IT belongs to the very essence of the type of Christianity propagated by the Reformation that the believer should feel himself continuously unworthy of the grace by which he lives. At the center of this type of Christianity lies the contrast of sin and grace; and about this center everything else revolves. This is in large part the meaning of the emphasis put in this type of Christianity on justification by faith. It is its conviction that there is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest. There is never anything that we are or have or do that can take His place, or that can take a place along with Him. We are always unworthy, and all that we have or do of good is always of pure grace. Though blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, we are still in ourselves just “miserable sinners”: “miserable sinners” saved by grace to be sure, but “miserable sinners” still, deserving in ourselves nothing but everlasting wrath. That is the attitude which the Reformers took, and that is the attitude which the Protestant world has learned from the Reformers to take, toward the relation of believers to Christ. There is emphasized in this attitude the believer’s continued sinfulness in fact and in act; and his continued sense of his sinfulness. And this carries with it recognition of the necessity of unbroken penitence throughout life. The Christian is conceived fundamentally in other words as a penitent sinner. (Benjamin B. Warfield, Perfectionism, Volume 1 , chapter 3)Warfield does not have the reputation of being the most easily-accessible theologian ever to write. That's because he isn't. He's better than Edwards... but that isn't saying much.
(If this is dense to you, try reading it aloud slowly and thoughtfully. It's worth the effort.)
Warfield makes a rich, important, central, and richly Gospelly point: we never get beyond needing grace, needing Christ, needing all the rich benefits purchased for believers on the Cross. Any teaching that in any way implies that Christ is where we start, that grace is Square A and we get beyond it into the really good stuff, is sub-Christian and un-Biblical.
Paul didn't reminisce about the old days, when he was a sinner who needed grace. It was a present and rich reality to him, to the end of his course (1 Timothy 1:15).
Thank God for Christ! Thank God for the Gospel! Thank God for the Cross! Thank God for His rich and overflowing grace — today, no less than the day I believed, nor less than a million years from now!
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
(Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Robert Robinson 1758)