Last year I came across a tiny scrap of paper with a few sparsely written lines—notes I had taken 25 years ago during a Sunday Reformation Day sermon preached by the late Rev. Dr. Milton Fisher (my seminary professor of Hebrew and Old Testament studies.) The date written at the top is October 31, 1993.
On the paper, not even as large as a 3 x 5-inch note card, along with the date, occasion and Dr. Fisher’s name, is the following:
Paul – least of apostles
5 yrs later – least of all saints
5 yrs later – chief of sinners
I cannot recall any part of the sermon apart from what is written on the paper, but as I reflect upon the alignment and chronology of these few lines drawn from three of St. Paul’s epistles, it seems my old professor had observed something remarkable in the apostle’s experience of spiritual formation.
In his first epistle to the Corinthians, written around A.D. 57, Paul wrote: “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:9 NKJV)
Approximately five years later, Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ . . .” (Ephesians 3:8 NKJV)
And a few years after that, he wrote to Timothy: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15 NKJV)
By his own estimation, then, over a period of ten-years or so, Paul loses ground. Starting out as simply the least of the apostles, the apostle tracks a regression to the least of all saints, and ultimately finds himself to be the chief or worst of all sinners. This track runs quite the opposite direction we might have expected, especially considering this was none less than the Spirit-inspired writer of half the books of the New Testament!
We are accustomed to our self-help books and programs, which promise astonishing, even instantaneous, results in personal development of various kinds: Just seven easy steps to a new and better you, or some such. Doctor Fisher’s outline of what appears to be less-than-astonishing results in the apostle’s sanctification gives us pause to think.
Maybe we don’t expect sanctification to be easy or instant, but I do think we anticipate achieving measurable upward progress as we grow and mature in the faith. We look forward to mastering higher planes of spiritual living with the blessings that correspond. We sometimes imagine that time served in the kingdom contributes toward a sort of spiritual seniority that grants esteem and privileges our less mature brothers and sisters have not yet attained.
But Paul’s “plan” does not entertain such notions. Paul did not climb to altitudes of spiritual experience from which he could look down on others or even on his former self with boasting or condescension. He never found himself on some higher peak from which the lowly hill of Calvary could be looked back upon with nostalgia. Paul’s self-abasement indicates, rather, that he saw his need for the Cross grow greater with the passing of time.
Christianity is different from all other disciplines in this regard. Whereas, maturity in other disciplines is measured by degrees of independence from our teachers, maturity in the Christian Faith is measured by an ever-increasing dependence on Jesus. The reason for this is the nearer we come to Jesus—the closer we come to the Light, the more the depths of our sinfulness are exposed and the more vividly we see that He is our only hope.
Sanctification is not a gradual weaning of ourselves off of Christ. Our hunger (need) for Christ’s broken body and shed blood will never diminish. When we come each week to His Table, there can be no thought that we have less need to be there than the first time we came. And there can be no thought that we need less forgiveness than anyone else gathered there.
The apostle’s “three-step-back” plan for spiritual formation may be counter-intuitive, but it is the trajectory of all who are truly maturing in Christ. May we reflect on these things as we pray for new reformation.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.