Nothing sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.
(1 Timothy 1:15)
Humility is often identified with penitence and contrition. As a consequence, there appears to be no way of fostering humility but by keeping the soul occupied with its sin. But I think we have learned that humility is something else and something more than being consumed with our own sinfulness. We have seen in the teaching of our Lord Jesus and the Epistles how often the virtue is mentioned without any reference to sin. In the very nature of things, in the whole relationship of the creature to the Creator, in the life of Jesus as he lived it and imparts it to us, humility is the very essence of holiness. It is the displacement of self by the enthronement of God. Where God is all, self is nothing.
But though it is this aspect of the truth I have felt especially constrained to emphasize, I hardly need to say what new depth and intensity man’s sin and God’s grace give to the humility of the saints. We have only to look at a man like the apostle Paul to see how throughout his life as a ransomed and a holy man, the deep consciousness of having been a sinner lived in him inextinguishably. We all know the passages in which he refers to his life as a persecutor and blasphemer: “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me,” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles,” (Ephesians 3:8). “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst,” (1 Timothy 1:13, 15).
God’s grace had saved Paul; God remembered his sins no more; but never could Paul forget how terribly he had sinned. The more he rejoiced in God’s salvation, and the more his experience of God’s grace filled him with joy unspeakable, the clearer was his consciousness that he was a saved sinner and that salvation had no meaning or sweetness except that his being a sinner made it precious and real to him personally. Never for a moment could he forget that it was a sinner God had taken up in his arms and crowned with his love.
The texts we have quoted are often appealed to as Paul’s confession of sinning daily. But one has only to read them carefully in their context to see that this is not the case. They have a far deeper significance. They refer to the power of God that endures throughout eternity to keep us in awe of the humility with which the ransomed bow before the throne as those who have been washed form their sins in the blood of the Lamb. Never, even in glory, can they be any other than ransomed sinners; never for a moment in this life can God’s child live in the full light of his love without feeling that the sin out of which he has been saved is his one right to grace. The humility with which first he came as a sinner acquires a new meaning when he learns how it becomes him as a creature. And again, the humility in which he was born as a creature has its deepest, richest tones in the memory of what it is to be a monument of God’s redeeming love.
The true importance of what these expressions of Paul teach us comes out all the more strongly when we notice the remarkable fact that through his whole Christian journey we never find from his pen anything like confession of sin. Nowhere is there any mention of shortcoming or defect, nowhere any suggestion to his readers that he has failed in duty or sinned against the law of perfect love. On the contrary, there are passages in which he vindicates himself in language that appeals to a faultless life before God and men. “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you who believed,” (1 Thessalonians 2:10). “This is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God,” (2 Corinthians 1:12). This is not an ideal or an aspiration; it is an admission of what his actual life had been. However we may account for this absence of confession of sin, all will admit that it must point to a life in the power of the Holy Spirit such as is seldom realized or expected in our day.
The point I wish to emphasize is this: the very fact of the absence of such confession of sin only gives more strength to the truth that it is not in daily sinning that the secret of humility is found, but rather in the position of dependence upon the grace of God. Our only place of blessing before God is among those whose highest joy is to confess that they are sinners saved by grace.
With Paul’s fresh reminder of having sinned in the past, and his consciousness of being kept from sin daily, he was well aware of the power of sin that could overtake him without the daily presence and power of the indwelling Christ. “I know that nothing good lives in me,” (Romans 7:18) describes the flesh as it is to the end. The glorious deliverance of Romans 8:2: “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” is neither the annihilation nor the sanctification of the flesh, but a continuous victory given by the Spirit. As health expels disease, light swallows up darkness, and life conquers death, the indwelling Christ through the Spirit is the health, light, and life of the soul. But with this the conviction of helplessness tempers our faith with a sense of dependence that creates the proper humility in us and results in the greatest joy.
The passages above show that it was the wonderful grace bestowed upon Paul, of which he felt the need every moment, that humbled him so deeply. The grace of God that was with him and enabled him to labor more abundantly than they all, the grace to preach to the heathen the unsearchable riches of Christ, is what kept his sense of being liable to sin so alive. “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more,” (Romans 5:20). This reveals how the very essence of grace deals with and takes away sin. The more abundant the experience of grace the more intense the consciousness of being a sinner. It is not sin, but God’s grace showing a man and ever reminding him what a sinner he was that will keep him truly humble. It is not sin but grace that will make me know myself as a sinner.
I’m afraid that there are many who by strong expressions of self-condemnation and self-denunciation have sought to humble themselves, but who have to confess with sorrow that a humble spirit with its accompanying kindness and compassion, meekness and forbearance, is still as far off as ever. Being occupied with self, even having the deepest self-abhorrence, can never free us from self. It is the revelation of God not only by the law condemning sin but also by his grace delivering from it that will make us humble. The law may break the heart with fear; it is only grace that works that sweet humility that becomes joy to the soul as its second nature. It was the revelation of God in his holiness, drawing nigh to make himself known in his grace that made Abraham, Jacob, Job, and Isaiah bow so low. It is the soul that finds God to be everything that is so filled with his presence there is no place for self. So alone can the promise be fulfilled: “The pride of men brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day,” (Isaiah 2:11).
It is the sinner basking in the full light of God’s holy, redeeming love, in the experience of that indwelling divine compassion of Christ, who cannot but be humble. Not to be occupied with your sin but to be fully occupied with God brings deliverance from self.