To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ
If any New Testament writer had cause to boast, surely it was the Apostle Paul. The great apostle to the gentiles, founder of many churches, and author of thirteen New Testament books is undeniably the greatest theologian the church has ever known (granted, he had the unfair advantage of divine inspiration). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John brought us the gospel; Paul explained it. We revere Paul as being among the greatest disciples of Christ, and rightly so. But he didn’t see himself that way.
Let us notice what St. Paul says of himself.
The language he uses is singularly strong. The founder of famous Churches, the writer of fourteen inspired epistles, the man who was ‘not behind the very chiefest apostles,’ ‘in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft,’—the man who ‘spent and was spent’ for souls, and ‘counted all things but loss for Christ,’—the man who could truly say, ‘To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,’—what do we find him saying of himself? He employs an emphatic comparative and superlative. He says, ‘I am less than the least of all saints.’ [KJV] What a poor creature is the least saint! Yet St. Paul says, ‘I am less than that man.’
Such language as this, I suspect, is almost unintelligible to many who profess and call themselves Christians. Ignorant alike of the Bible and their own hearts, they cannot understand what a saint means when he speaks so humbly of himself and his attainments. . . .
But we may rest assured that what St. Paul wrote with his pen, he testily felt in his heart. The language of our text does not stand alone. It is even exceeded in other places. To the Philippians he says, ‘I have not attained, nor am I already perfect: I follow after.’ To the Corinthians he says, ‘I am the least of the apostles, which am not meet to be called an apostle.’ To Timothy he says, ‘I am chief of sinners.’ To the Romans he cries, ‘Wretched man that I am I who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (Phil. 3:12; 1 Cor. 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:15; Rom. 7:24.) The plain truth is that St. Paul saw in his own heart of hearts far more defects and infirmities than he saw in anyone else. The eyes of his understanding were so fully opened by the Holy Spirit of God that he detected a hundred things wrong in himself which the dull eyes of other men never observed at all. In short, possessing great spiritual light, he had great insight into his own natural corruption, and was clothed from head to foot with humility, (1 Peter 5:5.)
Now let us clearly understand that humility like St. Paul’s was not a peculiar characteristic of the great apostle of the Gentiles. On the contrary, it is one leading mark of all the most eminent saints of God in every age. The more real grace men have in their hearts, the deeper is their sense of sin. The more light the Holy Ghost pours into their souls, the more do they discern their own infirmities, defilements, and darkness. The dead soul feels and sees nothing; with life comes clear vision, a tender conscience and spiritual sensibility. . . .
The great saints, in every era of Church history, from St. Paul down to this day, have always been ‘clothed with humility.’
He that desires to be saved . . . let him know this day that the first steps towards heaven are a deep sense of sin and a lowly estimate of ourselves. Let him cast away that weak and silly tradition that the beginning of religion is to feel ourselves ‘good’ Let him rather grasp that grand Scriptural principle, that we must begin by feeling ‘bad’; and that until we really feel ‘bad’ we know nothing of true goodness or saving Christianity. Happy is he who has learned to draw near to God with the prayer of the publican, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13.)
—J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 376–378.
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