By Kyle Idleman
Grace isn’t something you dissect and define. It's something that collides with and forever changes your life. But it's not as easy as it sounds, because before your life can collide with grace, you must first collide with the reality of your sin.
I'm Not That Bad
I once received an email from a man whose wife had recently come to faith at my church. He told me about the changes he had seen in her, but he was skeptical. He said, “She seems much happier now, but I think she’s just trying to get me to drink the Kool Aid.” I asked if he and his wife could meet with me. When we did, I tried to share the gospel. When I explained that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard he began to protest, “I’m not that bad.”
He thought it was unfair to be judged by “God’s standard.” I started with a theological explanation of sin, but the man’s wife interrupted me. She turned to her husband and said, “Do you think it’s OK to get drunk and yell at your spouse? Do you think it’s ok to lie about your sales numbers? Do you think it’s ok to tell your grandson you’ll be at his game and then not show up?” She asked a few more revealing questions but I’ll never forget what she said next. Looking directly at him she said, “You say it’s not fair to be held to God’s standard, but you fall short of your own standards.”
We work hard at convincing ourselves and others that we’re not that bad, but the truth is we are worse than we imagine. The more you push back on that, the more you push back on experiencing the freedom and beauty of God’s grace.
The Biggest Sinner You Know
I can’t really blame the guy for wanting to deny the severity of his sin. I think we all do.
I heard a quote once from Pastor Jean Larroux, “If the biggest sinner you know isn’t you, than you don’t know yourself very well.” My immediate response was to protest. I thought, “I may be a sinner. But I’m not the biggest sinner I know.” I want to deny the severity of my sin, but it’s hard to deny.
I realized Larroux’s quote echoed a Bible verse. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul says to Timothy, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
I wrote a paper about that passage in seminary. It focused on Paul’s past before he became a Christian. I made the case that Paul describes himself as the worst of sinners because he had been a persecutor of Christians and did everything he could to destroy the church and the mission of Christ. When my professor returned the paper to me, there was no grade at the top of the page. Instead, in red ink, he had written: “Rewrite.” I wasn’t sure what the problem was. He hadn’t made any notes in the margin to help me understand why I needed to write the entire paper over again. I went up to his desk after class hoping to get a little feedback. He took out his red pen and he circled one word from 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
I waited for a moment expecting him to expound, but he had already moved on to the next student. I stood staring at that word am. Suddenly, I realized what I had missed. The verb tense of the word “am” is present tense. Paul didn’t say, “I was the worst of sinners,” he said, “I am the worst of sinners.”
If you were to hook me up to a lie detector test and ask, “Do you think you're the worst of sinners?” I would probably say “Yes”, because I’m so sinful that I try to make myself seem more spiritual by sounding as humble as possible. But I’m fairly certain the polygraph machine would reveal the truth and lack of humility. If I’m honest, deep down (probably not even that deep) I don’t consider myself the worst of sinners.
But I can tell you, the more I learn about the righteousness of God and the more I examine my own life and motives – the closer I’m getting to the inescapable conclusion that I really am the worst sinner I know.
I wonder if you know yourself well enough to think you might just be the worst sinner you know. I realize why you might push back on that, but do you realize if you are, you are denying God's grace in your life?
Until we understand our sin, we’ll never really understand grace. Because grace isn’t something you dissect and define. It’s something your life collides with and is forever changed by. But before your life can collide with grace you first must collide with the reality of your sin.