The Purpose of Grace
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1:15–16)
The phrase it is a trustworthy statement is unique to the Pastoral Epistles, appearing five times (cf. 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8). These statements were familiar, recognized summaries of key doctrines. That they were common in the church by the time of the writing of the Pastoral Epistles indicates that a well-articulated theology had developed. Paul indeed quotes them as if they were common knowledge. This one and the one in 1 Timothy 4:9 have the phrase deserving full acceptance appended for added emphasis.
The trustworthy statement in 1:15 acts as a condensed articulation of the gospel. In only eight Greek words is found a marvelous summation of the gospel message. Each word is chosen carefully. Christ Jesus is the word order preferred by Paul in the Pastoral Epistles. He uses it twenty-five times compared to six uses of “Jesus Christ.” Bound up in those two words is all that He is. Christ is the anointed King who came to redeem, and became the earthly Jesus at the Incarnation. That He came into the world implies not only His incarnation but His preexistence. Note carefully that it does not say that He came into existence, or that He was created. He existed somewhere else before coming into the world. This phraseology is used frequently by John, who often speaks of Christ’s coming into the world (cf. John 1:9; 3:19; 6:14; 11:27; 12:46; 16:28; 18:37).
The world refers to the world of humanity, blind, lost, and condemned to hell because of its hostility to God (cf. 1 John 5:19). It is into that world of sinners, of darkness and unbelief, that Jesus came. John 3:17 says, “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (cf. John 12:46–47).
Christ’s purpose in coming into this fallen world was to save sinners. Before his birth the angel told Joseph “it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). In Luke 19:10 our Lord stated the purpose of His coming into the world: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” To save is to deliver from death and darkness, from sin, hell, and judgment. Sinners was a term used by the Jews to describe Gentiles (cf. Gal. 2:15), but our Lord used it to refer to all of fallen mankind (cf. Matt. 9:13). It denotes man’s constant violation of God’s law; men are sinners by nature.
In the realm of sinners, Paul saw himself as foremost of all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:9; Eph. 3:8). Many in our day would hasten to correct Paul’s self-image and restore his self-esteem. But that was a healthy self-view for Paul because it was accurate. It’s hard to imagine anyone worse than a blasphemer of God and persecutor of His church. Such a view of himself also served to keep Paul humble and grateful.
It was for this reason that Paul found mercy. God didn’t save him merely to get him out of hell or into heaven. Nor did He save him to preach the gospel or write the epistles; God could have had others do that. The purpose of salvation, whether Paul’s or ours, is to display God’s grace, power, and patience and produce a true worshiper of God (John 4:21–24). It is for His glory primarily, our benefit is secondary.
It was through saving Paul that Jesus Christ could most clearly demonstrate His perfect patience. Makrothumia (patience) means to be patient with people. Paul’s point is that if the Lord was patient with the worst of sinners, no one is beyond the reach of His grace. As an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life, Paul was living proof that God can save any sinner. He was the hupotupōsis, the model, type, or pattern. Those who fear that God cannot save them would do well to consider the case of Paul.
15 The first of five “trustworthy sayings” (pistos ho logos, GK 3412, 3364) quoted in the PE is this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The added phrase “that deserves full acceptance” (also in 4:9) is also attested in Hellenistic literature (e.g., Philo, Flight 129; Rewards, 13). The present saying is reminiscent of Jesus’ statement in Luke 19:10. While “sinner” in Pharisaic Judaism (Paul’s tradition) referred to those who did not stringently keep the law, particularly Gentiles (cf. Gal 2:15), here—as regularly in Paul—“sinner” is a universal term encompassing Paul and the rest of humanity.
What is more, Paul calls himself “the foremost” (NASB) of sinners. (Note the present tense “I am” and the emphasis on “foremost” in the original.) While some consider the statement a hyperbole exaggerating the apostle’s consciousness of guilt, Paul’s conscience was deeply seared by his past persecution of the church, so that in the manner of true saints he may honestly have believed himself to be quite literally the foremost of sinners (cf. Augustine, Sermons 175. 6–7; Calvin, 29). If so, Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the church to fervent propagator constitutes a paradigm of God’s merciful dealings with human beings (see A. D. Clarke, “ ‘Be Imitators of Me’: Paul’s Model of Leadership,” TynBul 49 : 354–55). The church father Ignatius may copy the apostle’s self-effacing attitude when he calls himself “the least of the faithful” (Eph. 21.2) and says that he is “not worthy to be called a member” of the Syrian church (Magn. 14).
