Why God Chooses Splendid Sinners and Lovable Losers

1 Corinthians 1:26-31

I am not quite sure how I came to this sermon title, except that it started with an apparently random comment I heard recently when a good friend confessed to being a “repetitive sinner.” I pondered that expression because I hold this friend in high esteem as a truly godly person. I see much to admire and very little that seems like “repetitive sin” to me. And yet there it was.

Repetitive sinner.

In truth, that’s the way I feel about myself much of the time. If I am honest, I freely confess that I fall far short of what I want to be. With the Apostle Paul in Romans 7, I declare that what I don’t want to do I do, and what I want to do I don’t do. Which makes me a repetitive sinner and (in the language of Romans 7), a “wretched man.”

To put the matter that way calls to mind these lines found in the prayer of general confession from the Book of Common Prayer (written in 1662):

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;

Those two sentences diagnose the truth about my own condition. I am a repetitive sinner, guilty of sins of omission and commission.

The particular phrase “splendid sinners” comes from something I read a few months ago by J. C. Ryle, the famous evangelical Anglican bishop of the late 1800s. In his book called Holiness, he wrote about how all the saints fall short of perfection:

The holiest actions of the holiest saint that ever lived are all more or less full of defects and imperfections. They are either wrong in their motive or defective in their performance, and in themselves are nothing more than “splendid sins,” deserving God’s wrath and condemnation.

This is a much-needed word for a generation of Christians with an inflated sense of self-importance. Apart from God’s grace, even our best efforts are nothing more than “splendid sins.” In my better moments, which are all too few, I realize that even my best efforts fall well over into the “splendid sins” category. Ryle has told the truth about the best of us and the rest of us. This side of heaven, we’re a pretty sorry lot, but that’s where God’s grace comes in. No one will be saved by what they do. Our only hope of heaven is to run to the cross and lay hold of Jesus Christ. And we won’t even do that unless God helps us to do it, and even then he must give us the strength to hang on and to keep believing.

Apart from God’s grace, even our best efforts are nothing more than “splendid sins.”

We are all …

Splendid sinners,
Lovable losers,
Miserable misfits, and
Fantastic failures.

During a radio interview I was asked why so many of the heroes of the Bible had serious flaws. My answer was simple. That’s all God has to work with. All the perfect people are in heaven. The only ones on earth are the folks with serious weaknesses. The talent pool has always been pretty thin when it comes to moral perfection. So God works with sinners because that’s all he has to work with. In heaven we will all be vastly improved–perfected by God’s grace. But until then, he uses some pretty ornery people who fall short in many ways–and he does some amazing things through them.

Consider the roll call of God’s imperfect heroes:

The talent pool has always been pretty thin when it comes to moral perfection.

      Noah who got drunk.
      Abraham who lied about his wife.
      Jacob who was a deceiver.
      Moses who murdered an Egyptian.
      Rahab who was a harlot.
      Samson who had serious problems with lust and anger.
      David who was an adulterer.
      Paul who persecuted the church.
      Peter who denied Christ.

If God chose only well-rounded people with no character flaws, some of the credit would inevitably go to the people and not to the Lord. By choosing flawed people with a bad past, a shaky present, and an uncertain future, God alone gets the glory when they accomplish amazing things by his power.

In case we don’t understand this, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 makes it abundantly clear. If you want the message of this passage in one sentence, here it is: God won’t tolerate human pride, so he chooses people who have nothing to brag about.

I. The Fact Stated

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (I Corinthians 1:26). Paul begins by reminding them of what they were when God saved them. The word “called” refers to their position in the world when they came to Christ. Not many of them came from the educated or upper classes of society. Not many had what the world calls “good breeding.” (The term “noble birth” translates a Greek word from which we get the English word “eugenics.” The Corinthians by and large did not come from “blue blood.”) In a sense, he holds up a mirror and says, “Take a good look. What do you see?” If they were honest, they didn’t see many impressive people. They saw ordinary men and women, from undistinguished backgrounds, whose lives had been utterly transformed by Jesus Christ.

