Foremost of All

“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”   — 1 Timothy 1:15

There is a difference between believing in the total depravity of man and believing in the total depravity of yourself.  The former is always easier, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who recognizes the inborn pride in his own heart.  To believe that the human race is utterly and helplessly sinful demands theological accuracy.  But to believe that I am utterly and helplessly sinful demands face-to-the-ground humility.  Accurate theological convictions about the humbling reality of human wretchedness are not the same thing as personal, unfeigned humility.  I can believe a humbling doctrine and not be humbled by it, in the same way that I can walk underneath the stars at night, acknowledge that they’re there and that they’re beautiful, and yet not be starstruck.  It might have been one thing if Paul had only written, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  I can echo that.  But he also wrote, “I am the chief of sinners.”  That’s harder to say.  It’s harder to see.

Seeing things as they pertain to everyone else shows that you are thoughtful and judicious.  But seeing things as they pertain to your own heart shows that you are biblically humble.  Confusing the two is easily and often done.

I have often wondered how Paul could call himself “the chief of sinners” and do so honestly.  Usually when people say things like this, their words sound like a beautiful woman smearing mud on herself and saying, “No, really—I’m an ugly person!”  They don’t believe what they’re saying and no one else does, either.  It feels too deliberate, too artificial.  But Paul doesn’t sound like that in 1 Timothy 1:15.  He really believed what he was saying.

Genuine humility has an unmistakable beauty that cannot be counterfeited.  And its worth is beyond the worth of anything that can be.  There are many things I want very badly to be.  And I think that I would trade them all for real, Christ-centered humility.

All too often I have thought that I was doing my best spiritually when I was most passionate and precise in my critiques of “the church.”  I could see everything: legalism here, licentiousness there; hypocrisy on one side, worldliness on the other; affected spirituality in one person, lukewarmness in the next; theology-too-strict on the right, theology-too-loose on the left.  I would talk about the desperate need for “revival” and “reformation” in the modern church.  I felt very passionate about changing both the church and the world for Christ.  I still believe I see all these things, in enough people and in enough ways that it is easier to be sad than happy on any given day.  I also still think of and use these terms when they seem justified.  I still want God to use me to reform the church and save the world.  But I no longer gauge my spirituality on how accurate I think my own ecclesiological criticisms are.  At least I try not to.  I try to gauge my maturity by how broken-hearted I am over my own sin, how awestruck I am by the glory and grace of Christ, and how consistent I am in genuine, sacrificial love toward others.

There is nothing more repulsive than skin-deep humility, and nothing more lovely than the real thing.  It is found not in self-degradation but in Christ-exaltation.  It flows from the recognition of God’s mercy, it produces constant gratitude, and it is centered on the cross of Christ.  And it is much rarer than it should be.

God forgive me for writing so much about something I know so little of.  I take my pride to 1 Timothy 1:15 and I lay it down there.  “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”  I love this Man.

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