WHEN God’s servants hear his call, this is usually accompanied by a profound awareness of their own sinfulness. The prophet Isaiah declares himself “lost” in the presence of God because he is “a man of unclean lips” who lives among “a people of unclean lips”. Paul declares himself to be “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”.
As Jesus’s power is revealed in the miraculous catch of fish, Peter falls at his knees, crying: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Only after this is he called — along with James and John — to fish instead for people.
Each member of the body of Christ has to discern the specific shape of his or her vocation. For all the baptised, whatever our calling, awareness of our own sinfulness is an important feature of this process of discernment.
There are two reasons for this. First, the recognition of our sin reminds us that we can fulfil our vocation only through an ever-deepening dependence on God’s grace. Second, a sense of our unworthiness is an antidote to the pride that can corrupt and frustrate the working out of this grace.
It is sometimes suggested that the Church’s focus on sin is a life-denying and destructive thing. This is mistaken, and our epistle helps us to understand why an appropriate sense of our sinfulness is, in fact, liberating. Paul knows that he is not saved by his own accomplishments or righteousness. Christ died for his sins, and Paul knows that that is of first importance. His election is not something for which he can take any credit. As he writes, it is “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain.” There is, therefore, no need for anxious comparisons of his own performance or achievements with that of others.
As he observes in the final verse of our reading, it is immaterial which apostle is responsible for the faith of the Corinthians; for that is, ultimately, the fruit of grace and cannot be the source of any human boasting. The same is true for every Christian: neither our calling, nor what is accomplished in that position, is ultimately our possession: it — and we — are God’s.
This should be a source of consolation and peace; for, as Paul explains elsewhere, it is God who gives the increase, and, if he has called us, we can trust him to be faithful (1 Corinthians 3.6; 1 Thessalonians 5.24). It is when we imagine the work to be our personal possession that its burden proves impossible to bear.
Luke’s Gospel as a whole shows us why a sense of our sinfulness is also a vital antidote to pride. Peter’s declaration that he is a sinner recalls Isaiah’s. It “introduces a theme which will become increasingly important as the story proceeds” (Judith Lieu, The Gospel of Luke: Epworth Commentaries). When the Pharisees criticise Jesus for associating with sinners, he replies by declaring that his mission is to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance (Luke 5.29-32). To respond rightly to the call of God is to repent.
By contrast, imagining that your religious status makes repentance unnecessary is a sure way to spiritual death. Those who regard themselves in this way thereby cut themselves off from God’s grace. Jesus makes this point most vividly in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18.9-14).
The corrosive effect of spiritual pride is described by St Augustine: “Pride is the beginning of sin. And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation? And this is undue exaltation — when the soul abandons him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself” (City of God).
Whoever else is damaged by our pride, we ourselves are always among its greatest victims. It is in the humble and humbling service of Christ, our servant king, that we find our ultimate good. The consciousness of sin which we encounter in Isaiah, Paul, and Peter is, therefore, anything but destructive.
Indeed, it is their humility and penitence which preserve them from spiritual self-destruction. Precisely because they are aware of their unworthiness, they can flourish in their vocation — and find their soul’s delight in the one who calls them.