Paul Washer, the great man of God, often says, “There is no such thing as a great man of God, only weak, pitiful, faithless men of a great and merciful God.” Is he right?
Before we seek to answer that question from a biblical perspective, we should recognize the importance of the question. This question is important because, if true, it releases us from an immense burden. Many, many people feel that they need to do “great” things for Christ if their lives are to matter.
None could make a legitimate argument that people cannot do things that are great for God. The Apostle Paul’s letters are great. Augustine’s and Aquinas’s works are great. The martyrdoms of the Reformation were great acts of love for God’s truth. These are great things, but are the people great? It would seem necessary to say that people are great if they can do great things. Isn’t it best to say Babe Ruth was a great baseball player, rather than, “Babe Ruth did great things on the baseball diamond”? Wouldn’t we do well to say, “The Apostle Paul was a great man of God” rather than, “The Apostle Paul did great things”?
The Apostle Paul helps us understand an important distinction when he says, “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor 15:10b). Paul does acknowledge the greatness of his work ethic. But, he does not attribute the greatness to himself. In this way, we see that Paul’s greatness wasn’t really Paul’s. This statement strongly refutes the notion that there can be great people because it also refutes the idea that people can do great things in and of themselves.
If the greatness of Paul’s actions (which were genuinely great) are actually gifts from God, it would make no sense to make the larger statement, “Paul was a great man.” Maybe we would have an argument if Paul’s great actions were really a result of something he was able to muster up. But he rejects that notion. He says, on the contrary, “I know that nothing good dwells in me” (Rom 7:18b). If nothing good dwells in Paul, yet he was able to do good things, the only logical conclusion is that those things arose from Someone else.
If that is true, we have no biblical grounds to say, “Paul was a great man,” properly speaking. Of course, we can mean that in the sense that Paul had extremely admirable characteristics, like the love of God, zeal for truth, and willingness to sacrifice. But, we must remember, all of those things did not come from Paul’s flesh (which has nothing good) but they came from God’s grace. If we want to be precise with our language, therefore, we should say, “Paul was a man who was greatly used by God.” Paul leaves us no room to describe him in any other way. If his work ethic was not from him but God’s grace, how much more his works? If his works were from God’s grace, how much more him?
This concept is borne out in the rest of Scripture. We are hard-pressed to find any true heroes in the Bible. The “greatest men” in the Bible are often people who have committed adultery and murder (Paul and David, for example)! Great men don’t kill innocent people and cheat on their wives. Though we may want to describe David as the great king of Israel or Paul as the great Apostle, this would be to describe them in ways that run contrary to Scripture. Indeed, this would run contrary to David and Paul’s self-descriptions (Ps 51 and Rom 7)!
What about other “great men”? Joseph is commonly referred to as the least sinful good guy in the Bible. Abraham was a liar, Moses was cowardly and angry, we heard about David, right up through the Apostles; all the key figures in the Bible display radically not-great characteristics. But Joseph seems to be an exception. Was Joseph a great man?
Not quite. First of all, it’s very likely that his presentation of his dream to his brothers was an act of prideful boasting. If God gave you a dream that you would rule over your siblings or coworkers, you probably wouldn’t tell them, at least not right away. You’d know your dream would come across as condescending, so you’d probably keep it to yourself at least for a while. Joseph didn’t do that. Though the brothers were wrong to throw him in the pit and then sell him into slavery, we can understand a little bit of their reaction—who wouldn’t be a little upset if someone came up to you and said, “God told me last night that I am going to be your master!” We would be really upset if, after that reaction, the next day the person came back and said, “I had another dream, and God showed me I will be your master and your parents’ master!” (I’m paraphrasing Gen 37:5-17). This quite clearly seems to be pride at work.
