Great Texts of the Bible
A Faithful Saying
Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.—1 Timothy 1:15.
1. In these words we have the first of a short series of five “faithful sayings,” or current Christian commonplaces, incidentally adduced by the Apostle Paul in the course of his letters to his helpers in the gospel—Timothy and Titus—i.e. in what we commonly call his Pastoral Epistles. They are a remarkable series of five “words,” and their appearance on the face of these New Testament writings is almost as remarkable as their contents.
Consider what the phenomenon is that is brought before us in these “faithful sayings.” Here is the Apostle writing to his assistants in the proclamation of the gospel, little more than a third of a century, say, after the crucifixion of his Lord—scarcely thirty-three years after he had himself entered upon the great ministry that had been committed to him of preaching to the Gentiles “the words of this life.” Yet he is already able to remind them of the blessed contents of the gospel message in words that are the product of Christian experience in the hearts of the community. For just what these “faithful sayings” are, is a body of utterances in which the essence of the gospel has been crystallized by those who have tasted and seen its preciousness. Obviously the days when this gospel was brought as a novelty to their attention are past. The Church has been founded, and in it throbs the pulse of a vigorous life. The gospel has been embraced and lived, it has been trusted and not found wanting; and the souls that have found its blessedness have had time to frame its precious truths into formulas—formulas, not merely that have passed from mouth to mouth, and been enshrined in memory after memory until they have become proverbs in the Christian community, formulas, rather, which have embedded themselves in the hearts of the whole congregation, have been beaten there into shape, as the deeper emotions of redeemed souls have played round them, and have emerged again suffused with the feelings which they have awakened and satisfied, and moulded into that balanced and rhythmic form which is the hall-mark of utterances that really come out of the living and throbbing hearts of the people.
2. The particular one of these “sayings” which has been chosen as the text is a great assertion—an assertion which, if it be truly a “faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation,” is well adapted to become even in this late and, it would fain believe itself, more instructed age, the watchword of the Christian Church and of every Christian heart. On the face of it, it simply announces the purpose, or, we may perhaps say, the philosophy, of the incarnation: “Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” But it announces the purpose of the incarnation in a manner that at once attracts attention. The very language in which it is expressed is startling, meeting us here in the midst of one of St. Paul’s letters. For this is not Pauline phraseology that stands before us here; as, indeed, it does not profess to be—for does not St. Paul tell us that he is not speaking in his own person, but is adducing one of the jewels of the Church’s faith? At all events, it is the language of St. John that here confronts us, and whoever first cast the Church’s heart-conviction into this compressed sentence had assuredly learned in St. John’s school. For to St. John alone belongs this phrase as applied to Christ: “He came into the world.” It is St. John alone who preserves the Master’s declarations: “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world”; “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.” It is he alone who, adopting, as is his wont, the very phraseology of his Master to express his own thought, tells us in his prologue that the true Light—that lighteth every man—was coming into the world, but though He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, yet the world knew Him not.
Let us consider, first, the way in which the Apostle commends the great saying to us—it is (1) “faithful,” and (2) “worthy of all acceptation.” Next, let us look at the saying itself. And, then, let us see how St. Paul adds his own fervent Amen to it: “of whom I am chief.”
The Apostle’s Commendation of the Saying
“Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation.”
1. It is faithful.—It is faithful because men have proved it so in their experience, and because it agrees with sense and reason.
(1) When a man in the middle of some slight plank thrown across a stream tests it with a stamp of his foot, and calls to his comrades, “It is quite firm,” then they may venture upon it too. That is exactly what St. Paul is doing here. How does he know that “faithful is the saying”? Because he has proved it in his own experience, and found that in his case the salvation which Jesus Christ was said to effect has been effected. Now there are many other grounds of certitude besides this, but, after all, it is worth men’s while to consider how many millions there have been from the beginning who would be ready to join chorus with the Apostle here, and to say, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” My experience cannot be your certitude; but if you and I are suffering from precisely the same disease, and I have tested a cure, my experience should have some weight with you. And so, we point to all the thousands who are ready to say, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him.”
