Utmost Grace for the Foremost Sinner

The Foremost Sinner Receive the Utmost Grace…

A Scottish New Testament lecturer, A.K.M. Adam, says that these verses in the introductory section of 1st Timothy serve several functions. They magnify the glory of God’s grace. They tell us the extraordinary good news that God extends forgiveness and reconciliation not solely to “the foremost sinners” including a violent despiser of Jesus but, mercifully to middleweight and lightweight sinners such as most us.  His words  bind the manifestation of God’s mercy to the mission of Christ; merciful salvation comes to us not simply in a generic way, but very concretely in the person of Jesus whose forbearance, gentleness, and self-giving exemplify God’s way of dealing with us, the mirror-image of the violent persecution that characterized Paul’s former life. Reading from 1 Timothy 1:12-17

12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul’s character and experience figure in this introductory section as an illustration of the extent of God’s grace. To understand the gift of mercy that is so very important to Paul we need to review what Paul was doing when he got what, most clearly, he did not deserve. Of himself he says he was  “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”. In the Book of Acts Luke reports that witnesses to the stoning of Stephen “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul”. A couple of chapters later we find Saul “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” . He even requests a letter from the high priest to the synagogues at Damascus, “so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem”. In his letter to the Galatians Paul describes his former life by saying, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it”.

To highlight God’s gratuitous mercy Paul explains that he received mercy “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.”  But of what could you imagine of Paul to have been ignorant? He knew the God of Israel, the Torah, and the Prophets. He even knew enough about Jesus to oppose his cause. What Paul says that he did not know what he was doing in the same way that those who crucified Jesus did not know what they were doing: that is they did not grasp fully the significance of what was going on around them. In Luke’s description of the crucifixion he recounts Jesus praying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing“. Paul’s rationale is he was ignorant as if ignorance offers an excuse. It doesn’t.  But Paul is not the only one to marvel at the contrast between the good we think our actions would have and the harm we actually do. “I didn’t know it would turn out that way.” “I was trying to help.” “I didn’t think anyone would get hurt.” It’s like hearing Patsy Montana sing “I didn’t know the gun was loaded and I’m so sorry my friend”.  No matter what our intentions, still, there we are, standing in the need of mercy. Paul aligned himself with the persecutors at first, but like those for whom Jesus prayed, he received mercy despite his early opposition to God’s purposes

As to his opposition to God’s intentions for creation Paul represents that as the absolute worst thing a person could possibly do; it follows then that because Paul persecuted the church, he must be the foremost of sinners. In 1 Corinthians 4:13 Paul describes himself as “unfit to be an apostle“, “the dregs of all things“. The less worthy of divine favor Paul makes himself out to be the more he underscores the incalculable scope of God’s mercy. This is truly good news. If we grant that God does not hold the sins of even the worst sinner ever — blasphemer, persecutor, insulter and opposer — then surely God’s grace extends to us less hyperbolic sinners.

Our understanding of free will means that we presume that God will accommodate those whose unyielding commitment to their own understanding of freedom and goodness distances them from forgiveness. God will not redeem everyone from the consequences of every evil that a person does suggests that none of us are in any position to make any claims about who God will or will not forgive. Not everyone will accept God’s offer, and that might include some of us who refuse to accept the possibility that God forgives sins that they wouldn’t!  I think that’s rather generous of God to ensure that the specific contours of final judgment lie well beyond our capacity to determine, whether concerning just what eternal blessedness will be like, or who will share it or not.

The thanksgiving expressed emphasizes Paul’s sinfulness only insofar as it demonstrates the surpassing greatness of Christ’s work to save Paul, to strengthen him, and to call him to something better. These words point beyond Paul, and beyond sinfulness, to the work of Christ to exercise “the utmost patience” in order to save blasphemers, persecutors, people of violence, and other sinners. Christ makes Paul an example to show that if Paul can be saved, anyone can be saved.

To figure out what it means for Christ to “save sinners,” we have to look back to the first verse of this lesson. There, we see that Christ strengthened Paul, judged him faithful and appointed Paul to Christ’s service. “Saving,” as Paul describes what happened to him is certainly not ignoring sin and the harm it does. Saving is not moving a name from one column to another. Saving is re-commissioning someone for new work. It is taking a persecutor of the church and turning him into an ambassador of Christ. Saving is the human equivalent of fashioning swords into plowshares or a rather sophisticated form of human recycling. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Paul should know. He thought himself to be Exhibit A.

But there is a little more about that we have lost over the years. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Picard has an experience of seeing what his life would have been like if one particularly embarrassing chapter had been removed from it. Afterward, he confides to his first officer, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads—untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, I unraveled the tapestry of my life.”

Paul is genuinely remorseful about having persecuted the church, yet he cannot remove that thread and still tell the story of his life and his new life in Christ. In the end he comes to see Christ as having re-commissioned even this chapter along with all of the elements of his character that led him to do such a thing. At least part of the miracle of salvation in Jesus Christ, as testified to by the apostle Paul’s life, is that Christ does not unravel the tapestry of those whose lives he saves. He does not unravel anything, but out of that mess of threads and stitching, he recycles something delightful for the human family;  he redeems something  for the good of his kingdom.

The passage links the forgiveness Paul receives to his call to ministry. This passage also appreciates that responding to God’s compassion is not receiving a guarantee for a future gift, but taking up an offer on a relationship with a God who is going places. We are invited, in grace, to get on board and partner with God who is on a mission and where there will be a role, often a distinctive ministry, for us. That was Paul’s understanding.

Paul became a model of conversion, a hero for many early Christians. His switch from being a persecutor to becoming a bearer of mission is legendary. It is a celebration of God’s generous grace. The Gospels and Epistles emphasize and repeat the axiom that God’s greatness is revealed in having mercy for people we would not think would receive mercy. The minute we decide that some horrible sin is unforgivable, we challenge God to forgive it — and God answers our judgmental edicts with the promise of unexpected, unreasonable, overflowing mercy.

In 1976 John Powell, a Jesuit priest, published a book entitled, Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am?”  The book sold millions of copies and despite the tragedy of his own life remains in print to this day. Powell’s simple thesis is that people hide who they really are from others because of one basic fear. He describes this fear in a conversation..

Powell:  “I am writing a booklet, to be called, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am.” 

Other:   “Do you want an answer to your question?”

Powell:  “That is the purpose of the booklet, to answer the question.”

Other:   “But do you want my answer?”

Powell:  “Yes, of course I do.”

Other:   “I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.” “There are times when I am deathly afraid that most everyone I know would want nothing to do with me if they really knew me.”

This passage from 1st Timothy contains a statement which is in stark contrast to the tendency we have to hide our inner frailties. In fact, the writer shines a light on his weakness for all to see. Listen once again, This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost.” How can someone reveal such a thing? The answer to that question is crucial because it points to the only real source of healing for and freedom from the inner anguish with which so many live. The answer to healing for our broken inner person is this: The sin and brokenness of humankind is great…     but the grace of God is greater still. In fact, it is amazing!”

Paul says that he was, “…a blasphemer, persecutor, and a man of violence…”  No kidding! He was there when Stephen was martyred for his faith by being stoned to death and may even have had a role in the execution. Christian people went into hiding in fear when Paul came to town seeking to bring them up on charges before the Jewish council.

“But,” he says, “I received mercy… and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”  Not only that, Paul says that he is evidence to everyone else that if he can receive God’s grace and love, anybody can receive God’s grace and love. If the Lord God of this universe knows you, loves you and redeems you, then there is no one to fear. The whole idea of God’s amazing grace is so wonderful that Paul concludes our scripture with this doxology: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


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