By any measure, the Apostle Paul was a rock star of the early church. He had the most dramatic conversion, the coolest stories, the clearest focus, the most prolific pen, the sharpest intellect, and the fattest passport.
He preached more sermons, wrote more letters, planted more churches, traveled more miles, discipled more believers, and developed more leaders than anyone else in the New Testament. Not to mention getting thrown in prison more, beaten more, and threatened more (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
Yet, over the course of his long ministry, Paul’s view of himself seemed to diminish. Check out these verses: Earlier in his ministry, Paul tells the church in Corinth:
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
A few years later, Paul writes to the Ephesians:
8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people,this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ,
Finally, near the end of his life, Paul writes to his protege Timothy:
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.
From least of the apostles to least among the people of God to worst of all sinners. What’s going on here? Is Paul bipolar? Is he humble bragging? Is it a midlife/end of life crisis? What?
The answer: its the paradox of sanctification. That as your understanding of grace deepens, so does the awareness of your sin. The more you know of grace, the more aware of your need for grace.
What happens if, over time, a Christian doesn’t grow in his or her understanding of the gospel? If the Gospel is only the ABC presentation you learned in Vacation Bible School, then your understanding of what Christ did on the cross remains static. And over time, you will either outgrow your immature faith (which results in religion, moralism, pride, etc) or you will out-sin it (resulting in guilt fear, shame, and insecurity). If your understanding of the gospel never grows, you will conclude either that you don’t need it or can’t reach it.
But watch what happens when your understanding of the gospel grows. When the cross gets bigger, it grow in both directions:
Which is why, the more Paul matured in his faith, the more aware he became of his own sinfulness. This is the downward mobility to which we all must aspire. If you find yourself getting more prideful, self-righteous, and self-satisfied the longer you are a Christian, you aren’t doing it right.
Praise God for downward mobility! As Tim Keller says:
“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”