15 Now Paul lays the capstone of his argument for the authority and relevance of his gospel for this world. He begins with a formulaic appeal to the gospel that urges the hearers to accept his articulation of the gospel as authoritative. The formula, “here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance,” continues the theme of faith/faithfulness in the term translated “trustworthy.” Now the gospel itself comes to be seen as the source of the theme. In the NT it is only in these letters to coworkers that this formula is found. Its stable form (expanded here and in 4:9 by the addition of “and deserving full acceptance”), however, suggests it is either widely known or will be perfectly understood. Its purpose is to authenticate Paul’s immediate expression of the gospel as apostolic and to be accepted as true. Although implicit in each occurrence of the formula, the expansion “and deserving of full acceptance” emphasizes the need for hearers to make an appropriate rational response to embrace and esteem what is said and act accordingly.41
1:15–16 / Having given this personal word about how the grace of Christ overflowed to a former persecutor, Paul is reminded that what happened to him is in full accord with a (probably) well-known saying, which apparently has roots in Jesus himself (Luke 19:10; cf. John 12:46; 18:37). He begins with the formula here is a trustworthy saying (lit., “faithful is the saying”), which will recur four more times in these letters (3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8) and which has been the subject of considerable discussion. In this instance, the formula precedes the saying, and the extent of the saying itself is clear. Such is not always the case (e.g., 3:1 and 4:9). Furthermore, nothing quite like it occurs elsewhere in the nt. However, the similar formula, “faithful is God,” is common in Paul (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:9; 10:13; 2 Cor. 1:18) and probably is the source of this present formulation.
The emphasis in Greek, as in niv, lies on the trustworthiness of the saying. This is emphasized further by the addition that deserves full acceptance. There is some ambiguity here about whether there is an intensive (niv, full; cf. rsv, neb, gnb), or extensive (“accepted by all,” Weymouth, Book of Common Prayer), sense to the adjective pasēs. A similar formula in 6:1 that can only be intensive (“worthy of full respect”) lends support to the niv translation; however, a good case can also be made from the context for an emphasis on its being worthy of universal acceptance.
In the saying itself, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, two points are made: Incarnation and Redemption, with the emphasis on the latter. To say that he came into the world, of course, does not in itself necessarily imply pre-existence, but such an understanding would almost certainly have been intended. Here the reason for his coming, and Paul’s reason for including it, is emphasized—to save sinners. Sinners! That was a term common enough in Pharisaic Judaism (Paul’s own tradition). It referred to all those who did not stringently keep the Law, especially Gentiles (even Paul can so use it in Gal. 2:15). But here, and elsewhere in Paul, sinners is a universalizing term. All humanity, both Jew and Gentile, belong together at this one point (Rom. 3:19–20, 23). But Christ came to save such.
Salvation for Paul is primarily an eschatological term; that is, it has to do with human destiny, what happens to people at the end (Gk., eschaton). But such eschatological salvation has already begun in the present in the work of Christ, hence “saving sinners” also means to save them from their present sinfulness. Both the present and future aspects seem to be in view here (cf. v. 16, “believe unto eternal life”).
To personalize the saying, Paul adds of whom I am the worst, not as a form of hyperbole, as some would have it, or because he was morbid about his sinful past, but precisely because of his own experience of God’s mercy and grace. Such statements are to be understood in light of the intersection in Paul’s life of the simultaneous overwhelming sense of his own sinfulness and utter helplessness before God and the fact of God’s grace lavished freely on him and God’s unconditionally accepting him despite his sin. It should also be noted that he says I am, not “I was.” Even one like Hanson who believes the letter to be a forgery admits that this is a “truly Pauline touch.” But it is so, not because of Paul’s abiding sense of sinfulness (as Bernard and others), but because he recognized himself as always having the status of “sinner redeemed.”
With the addition of that last word, of whom I am the worst, Paul is now in position to make his final point in this testimony to God’s grace. The reason for Christ’s saving Paul, the worst of sinners, was that he could thereby set Paul forth as a primary exhibit for all other sinners who would believe on him for salvation. Paul’s point is simple: “If God would—and could—do it to me, given who I was and what I did, then there is hope for all” (cf. 2:3–7). And so he repeats, I was shown mercy, but now adds this new reason.