Go to-day whither you will, north or south, east or west, and find the homes that are happiest, the lives that are sweetest, the souls that are sunniest, the hearts that are most helpful and most eager in helping others, you shall find all this among those who set their seal to this as true—“It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Go to-day amongst the roughest and the vilest, the drunken and the brutal, the coarsest and the most depraved. What can uplift them? Bring education, good houses, pure water, good food and enough of it—by all means get these things, it is a duty to demand them. But none of them, nor all of them put together, can cast out devils, or loose the chains of sin. Here in the West End of London, amidst stately architecture and splendid luxury, there is a show of vice more crowded and more hopeless than anything in the East End. Have education, or art, or any of these agencies wrought the cure of humanity anywhere? They have their place, and a lofty and noble place it is; but the maladies of humanity are beyond their power to heal. But we can show thousands and tens of thousands who will tell us: “I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, injurious.” Ask them what has made them so different, and they will tell you, “It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
On New Year’s Day, 1894, seeing a favourable opportunity to have a serious and pertinent talk with Keamapsithyo (Philip), the first Indian who had shown any really marked interest in Christianity, I walked out with him some distance from the village, and sat down on the bank of a stream. After a long conversation, I told him that, although his knowledge was exceedingly rudimentary, chiefly owing to my inadequate command of his language, and consequent inability to put the truths of the gospel clearly before him, yet he had been able to comprehend sufficiently to warrant him in deciding there and then to abandon heathenism once and for all, and follow Christ as his Chief. He replied that it was as I had said, only that I had not seemed to understand how sinful his past life had been; he knew that, to follow Christ, he would have to give up that life of sin, but, as it had such a hold upon him, he felt that he could not; furthermore, his sins had been so many that he felt sure the Christ about whom he had been taught could not possibly go so far as to forgive him. He added that, of course, in my case it was different, because I was a good man, as all the Indians knew, and doubtless Christ had been quite pleased to receive me, seeing that I had never committed such and such sins. In his own case, however, it must be otherwise. I went over with him in detail the particular sins which he had instanced, and assured him that many of them I had myself committed innumerable times; that others, although not committed in act, I had committed in intention; and that he knew, according to the theories of his own people, as well as from the teaching of Christ Himself, that the sin of the will was as much a sin as the deed itself. I tried to convince him that I was really in no way a better man than himself, in spite of his opinion of me and that of his people, who had only judged me superficially, yet Christ had accepted me, and therefore would accept him. I showed him that I still had the same temptations as he had, only the difference was that my will was to do good and abstain from evil; that this was not a natural, but a changed will, given me by God; and although I certainly did things of which I did not approve yet it grieved me when I did, and that I was continually striving to overcome these failings. I then expounded the doctrine that, in such a case, will-power would be given to overcome evil in proportion as the desire to overcome was strong. I pointed out that, by his own confession, he desired to lead a good life, and that, as I had already made it clear, his past guilt could be atoned for. Although he would continue to stumble for long after taking this step, I explained how he would be given strength to subdue his natural weakness; how, as his knowledge increased, and his experience ripened, and his desire tended unswervingly in the right direction, so he would in time come to realize the happiness of doing right, and discover that strength to do it would be imparted to him. After this, without giving any decision one way or another, he broke off the conversation and left me.
It was not until four years and a half afterwards that I learnt the immediate result of our talk. He was preaching to his countrymen, and in the course of his address stated distinctly and unhesitatingly that it was on that day that he definitely resolved sincerely to endeavour to carry out what I had advised. He remarked that it was only the perception that suddenly dawned on him of the similarity of my own condition with his that encouraged him to make the effort.1 [Note: W. B. Grubb, An Unknown People in an Unknown Land, 225.]
(2) But it is not only because of that consentient chorus of many voices—the testimony of which wise men will not reject—that the word is “a faithful saying.” There is no fact in the history of the world better attested, and the unbelief of which is more unreasonable, than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if Christ rose from the dead—and you cannot understand the history of the world unless He did, nor the existence of the Church either—if Jesus Christ rose from the dead, almost all the rest follows of necessity: the influx of the supernatural, the unique character of His career, the correspondence of the end with the beginning, the broad seal of the Divine confirmation stamped upon His claims to be the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world. All these things come necessarily from the fact. And given the consentient witness of nineteen centuries, given the existence of the Church, given the effects of Christianity in the world, given that upon which they repose—the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—the conclusion is sound: This is a faithful saying, that He came into the world to save sinners.
