This afternoon I read a bit from Faithfulness and Holiness by J. I. Packer. The book consists of Packer’s short biography of J. C. Ryle, the noted British Anglican leader of the 19th century, and a reprint of Ryle’s justly-famous book called, simply, “Holiness.” I happened across this quote from Ryle’s chapter on “Sanctification” where he means to show that God is pleased with our least efforts to please him. He demonstrates this by speaking the plain truth about the best efforts of the best saints:
"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 (p. 126)."
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.”
But if that is the case, why bother living for the Lord at all? A few sentences later Ryle offers this encouraging word for believers who feel like giving up because they have failed so many times:
"Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy or walking across a room, so is our Father in heaven pleased with the poor performances of his believing children. He looks at the motive, principle, and intention of their actions, and not merely at their quantity and quality. He regards them as members of his own dear Son, and for his sake, wherever there is a single eye, he is well pleased (p. 126)."
I find this very hopeful and encouraging because 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.
So do you feel somewhat dismayed by your “poor performance” this week? Would you feel better if you had been better? Probably you would. But we are not saved by our feelings but by Christ who died for us while we were yet sinners and who justified us while we were ungodly and who continues to save us despite our “poor performance” and our “splendid sins.”
No wonder the angel called it “good news of great joy” when Christ was born. Let all poor performers and splendid sinners rejoice at Christmastime. He came for us, too.