THE WORST SINNER YOU KNOW
The Apostle Paul wrote of himself in a way that demonstrates what he believed about himself. First he said he was “least of the Apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9), then “least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8), and, at the end of his life, he saw himself as the “foremost” of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). This, combined with Paul’s ongoing struggle with sin described in Romans 7:13-25, gives a picture of the Apostle’s self-image. Though now a saint he remained, in his own eyes, the worst sinner he knew due to his wicked past and even his present corruption. Note what the Second London Confession has to say about the sin nature in believers:
The corruption of nature, during this life, does remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and the first motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.
– Second London Confession, VI.5
To say that you are the worst sinner you know is not to compare yourself to others. It is a confession of one’s own weakness and transgressions. What enables us to make such a judgment is that we know our sins better than we know anyone else’s. We know (at least in part) our motives, thoughts, and desires. We know not only those visible sins that others may take notice of, but also those that go unnoticed. We do not merely sense this as sinners, but we sense it primarily as saints. We feel our sins, and know the greatness of their heinousness in light of God’s patience toward us, and Christ’s sacrifice for us. In this we find deep humility.
The saint who knows the painful reality of his sin not only confesses his corruption, but also confesses his confidence in his Savior. He is therefore not only humble, he is also happy. For the worst sinner has been sought by Jesus and bought by his blood which cleanses us from all unrighteousness. The unconverted person will never understand the darkness of his heart, or how deep his sin goes. The more intimate our communion with Christ the more bitter our present sin and the sweeter his grace. The more love we have for Christ, the more hatred we have for sin. The higher we are lifted in grace, the lower we bend down in humility. John Flavel captured this so well when he wrote:
When the corn is nearly ripe, it bows the head, and stoops lower than when it was green. When the people of God are nearly ripe for heaven, they grow more humble and self-denying than in the days of their first profession. The longer a saint grows in the world, the better he is still acquainted with his own heart, and his obligations to God; both which are very humbling things.1
The man who knows he is the worst of sinners, and the woman who grieves the depths of her transgressions, does not wind up in despair, but in the wonder of grace that comes to the ungodly–and exclaims, “Even me!” This leaves every saint with earnest hearts eager to repent of all remaining sin and flee to Jesus daily.
Hence spring forth the daily sins of infirmity, and blemishes cleave even to the best works of the saints. These are to them a perpetual reason to humiliate themselves before God and to flee for refuge to Christ crucified; to mortify the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety; and to press forward to the goal of perfection, until at length, delivered from this body of death, they shall reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.
– Canons of Dort, V.2
Unless you know yourself to be the lowest of sinners you will not see the greatness of your Savior. It is the one who is forgiven of much that loves much in response (Luke 7:41-49).
A godly life is not a life free from sin, but from sin’s condemning and controlling power. A godly life is one of repentance from the sins that remain and faith in the God who overcomes all of them through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. A godly life is one of constant growth in humility and happiness.
I am the worst sinner I know, but God loves me. He proves it in the sacrifice of his Son, and through him I am redeemed and reconciled now and forever to the Lord.
1John Flavel, The Heavenly Use of Earthly Things (London: Printed for J. Mathews, 1799) p. 112
Thomas Brooks The Unsearchable Riches of Christ (London: Printed for L. B. Seely and Sons, 1824) p. 1 ff.
Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 13.2 and 18.4.