See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
There are twin dangers that we face as believers. The first danger is in viewing sin too highly. The second danger is in seeing sin too lowly. I have seen both errors within Christ’s church… and I have seen them both within myself. There is a fine line that we walk in this life, and it’s easy to fall on one side or the other.
When someone views sin too highly and too regularly… sin, not Christ, becomes the focus. The consequences of such can be devastating. At that moment a person’s gaze isn’t fixed on Jesus in line with Heb 12:2, and whenever our primary gaze is on introspection that will lead to depression, anxiety, concern, and all sorts of doubt. Why? We were never made to hope in or meditate upon ourselves. We are to, as Paul says in Col 3:2, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.”
The flip side of the coin is what I want to focus on here. It’s seen in viewing sin too lowly. While some teach the doctrine of sinless perfectionism, there’s something much more subtle that can occur even in those that wouldn’t appeal to perfectionist teaching (cf. 1 John 1:8–10). There’s a sinister temptation that swirls around in the church whereby we can begin to believe ourselves to be more holy and righteous than we are, and proportionally, we begin to view ourselves as less sinful than we truly are. How dangerous it is to go from the heart that says, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” to, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
The moment when we adopt any view of ourselves other than God’s view, we are pridefully saying that we know better than God. It’s a lie that's origin is traced all the way back to the garden. Whenever we think of ourselves more highly than we are, Paul’s words are designed to swoop down from heaven above like manna to an undeserving arrogant soul, “... let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”
While we certainly do not want to live in sin, that for which our glorious Savior died, make no mistake about it, you and I sin even when we don’t realize our sin. When we don’t call a spade a spade, we continue to live in sin (in denying the presence of sin) and go against the Lord in the process. There’s no shame in admitting you're a sinner, that’s a grand confession. You should cry out not just in the moment of salvation, but regularly cry out, “O God! Be merciful to me—I am a sinner through and through! My only hope of righteousness is not in me, but only You.”¹ That is a glorious, Spirit-wrought confession. There’s no shame there. But, there is in covering up sins like Adam and Eve did. We don’t relish or delight in our sin, may it never be. At the same time, we recognize it and side with God against ourselves, we then turn to walk in God’s ways. Rinse and repeat, for His glory.
The most mature saint is the most humble saint. It is the person who not only rests in and delights in Jesus Christ supremely but the one who recognizes his or her own failings so readily. The pride that lies behind selfish desires in choices made during the day, the ungratefulness toward God in the circumstances He’s presented to you, and the lack of patience shown at work or in the home. And the example that I want to put before you today is that of the apostle Paul from three seasons of his life. As Paul walked with the Lord more and more, it seems he understood his condition more and more clearly.
The first text is found in 1 Cor 15. Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthian church around the year 56 AD. At this point, he had been a Christian for approximately 22 years. Paul begins in verses 3–5 by speaking of the Anchor of our hope. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” That is the fount from which Paul draws as he goes on in verses 7–9, “After that, He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Paul says that he was the least of the apostles.
The word Paul uses, “ἐλάχιστος,” is a superlative. It communicates that he was the least, dead last. It’s a strong way of conveying his place. So why does he say it? It was because of his sin. He knew that he “persecuted this Way to the death.” His recognition is beautiful. He wasn’t like the Pharisee he once was or like the one in Luke 18. He didn’t think of himself as better or more highly than the guys he was around. That’s how he thought before he was saved (cf. Phil 3:3–6). Now, Paul was just thankful to be on the team in light of his sin. What a great mentality to adorn.
If you then fast forward to the book of Ephesians, Paul builds upon his statement in 1 Cor 15:9. Paul wrote this letter five or six years later while in prison to the church family in Ephesus. At this point, Paul had been a believer for approximately 27 years. And Paul was writing to the body to let them know that in Christ, the Jewish and Gentile believers had been united. They were one new man, in Christ. Before their ethnic identification, they were Christians. Then Paul goes on to say in Eph 3:8–10, “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the good news of the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for all what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” Do you see the progression? Paul previously said that he was the least of the apostles. Now what does he say? He says that he’s the “very least of all the saints.” There are a lot of saints out there. Paul knows exactly what he’s saying. He writes to the church family and says, I am less than all of you.
Paul uses the same root word here for least but with a distinction. Paul uses the comparative form here, “ἐλαχιστοτέρῳ.” As opposed to just saying the “least of all,” we see the words “very least of all,” in the LSB. Since it’s comparative, we would think in English of “less than,” but here the word remains a superlative as well. It isn’t “less,” it’s the highest degree, but “least than” isn’t a concept in English. The phrase “very least” is the best translators can do and it does convey the thought as closely as English can. Paul was saying he’s at the bottom of the barrel of all Christians, and then even less than the bottom––if that were possible. Why?