Memory can be a blessing or a curse. In the spiritual life, it can be very healthy to remember what life was like before we met Jesus. If you remember where you started, you’ll appreciate much more the grace of God that has brought you to where you are today.

In the spiritual life, it can be very healthy to remember what life was like before we met Jesus.

Our text tells us that when God chooses his team, he starts with the people the world chooses last. He actually prefers to choose the weak instead of the strong. We must not miss the implication of this teaching. It’s not as if God intends to take equal numbers from every social class in the world. And it’s definitely not true that God populates the church from the upper classes but sprinkles in a few from the lower classes. The opposite is closer to the truth. God populates his church with the rejects of the world and then sprinkles in a few wealthy and powerful people. He prefers losers. God deliberately chooses the forgotten of the world and he prefers the company of the poor. He loves to save the uneducated, the foolish, the addicted, the broken, the downcast and the imprisoned. In short, he specializes in saving those whom the world counts as nothing.

II. The Reason Given

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (I Corinthians 1:27-29). In these verses Paul makes his teaching even clearer. God chooses “weak things” and “lowly things” and “despised things” and even “things that are not.” These “things” are actually people—weak people, lowly people, despised people, and people who are invisible to the world. In short, God makes a choice, and the choice he makes is to choose the people the world would never choose. The words of Isaiah 55:8 come to mind, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” Here’s a simple way to remember this truth: God is different. Ponder that statement for a moment. God is different from us. He is different in what he thinks and he is different in what he does. He does not do what we expect him to do because his thinking is entirely different from ours. He nullifies the mighty by using the weak instead. He nullifies the proud by using the humble. He nullifies the wise by using the simple. He nullifies the professional by using the blue-collar worker. He nullifies the PhD by using the high school dropout. God’s “nullification” demonstrates how fundamentally different he is from us. This truth—elementary as it may seem—is actually quite vital to a healthy Christian worldview. Our God stands alone. He does not bind himself to do what we think he ought to do. He is holy and he is sovereign and he is absolutely free to do whatever he pleases to do. He can humble the proud any time he chooses. No one has the power to stand against him.

Our God stands alone. He does not bind himself to do what we think he ought to do.

Consider the implication of the text. When the world throws a party, the beautiful people are always invited. You know the names: Ben Affleck, J-Lo, Jessica Simpson, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Tom Cruise, 50 Cent, Halle Berry, Shania Twain, Jennifer Anniston, Mariah Carey, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, and the rest of the current crop of Hollywood superstars. They rent a nightclub and hire a security team to keep the ordinary people out. Only the “in crowd” makes it past the rope line. Helicopters circle overhead and the paparazzi strain to a get a picture they can sell to People magazine. It’s all about who shows up and who is wearing what kind of dress, and trying to match this man with that woman. That’s how the world throws a party. But God does it differently. Jesus told a story in Luke 14:15-24 about a certain man who invited many guests to a huge banquet. All the invited guests made a series of excuses—they were too busy, they had other plans, they had business to attend to, and a hundred other “legitimate” excuses. So the master ordered his servants to go out into the highways and byways and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. When that had been done, there were still some empty seats so he told his servants to go out into the country roads and find anyone who had been overlooked and invite them to come to the party because the master declared that every seat must be taken. If those who had been invited first would not come, then the master would go after the outcasts who would never otherwise come to such a fine affair. That’s how God does it. He goes after the people the world overlooks because the “beautiful people” have no interest in coming to him for salvation.

God does it this way for three reasons:

1) To destroy all human pride,
2) So that no one can boast, and
3) So that all would be equal in God’s family.