If the lowest form of energy, however it may be transformed or degraded, be still conserved in some shape and place, can any one believe that the Author of Life in this world was extinguished on a Roman cross? The certainty of Jesus’ Resurrection does not rest in the last issue on His isolated appearances during the forty days; it rests on His Life for thirty-three years. His Life was beyond the reach of death; it was Ageless Life. Jesus’ Life impressed His generation as unparalleled and inexplicable, a Life with inscrutable motives and incalculable principles. What was its explanation according to any known standard? Jesus was accustomed frankly to admit that it had none; that it was an enigma from the earthly standpoint. But He pleaded that it was supreme and reasonable from the Heavenly standpoint. It was foreign here; it was natural elsewhere. He did the works He had seen His Father do, He said the words He had received of His Father, He fulfilled the will of His Father. There was a sphere where His Life was the rule, where His dialect was the language of the country and His was the habit of living. His unlikeness to this world implies His likeness to another world. One evening you find among the reeds of your lake an unknown bird, whose broad breast and powerful pinions are not meant for this inland scene. It is resting midway between the two oceans, and by tomorrow will have gone. Does not that bird prove the ocean it left, does it not prove the ocean whither it has flown? “Jesus, knowing … that he was come from God and went to God,” is the Revelation and Confirmation of Ageless Life.1 [Note: J. Watson, The Mind of the Master, 82.]
2. It is worthy of all acceptation.—This phrase, “all acceptation,” may mean either of two things: it may mean worthy of being welcomed either by all men, or by the whole of each man.
(1) This gospel deserves to be welcomed by every man, for it is fitted for every man, since it deals with the primary human characteristic of transgression. We need different kinds of intellectual nutriment, according to education and culture. We need different kinds of treatment, according to condition and circumstance. The morality of one age is not the morality of another. Much, even of right and wrong, is local and temporary; but black man and white, savage and civilized, philosopher and fool, king and clown, all need the same air to breathe, the same water to drink, the same sun for light and warmth, and all need the same Christ for redemption from the same sin, for safety from the same danger, for snatching from the same death. This gospel is a gospel for the world, and for every man in it.
Jesus Christ did not die for a few of us. He tasted death for every man. He did not in His great heart think of this little nationality, or that. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. Yonder Man does not think of little pieces or of parts of things; when He thinks He thinks entireties, when He loves, He loves entireties. No fraction could ever satisfy His infinite love.1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]
(2) It is also “worthy of all acceptation” in the sense of worthy of being accepted into all a man’s nature, because it will fit it all and bless it all. Some of us give it a half welcome. We take it into our head, and then we put a partition between it and our heart, and keep our religion on the other side, so that it does not influence us at all. It is worthy of being received by the understanding, to which it will bring truth absolute; of being received by the will, to which it will bring the freedom of submission; of being received by the conscience, to which it will bring quickening; of being received by the affections, to which it will bring pure and perfect love. For hope, it will bring a certainty to gaze upon; for passions, a curb; for effort, a spur and a power; for desires, satisfaction; for the whole man, healing and light.
Charles Kingsley, a few hours before his ordination, wrote: “Oh! my soul, my body, my intellect, my very love, I dedicate you all to God! And not mine only … to be an example and an instrument of holiness before the Lord for ever, to dwell in His courts, to purge His temple, to feed His sheep, to carry the lambs and bear them to that foster-mother whose love never fails, whose eye never sleeps, the Bride of God, the Church of Christ.”2 [Note: Charles Kingsley: His Letters and Memories of His Life, i. 51.]
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
1. To understand this great saying we must first of all look closely at the words.
(1) “Christ Jesus” was a formula with a special significance for Jews. The first name carried the mind away to the long-promised “hope” of Israel, of whom psalmist sang and prophet dreamed, the cherished expectation of the faithful. “Christ” is “Messiah,” the “Anointed.” Their kings in the days of national glory were “Messiahs” anointed with holy oil and set apart to their lofty office. In course of time the name came to be applied specially and exclusively to the expected Prince who should redeem His people from their troubles. As the nation’s calamities multiplied and they sank in adversity this hope was maintained with an almost fierce energy; and the Messiah became to the Jew in some respects what el-Mahdy is to the Moslem and el-Hady to the Druze, the Leader or Guide who should deliver them and reduce their oppressors to bondage. “Jesus,” Saviour, was also a name of happy augury. It is “Joshua,” the name borne by the mighty warrior who led Israel through victory to possession of the promised land. It was an auspicious combination of names. Paul and Timothy rejoice together in the realization of the nation’s hope. Messiah has come: the Saviour has appeared. But in the spirit of enlargement begotten by this new-found joy they give a more generous interpretation of the Messianic functions. He is not a Prince of deliverance to one people alone: His mission is to “sinners.” Not the children of Jacob in lonely gladness shall He restore to the land of their fathers. This Joshua shall lead His Israel from every kindred and people to “an inheritance that is incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.”
