I recently came across a saying from John Newton, Anglican priest and hymn writer, that he whispered to a friend shortly before his own death, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
The quote immediately stood out to me as both profound and beautiful because it communicates important truths.
First, it points to what I call the two-face nature of every Christian. In certain circles it is simply called “The Simul”, which is shorthand for the phrase coined by Martin Luther- Simul Iustus et Peccator (simultaneously just and sinner).
By grace, through faith, Christians receive the very righteousness of God; therefore, we are called just, righteous, and even saints. And yet, on this side of Heaven, we still sin. We, just like the apostle Paul, find ourselves saying, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15).
Second, the quote shows that Christ’s work always has the last word. While John Newton knew he was a great sinner, he also knew that Christ is a great savior. This truly is something to rejoice in, and focusing on this side, the saint side, of the two-face nature is critical in the Christian life.
I believe, and it has been true in my own life, that Christians often spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the sinner side of the two-face nature. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not an antinomian. Sin is serious. Sanctification is important. However, focusing on our sin, focusing on the law and our failure to obey it, does not produce a changed life in the Christian.
Only the Gospel changes lives. Only the Gospel empowers. Only the Gospel brings peace to the weary soul. While the law is good, and is a guide for our sanctification, it always accuses as well. We do well to remember that we are justified by grace through faith alone. The temptation to collapse sanctification into justification is real, and we must continually fight against this.
When we rightly understand the doctrine of justification, that we are considered saints by a righteous God, we can stand boldly in life and in death with the knowledge that we are veiled in the righteousness of Christ.
Dear saints in Christ, the two-face nature is real. The scars of sin will mark our faces on this side of heaven. But rejoice! We have a great savior!