The Saving Christ : A Sermon
by the late Benjamin B. Warfield, D.D., LL.D.
[Christianity Today 1.1 (May 1930): 11-12, 19.]
B. B. Warfield at the time of his death was the leading Calvinistic theologian in the English speaking world, ranking in this respect with the great Dutch theologians/ Abraham Kuyper and Hermann Bavinck. In him a mind of rare power, extraordinary erudition and a remarkable facility for accurate and concise expression was united with a deeply Christian heart and an earnest evangelical zeal. . . . Dr. Warfield’s sermons have been spoken of as “models of the better sort of University preaching” and it seems fitting that the first sermon printed in “Christianity Today” should be from one who for so many years was a standing illustration of the fact that the most searching critical and historical investigation strengthens rather than weakens belief in the Bible as the Word of God and in Christ as the alone and all-sufficient Saviour.
“Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”—I Tim. i. I5. (R. V.)
IN these words we have the first of a short series of five “faithful sayings,” or current Christian commonplaces, incidentally adduced by the apostle Paul in what we commonly call his Pastoral Epistles. They are a remarkable series and their appearance on the face of these New Testament writings is almost as remarkable as their contents.
Consider what the phenomenon is that is brought before us in these “faithful sayings.” Here is the apostle writing to his assistants in the proclamation of? the gospel, little more than a third of a century, say, after the crucifixion of his Lord — scarcely thirty-three years after he had himself entered upon the great ministry that had been committed to him of preaching to the Gentiles the words of this life. Yet he is already able to remind them of the blessed contents of the gospel message in words that are the product of Christian experience in the hearts of the community. For just what these “faithful sayings” are, is a body of utterances in which the essence of the gospel as been crystallized by those who have tasted and seen its preciousness.
Obviously the days when this gospel was brought as a novelty to their attention are past. The Church has been founded, and in it throbs the pulses of a vigorous life. The gospel has been embraced and lived; it has been trusted and not found wanting; and the souls that have found its blessedness have had time to frame its precious truths into formulas. Formulas, I do not say, merely, that have passed from mouth to mouth, and been enshrined in memory after memory until they have become proverbs in the Christian community. Formulas rather, which have embedded themselves in the hearts of the whole congregation, have been beaten there into shape, as the deeper emotions of redeemed souls have played round them, and have emerged again suffused with the feelings which they have awakened and satisfied, and molded into that balanced and rhythmic form which is the hallmark of utterances that come really out of the living and throbbing hearts of the people. Formulas, moreover, which have come to us not merely as valuable fragments of the Christian thinking of the first period — of absorbing interest as they would be even from that point of view — but with the imprimatur of the apostle upon them as consonant with the mind of the Holy Spirit. They are dug from the mine of the Christian heart indeed, but they come to us stamped in the mintage of apostolic authority. The primitive Christian community it may have been that gave them form and substance, but it is the apostle who assures us that they are “faithful sayings, and worthy of all acceptation.”
And surely, when we come to look narrowly at the particular one of these “sayings” which we have chosen as our text, it is a great assertion that it brings us — an assertion which, if it be truly a “faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation,” is well adapted to become even in this late and, it would fain believe itself, more instructed age, the watchword of the Christian Church and of every Christian heart.
It would naturally be impossible for us to dip out all the fullness of such a great declaration in a half-hour’s meditation. It will be profitable for us, accordingly, to confine ourselves to bringing as clearly before us as may prove to be practicable two or three of its main implications. And may God the Holy Spirit help us to read it aright and to apply its lessons to our souls’ welfare!
First of all, then, let us’ observe that this “faithful saying” takes us back into the counsels of eternity and reveals to us the ground, in the decree of God, for the gift of His Son to the world, and the end sought to be obtained by His entrance into the likeness of sinful flesh. “Faithful is the saying,” says the apostle, “and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world in order to save sinners.” That is to say, the occasion of the incarnation is rooted in sin, and the end of it is found in salvation from sin. And that is to say again, translating these facts into the terms of the decree, that the determination of God to send His Son and the determination of the Son to come into the world are grounded, in the counsel of God, on the contemplated fact of sin, and have as their design to provide a remedy for sin.