(2) “Christ Jesus came into the world.” This implies that Christ was before He came into the world. Perhaps, indeed, the expression in itself, apart from all similar phrases, torn from the substance and isolated from the analogy of Scripture, would not bind us down to attach this sense to it. But we must interpret it as what it is—a general expression of the revelation of God which centres in Christ; we must look at it in the light of other statements plainly kindred to it. Christ came into the world. He came from the bosom of the Father, where He had from eternity been, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In giving us Him, God gave us of His own very self—of His own very substance, His own very life, His own very character, His own very love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” And Christ, that Son, came; He came from God; He was God; He came “from the bosom of the Father” to “shew us the Father.” He came from out the Infinite fully to meet and satisfy the cry of the creature after God. He came, in whom “dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily,” to draw us into a loving communion and transforming sympathy with God, through revealing God to us as just and holy, but also as tender and compassionate, gracious and forgiving.
How did life originate upon this planet? The grass, trees, flowers, birds, animals, whence came they? What was the origin of the first mysterious seeds which held within themselves these various forms of life and beauty? Lord Kelvin believes that meteoric stones are seed-bearing agents, and that it is not improbable that these aerolites first brought to us the seeds of vitality and loveliness from distant worlds. It may be so. The law of the cosmos may be that living worlds vitalize dead worlds. So the Son of God descended from the celestial universe that He might bring into this realm of death and despair all those glorious truths, influences, and hopes which are making the desolate sphere to blossom as the rose and to shake like Lebanon.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson, The Ashes of Roses, 18.]
(3) “Christ Jesus came into the world.” In the Johannean phraseology which we have here—though certainly not in the Johannean phraseology only—the term “the world” does not express a purely local idea, but is suffused with a deep ethical significance. When we read accordingly of Christ Jesus coming into the “world,” we are not reading of a mere change of place on the part of our Lord—of a mere descent on His part from heaven to earth, as we may say. We are reading of the light coming into the darkness; “the world” is the sphere of darkness and shame and sin. It is, in a word, the great ethical contrast that is intended to be brought prominently before us, and in this lies the whole point of the incarnation as conceived by St. John, and as embodied in this passage. Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, came into “the world,” into the realm of evil and the kingdom of sin. In the present passage this idea is enhanced by the sharp collocation with it of the term “sinners.” For, in the original, the word “sinners” stands next to the word “world,” with the effect of throwing the strongest possible emphasis on the ethical connotation. This is the faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that the Apostle commends to us—that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” For what else, indeed, could He have come into “the world,” the sphere of evil, except to save sinners?
What could such an one as Christ have to do in coming to such a place as the world? The incongruity of the thing requires accounting for. It is much as if we saw a fellow-Christian in some compromising position. We might meet with him here, there and elsewhere, and no remark be aroused. But by some chance swing of the shutter as we pass by we see him standing in the midst of a drinking-saloon; we see him emerge from the door of a well-known gambling hell, or of some dreadful abode of shame. At once the need of an explanation rises within our puzzled minds, and the whole stress of the situation turns on the explanation. What was his purpose there? we anxiously inquire. So it is with Christ Jesus coming into the world; and so we feel in proportion as we realize the ethical contrariety suggested by the term. Thus it comes about that the primary emphasis of the passage is felt to rest on the account it gives of the situation it brings before us—on its explanation of how it happens that Christ Jesus could and did come into the world.1 [Note: B. B. Warfield, The Power of God unto Salvation, 35.]
2. What, then, was the purpose of Christ’s coming, and how did He fulfil it?
(1) Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. We despair of finding an English phraseology which will reproduce with exactitude the nice distribution of the stress. Suffice it to say that the strong emphasis falls on the fact that it was specifically to save sinners that Christ Jesus came, and that the way for this strength of emphasis is prepared by the use of phraseology which implies that there was no other conceivable end that He could have had in view in coming into such a place as the world except to deal with sinners, of whom the world consists. He might indeed have come to judge the world; and in contrast with that the emphasis falls on the word “to save.” But He could not conceivably, being what He was, the Holy One and the Just, have come to such a place as the world is—the seat of shame and evil—save to deal with sinners. The essence of the whole declaration, therefore, is found in the joyful cry that it was specifically to save sinners that Christ Jesus came into this world of evil.