We need to hear this word because American Christianity is entertainment-oriented and celebrity-driven. We are far too prone to swoon over the latest “celebrity conversion” and to rush the latest “hot convert” to the pulpit so that we can all applaud and congratulate ourselves on catching such a big fish for God. When I first came to the church in Oak Park, there was a certain very important person with a large public reputation who attended our church. To be precise, he had attended some years earlier and had left to go elsewhere. But he came on my first Sunday and attended another six or seven times over my first couple of years at the church. I know how many times he came because every time he came, every single time, someone (usually several people) would come rushing up to me with the news, “Pastor Ray, Mr. So-and-So is here. You’d better go and say hello to him.” It was big news because he was so well known. And I guess it made us feel better somehow that he was here.

I experienced the same thing years later when someone rushed up to me and said, “Pastor Ray, Steven Curtis Chapman is here today.” It was true, and I met him, and I’m happy to report that he was a very gracious, humble, unassuming sort of person. Not at all the celebrity persona you might have expected. For that matter, the “very important person” from many years ago was also quite friendly. To be clear about it, I’m happy when anyone visits the church, and I think it’s wonderful when well-known or popular people come to worship the Lord. That’s always an encouraging thing. Nothing wrong with celebrities coming to church and nothing wrong with being glad to see them. But I’ve been waiting for someone to say, “Pastor Ray, guess what? We’ve got two prostitutes visiting the church today. Isn’t that wonderful?” Or “Pastor Ray, there’s a man here with AIDS and he wants to know Jesus.” Or “Pastor Ray, here’s a single mother with six children. This is her first time to visit.” Or “Pastor Ray, this man just got out of jail and he came to worship with us today.” The sin is not that we make much of the celebrities; it’s that we make so much less of the other people who visit us. And while I’m on the subject, I should mention that occasionally someone will say, “I wish so-and-so would get saved. They have so much to offer,” which usually means they have money they could give. Is God so broke that he needs another banker in his family? Is God so confused about the economy that he needs another stockbroker on his team? Nothing could be more worldly than valuing lost people based what we think they could contribute to God’s Kingdom.

III. The Purpose Explained

“It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’” (I Corinthians 1:30-31). The reason God does what he does is to demonstrate that he alone is the source of our salvation. “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.” It’s not your wisdom or your intellect or your memorized Bible verses that brought you to Jesus. And you are not a Christian because you are a good person or a church member or because your father was a preacher and your mother was a Sunday School teacher. Paul says plainly: “It is because of him.” Salvation is of the Lord. God wants us to know that he is the reason we came to Christ. And in Christ we find wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption. If we believe this, then our boast will be in the Lord alone. When it comes to salvation, we contribute nothing but the sin that makes it necessary to be saved. God does the rest. God chooses whom he pleases, and he does so by choosing those whom the world overlooks.

Nothing could be more worldly than valuing lost people based what we think they could contribute to God’s Kingdom.

If we believe what this passage teaches, it will change the way we look at ourselves, and it will change the way we talk about ourselves. Some of us talk so much about ourselves that we hardly talk about the Lord at all. Our real problem is the vast difference between our view and God’s view.

We look at the outward. God looks at the inward.
We value popularity. God values character.
We look at intelligence. God looks at the heart.
We honor those with money. God honors those with integrity.
We talk about what we own. God talks about what we give away.
We boast about whom we know. God notices whom we serve.
We list our accomplishments. God looks for a contrite heart.
We value education. God values wisdom.
We love size. God notices quality.
We live for fame. God searches for humility.
Our view is shallow. God’s view is deep.
Our view is temporary. God’s view is eternal.

We list our accomplishments. God looks for a contrite heart.

At the end of the day, we discover that God destroys human pride two ways:

1) By sending a Savior to die on a hated Roman cross,
2) By choosing the weak over the strong to be part of his family.

We wouldn’t have done it this way, but that brings us back to the fundamental point that God is different. He doesn’t play by our rules.

