Not many people in our post-modern society would call themselves the chief of sinners, or the most evil person on the face of this planet. But there’s a way we kind find out who is not and who might not be with a set of simple questions.
How do you morally rank yourself compared to Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin? Are you morally better, or morally worse?
How would you compare your righteousness to Osama bin Laden? Are you better or worse than him?
Where do you place morality on the scale of righteousness compared to an ISIS fighter who beheaded innocent Christians? Are you better or worse morally?
How do you compare yourself to Dylan Roof who sat in on a South Carolina Bible study for an hour and viciously murdered nine Christians because of the color of their skin? Are you better or worse?
These individuals are on a list of people we undoubtedly identify as evil. But placing ourselves in relation to how much morally better of a person we are compared to them is a misguided perspective.
We are all quick to say no one is perfect. Yet we try to judge each other by a standard of perfection. For example, agreeing that Dylan Roof was wrong assumes there is another option of ‘right’. In this case, not murdering nine people because they were black would be the right choice.
But what if he merely voiced his hatred for black people on Facebook, but never intended to kill anyone? Is that okay? Our post-modern society unashamedly answers no. We’d prefer one of those actions over the other, but that reveals how imperfect our standards are.
Because our standards are imperfect, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. We understand this concept for simplistic things like the size of our homes, brand of cars, and growth of our children. But it seems we can always find and are looking for someone more evil than us for self-justification.
We see people doing things and self-righteously think to ourselves “I would never do that to my wife,” or “I can’t believe they’re being so selfish.” But when we search the Word of God we see that no person – without the grace of God – is ever too far from any sin.
Low Standards Are Wrong Standards
How could Paul tell Timothy that he was the ‘foremost of sinners’ with sincerity (1 Timothy 1:15)? By human standards, Paul was one of the most righteous people of his time. He was a Hebrew, an Israelite, and a servant of Christ; he was imprisoned, beaten five times with forty lashes, stoned, shipwrecked, and all for the sake of the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:22–29).
The answer becomes more clear when you read Paul’s letters exhaustively. Paul did not allow himself to be judged by any human standards, nor did he judge himself (1 Corinthians 4:3). Paul held himself to the standard of Jesus Christ. Only when standing next to the righteousness of Christ, could Paul sincerely say he was the foremost of sinners. When comparing himself to others, he might have reason to boast (2 Corinthians 11:21–30).
Do you boast? Are you quick to point out the sin in your spouses life without grace? Are you quick to share your unchecked opinion on social media? Is your initial response mercy, grace, and forgiveness, or condemnation, damnation, and judgement?
Obviously, there are consequences for our sin and law-breaking, and we should do the best we can with our God-ordained human institutions to keep the peace. Even this is a grace of God. (Romans 13:1–4)
Many people think that Jesus has low standards. They think that if they are just a good person then they will be acceptable to God. But Jesus did not have that low of standards. He said that if anyone’s righteousness did not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (the most outwardly righteous religious groups of the first century), then they will not see the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus didn’t give praises to men for simply not committing the act of adultery. He set the standard even higher saying, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28).
Feeling Like a Sinner
This is why Paul felt like the foremost of sinners – and so should we. In the presence of the holiness of God – the standard of perfection – we become more aware of our sinfulness (Isaiah 6:5).
Apart from Jesus, we are all capable of committing crimes against God and humanity. This brings a line off one of Lecrae’s song Killa to mind:
My friends fell low, when they were so high/
Got me running scared of myself no lie.
That’s how I think we should begin to feel when we witness or hear about the sins of others. Our responses should not only be reactions of bewilderment and righteous anger, but we should also run from our self-righteousness. Our responses should lead us to cling to God more. And in our clinging we will glorify God for saving sinners such as us and for restraining us from being as wicked as we could be.
I think it should also move us to fall on our faces and ask God to remove from us the wickedness in our hearts we aren’t even aware of (Psalm 19:12). When analyzing ourselves in the light of Christ, we’ll discover we’re far from meeting the standard of God.
But God, in his patience and forgiveness, has given us Jesus to trust in. Only he met the perfect standard. And in doing so he took on our punishment for not meeting the standard. All praise truly belongs to Christ alone!