If we do not read the mind and purpose of Christ with this key in our hand, we shall read it wrongly, superficially, and upside down; we shall never get into its deeper places, but be walking only in the outside chambers. He came to reveal sin, to condemn it, to emphasize God’s eternal hatred of it, to make it hideous and loathsome in His all-revealing light; He came to bring deliverance from it, and forgiveness by offering a propitiation, and Himself bearing the curse of it. He came to fight against sin and subdue it, and ransom those who had been held fast in its deadly bondage. For this end was He born, for this He died, and for this consummation He employs His risen and exalted power for ever. It is the Alpha and Omega of the gospel message, and, whatever else Jesus was and did, we must begin and end there if we would understand the rest.
Christ often explained the purpose of His coming in other words. He had come, He said, to show the Father and to do the Father’s will. He had come to be the Light of the world and to give men life more abundantly. He had come to be the servant of all, and to set men an example that they should follow His steps. He had come to give deliverance to the captives, and to heal the bruised and broken heart. He had fifty gracious, merciful, saving ends in view, but they were all included in the one supreme purpose to save sinners from their sins, to scatter the darkness and heal the blindness which sin had made, to remove the alienation from God which sin had produced, to heal the hatreds, enmities, and moral diseases which were the offspring of sin, to redeem men from the sorrows, heart-burnings, and fears which sin brought, and to shed abroad in all hearts the love which sin kills. Man has only one enemy in Christ’s thought, though he often thinks he has a legion. Sin is the enemy, and Christ’s long warfare in living and dying was against that. “He came into the world to save sinners.”1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough, The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, 30.]
It is only by saving us from sin that Christ saves us from ignorance and from misery. There is a high and true sense, valid here too, in the saying that faith precedes reason: that it is only he that is in Christ Jesus who can know God and acquire any effective insight into spiritual truth. And equally in that other maxim that the regeneration of the individual is the condition of the regeneration of society: that it is only he that is in Christ Jesus who can have added to him even these lesser benefits. Apart from the central salvation from sin, knowledge can but puff up, and society at best is a whited sepulchre, full of dead men’s bones. And it is only by His prime work of saving from sin—that sin which is the root of all ignorance and of all our bitterness alike—that He makes the tree good that its fruits may be good also.2 [Note: B. B. Warfield, The Power of God unto Salvation, 46.]
From the palace of His glory,
From the radiance and the rest,
Came the Son of God to seek me,
Bear me home upon His breast.
There from that eternal brightness
Did His thoughts flow forth to me—
He in His great love would have me
Ever there with Him to be.
Far away, undone, forsaken,
Not for Him my heart was sore;
But for need and bitter hunger—
Christ desired I nevermore.
Could it be that in the glory,
Ere of Him I had a thought,
He was yearning o’er the lost one,
Whom His precious Blood had bought?
That it was His need that brought Him
Down to the accursed tree,
Deeper than His deep compassion,
Wondrous thought! His need of me.
Trembling, I had hoped for mercy,
Some low place within His door—
But the crown, the throne, the mansion,
He made ready long before.
And in dim and distant ages,
In those courts so bright and fair,
Ere I was, was He rejoicing,
All He won with me to share.1 [Note: F. Bevan, Hymns of Ter Steegen, 133.]
(2) Jesus came to save sinners! But from what? Was it from the consequences of our sins? Or was it from sin itself? Here we encounter one of the most prevalent misconceptions of the atonement. The doctrine is sometimes presented as if our Lord was punished in order that we might be let off, and as if the sufferings of the Just for the unjust were undergone so that the guilty might escape the reward of their misdeeds. According to this theory, salvation is regarded as an escape from penalty, a deliverance from the result of wrong-doing, a rescue from loss and ruin. No wonder that men have revolted from such a doctrine, stated, as it often has been, in a form that contradicts the moral instincts of our nature. “We must pay our debts,” says Mr. Bernard Shaw; and the conscience of the modern world approves his dictum, and cannot tolerate the notion of a decree which, professing to be Divine, cancels moral obligations, and sets the wrongdoer free from the outcome of his sin. Moreover, while the nobler souls are in protest against such a representation, the meaner souls have at times been ready to take shelter under it, and to say to themselves that, since through the gospel they can escape the consequences of their sins, they need not be specially careful to avoid transgression. “Let us continue to sin, that grace may abound!” So spake the deceitful heart of men in the age of the Apostles, and the evil whisper is re-echoed to-day by the Enemy of our souls.
