Can God save the worst sinner ever? Would he want to? You and I might not feel like the worst sinners ever in history, but we can often feel pretty guilty about our bad choices. In the middle of the guilt, we wonder, “How does God feel about us when we have screwed up?”
As I mentioned last week in the intro post, our continuing study in 1st Timothy brings us to chapter 1, verses 12-17. In that section, the writer of this letter, Paul, declares that he was the worst sinner. He calls himself a blasphemer and persecutor, a man who arrogantly insulted God. If you want, you can read all about it in Acts 7-9. Paul is not exaggerating. He was part of the same religious establishment that opposed Jesus, and now a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was leading the charge to round up Jesus’ followers and crush their movement.
Why wouldn’t God just eliminate Paul? Instead, Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 1:12-17 that God considered Paul faithful. Faithful? That seems incredulous. How could God see Paul as faithful when Paul was on the brink of destroying God’s new movement to save the world? The reason is that while Paul had not placed his faith in Jesus, Paul was very passionate about what he considered to be the truth about God, the Old Covenant that God had with Israel. Therefore Paul considered the Christians a cult, a threat to the truth.
So Jesus stepped in, as you can read in Acts 9, when Paul was headed to imprison more Christians. Literally breaking out of heaven in a bright light, Jesus revealed himself to Paul, totally changing the course of Paul’s life. In 1 Timothy 1, at the end of verse 13 Paul looks back on that momentous event when God changed his life, and Paul says he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and unbelief.
The word here that Paul uses to describe how much grace and faith and love God gave him is quite vivid. The NIV uses the image of pouring, but I would argue that there is a better image. The word is actually a compound word “over fill”. It is the image of a cup into which a liquid is poured not just to the top, not to the brim, but overflowing. The liquid pours out over the edges. The container cannot contain that much!
I love that. That’s how much grace and faith and love God gives to us! More than we can handle. You are the container, and God is filling you with his grace and faith and love, and he is giving you more of his goodness that you can hold!
That’s how amazing God is.
Paul continues talking about this in verse 15 where he refers to the mission of Jesus to save sinners. Paul was the worst. Paul is using himself as an illustration of how far-reaching God’s grace is. He was the worst of sinners. Everyone in the early church knew this.
He was ISIS. He was their worst enemy. And how do you think they felt when they heard that their worst enemy supposedly changed into their strongest advocate?
No way, buddy!
How would you feel if a top ISIS leader started saying that he was now a Christian?
No one would believe him! That’s what Paul was going through.
But the change in Paul was true, and in due time, Paul showed them that it was true. We see clearly in Paul that Jesus has the power to save anyone and to change anyone’s life. Even the worst of sinners.
I hear Paul saying in this passage that he was the worst of sinners, and I think “I don’t know if you were actually the worst of sinners even in your own time, Paul, but I can pretty much guarantee that with all the horrible stuff that has happened in the last 2000 years since you wrote this, you aren’t even close to the worst.”
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it doesn’t matter who is actually the worst sinner, or whether or not Paul was the worst sinner. What matters is that Paul saw himself as the worst sinner.
And when you can be honest about how sinful you really are, then you start to see how amazing God’s grace and mercy are. Christian pastor and author Tim Keller has said “We only fully grasp the gospel when we understand, as Paul did, that we are the worst sinner we know.”
I’ll never forget a sight I saw at EC National Conference a few years ago. We were all singing praise to God, a normal part of our sessions of conference. One particular song emphasized this theme of brokenness before God, of taking our sin seriously, and a man in the crowd, without any prodding from the worship leader, got up from his seat, walked down the aisle, and got down on his knees in front of the whole assembly. He was clearly broken up inside about his sin.
Do we let ourselves off the hook? I wonder if we haven’t fully grasped the Gospel because we haven’t taken our sin seriously?
And if you’re thinking “Man, Joel…this sin talk dire stuff. Bleak.” Get ready. What comes next is a game changer.
In verse 16, Paul says something that many people think is crazy: God showed mercy to the worst of sinners!
God shows mercy to sinners, even to really bad sinners. And more than that, why would God do this? Paul says that God showed mercy to him so that Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
God had unlimited patience for sinners. That is crazy talk. Unlimited? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no patience and 10 is unlimited patience, where do you rank yourself?
God is a 10. He is the only one who is a 10.
When you realize how God is so merciful, so patient with you, even when you feel like the worst of sinners, what do you do? You do what Paul did!
In verse 17 he bursts forth in praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever!” Praise Him! Paul is praising him as he thinks about how amazing God was to him.
This is who God is! Paul is looking at the depths of evil that was in his heart and how God saved him. And he bursts with praise.
Paul uses himself as an example of why we should praise the Lord. But all of us have stories.
If God can save the worst of sinners, of course he can save the rest of us.
Paul is also an example for us in that he is sharing his story. Likewise we should share our stories of God’s intervention in our lives. And I’m not talking about only super dramatic stories. Stories of God’s work in the non-dramatic moments are also amazing. It is just as astounding for God to save us in a non-dramatic way as it is for God to break out of the clouds and save a Christian-killer like Paul.
All of us should have the words of praise found in verse 17 flooding our hearts and minds!
So if you grew up in a Christian family and you always believed in Jesus, that is just as awesome as if you didn’t grow up in a Christian family and have a more intense conversion experience.
Christians, be reminded of the grace, love and patience of God in saving you, pour out in praise, and tell the story!