‘Not I, but …’

The object of this study is to consider three statements penned by the apostle Paul, each in a different Epistle, in order to learn the practical and valuable lessons which they contain. The feature which unites them will become obvious as we proceed. The first occurs in Romans 7. 16, 17, and the subject dealt with is

The Christian and his Sins. “If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me”. In the earlier chapters of this Epistle, Paul has established the total depravity of man, the adverse verdict of God upon the whole race., and the merciful provision made in the atoning death of Christ for securing the justification of believing sinners. He has embarked on a lengthy review of the benefits accruing to the believer through this provision, benefits which include deliverance from future judgment, peace with God and the gift of the Holy Spirit. He has taught that, so far as God is concerned, the believer is thoroughly identified with his Saviour in death, burial and resurrection. Now, however, he is grappling with the palpable fact that, notwithstanding all these blessings, the Christian still sins. Without digressing into a lengthy discussion of the differing views held concerning this seventh chapter, it seems clear beyond doubt that verses 14 to 25 concern Christian experience. The recurring use of the present tense, the evident loathing of wrong-doing and the “delight in the law of God after the inward man”, v. 22, scarcely warrant application to an unbeliever.

The point which one desires to emphasize, however, is simply this; that in acknowledging recurring failure in his personal conduct as a Christian, Paul isolates himself in thought from his own corrupt nature, which he personifies and condemns as “sin that dwelleth in me”. The apostle rendered a great service to all Christians when he ruthlessly searched out and analysed the causes of his failings as a believer, and unselfishly gave permanent expression to his findings. It is clear from the whole of the present passage, and from the chapter which succeeds it, that he was not seeking to absolve himself from all responsibility for his own actions. Rather was he setting forth, under divine guidance, the precise nature of the Christian’s dilemma when confronted with the disconcerting fact of a constant tendency to do wrong in spite of earnest desires to do right. In effect, Paul is saying to us: “Bad conduct is not my conduct, but that of indwelling sin acting against my own wishes in the matter. I, Paul, constantly aim to please the Lord. All deviations are the product of indwelling sin, betraying and violating my personal longings”. Surely it is abundantly helpful to grasp the truth of this. It answers to genuine Christian experience down the ages. In itself, of course, it does not provide a solution to the besetting grief and disappointment caused by personal failure. Like all true diagnosis, however, it leads on to the right prescription for the cure of the malady. That prescription is set forth in detail in the following chapter of Romans, but it is also set forth with wonderful clarity and brevity in the second statement to which we now direct attention. It appears in Galatians 2. 20, the familiar verse dealing with

The Christian and his Saviour. "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me”. If the first statement can be summed up thus: “not I, but sin”; the second can be summed up similarly: “not I, but Christ”. This profound verse abounds in divine paradox. The man is crucified yet living. Though living, it is really Christ who lives in him. He lives in the flesh but he lives in faith. First of all, the verse accords with many New Testament passages which teach that the Christian, from the moment of conversion, is regarded by God as having been crucified with the Saviour. The believer died with his divine Substitute. This is not something to be striven for, but reckoned upon; as the Revised Version of our verse emphasizes: “I have been crucified with Christ”. We had earned the death sentence, Rom. 6. 23, and it has been carried out. Yet Paul wasn’t in his grave yet! “Nevertheless I live”, he writes, and then leaves us gasping by adding mystery to mystery - “yet not I (R.V., no longer I) but Christ liveth in me”. The risen Saviour, by His Spirit, had taken possession of Paul, as He takes possession of every Christian. As Geoffrey Bull once sweetly said., in a slightly different connection, this is “an endowment, not an attainment".

Clearly, the fact of an almighty, indwelling Saviour involves glorious possibilities for victorious living for every believer. How are these possibilities to be realized in daily experience? “… that life which I now live in the flesh / live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me”, R.v. He lives in the flesh, with all the problems which that brings. He lives in faith, with all the resources which that brings. We are to have no confidence in the flesh, Phil. 3. 3, but every confidence in our all-powerful, ever-present Saviour. The love which moved the Lord Jesus to give Himself up for each one of us, remains as an unchanging factor upon which the believer must rely constantly, for nothing, and no-one, can ever separate him from that love, Rom. 8. 35-39.

We are now ready to consider our third great statement of Paul, dealing with the subject of

The Christian and his Service. "But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me”, 1 Cor. 15. 10. “Not I, but sin" accounts for Christian failure. “Not I, but Christ” is the source of Christian victory. “Not I, but grace” explains acceptable Christian service. In this verse, Paul is following up his reference to the Lord’s resurrection appearances, culminating with that dazzling appearance of the exalted Saviour to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road. The apostle cannot mention that wonderful intervention into his life without a deep sense of gratitude, and a confession of personal unfitness,, especially in the light of his conduct prior to that day, “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”, v. 9. Having thus marvelled at the mercy which he had received, however, he does not wish to appear to be slighting it by suggesting that it was without purpose; he there-fore goes on to make the statement quoted above. He says, in effect, that although he had not deserved the grace of God, nevertheless it had not been wasted on him - “his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all…” Dreadful though his earlier life had been in its total opposition to the gospel, he had not been slow, once converted, to make amends by devoted service to the Lord.

No one could justly question Paul’s claim here to have “laboured more abundantly than they all”, namely than all the other apostles, most of whom had remained in Jerusalem to carry on the Lord’s work, whilst he had taken the gospel into other lands, and in doing so had involved himself in considerable privation and suffering. It is characteristic of the man, however, that he could not finish his sentence there; for accuracy, as well as humility, demanded that he should add the qualifying clause, “yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me”. The verse thus begins and ends with “the grace of God”. It had moved him to contrition and repentance on the Damascus road, and it had motivated and energized all his service for the Lord since then.

Christian service is not simply a matter of the expenditure of personal effort and energy. It proceeds from a life in which the tendencies of indwelling sin have been subdued and controlled by the power of an indwelling Christ, and in which God is able continually to act in grace towards sinners. These are the only terms in which Paul was willing to explain his own long and wonderfully productive life as an apostle and missionary. They leave no room for even the slightest trace of self-confidence or self-esteem. The Lord Jesus, speaking to the disciples on the night of His betrayal, imparted teaching which was closely parallel to that of the apostle, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He hath abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing”, John 15. 5.