The protest of the world’s conscience is entirely justifiable. Yet it is just at this point that we must be particularly careful, and try to disentangle the truth from the falsehood in the popular misinterpretation. The truth is this: Sin, in one of its aspects, is its own punishment. It separates us from God, producing a sense of estrangement and alienation, and making us imagine that we are outcast from His Presence. It obscures the fact of our fellowship with Him, and destroys the freedom of our mutual intercourse. This is part of the essential curse of sin, the inevitable outcome which God has attached to all wrong-doing. And when, by faith in Jesus, we receive pardon for our sins, we are at the same time released from part also of their penalty. When we come to ourselves, when we realize how we have offended, when we resolve to return to the Father with a confession on our lips, He is ever ready to welcome us back, and to renew in us the sense of our filial relationship to Him which has been established in Christ Jesus. And day by day, through fresh acts of penitence for our shortcomings, we are continually being saved from that result of our sin which consists in a separation of ourselves from the love of our Heavenly Father.
Salvation is not forgiveness of sin: it is not the remission of a penalty: it is not a safety. No, it is the blessed and holy purpose of God’s love accomplished in the poor fallen creature’s restoration to the Divine image. And to this end is the news of God’s love in this great work declared to men, that they hearing it may have confidence in Him who hath thus loved them, and so open their hearts to let in His Spirit.1 [Note: Thomas Erskine of Linlathen.]
Harriet Martineau speaking of her early religious difficulties says: “To the best of my recollection, I always feared sin and remorse extremely, and punishment not at all; but, on the contrary, desired punishment or any thing else that would give me the one good that I pined for in vain,—ease of conscience. The doctrine of forgiveness on repentance never availed me much, because forgiveness for the past was nothing without safety in the future; and my sins were not curable, I felt, by any single remission of their consequences,—if such remission were possible. If I prayed and wept, and might hope that I was pardoned at night, it was small comfort, because I knew I should be in a state of remorse again before the next noon. I do not remember the time when the forgiveness clause in the Lord’s Prayer was not a perplexity and a stumbling-block to me. I did not care about being let off from penalty. I wanted to be at ease in conscience; and that could only be by growing good, whereas I hated and despised myself every day.”2 [Note: Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, i. 40.]
St. Paul’s Amen
“Of whom I am chief.”
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” says the Apostle, and then he adds the words—which sound strange coming from the lips of such a man—“of whom I am chief.” It was his way of confirming the “faithful saying,” his “Amen” to all it meant.
1. Why did St. Paul estimate himself thus?
(1) Was it false humility? The Emperor Augustus, alarmed at his own prosperity, and fearing that happiness so unmixed as his might create jealousy, attired himself once a year as a beggar, and sat asking alms in a crowded part of the city. It is with similar feelings of voluntary humility, and as if apologizing for their exceptional comfort, that some persons profess themselves “miserable sinners,” although surrounded with everything that can make life easy and pleasant to them. There is in the human heart an obstinate superstition that God grudges us happiness, and that if we are happy we should at least wear sackcloth and ashes before Him. And, possibly, it may be fancied that St. Paul’s words ought not to be pushed as if he really meant he was the worst of men, and that all he intended was a decent humility. But if we can suppose that St. Paul thought there was some virtue in calling himself the chief of sinners, while he was in fact convinced he was much better than others, we have yet to learn both the nature of humility and the character of St. Paul. Humility must be founded on truth; an affectation of humility is silly and offensive. To call ourselves the chief of sinners with a feeling of self-complacency in our humility is a mark of a nature neither sincere nor simple. And for a man of so clear a spiritual understanding as St. Paul to make this confession untruly would have gone far to make it true.
A man knelt at the altar and prayed.
“O God,” he said, “I am all evil, without and within. My soul is black with the colour of my sin, and my shoulders are bowed down with the weight of it. God of all mercies, be merciful to me, the chief of sinners.”
As he went out he met a friend.
“Where have you been?” asked the friend.
“I have been at the altar,” said the man, “confessing my sins.”
“Speaking of sins,” said the friend, “there is a fault that I have often noticed in you.”
And he told him of his fault.
“Liar!” said the man, and smote him on the mouth.1 [Note: Laura Richards, The Golden Windows.]
