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The Greatest Sinner I Know
July 22, 2005
I am going to pose a question and ask you to think for a minute or two before answering. Stop for a moment before you continue reading this article and answer this simple question. Who is the worst sinner you know? Chances are that you know hundreds of people. Perhaps a thousand. Think of all those people and ponder which one is the worst sinner of all.
Who did you think of? Perhaps you thought of a parent who did irreversible damage to you when you were only a child. Maybe you thought of a co-worker who delights in his own depravity, or maybe you thought of a friend or family-member who is imprisoned for what he has done. But if you were honest I hope you were able to admit that you know someone who is a far greater sinner than any of these.
Who do you know better than anyone else? Whose heart is laid before you in its entirety, so that you cannot escape the evil bubbling just beneath the surface and the far greater evil buried deep within? When I stop and think about the greatest sinner I know, I really have no choice but to admit that it is me. I am the greatest sinner I know. It feels good to say it. Good but humbling. I am the greatest sinner I know. I may not sin as much as the guy next door, but I see only a few of his evil deeds, so he cannot be the worst winner I know. I see every single one of mine. All day long, in everything I do and in every word I say, I see my own propensity towards evil.
I know how my heart grumbles when it should be glad, and how it is glad when it should cry out. I see how I can walk away from the poor, lonely and destitute and rarely think of them again. I know how I continually do the very things I least want to do and least should do, all the while avoiding those things I most want to do. Truly there is no end to the depravity of my heart. William Law, who lived in the 18th century, knew this. He said, “Nothing hath separated us from God but our own will, or rather our own will is our separation from God.” He said also that, “Self is the root, the tree, and the branches of all the evils of our fallen state.” The selfishness of my heart and my love for what is evil is both shocking and humbling. And it all begins with me.
The apostle Paul knew this. While there are few people in all of history most of us would be more eager to spend time with, and while there are few who have contributed more to the Christian faith, he looked into his heart and proclaimed himself the chief of sinners. “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” (1 Timothy 1:15,16).
Like Paul, William Law was the worst sinner he knew. He wrote, “We may justly condemn ourselves as the greatest sinners we know because we know more of the folly of our own heart than we do of other people’s.”
You are the worst winner you know. I am the worst sinner I know. Say it to yourself and let it sink in. Let it penetrate your heart and your conscience.
All is not lost.
Why did Paul proclaim himself the foremost of sinners? He was not dwelling on his own sinful nature, nor bemoaning his state. No, Paul was pointing, as he did in every area of his ministry, to the cross of Christ. The depravity of the apostle was great, but how much greater was the love of Jesus Christ! He received mercy so that Jesus might display His amazing grace.
In The Cross Centered Life, C.J. Mahaney writes of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet. “As Jesus reclines at the low table, leaning on one elbow, His feet stretched out away from the table, the woman stands over Him and begins to weep. All conversation ceases. The sound of her weeping grows in volume, filling the house and spilling out into the street. Her freely flowing tears wet His unwashed feet. She kneels down, takes down her hair, and with it begins to wash Jesus’ tear-stained feet. The she kisses them and anoints them with perfume as an act of worship.”
We have all heard this story many times. But maybe we have missed its full significance. This woman was not weeping out of remorse for her sin. She was not asking the Lord’s forgiveness, hoping that her cries would stir His heart to give her a word of blessing. She knew that she had already been forgiven. Her soul was cleansed, her past forgotten. And so she wept, crying out with joy, gratitude and devotion. Looking to the worst sinner she knew, she was filled with love for the One who had extended grace to her. And so she wept, providing for Christians of all ages a beautiful example of worshipful devotion. And so she wept.
The greatest of sinners requires the greatest Savior. I am the greatest sinner I know. Thankfully, because of God’s grace, I also know the greatest Savior. And so I weep.