But, even if Joseph wasn’t wrong to relate his dream in this way, the Bible still says that all people are born, and even conceived in sin (Ps 51:5). “None is righteous, no, not one (Rom 3:10, Ps 14:1-3, 53:1-3). This is why “in Adam all die” (1 Cor 15:22). No one born from Adam can claim to be sinless, not even Joseph. Even if Joseph’s actions as they are recorded in the Bible were without fault (and that is unlikely) his other actions were with fault. The Bible doesn’t record every bad thing every character does. Rest assured, Joseph sinned whether we know how or not.
Therefore, if all people sin—even Joseph—there are no great people. Some may object that Joseph and others like him are great by comparison. That is, they are greater than Haman or the Pharisees. This is a faulty argument. It is no more logical to say that a rotten apple is fresh just because it is less rotten than another apple. A less rotten apple is still rotten. Its lesser degree of depravity does not make it fresh. In the same way, Joseph’s lesser degree of sinfulness does not make him great.
This is strengthened by the fact that Joseph would certainly agree with Paul that the good things he did were the result of God’s grace. He clearly sees God at the helm of history and says, with regard to the events of his life, “God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). It would be foolish to assume that this could only apply to the sinful actions of his brothers. It also applies to the good actions of Joseph. If God can sovereignly ordain the bad actions of Joseph’s brothers (such that “God meant [them] for good”) can He not do the same with Joseph’s good actions? Indeed, the brothers’ sinfulness was the primary cause of the evil. But Joseph’s sinfulness could not be the primary cause of his goodness. In this way, we see that God must have a more precise control, or a more overriding influence in Joseph’s life to produce the good than in the brothers’ lives to guide the bad. That is, the bad flowed from the hearts of the brothers, and God steered it. The good, on the other hand, flowed from God, and Joseph received it.
It is biblically required to agree with Washer’s claim. In the most precise sense, there are no “great men” or “great women.” Rather, there are only sinful men and women. These sinful men and women—by the sovereign good will of God—are often washed by His grace and used for His glory. This does not make them “great” but “greatly used.” Their instrumental greatness removes all ability to boast. A shovel cannot say, “Look at that great hole I dug!” This would be a lie. The digger dug the hole, not the shovel. The shovel was used to dig the hole. If the shovel is exactly like all the other shovels, it cannot boast in its being selected. The selection is based solely on the free will of the digger. Why did he choose this shovel over that when both are equal? We won’t know unless we ask him. In the same way, God sees us all as sinful creatures, but He chooses to use some. In fact, He often chooses the more corrupted humans in order to make the point that it is not the human who does the work but He. Biblically speaking, those who are used the most by God should probably understand themselves to be worse humans than those who are not used so mightily. This is likely why Paul says he is “the very least of all saints” (Eph 3:8b). If you read the journals of men like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, you will see that they regularly see themselves as vile sinners.
For example, consider this excerpt from Edwards’s journal describing his self-evaluation: “I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart since my conversion than ever I had before. It has often appeared to me that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind of all that has been since the beginning of the world to this time and that I should have by far the lowest place in hell.” – Jonathan Edwards, The Life and Character of Mr. Jonathan Edwards (Sprinkle Publications, 2008: p.68-69). In other words, the great Jonathan Edwards would resolutely disagree if we were to call him “a great man of God”!
Therefore, when we consider “great men of God,” we should instead refer to them as “sinful men who were greatly used by the great God.” Perhaps we would do well to assume that they were “especially sinful men who were greatly used by the great God.” Paul Washer says that there is only one hero in the Bible—Jesus. We have shelves lined with our “heroes”—Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Bavinck, Keller, Piper, and MacArthur. But these are not “great men.” They are sinners just as in need of Jesus as you are. To the degree that we exalt these men as “great,” we denigrate the work of Christ in their hearts. God could have just as easily used you to write The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He didn’t need John Calvin for that to happen any more than a digger needs this shovel over that one to dig a hole. “Is the axe to boast itself over the one who chops with it? Is the saw to magnify itself over the one who wields it?” (Isaiah 10:15a). There is only one great Man.
Soli Deo Gloria.