In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul wrote, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am first” [1 Timothy 1:15]. The last part of Paul’s words is familiar to us Orthodox, since it forms part of our pre-communion approach to the Chalice, when we pray, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am first”. It is a powerful utterance, one which repays further reflection.
It is sometimes forgotten that the word “sinner” (hamartolos in the Greek) was used to describe a particular and terrible class of people. It did not describe everyone, but only those who had clearly, notoriously, and scandalously lost their moral compass. Normal people were not hamartoloi, and Saint Paul explicitly says that the Jews, who retained their moral compass by virtue of having their Law, were “not sinners from among the Gentiles” [Galatians 2:15]. Gentiles might have been hamartoloi, since they famously indulged in homosexuality, fornication, slaughter of the unborn and exposure and abandonment of the newborn, and every form of idolatry, but those who were Jews by nature and from birth were not such sinners. Indeed, many people in Israel were righteous and not hamartoloi: Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer, were not such sinners, but were “both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” [Luke 1:6]. Simeon, who received the infant Christ in the Temple, was also similarly “righteous and devout” [Luke 2:25]. Some, of course, were sinners, such as the woman (probably a prostitute) who burst into a Pharisee’s house when Jesus was dining there and anointed His feet with perfume and her tears [Luke 7:37], but most people were not. The term “sinner” described a certain and terrible social status, one resulting from decisions to live in open shame and contempt for all moral law.
That was, of course, precisely Saint Paul’s point in his first letter to Timothy, quoted above. Obviously Christ came into the world to save everyone, including righteous and devout persons like Zachariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon. But He also came into the world to save sinners — to save pornographers, child molesters, serial killers, and war criminals. Paul’s point was that no one, however horrible their past and however sinful their deeds, was beyond saving, for Christ shed His blood for the forgiveness of everyone, including sinners. A person need only repent and come to Jesus to find mercy and new life as part of His Church. Paul considered himself to be living proof of this. He was the first among sinners, the worst of them all, for he had persecuted the Church of God. He had raged against Christ’s people, blaspheming the Lord, denouncing His saints, and hounding them to death wherever he could find them. Such was his great guilt that Paul considered that he was scarcely worthy to carry the glorious title of “apostle” [1 Corinthians 15:9], but even he found mercy from the Lord. Clearly, Paul declared, if Christ could save him, He could save anyone.
When we look in the New Testament and in the liturgical language of the Church, we see two different kinds of vocabulary. We see a vocabulary of sanctity, stressing the holiness of the Christian. The Christians were “saints” [1 Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2]. Once they were no people at all, but now through baptism they were the people of God [1 Peter 2:10]; they were now a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation [1 Peter 2:9]. They were called to be “blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” [Philippians 2:15]. They would walk with Christ in white, for they were worthy [Revelation 3:4]. This language is preserved in the Liturgy, for Saint Basil’s anaphora describes the faithful as “His own chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”, having been “cleansed in water and sanctified with the Holy Spirit”. At every Liturgy the priest invites the communicants to the chalice with the words, “the holy things for the holy!” — i.e. the holy gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood for His holy people, cleansed by baptism and living their faith. This is the language of sanctity, which expresses our sacramental status as the baptized people of God. It describes the tremendous change which Christ has worked in us, and looks at this transformation not with self-satisfaction, but with wonder. The language is the result of looking back over our shoulder to see how far Christ has brought us, and how different He has made us from the world around us.
But there is another kind of language also, the language of unworthiness and humility. This vocabulary looks not to our outer sacramental status, but to the inner state of the heart with its struggle for sanctification and its constant war against temptation and darkness. This interiority looks not back at the world from which we have been rescued, but ahead to the Lord and the finish line which awaits us. It sees not how far we have come, but how far we have yet to go, and recognizes the magnitude of the struggle before we reach our final goal. The flesh and the Spirit constantly strive against one another in the heart of every man, as the fleshly lusts war against the soul [1 Peter 2:11]. In the midst of this war we recognize only too well our own sins, our brokenness, our fallen and vulnerable state, and with Saint Paul cry out that nothing good dwells within us, in our flesh [Romans 7:18]. We confess ourselves unprofitable servants, the first among sinners. Such confessions are not false modesty, but only clarity of mind, precision of discernment, and the willingness to receive the verdict of our conscience when it smites us for our sins.
We need both vocabularies to achieve spiritual balance, recognizing the greatness of our sacramental status and our calling and also the weakness of our mortal flesh in striving to live up to our exalted status. Naturally the language of unworthiness prevails in our liturgical life, for it is the language of humility, and without humility no progress can be made in our spiritual journey. We are indeed saints, the holy people of God, His royal priesthood, saved and cleansed and washed and sanctified. We are also unprofitable servants, debtors to His mercy, liable at any time to fall headlong, ever dependent upon His Spirit to hold us up.
In my pre-Orthodox Christian life I have lived among those who did not balance and treasure both vocabularies. As a Pentecostal charismatic, the language of sanctity and privilege was the only vocabulary allowed. We were saints, and were told “How to Live Like a King’s Kid” (an actual book title), encouraged to believe that we were entitled to health, victory, and wealth, and could somehow lay hold of immunity to suffering, poverty, and the common lot of man. Refusing the traditional vocabulary of unworthiness fostered a spirituality of entitlement and pride, and fostered delusion and illusion, and resulting in a loss of interiority and humility. Through such lack of balance, many fell away entirely, some fell into a kind of prelest or presumption, and most remained trapped in a state of spiritual adolescence. The cost of avoiding the language of unworthiness and humility was very high indeed.
That is why Orthodoxy retains both vocabularies, balancing an appreciation of our glorious sacramental status with our interior brokenness and the necessity for struggle. We are indeed called to be saints, as the priest reminds us every Liturgy. But we are also the first among sinners. This is the paradox, and in this paradox we find safety and salvation.