(2) Was it, then, ignorance of life, or of human nature, that led St. Paul so to speak of himself? That was hardly possible. He lived when the world was at its worst. He had travelled and seen much. He had mixed with all sorts and conditions of men. He had known the chief priests and rabbis of Jerusalem, and the philosophers of heathendom; he was acquainted with the slums of cities, and with the manners of coarse and brutal people; he had lived in Rome when Nero was Emperor. Therefore we must conclude that he knew what he was saying when he described himself as “the chief of sinners.”
A Greek fortune-teller was once reading Socrates’s hands and face to discern his true character and to advertise the people of Athens of his real deserts. And as he went on he startled the whole assembly by pronouncing Socrates to be the most incontinent and libidinous man in all the city; the greatest extortioner and thief; and even worse things than all that. And when the enraged crowd were about to fall upon the soothsayer and tear him to pieces for saying such things about their greatest saint, Socrates himself came forward and restrained their anger and confessed openly and said, “Ye men of Athens, let this truth-speaking man alone, and do him no harm. He has said nothing amiss about me. For there is no man among you all who is by nature more disposed to all these evil things than I am.” And with that he quieted and taught and solemnized the whole city.2 [Note: Alexander Whyte, The Apostle Paul.]
(3) It is a commonplace of religion that in proportion as a man is himself good, he is quick and severe in dealing with his own unrighteousness, and charitable towards other men; admitting all conceivable apology for them, “hoping all things, believing all things,” in their exculpation, but condemning himself without a hearing. And this fact, in the first place, must be taken into account in explaining St. Paul’s words. His own sins were his immediate concern, on them the weight of God’s law had first manifested itself in his conscience; and in connexion with them, and not with the sins of other men, had God’s holiness first revealed to him its reality, its penetrative truth, its power, its relation to human life. And it is so universally. For he who sees God, sees sin also. And though we know it cannot be true that each Christian is the chief of sinners, yet each Christian is again and again convinced—and not in moody hours, in which everything is seen distorted, but in his hours of clearest vision and most inspiring purpose—that no one can possibly be quite so bad as himself.
In the Christian life the sign of growing perfection is the growing consciousness of imperfection. A spot upon a clean palm is more conspicuous than a diffuse griminess over all the hand. One stain upon a white robe spoils it which would not be noticed upon one less lustrously clean. And so the more we grow towards God in Christ, and the more we appropriate and make our own His righteousness, the more we shall be conscious of our deficiencies, and the less we shall be prepared to assert virtues for ourselves.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
We cannot attain this virtue of humility except by true knowledge of ourselves, knowing our misery and frailty and sins; wherefore we ought always to abide low and humble. But to abide wholly in such knowledge of one’s self would not be good, because the soul would fall into weariness and confusion; and from confusion it would fall into despair; so the devil would like nothing better than to make us fall into confusion, to drive us afterward to despair. We ought then to abide in the knowledge of the goodness of God in Himself, perceiving that He has created us in His image and likeness, and re-created us in grace by the blood of His only-begotten Son, the sweet incarnate Lord; and reflecting how continually the goodness of God works in us. But see, that to abide entirely in this knowledge of God would not be good, because the soul would fall into presumption and pride. So it befits us to have one mixed with the other—that is, to abide in the holy knowledge of the goodness of God, and also in the knowledge of ourselves: and so shall we be humble, patient, and gentle.2 [Note: St. Catherine of Siena.]
Mr. North on several occasions was at pains to explain the position he then occupied. “Don’t think,” he said, “that I am intruding into the office of the holy ministry. I am not an authorized preacher, but I’ll tell you what I am; I am a man who has been at the brink of the bottomless pit and has looked in, and as I see many of you going down to that pit, I am here to ‘hollo’ you back, and warn you of your danger. I am here, also, as the chief of sinners, saved by grace, to tell you that the grace which has saved me can surely save you.”1 [Note: K. Moody Stuart, Brownlow North, 62.]
(4) St. Paul is not therefore boasting of his sin. He is, on the contrary, glorying in his salvation. If Christ came just to save sinners, he says, in effect, Why that means me; for that is what I am. There is a sense, then, no doubt, in which he can be said to be glad that he can claim to be a sinner. Not because he delights in wickedness, but because that claim places him within the reach of the mission of Him who Himself declared that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
“Methought,” said “Rabbi” Duncan on one occasion, “I heard the song of one to whom much had been forgiven, and who therefore loved much. But it was the song of the chief of sinners, of one to whom most had been forgiven, and who therefore loved most. I would know, O God,” he went on, “what soul that is. O God!”—he pleaded, “let that soul be mine.”2 [Note: A. Smellie, In the Secret Place, 145.]