When we lived in Chicago, I often heard the Chicago Cubs described as “lovable losers,” a reference to the fact that they haven’t won the World Series since 1908. That fact is a source of sorrowful pride to Cubs fans everywhere because a true Cubs fan says, “If it takes forever, I’m sticking with my team.” It’s been a long time since their last championship, and even the most loyal fans might be tempted to give up, but as Harry Caray famously remarked, “Any team can have a bad century.” I remember the heartbreak in 2003 when the Cubs were five outs away from going to the World Series. How did they manage to lose those last two games? It’s still a mystery to me. I thought about the term “lovable losers” as I prepared this message. That strikes me as a good description of those whom God chooses for his church. No matter where we come from, in God’s eyes we are all just “lovable losers.” In the spiritual sense, we’re all Cubs now. When God chooses members for his team, he doesn’t look for superstars. He goes after “lovable losers” and he picks them out one by one. “But I can’t pitch,” you say to the Lord. “I can’t hit or field or bat. I don’t even know how to play baseball.” It doesn’t matter, the Lord replies. “Jesus is the captain of the team, and he’s never lost a game yet.” There is a method to God’s selection process. When the team finally wins, Jesus alone will get the credit, not the “lovable losers” who played alongside him. We didn’t do so well, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because the Captain of our Salvation won the victory, and when he won, we won with him.

 No matter where we come from, in God’s eyes we are all just “lovable losers.”

By arranging things this way, God destroys human pride and glorifies his Son at the same time. Only God could have conceived of a way that losers could become winners through association with his Son.

Church of the Pathetic Losers

A few years ago during the annual Pastors Conference at Moody Bible Institute, Alistair Begg, pastor of the Parkside Church in the Cleveland area, spoke on our need to depend fully on the Lord and not on our own resources. As he came to the close, he told the story of how King Jehoshaphat prayed in 2 Chronicles 20. As the enemy armies closed in on Jerusalem, the king cried out to the Lord in the presence of all the people, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (v. 12).  Alistair Begg commented that he was really saying, “Lord, we’re just a bunch of pathetic losers. And if you don’t help us, we’re sunk.” He went on to say that he had discovered that this was the true mission statement of the church he pastors: “We’re just a bunch of pathetic losers and if God doesn’t help us, we’re sunk.” That’s a good name for a church: “Church of the Pathetic Losers.” You would never run out of prospects.

I think he’s absolutely right. Apart from God’s grace, that’s all we are—just a bunch of pathetic losers. Without God, we don’t have a chance, we don’t have a thing to offer, and we don’t even know what to do next. Sometimes I think the hardest job God has is getting his children to admit how desperately they need him. So let me say it clearly to everyone who reads these words: I am a pathetic loser. Apart from the grace of God, I own up to the truth that in me, that is in my flesh, there is nothing good at all. Whatever talent I possess, and whatever good I have accomplished, the power to do it has come from the Lord, and he alone gets the credit.

Sometimes I think the hardest job God has is getting his children to admit how desperately they need him.

At the same Pastors Conference, Joseph Stowell, then president of Moody Bible Institute, commented that many days he is sick of himself. I understand that and say “Amen” to it. When I mentioned that in a sermon, a man told me he had stayed up all night wrestling with the Lord because he too was sick of himself. A woman added, “Sometimes I get on my own nerves.” All of us (if we are honest) are sick of ourselves sooner or later.

I heard about a pastor who came up with a phrase that he printed at the top of their church bulletins even though some of the leaders didn’t feel comfortable with it: “Blunder Forward.” After serving 27 years in pastoral ministry, I can testify how true that is. Even on our best days, we struggle as God’s people to simply “blunder forward.” And some days we can’t even do that.

Are we really “pathetic losers?” Yes, and we don’t know the half of it. And that brings me back to the original question. Why does God choose splendid sinners and lovable losers? Why are there so many miserable misfits and fantastic failures in God’s family? The answer is two-fold:

1) God chooses losers because that’s all he’s got to work with.
2) God chooses losers because that way he alone gets the credit for anything good we accomplish.

Here is the good news. When splendid sinners and lovable losers and miserable misfits and fantastic failures band together to seek the Lord, amazing things happen. The Red Sea parts, the walls come tumbling down, the enemy is routed, and the church rolls on for the glory of God. Amen.

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