This, it need hardly be said, is in accordance with the uniform representation of Scripture. Scripture always speaks of the incarnation as the hinge of a great remedial scheme. Our Lord Himself, in language closely parallel to that before us, says, “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” And everywhere in Scripture the incarnation is conceived distinctly, if we may be permitted the use of these technical terms, soteriologically rather than ontologically, or even cosmologically. Under the guidance of Scripture, and preeminently of our present passage, therefore, we must needs deny that the proximate account of the incarnation is to be sought either ontologically or ethically in God, or in the nature of the Logos, or in the idea of creation, or in the character of man as created; and affirm that it is to be found only in the needy condition of man as a sinner before the face of a holy and loving God.
But this great declaration not only takes us back into the counsels of the eternal God that we may learn what from the ages of ages He purposed for sinful man, but it also throws an intense emphasis on the nature of the work which the incarnate Son of God came to perform.
What, after all, are we looking for in Christ? Perhaps very divergent replies might be returned to this query did we but probe our hearts deeply enough and question our hopes resolutely enough. At all events, from the very earliest ages of Christianity, men have approached Him with very varied needs prominent in their minds, and have sought in Him satisfaction for very diverse necessities. They have felt the need of a teacher, an example, a revealer of God, a manifestation of the Divine love, an unveiling of the mysteries of the spiritual world, or of the life that lies beyond the grave. Or they have felt the need of a protector, a strong governor on whose arm they could rest, a bulwark against the evils of this life, and a tower of strength for their support and safety, whether in this life or in that to come. Or they have felt the need of a ransom from sin, of a redeemer, an expiation, a reconciler with God, a sanctifier. In the opulent provision for all that man can require made in the work of the Son of man, we can find all this, and more, in Him. But it makes every difference where, amid the rich profusion of His mercies, we discover the center of gravity of the benefits conferred on us, and what we ascribe more to the periphery.
In particular, in the first age of the gospel declaration it appealed to men more especially along three lines of deeply felt needs. Some, oppressed chiefly by their sense of the ignorance of God and of spiritual realities in which they had languished in the days of their heathendom, and dazzled by the light of the glorious gospel He brought to them, looked to Christ most eagerly as the Logos, the great Revealer, who had brought the knowledge of God to them, and with the knowledge of God the knowledge of themselves also as the Sons of God. Others, oppressed rather by the miseries of life, turned from the dreadful physical and social conditions in which humanity itself had nearly been ground out of them, to hail in Christ the founder of a new social order; and permitted their quickened hopes to play almost exclusively round the promises of the kingdom He had come to establish and the joys it would bring. We call the one class “Gnostics” and the other “Chiliasts;” and by the very attribution to them of these party names indicate our clear perception that in neither of these channels did the great stream of Christian faith run. For from the beginning it has been true of Christians at large that the evils they have looked to Christ primarily to be relieved from have been neither intellectual nor social, but rather distinctly moral and spiritual. There have arisen from time to time one-sided and insufficient modes of expressing even this deeper longing and truer trust in Christ. Early Christians were apt, for example, to speak of themselves too exclusively as under bondage to Satan, and to look to Christ as a ransom to Satan .for their release. But, however strangely they may now and again have expressed themselves, the essence of the matter lay clearly revealed in their thought — this, namely, in the words of the text, that Christ Jesus had come into the world to save sinners; that sin is the evil from which we need deliverance, and that it was to redeem from sin that the Son of God left His throne and companied with wicked men for a season.
The two thousand years of Christian life that have been lived since the gospel of salvation was brought into the world have not availed to eliminate from His Church these insufficient conceptions of our Lord’s work. Even in this twentieth century of ours there still exist Christian intellectualists as extreme as any Gnostic of old: men who look to Christ for nothing but instruction, manifestation, revelation, teaching, example; and who still discover the essence of Christianity in the higher and better knowledge it brings of what is true and good and beautiful. And by their side there still exist today Christian socialists as extreme as any Chiliast of old: men whose whole talk is of the amelioration of life brought about by Christ, of the salvation of society, of the establishment on Christian principles of a new social order and the upbuilding of a new social structure ; and whose prime hope in Christ is for the relief of the distresses of life and the building up of a kingdom of well-being in the world.
