This is in one of the Rev. Billy Graham's daily question columns: "The Apostle Paul was the greatest Christian who ever lived."
Goodness, people who know me know that I love and admire Billy Graham, and I often agree with him. But now to 1) set the record straight and 2) show that I do not hesitate to critique even those I often agree with, here goes.
That is a flat out wrong statement and incredibly misleading. Its potential to be misleading is why I am going to make this a small case study in faith.
First of all, if you ask anyone why they admire Paul (say nothing of actually designating him the greatest Christian) they would start to list the many works of Paul.
Oh dear. Hmm. Yep, you got it. They fall into the trap of putting works before grace.
Paul himself would rip his hair out if he caught anyone calling him the greatest Christian based on his many works. After all, writing the Epistles is works, not grace. Evangelizing is works, not grace. Even miracles are works, not grace. Standing up to others in debate is works, not grace.
Paul received grace when he, as the Christian persecutor Saul, was thrown from his horse by the resurrected Jesus Christ. Everything after that was works. Yes, of course, these were works inspired by the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of Jesus Christ, but you can say that about the Twelve Apostles, the disciples, the martyrs and many, many, MANY unnamed and unknown early Christians.
So it is impossible to state who is the "greatest Christian," period. In fact, Jesus Christ rebuked the Apostles when they argued among themselves who was the greatest. Why would someone as wise as Rev. Graham then apply the label that Jesus did not permit his own Apostles to claim?
Rev Graham, like just about every other Christian (and many non-Christians) today is vulnerable to that slippery slope of admiring works, works, works, even as they preach grace, grace, grace. I have yet to have a conversation with any grace admiring Christian whose thoughts, deeds and preachings actually match their professed admiration of grace! It is nearly impossible to find anyone who is able to have a conversation about God, sanctity and the Holy Spirit without them focusing one hundred percent on works, works, works.
That is why Jesus Christ nipped all that sort of thought and talk right in the bud when the Twelve Apostles debated who was the greatest even among themselves, say nothing of being the greatest Christian of all time!!!
There is no such thing as "the greatest Christian of all time." If there was such a person, you would have to have an amount of GRACE measuring device, not an amount of WORKS measuring device. Who can measure how much grace exists in a person? Only God and the angels (the angels being able to observe grace in humans through God's eyes).
If someone were to search in the Bible (as they should, as the scriptures should be the first reference point, no?) to see if there is a "grace measuring device," what would they find? Read along with me:
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And when the angel had come to her, he said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women."
And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God."
Luke 1:27-28, 30
Mary is the only person in the scripture to receive word from God directly that she is full of grace. No matter how much you might leaf through the Bible citing folks who were "blessed" and who received blessings (such as health, children, prosperity) from God, Mary is the only one who is documented to have been "full of grace" (grace being the unmerited by WORKS gift from God) in the Bible.
Thus if someone is going to have a "let's declare the greatest Christian who every lived" contest, where a Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ, the Bible states that Mary is the only one who is 1) full of grace and 2) was in such a state before her "works," which was to bear the infant Jesus.
You can see why Jesus nipped discussion of being "the greatest" right in the bud with Apostles. Will not all of you do the same, to avoid the misleading temptation of excessive honoring of so-called works? Paul would be the first to rip his hair out by the roots if he were alive to hear such discussions.
Now, just to complete this discussion, let's exercise our logic and faith using an analogy. Well, it is not so much an analogy but to help you to use Mary, therefore, as a kind of litmus test if one were determined to know "the greatest Christian" based on grace.
If you did not have an angel, Gabriel, sent by God to know that Mary was "full of grace," how would you go about finding someone in modern times (let's say the last thousand years) who has "a lot of grace?" How in the world could you identify and measure it? A person who is a theologian? Oh oh, that's works. A person who does a lot of 'good deeds?" Oh oh, that's works. Someone who plants many churches? Oh oh, that's works. Someone who is an inspiring preacher, puts out DVD's and has a great "following?" Oh oh, that's works. Someone who seems wise and filled with knowledge of God? Oh oh, that's works.
There have been many who would be considered in the "top thousands" list of "greatest Christians," but you will never know their names because they were unrecognized as such in their times. They are the grandmothers and grandfathers who raised children of true faith and who were of humble origins, and probably never conducted a particular good deed, so to speak, in their life. Think of the many unknown anonymous people who clung onto in secret their Christian faith when under dictators, for example, doing nothing other than making sure they prayed, kept their Bibles, and raised their children as genuine Christians. They wear the invisible crowns from God of being filled with grace, not works, and being not-rich, not-famous, not-schooled and not-historic figures, they went to the Lord known only to Him.
So that is the first thing to keep in mind, that the more one is clothed in works, the less one is able to actually see their invisible robes of grace. Paul is actually so laden with works (righteous works, don't get me wrong) that it is impossible for modern people to appreciate what grace he had indeed. People are dazzled by works so much that they do not see the quiet invisible soft folds of grace underneath. They assume that great grace abounds, but that actually is not true, if you check the scriptures. Scriptures teach how to recognize grace only via the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, not through church plantings, arguing with others about the faith, documenting "how the early church worked," or even via miracles and other God given deeds (yep, remember deeds means works).
Thus the second thing to think about when one ponders who is a "great Christian" (forget about the "greatest" or whatever) is to observe the following in people as they GENUINELY ARE, and not via their visible works and "deeds."
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit:
Fear of the Lord
etc. (look them up under my previous postings)
The Fruits of the Holy Spirit:
etc. (look them up under my previous postings)
You will see that these are genuine qualities of character, not deeds. You see, when grace from God (and God alone) infuses a person, that person exhibits these qualities, listed above, not increasing "deeds" or "works," regardless how worthy they are.
The most obvious example might be someone who is a generous person but with average or lukewarm faith in God. He receives grace from God and instead of "increasing his charitable works and good deeds," dedicates more and more of his day to his prayer life, if that is his calling from God. Using that logic you can understand how an average or lukewarm charity giver might receive grace from God and actually renounce the secular life and become a priest or a deacon. Grace is not the petrol for making a car go to more and more numerous and varied worthy destinations! Grace is living within gratitude and glorification of the one and only God who gave you "the car." That is the vast difference between deeds/works (however worthy) and grace.
No one can be a "great Christian" without having an inflow of grace that is beyond any merit or receipt due to works. The word "great" has to be reserved for those who really are "great" and not, like the vast majority, "acceptable" or "good enough." Do not kid yourselves, most Christians who achieve heaven do so because they received at least a "C" on their report card; very few have even B's or, much as you may think so, A's. Most Christians who make it to heaven are "good enough," and by no means "great," especially in these modern times where people are so goal and agenda driven, even in their faith, thinking they can "list" their ways into heaven. Even those who know better and who truly love the Lord must always guard against 1) the temptation of works and 2) the worse temptation that they can evaluate and assess someone else's acceptability to God, even someone who seems slam dunk obvious like St. Paul.
This is why I am making such a big thing of this one observation, because I have repeatedly seen that it is at the core and heart of many of the diversions among Christians of one hundred percent fidelity to God. Works, works, works and the "I'm OK, you're OK" mindset is the ruin of many good Christians and blinds them to potential receipt of grace.
I hope you have found this helpful.