does God have them preached so strictly?”
A: “First, so that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ. Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach the goal of perfection.”
Abundance of Grace
By now you have probably heard the story about Ray Rice, former running back for the Baltimore Ravens. Back in February 2014, he was arrested for striking his fiancée, Janay. He came forward with Janay, to whom he is now married, and spoke to the media. He said, “I failed miserably, but I wouldn’t call myself a failure because I’m working my way back up.”
Now, I love that he came forward. But here’s the thing, and this what I would say to him if I could, “Ray, you failed, and it’s not just because you make mistakes or because you slipped up here or there. You failed because you’re a sinner. You can’t work your way back up. You need someone outside yourself to restore you.”
And that’s why Paul’s words to Timothy are such good news: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners like Ray Rice. He came into the world to save Pharisees like me. He came into the world to save Paul, the chief of sinners and persecutor of Christ’s church. And it only magnifies the patience and the grace of God. To receive this abundant flow of God’s grace, we must be in a position of need. A position of weakness, not strength. We receive grace at the bottom, with our hands open as poor beggars.
So where is hope when our disobedience to the Father is revealed more and more? When we increasingly find that we are not perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect? When we reach the end of our life and we see that, “I am dying, and my life was not good enough”? We have hope, because Jesus was more than good enough. And our faith in Jesus is what makes us righteous before God. When the Father sees us, he sees Jesus.
That’s why Paul says in Romans 4:20-25,
No unbelief made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
The strong may survive in this life, but it’s the weak who are raised to new life with Christ. As Tullian Tchividjian writes in One Way Love, “God doesn’t select His team the way the NFL does in the April draft. He isn’t looking for the best athletes around, or even those with the most potential. . . . God lavishes his grace on the foolish, the weak, the despised, and the nothings so He alone will get the glory.”
May God be glorified and praised for sending the Son to come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.
Ethan A. Smith (@EthanASmith) is a thirty-something seminary student trying to juggle work, study, husband, and father duties, while also finding his identity as an adopted son of God. He blogs at Overwhelmed Again.
Adapted from Overwhelmed Again. Used with permission.