We shall be in no danger, of course, of neglecting the truth that is embodied in the intellectualistic and the socialistic gospels. Christ is our Prophet and our King. He did come to make us know what God is, and what His purposes of mercy are to men; and where the light of that knowledge is shut out from men’s sight how great is the darkness and how great is the misery of that darkness! He is our wisdom, our teacher beyond compare. So far from minimizing either the extent or the value of His revelations, we must rather acknowledge that we cannot magnify them enough. And Christ did come to implant in human society a new principle of social health and organization, and the leaven which He has thus imbedded in the mass is working, and is destined to continue to work, every conceivable improvement in the structure of society until the whole is leavened. In a word, Christ did come to found a kingdom, and in that kingdom men shall dwell together in amity and peace, and love shall be its law, and happiness its universal condition. It is with no desire to minimize the intellectual and social blessings that Christ has brought the world, therefore, that we would insist that the center of His work lies elsewhere. We all the more heartily hail Him as our Prophet and our King, that we must insist that He is also, and above all, our Priest He has saved us from ignorance; He has saved us from pain; but these are not the evils on which the hinge of His saving work turns. Above all and before all He has saved us from sin. “Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.“
And it is only by saving us from sin, we must further remark, that He saves us from ignorance and from misery. There is a high and true sense, valid here too, in the saying that faith precedes reason: that it is only he that is in Christ Jesus who can know God and acquire any effective insight into spiritual truth. And equally in that other maxim that the regeneration of the individual is the condition of the regeneration of society: that it is only he that is in Christ Jesus who can have added to him even these lesser benefits. Apart from the central salvation from sin, knowledge can but puff up, and society at best is a whited sepulchre, full of dead men’s bones. And it is only by His prime work of saving from sin — that sin which is the root of all our ignorance and of all our bitterness alike — that He makes the tree good that its fruit may be good also. In the penetrating declaration of our text, therefore, we perceive the heart of Christianity uncovered for us. The saying that it was to save sinners that Christ Jesus came into the world is a faithful one, and worthy of all acceptation. And that means that it is not the primary function of Christianity in the world to educate men, though we shall not get along without teaching; or to ameliorate their physical and social condition, though we shall not get along without charity; but to proclaim salvation from sin. It exists in the world not for making men wise, nor for making them comfortable, but for saving them from sin. That done and all is done — each result following in its due course. That not done, and nothing is done. All the wisdom of the ages, all the delights of life, are of no avail so long as we are oppressed with sin. The core of the gospel is assuredly that Christ Jesus came to save sinners.
We need, however, once more to adjust the emphasis in order to gain the whole message of our passage. What Paul declares to be a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, is that Christ Jesus came to save sinners. Put the emphasis now on the word “save” — Christ Jesus came to save sinners.
Not, then, merely to prepare salvation for them; to open to them a pathway to salvation; to remove the obstacles in the way of their salvation; to proclaim as a teacher a way of salvation; to introduce as a ruler conditions of life in which clean living becomes for the first time possible; to bring motives to holy action to bear upon us; to break down our enmity to God by an exhibition of His seeking love; to manifest to us what sin is in the sight of God, and how He will visit it with His displeasure. All these things He undoubtedly does. But all these things together touch but the circumference of His work for man. Under no interpretation of the nature or reach of His work can it be truly said that Christ Jesus came to do these things. For that we must penetrate deeper, and say with the primitive Church, in this faithful saying commended to us by the apostle, that Christ Jesus came to save sinners.
We must take the great declaration in the height and depth of its” tremendous meaning. Jesus did all that is included in the great word “save.” He did not come to induce us to save ourselves, or to help us to save ourselves, or to enable us to save ourselves. He came to save us. And it is therefore that His name was called Jesus — because He should save His people from their sins. The glory of our Lord, surpassing all His other glories to usward, is just that He is our actual and complete Saviour; our Saviour to the uttermost. Our knowledge, even though it be His gift to us as our Prophet, is not our saviour, be it as wide and as deep and as high as it is possible to conceive. The Church, though it be His gift to us as our King, is not our saviour, be it as holy and true as it becomes the Church, the bride of the Lamb, to be. The reorganized society in which He has placed us, though it be the product of His holy rule over the redeemed earth, is not our saviour, be it the new Jerusalem itself, clothed in its beauty and descended from heaven. Nay, let us cut more deeply still. Our faith itself, though it be the bond of our union with Christ through which we receive all His blessings, is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord. Nothing that we are and nothing that we can do enters in the slightest measure into the ground of our acceptance with God. Jesus did it all. And by doing it all He has become in the fullest and widest and deepest sense the word can bear — our Saviour. For this end did He come into the world — to save sinners; and nothing short of the actual and complete saving of sinners will satisfy the account of His work given by His own lips and repeated from them by all His apostles.
