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.
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.No one 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. Is it not best to say Babe Ruth was a great baseball player, rather than, “Babe Ruth did great things on the baseball diamond”? Would not 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 was not 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 will 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 God greatly used.” 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 do not 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, and 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 is 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 would not tell them, at least not right away.