Our third stop is found at 1 Tim 1:15. This is now around two years later. It’s approximately 62 AD. Paul has now been a believer for around 29 years. Paul writes this to Timothy, “It is a trustworthy saying and deserving full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost.” Why was Paul the least of the apostles? Why was he less than the least saint? Well, it’s because he viewed himself as the chief of sinners. He doesn’t say “I was the chief of sinners,” or “I stopped being the chief of sinners and now don’t sin anymore.” No, he says “I am the chief of sinners.” It’s present tense. He owns that.
The word for chief is “πρῶτος.” A transliteration is “protos.” If you’ve heard of the word prototype before, a first type or model, then you have the idea already based on the prefix. The word is usually translated as first. It can be used to speak of one person in front of another spatially. It’s also used for time and chronology, of being first in sequence. But it could also be used to speak of prominence. The last usage is in view. Paul was the first and foremost sinner, the greatest sinner. Paul says, that’s me. Is that how you think of the apostle Paul? He’s probably not on your top 10 chief sinners list. He’s probably on your top 10 most holy list. Nevertheless, that’s how he thought of himself.
Paul could say he’s the chief of sinners because he knew himself better than anyone else, besides the Lord Almighty. He knew the corruptions of his motives and desires and he knew and saw his sin more than anyone else's. Before the Righteous Lord, he believed and saw himself to be the very chief and leader of sinners––at present. Something worth reiterating here is that Paul wasn’t just saved. At this point, he’s been saved for almost three decades. It’s as though his view of himself has become more tuned over time, he sees himself more and more clearly in light of God’s holy light.
Robert Robertson knew Paul’s words all too well when he wrote, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it prone to leave the God I love. Here's my heart, oh take and seal it seal it for Thy courts above.” Paul knew he was a sinner. He wasn’t perfect. He says so in Phil 3:12. He needed the grace of God as much in his sixties as when he was first saved. In fact, over time it appears he recognized how much more he needed it than he ever first believed.
John Calvin said at this point in 1 Tim 1:15, “Our mind is always impelled to look at our worthiness; and as soon as our unworthiness is seen, our confidence sinks. Accordingly, the more any one is oppressed by his sins, let him the more courageously betake himself to Christ, relying on this doctrine, that he came to bring salvation not to the righteous, but to ‘sinners.’” A.W. Tozer said, “We must hide our unholiness in the wounds of Christ as Moses hid himself in the cleft of the rock while the glory of God passed by.”
In salvation, there are often many sins that fall by the wayside that are noticeable right away. Because you have new longings and affections you spend your time differently, your energy, your life. You don’t do things you once did because you have a new Master. But at the same time, what also happens? As we see even with Paul, as you grow closer to Jesus, you realize that you are a far greater sinner than you ever knew you were before. While there might be sins with alcohol, lust, language, covetousness, anger, and things of that nature that are cut down, you see the root of pride that is connected to these goes all the way down to the heart. What was forsaken was the tip of the iceberg, the 10% above the surface. And as you see more of Christ you see what’s beneath the surface that still must be mortified.
Thomas Watson put it this way, “The more the Spirit shines in the heart, the more evil it discovers. A Christian thinks it worse with him than it was, whereas his grace may not grow less, but his light greater.” It is a good thing if you recognize that you’re a sinner. It is a good thing when you adorn God’s view of yourself. When you feel the sweet sting of conviction from the Spirit, don’t run away from it or try to shove it back down. Instead, praise God for His kindness toward you in pointing you in the right direction, back toward Himself. Praise God that He hasn’t given up on you, though you continue to sin. Then make a beeline for the cross. Look to Jesus who forgives the chief of sinners, like you and me, and follow Him.
At this point, I will issue a concluding word of caution. You don’t want to see sin where it isn’t or excuse sin where it is. Again, our gaze is to be fixed on the Lord who helps us in this regard when we come before Him with a sensitive heart desiring to learn and grow from His word and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our job and goal isn’t to be lost in morbid introspection, I have seen many there. As has been discussed, we also don’t want to look past sin where it exists to feign a false righteousness. Robert Murray McCheyne summarizes this principle beautifully. He said, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God.”
Press on dear brothers and sisters.
¹ "Not in Me" by Sovereign Grace Music