John Newton, who wrote the much-loved hymn “Amazing Grace,” was earlier in his life a slave trader and even captain of a ship transporting captured Africans to America. For medical reasons, he left the seafaring life, became a customs officer, studied theology, and eventually became a minister. However, even as a minister, Newton never forgot the horrible nature of his sin as a slave trader. At the end of his life, Newton said to a friend, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.”
Centuries before, Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul, was also guilty of grievous sins. Acts 7:54–8:1 describes his complicity in the stoning of Stephen; then in Acts 9:1–2, we read of his personal involvement in persecuting believers. Toward the end of his life, Paul described himself in those earlier days as “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent [of Christ]” (1 Timothy 1:13). But in that same context, he could also say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Both John Newton and the apostle Paul saw themselves as great sinners, but with a great Savior. Most believers cannot identify with either John Newton or the apostle Paul in the gravity of their earlier sins. We may not have committed adultery, murdered anyone, dealt drugs, or embezzled from our employers. I myself, reflecting back on my life, can say I was usually an obedient child, a model teenager, a trusted employee, and a conscientious husband and father. In fact, I’ve even been on the staff of a Christian ministry for over fifty years.
However, though I have not committed any of the big scandalous sins, I have gossiped, spoken critically of others, harbored resentment, become impatient, acted selfishly, failed to trust God in difficult issues of life, succumbed to materialism, and even let my favorite football team become an idol. I have to say with Paul that I am the foremost of sinners. Or to paraphrase John Newton’s words, “I am a great sinner, but I have a great Savior.” That is my only hope. That is the only remedy for my sin, and it is your only remedy as well.
Both John Newton and Paul spoke of themselves as sinners in the present tense. Neither of them said I was; they said I am. It’s clear in the context of Paul’s statement that he was reflecting on his earlier sins as a persecutor. Likewise, we know from Newton’s own reflections that he never got over the fact that he had been a slave trader. In fact, with each passing year, he became more horrified at his former life.
Does that mean, then, that though describing themselves as sinners in the present tense, they were referring only to their past sins as a persecutor and a slave trader? It is hardly possible that they would think that way. We know, for instance, that several years before writing 1 Timothy, Paul referred to himself as “the very least of all the saints” and as a minister of the gospel only by the grace of God (see Ephesians 3:7–8). In fact, there seems to be a downward progression in Paul’s self-awareness from the least of the apostles (see 1 Corinthians 15:9, written in AD 55) to the very least of all the saints (see Ephesians 3:8, written in AD 60) to the foremost of sinners (see 1 Timothy 1:15, written about AD 63 or 64).
We can be sure that over the years from their conversion to their death, both Newton and Paul grew in Christlike character. Over time, both of them acted more and more as the saints they had become at conversion. But that growth process involved becoming more aware of and sensitive to the sinful expressions of the flesh still dwelling within them. And so John Newton could have easily said, “I was and still am a great sinner, but I have a great Savior.” And if you and I are to make any progress in dealing with the acceptable sins of our lives, we must say the same.
The remedy for our sin, whether scandalous or acceptable, is the gospel in its widest scope. The gospel is actually a message; here I am using the word gospel as a shorthand expression for the entire work of Christ in His historic life, death, and resurrection for us, and His present work in us through His Holy Spirit. When I say the gospel in its widest scope, I am referring to the fact that Christ, in His work for us and in us, saves us not only from the penalty of sin but also from its dominion or reigning power in our lives.
Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2007), 17–19.
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