Regarding my nature and behaviour before I became a committed Christian I have no doubts. A phrase from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer describes it nicely: I was a ‘miserable sinner’.
That doesn’t mean I was gloomy all the time—in spite of my melancholic streak. No, ‘miserable’ here bears its older sense of ‘wretched’, ‘needy’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, and that was me, all right. And what a relief it was to feel Jesus lifting me up to better prospects as I called to him in faith! That was over sixty years ago.
He sorted out the ‘miserable’ bit straight away. Far from feeling spiritually ‘wretched’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, I now felt dusted-down, clean and upright, saved by grace and ‘reigning in life’. The sorting-out of the ‘sinner’ bit, though, proved less straightforward. For some years I limped along, often beaten by temptation and feeling awful. But all that changed when, aged seventeen, I had a dramatic experience of being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Love for God and his Word took over, along with a strong victory-consciousness. Sin wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly unthinkable, and I now powered my way through life’s temptations with holy gusto.
I went to my first Anglican service at the age of nineteen and it gave me a shock. Coming from a free-church background, I found it hard enough to cope with the set prayers, but my brow furrowed when we came to the Litany:
- O God the Father, of heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
- O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
- O God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
- O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
I had problems with that. Here was the church at prayer, and in my book ‘church’ was by definition the redeemed community. So the folk gathered in that gothic building were presumably Christians, saved by grace like myself and there to worship God. But if they were, what was all this ‘miserable sinners’ stuff? Yes, we’re ‘sinners saved by grace’, but the emphasis surely lies on ‘saved’ and ‘grace’, not on ‘sinners’, which can no longer be an apt label for children of God—can it?
Some Christians, I discovered, warned that we are all apt to take sin too lightly. Others said it was an unhealthy preoccupation, and that we should focus instead on liberty and victorious living. I leaned towards the latter position—and still do.
But the issue wouldn’t go away. Over the years it kept coming to the surface and demanding re-examination. Not that I held to ‘sinless perfection’. I knew it was to Christians that John wrote, ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.' In keeping with this, I tried to live each day for God and had no awareness of sinning with any regularity. If he drew any sin to my attention I was quick to confess it to him, receive his forgiveness and march forward again in a manner becoming a child of the King.
My convictions on the issue became more settled. Grace had enabled me to ‘participate in the divine nature’, and, in line with that nature, the bias of my being was now towards doing God’s will, not towards sin. Didn’t Paul affirm, after all, that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come’? Yes, the new nature was now in undisputed charge as the driving force of my being!
But friends of The Book of Common Prayer, and some of the Reformed persuasion, kept casting doubts on my conviction. They reminded me that even the saintly Apostle Paul admitted to defeat: ‘I am unspiritual,’ he confessed, ‘sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.'
Finding it hard to square this with Paul’s high doctrine of victory in the power of the Spirit, I concluded, with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that Paul wasn’t talking about his current experience here. He was using a literary device—the ‘dramatic present’—to describe the powerlessness he had felt years earlier when, as a legalistic Pharisee, he’d begun finding his way towards Christ.
Then I came up with a clincher. ‘Notice,’ I told my breast-beating friends, ‘Paul’s words to the Corinthians. They were guilty of pride, party-spirit, greed and drunkenness, and were slow to discipline the sexually immoral. Yet Paul insisted that their fundamental nature, as believers in Jesus, was godly and good. They were to get rid of ‘the yeast of malice and wickedness’ from the ‘batch of dough’ that they were, he urged, so ‘that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are.’
That settled it. As Christians we don’t want to sin and, through the Spirit’s power, we don’t have to. But the habits of our pre-Christian days, and daily shoulder-rubbing with an often-corrupt society, combine to trip us up from time to time. When that happens, we avail ourselves of God’s gracious provision, get back to our feet and resume our journey forgiven. But tripping up is surely a rarity, not a way of life? Our bent is towards godliness, not sin, for God himself ‘works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose.'
That’s it, then. Cranmer and Co., who compiled the Prayer Book at the Reformation, got it wrong. As committed Christians, we’re not ‘miserable sinners’ after all. That notion was baggage brought over from Rome, and good riddance to it!
Then a friend told me the story of the flashlight. ‘When a light shines on you from a distance, many parts of you remain in shadow,’ he said. ‘But as you move towards the light, it penetrates ever more deeply into those shadows. And as we draw ever closer to God, who is light, the more aware we become of hitherto unrevealed sin in the farthest recesses of our souls. It’s the paradox of sanctification,’ he concluded. ‘The closer you get to the Lord, the more conscious you become of remaining sinful tendencies.’
Oh shucks! In that case the measure of godliness is not increasing victory by the Spirit but an increasing attitude of ‘Woe is me!’—back full circle to ‘miserable sinners’.
Undaunted, I dipped again into John’s first Letter for consolation. And I found some. ‘No-one who is born of God,’ he asserts, ‘will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.' That’s genetic terminology—’seed’ is the Greek sperma. John is saying that, because my heavenly Father begot me, I just can’t help growing like him. Spiritually, his genes are shaping my character as surely as my earthly father’s genes shaped the colour of my eyes. God isn’t a sinner, so neither am I—miserable or otherwise.
So that’s it, ‘the conclusion of the matter’, as the Preacher said. End of story. I’m a saint, not a sinner; a child of the King, not a breast-beating peasant. I’m moving from glory to glory, not from bad to worse. I have a brand new life, a stake in the divine nature, the divine seed within me and victory before me.
I just wish Paul hadn’t said, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am (not was) the worst.'
- Romans 5:17
- 1 John 1:8-10
- 2 Peter 1:4
- 2 Corinthians 5:17
- Romans 7:14-20
- Philippians 2:13
- 1 John 3:9
- 1 Timothy 1:15