Magazine article The Christian Century

First in Sin, First in Service

Magazine article The Christian Century

First in Sin, First in Service

Article excerpt

1 Timothy 1:12-17

THE AUTHOR OF 1 Timothy knew that the Christian vocation is not a dread act of surrender but a glad appointment to free service. He confesses his own wretchedness, calling himself the protos of sinners, the chief of those who have persecuted, blasphemed and insulted the incarnate king of the cosmos. But being first in sin does not become a secret cause for boasting, as if there were a perverse glory in his wickedness. Instead, the writer grants all honor to the overabounding grace of Christ Jesus, the one who "came into the world to save sinners."

The much-missed Peter De Vries once wrote a New Yorker piece about the irony of relishing a confession. In "Good Boy," De Vries tell how his sixth-grade Dutch Calvinist teacher--a man wonderfully even if apocryphally named Dirk Van Dongen--accused him of an offense which he had indeed set in motion, but not perpetrated. Seeing that he would miss the afterschool ballgame unless he confessed, De Vries reluctantly admitted to the deed he had not done.

Instead of giving him a stern reprimand, Van Dongen commended De Vries for being a "good boy." In fact, he threw a party for the whole class--the entire "ninety-and-nine"--to celebrate the return of one lost sheep. Such splendid "fruits of repentance" led young De Vries to confess to other crimes he had not committed. He discovered that an obsession with sin could be sinfully savored, and that confession afforded Van Dongen "his greatest emotional luxury, that of contemplating the corruption of man."

There is no such reverse and perverse self-congratulation in a true understanding of "total depravity." As Calvin makes clear, the doctrine does not mean that salvation is to be found by focusing on our utter worthlessness. It means that sin taints and distorts the totality of our lives--our heads and hearts no less than our bellies and loins. We can commit sin, alas, even in confessing it. The author of 1 Timothy comprehends this paradox. He does not seek attention, therefore, for championing sinfulness; he wants only to praise the Christ who has saved him from it, and who has appointed him to diakonia.

I am told that diakonia literally means "through the dust." It may have described waiters whose feet grew grimy as they moved from table to table on dirt floors. The author of 1 Timothy knows that there is great dignity in such dusty service. Instead of regarding his own ministry as low and unworthy, he declares that there is no higher or more liberating vocation. The Book of Common Prayer thus speaks of the Christ "in whose service is perfect freedom."

A Baptist preacher named Warren Carr taught me the gladness and liberty of Christian vocation. …

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