by Andrew Murray

Humility and Sin

This is a true saying, and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersand I was the worst of them all (1 Timothy 1:15).

In our minds, we often link the word “humility” with certain bad feelings about ourselves that we are such terrible sinners. So we have a hard time imagining any other way to keep humble but to focus our thoughts on our sins. By now, I hope, we all realize that humility means much, much more. We have seen that Jesus’ teachings and the apostolic writings strongly emphasize humility, often without mentioning sin at all. Long before sin entered into the picture, God created the universe to run on submission and surrender. Jesus Himself lived a life of perfect humility, and He never sinned. And the humility He imparts to us is not to make us think about sin more, but to practice sin much less. Humility has less to do with sin than with holiness and blessing. It is about self moving out of the way so that God can take the throne. When God is everything, self is nothing.

That aspect of the truth is what I’ve mostly wanted to stress. But having said all of that, I do want to emphasize that God’s grace in the face of our sin really should create a new depth and intensity to humility for every child of His. We only need to look at a man like Paul to see how, throughout his life as a blood-bought man of God, he never forgot the sinner he had been.

We all know the passages where Paul refers to his life as a persecutor and blasphemer. “For I am the least of all the apostles, and I am not worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). “Just think! Though I did nothing to deserve it, and though I am the least deserving Christian there is, I was chosen for this special joy of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ” (Ephesians 3:9). “How thankful I am to Christ Jesus our Lord for considering me trustworthy and appointing me to serve Him, even though I used to scoff at the name of Christ. I hunted down His people, harming them in every way I could. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:12-13).

God’s grace had saved Paul. He remembered Paul’s sin no more. But never, 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 an unspeakable joy, the clearer his awareness became that he was a saved sinner. He realized that salvation would have no meaning or sweetness unless the sense of his being a sinner made it precious and real to him. Not for a single moment could Paul forget that it was a sinner whom God had taken up in His arms and crowned with His love.

The passages we quoted weren’t a confession of sin that Paul was still practicing daily—just read them carefully in their context and that much should be obvious. But they have a far deeper meaning. They refer to something that will last forever, not just for a day. This awareness of our sin will give a deep, rich awe and wonder to our humility when we bow before the throne. We will take the position of those who have been washed from our sins by the blood of the Lamb. Never, never, even in glory, can we be anything but ransomed sinners. Not for a moment in this life can God’s children live in the full light of His love without understanding that the sin they were saved from is their only qualification for all that God’s grace has promised to do in them.

It takes humility for us to come to Christ as sinners. That humility takes on new meaning when we realize how fitting it is for us as new creations. Yet even then, the humility birthed in us has its deepest, richest notes of praise when we remember what it is to be a monument of God’s wondrous, redeeming love.

The full impact of Paul’s teachings about humility hits us when we realize how nearly sinless a life he lived after his rebirth. In the book of Acts and in the letters, we read of great disciples who fell into one sin or another. Even Peter sinned. But what sin could we charge Paul with? It’s not that he wasn’t vulnerable, either. In his letters he laid bare his heart in intensely personal ways. But where can we detect any shortcoming or defect? Where can we say he failed in his duty, or sinned against the perfect law of love?

Paul could write some amazing statements in his letters. “You yourselves are our witnesses—and so is God—that we are pure and honest and faultless toward all of you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:10). “We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have been honest and sincere in all our dealings” (2 Corinthians 1:12). Paul wasn’t speaking of how he aspired to live. He was saying quite matter-of-factly that these statements described how he had lived. Whatever else we may say about these passages, we have to admit Paul must have lived in the Power of the Holy Spirit to a degree that has seldom if ever been matched.

My point is this: the secret to Paul’s humility simply couldn’t have been that he was obsessed with thinking about his daily sin.   Instead, his secret can be found in how he positioned himself continually in his heart, a position he never forgot for a moment. And the more God’s provision abounded to him, the more alive that position became in him. That position is our only true place—the only place of blessing. We must take the place of those whose highest joy is to confess that they are sinners saved by grace.

Paul remembered vividly his terrible sins in the past, before he knew God’s grace. He knew just as vividly that only God’s transforming power kept him from sinning now. And he never forgot that the dark, hidden monster of self was always lurking nearby, ready to burst back in, but held back by the presence and power of Jesus living in his heart. “I know that I am rotten through and through as far as my old sinful nature is concerned” (Romans 7:18). These words will describe the flesh to the end of our lives. “For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death” (Romans 8:2). This glorious freedom doesn’t mean that the flesh is annihilated. It also doesn’t mean that the flesh is somehow rehabilitated. Instead, it means that the Spirit continuously gives us victory as He puts to death the misdeeds of the flesh.

A healthy body kills germs. Light swallows up darkness. Life conquers death. And Jesus, living in us through His Spirit, is the health and light and life of our souls. But with this conviction comes another, that our helplessness is only overcome as we trust the continual working of the Holy Spirit. We have a humble sense of our dependence on Him. Faith and joy are the companions of humility. This humility lives only by the grace of God.

The three scriptures we quoted above all show that it was the wonderful grace given Paul—a grace he knew he needed every moment—that humbled him so deeply. God’s provision enabled him to work harder than the rest. It is the nature of grace that it enables the saved sinner to declare to unbelievers the unsearchable riches of Christ. With this extravagant grace come faith in and love for the Lord Jesus. It was this grace that kept Paul’s consciousness of having once sinned, and being still capable of sin, so intensely alive. “As people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful kindness became more abundant” (Romans 5:20). Grace demolishes sin. The greater our experience of grace, the more intense will be our awareness that we are sinners. It isn’t sin that keeps us truly humble, but God’s grace. Sin doesn’t make us realize we are sinners; grace does. Grace makes the sinner’s position of deep humility a place we will never leave.

I’m afraid that there are many people who have tried to humble themselves by condemning themselves strongly and putting themselves down, but who still would have to admit that a humble spirit, together with kindness, compassion, meekness, and forbearance, are as far off as ever. Focusing on yourself—even with self-hatred—will never free you from yourself. You need God’s revelation, not only through His law condemning you, but also through his grace delivering you. Then you will be humble. The law may break your heart with fear. But only grace can work into your heart the sweet humility that becomes its nature and its joy. It was the revelation of God in His holiness, drawing near to make Himself known in His grace, that made Abraham and Jacob, Job and Isaiah, bow so low before Him. There will be no room for self in the soul that waits for, trusts, worships, and is filled with the presence of God the Creator as everything for man in his nothingness, and God the Redeemer as everything for man in his sinfulness. In only this way can the promise be fulfilled: “The arrogance of all people will be brought low. Their pride will lie in the dust. The Lord alone will be exalted!” (Isaiah 2:17).

It is the sinner, stepping into the full light of God’s holy, redeeming love, who will experience God’s love living inside him through Christ and the Holy Spirit. That person cannot help but be humble. Not to focus on sin, but to focus on Jesus, will bring you deliverance from self.

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