It is in this great fact, indeed, that there lies the whole essence of the gospel. For let us never forget that the gospel is not good advice, but good news. It does not come to us to make known to us what we must do to earn salvation for ourselves, but proclaiming to us what Jesus has done to save us. It is salvation, a completed salvation, that it announces to us; and the burden of its message is just the words of our text — that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Now Paul could never write of this tremendously moving truth in a cold and dry spirit. There was nothing that so burned in his soul as his profound sense of his indebtedness to his Redeemer for his entire salvation. We cannot be surprised, therefore, to note that as he repeats these great words, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” his thought reverts at once to his own part in this great salvation; and he cries aloud with swelling heart, “Of whom I am chief.” Says an old Anglican writer: “The apostle applies the worst word in the text to himself.” But we must punctually note, Paul is not, therefore, boasting of his sin. He is, on the contrary, glorying in his salvation. If Christ came just to save sinners, he says, in effect, Why that means me; for that is what I am. There is a sense, then, no doubt, in which he can be said to be glad that he can claim to be a sinner. Not because he delights in wickedness, but because that places him within the reach of the mission of Him who Himself declared that He came not to call the righteous, but sinners. Paul knows there is deep-seated evil within him; he knows his own inability to remedy it — for does not that long life of legalistic struggle, when after the straitest sect of his religion he lived a Pharisee, witness to his agonizing efforts to heal his deadly hurt? In Christ Jesus, who came to save sinners, he sees the one hope of sinners like himself; and with deep revulsion of feeling he takes his willing place among sinners that he may take his place also among saved sinners. His only comfort in life and death is found in the fact that Christ Jesus came just to save sinners.
Brethren, it is there only also that our comfort can be found, whether for life or for death. Perhaps even yet we hardly know, as we should know, our need of a saviour. Perhaps we may acknowledge ourselves to be sinners only in languid acquiescence in a current formula. Such a state of self-ignorance cannot, however, last for ever. And some day — probably it has already come to most of us — some day the scales will fall from our eyes, and we shall see ourselves as we really are. Ah, then, we shall have no difficulty in placing ourselves by the apostle’s side, and pronouncing ourselves, in the accents of the deepest conviction, the chief of sinners. And, then, our only comfort for life and death, too, will be in the discovery that Christ Jesus came into the world just to save sinners. We may have long admired Him as a teacher sent from God, and have long sought to serve Him as a King re-ordering the world; but we shall find in that great day of self-discovery that we have never known Him at all till He has risen upon our soul’s vision as our Priest, making His own body a sacrifice for our sin. For such as we shall then know ourselves to be, it is only as a Saviour from sin that Christ will suffice; and we will passionately make our own such words as these that a Christian singer has put into our mouths:—
“I sought thee, weeping, high and low,
I found Thee not; I did not know
I was a sinner — even so,
I missed Thee for my Saviour.
“I saw Thee sweetly condescend
Of humble men to be the friend,
I chose Thee for my way, my end,
But found Thee not my Saviour.
“Until upon the cross I saw
My God, who died to meet the law
That man had broken; then I saw
My sin, and then my Saviour.
“What seek I longer? let me be
A sinner all my days to Thee,
Yet more and more, and Thee to me
Yet more and more my Saviour.
* * * * * * * *
“Be Thou to me my Lord, my Guide,
My Friend, yea, everything beside;
But first, last, best, whate’er betide
Be Thou to me my Saviour!”
[Warfield here employs two poems by Dora Greenwell, as published in Songs of Salvation (London: Strahan & Co., 1873), namely poems #2 and #3 under the first section, “A Sinner and His Saviour”.
In the above, he takes the first four of five stanzas of the second poem and closes with the second stanza of the third poem. It is intriguing to wonder how Warfield is aware of Greenwell’s work. The poems suit his subject well, but how did he select this poet’s work? Miss Greenwell’s work as a whole is noted for its focus on the weak and helpless. Could her works have been among Annie Warfield’s readings? For more on the health of Annie Warfield and the tender relationship between Benjamin B. Warfield and his wife, there is this blog entry.]