By saving Paul, Christ Jesus has demonstrated his unlimited patience (or, “the full extent of his forbearance”) in dealing with sinners. Forbearance as a characteristic of the deity in dealing with human rebellion is a thoroughly Pauline idea (Rom. 2:4; 3:25–26; 9:22–23; cf. 2 Pet. 3:9, 15). Such patience is seen in his dealing with me, the worst of sinners, precisely so that Christ might have an example, a prototype, for those who would believe on him and thus also receive eternal life. The Greek for eternal life means not so much life with endless longevity as it does the “life of the coming age,” life that is ours now in Christ to be fully realized at his “appearing” (see 6:12–15; 2 Tim. 4:6–8; Titus 2:11–14).
1:15. This saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.
Paul goes on to quote what appears to have been a well-known saying in the early church, one that may in fact have its origin in the words of Christ himself (cf. Luke 19:10). Before quoting the saying, Paul says two things about it. First, it is ‘faithful’. That is, this saying faithfully represents the gospel message. Secondly, it ‘is worthy of all acceptance’. This phrase could mean either that it is worthy to be accepted by all—which would correspond to Paul’s statements in 2:1–7—or that the saying is worthy of complete acceptance. George Knight has shown that all the ‘faithful sayings’ in the Pastoral Epistles (others are found in 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8 but the expression is used nowhere else in the New Testament) carry with them some sort of personal appropriation formula. Thus the latter of the two options is the most likely interpretation. All who claim to be believers must wholeheartedly accept this saying and apply it to themselves.
The saying itself is ‘that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. This is a glorious statement that sums up the gospel message. First, it declares the mystery of the incarnation—Jesus Christ came into the world. This statement fits with Paul’s teaching elsewhere, and that of the New Testament in general, that the Son of God came to earth and took on human flesh (Phil. 2:5–7; John 1:1–14). Secondly, the saying specifically states the purpose for the incarnation, namely, to save sinners.
B. B. Warfield beautifully captures the import of this statement in his sermon, ‘The Saving Christ’: ‘We must take the great declaration in the height and depth of its tremendous meaning. Jesus did all that is included in the great word “save”. He did not come to induce us to save ourselves, or to help us to save ourselves, or to enable us to save ourselves. He came to save us. And it is therefore that His name was called Jesus—because He should save his people from their sins. The glory of our Lord, surpassing all His other glories to usward, is just that He is our actual and complete Saviour; our Saviour to the uttermost.’
We are sinners. Jesus Christ alone saves. These are the facts that all who claim to be Christians must accept and apply to their own lives.
Paul certainly applies this statement to himself when he adds, ‘of whom I am the foremost’. Paul acknowledges himself to be a great sinner. He may have in mind here his own previous blasphemy and persecution of Christ and his church. This would be similar to his statement in 1 Corinthians 15:9–10. But note that Paul’s assertion here is in the present tense: ‘of whom I am’—not ‘was’—‘foremost’. Paul recognizes that he remains a great sinner, though one who has now been forgiven, redeemed and sanctified. All who recognize the seriousness of sin and the glory of their salvation can make this affirmation.
When John Newton was growing old and senile, some leaders in his church asked him how long he planned to keep on preaching. His reply was: ‘As long as I know that I am a great sinner, and he is a great Saviour.’ May all believers have the mind of Newton—and of Paul.
Ver. 15.—Faithful is the saying for this is a faithful saying, A.V. Faithful is the saying (πιστὸς ὁ λόγος). This formula is peculiar to the pastoral Epistles (ch. 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8), and seems to indicate that there were a number of pithy sayings, maxims, portions of hymns or of catechetical teaching, current in the Church, and possibly originating in the inspired sayings of the Church prophets, to which the apostle appeals, and to which he gives his sanction. The one appealed to here would be simply, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” This, St. Paul adds, is worthy of all acceptation—by all, and without any reserve. Acceptation (ἀποδοξῆς); only here and ch. 4:9, in connection with the same formula. The verb ἀποδέχομαι occurs in Luke 8:40; Acts 2:41; 15:4; 18:27; 24:3; 28:30. It contains the idea of a glad, willing acceptance (see note on Acts 2:41). So doubtless ἀποδοχή also means “hearty reception.” I am chief; in respect of his having been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and injurious.” That great sin was indeed freely forgiven by God’s grace, but it could never be forgotten by him who had been guilty of it. “Manet alth mente repostum” (comp. Eph. 3:8).