2. The Apostle does not say “I was,” but “I am chief.” What! A man who could say, in another connexion, “if any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature; old things are passed away”—the man who could say, in another connexion, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God”—does he also say, “I am chief”? Is he speaking about his present? Are old sins bound round a man’s neck for evermore? If they are, what is the meaning of the gospel that Jesus Christ redeems us from our sins? Well, he means this: No lapse of time, nor any gift of Divine pardon, nor any subsequent advancement in holiness and righteousness, can alter the fact that I, the very same I that am now rejoicing in God’s salvation, am the man that did all these things; and, in a very profound sense, they remain mine through all eternity. I may be a forgiven sinner, and a cleansed sinner, and a sanctified sinner, but I am a sinner—not I was. The imperishable connexion between a man and his past, which may be so tragical, and, thank God, may be so blessed, even in the case of remembered and confessed sin, is solemnly hinted at in the words before us. We carry with us ever the fact of past transgression, and no forgiveness, nor any future “perfecting of holiness in the fear” and by the grace “of the Lord” can alter that fact. Therefore, let us beware lest we bring upon our souls any more of the stains which, though they be in a blessed and sufficient sense blotted out, yet leave for ever the marks where they have fallen.
“That good man, Stead,” that Waugh put upon his kind little extravagant eulogy of me, refers properly, not to me, but to father. He was a good man, I am not, never was, and, I fear, never will be. I often feel as if I were far worse than any of the other convicts. They had not such a home as ours, such a father and such a mother.1 [Note: W. T. Stead, in My Father, 141.]
Also I ask, but ever from the praying
Shrinks my soul backward, eager and afraid,
Point me the sum and shame of my betraying,
Show me, O Love, Thy wounds which I have made!
Yes, Thou forgivest, but with all forgiving
Canst not renew mine innocence again:
Make Thou, O Christ, a dying of my living,
Purge from the sin but never from the pain!
So shall all speech of now and of to-morrow,
All He hath shown me or shall show me yet,
Spring from an infinite and tender sorrow,
Burst from a burning passion of regret:
Standing afar I summon you anigh Him,
Yes, to the multitudes I call and say,
“This is my King! I preach and I deny Him,
Christ! whom I crucify anew to-day.”2 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, Saint Paul.]
A Faithful Saying
Banks (L. A.), Paul and his Friends, 327.
Calthrop (G.), The Future Life, 209.
Curnock (N.), The Comfortable Words of the Holy Communion, 93.
Dods (M.), Christ and Man, 176.
Drury (T. W.), The Prison-Ministry of St. Paul, 193.
Ealand (F.), The Spirit of Life, 26.
Ellicott (C. J.), Sermons at Gloucester, 36.
Ewing (W.), Cedar and Palm, 120.
Flint (R.), Sermons and Addresses, 176.
Greenhough (J. G.), The Mind of Christ in St. Paul, 27.
Hare (A. W.), The Alton Sermons, 124.
Jenkins (E. E.), Life and Christ, 195.
Knight (H. T.), The Cross, the Font, and the Altar, 20.
Liddon (H. P.), Advent in St. Paul’s, 233.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Philippians, etc., 316.
Maclaren (A.), Paul’s Prayers, 192.
Maggs (J. T. L.), The Spiritual Experience of St. Paul, 125.
Murray (A.), Aids to Devotion, 13.
Murray (A.), Humility, 59.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, 1:57; 7:193.
Roberts (W. P.), Reasonable Service, 91, 104.
Thorne (H.), Notable Sayings of the Great Teacher, 227.
Warfield (B. B.), The Power of God unto Salvation, 29.
Watkinson (W. L.), The Ashes of Roses, 15.
Wilson (J. M.), Rochdale Sermons, 10.
Christian World Pulpit, xlviii. 127 (T. L. Cuyler); lxxi. 284 (I. J. Roberton); lxxviii. 259 (D. Lucas).
Churchman’s Pulpit: General Advent Season, i. 205 (H. P. Liddon); Sermons to the Young, xvi. 223 (E. Garbett).
Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., viii. 276 (G. Proctor); 3rd Ser., xiii. 222.
Homiletic Review, lii. 66 (C. Q. Wright); lxii. 140 (L. M. Watt).
Preacher’s Magazine, xi. 354 (M. G. Pearse); xii. 20 (J. T. L. Maggs).
Presbyterian, Sept. 19, 1912 (J. Mellis).