It is the 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 takes 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.
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.
We are sinners, and we know ourselves to be sinners lost and helpless in ourselves; but we are saved sinners, and it is our salvation which gives the tone to our life—a tone of joy which swells in exact proportion to the sense we have of our ill-desert. For it is he to whom much is forgiven who loves much and, who loving, rejoices much.
Throughout the Protestant world, believers confess themselves to be, still as believers, wrath-deserving sinners, and that not merely with reference to their inborn sinful nature as yet incompletely eradicated but with reference also to their total life manifestation which their incompletely eradicated sinful nature flows into and vitiates.
It has not always been easy through the Protestant ages to maintain in its purity this high attitude of combined shame of self and confidence in the mercy of God in Christ.
Thus, through every moment of his life, the believer is absolutely dependent on the grace of Christ, and when life is over, he still has nothing to plead but Christ’s blood and righteousness.
The believer strives against sin all his life and is never without failings. And from his well-grounded fear of sinning arises a powerful ever-present motive to watchfulness and effort. He has nothing to depend on but Christ, and Christ is enough. But that does not relieve him from the duty of cleansing his life from sin but rather girds his loins for the struggle. The necessity for the continuance of the struggle means, of course, the continuance of sin to struggle against.
“Miserable Sinner Christianity,” Works of B.B. Warfield Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Book House; 2001) p. 113ff.
Books by B.B. Warfield