15. It is a faithful saying. After having defended his ministry from slander and unjust accusations, not satisfied with this, he turns to his own advantage what might have been brought against him by his adversaries as a reproach. He shews that it was profitable to the Church that he had been such a person as he actually was before he was called to the apostleship, because Christ, by giving him as a pledge, invited all sinners to the sure hope of obtaining pardon. For when he, who had been a fierce and savage beast, was changed into a Pastor, Christ gave a remarkable display of his grace, from which all might be led to entertain a firm belief that no sinner, how heinous and aggravated soever might have been his transgressions, had the gate of salvation shut against him.
That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He first brings forward this general statement, and adorns it with a preface, as he is wont to do in matters of vast importance. In the doctrine of religion, indeed, the main point is, to come to Christ, that, being lost in ourselves, we may obtain salvation from him. Let this preface be to our ears like the sound of a trumpet to proclaim the praises of the grace of Christ, in order that we may believe it with a stronger faith. Let it be to us as a seal to impress on our hearts a firm belief of the forgiveness of sins, which otherwise with difficulty finds entrance into the hearts of men.
A faithful saying. What was the reason why Paul aroused attention by these words, but because men are always disputing with themselves about their salvation? For, although God the Father a thousand times offer to us salvation, and although Christ himself preach about his own office, yet we do not on that account cease to tremble, or at least to debate with ourselves if it be actually so. Wherefore, whenever any doubt shall arise in our mind about the forgiveness of sins, let us learn to repel it courageously with this shield, that it is an undoubted truth, and deserves to be received without controversy.
To save sinners. The word sinners is emphatic; for they who acknowledge that it is the office of Christ to save, have difficulty in admitting this thought, that such a salvation belongs to “sinners.” Our mind is always impelled to look at our worthiness; and as soon as our unworthiness is seen, our confidence sinks. Accordingly, the more any one is oppressed by his sins, let him the more courageously betake himself to Christ, relying on this doctrine, that he came to bring salvation not to the righteous, but to “sinners.” It deserves attention, also, that Paul draws an argument from the general office of Christ, in order that what he had lately testified about his own person might not appear to be absurd on account of its novelty.
Of whom I am the first. Beware of thinking that the Apostle, under a pretence of modesty, spoke falsely, for he intended to make a confession not less true than humble, and drawn from the very bottom of his heart.
But some will ask, “Why does he, who only erred through ignorance of sound doctrine, and whose whole life, in every other respect, was blameless before men, pronounce himself to be the chief of sinners? I reply, these words inform us how heinous and dreadful a crime unbelief is before God, especially when it is attended by obstinacy and a rage for persecution. (Philip. 3:6.) With men, indeed, it is easy to extenuate, under the pretence of heedless zeal, all that Paul has acknowledged about himself; but God values more highly the obedience of faith than to reckon unbelief, accompanied by obstinacy, to be a small crime.
We ought carefully to observe this passage, which teaches us, that a man who, before the world, is not only innocent, but eminent for distinguished virtues, and most praiseworthy for his life, yet because he is opposed to the doctrine of the gospel, and on account of the obstinacy of his unbelief, is reckoned one of the most heinous sinners; for hence we may easily conclude of what value before God are all the pompous displays of hypocrites, while they obstinately resist Christ.
15. The striking formula, Here is a trustworthy saying, meets us nowhere else in the New Testament apart from four other occurrences in the Pastorals. This is alleged to present a problem for Pauline authenticity, but there is no reason to suppose that Paul could not, or would not, have appealed to such sayings. In the present context he seems to be citing, in rhythmical form, a statement current in the churches and acknowledged as trustworthy. It may seem strange that he should use the formula when writing to Timothy, but he probably wishes to remind his younger associate of the fundamental character of the statement to which he is about to appeal.
The additional words that deserves full acceptance are found only here and in 4:9 in the New Testament, but became a regular formula in the Greek vernacular (see M & M on apodochē).
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners epitomizes the cardinal fact of Christian truth. It points to the heart of the gospel. The emphasis on the incarnation and its purpose is more Johannine than Pauline, and this adds further weight to the view that Paul is here quoting a current statement of the gospel. Because of its content the words may perhaps be directly traceable to the words of Jesus, contained in the source which formed the basis of the fourth gospel.
Paul never got away from the fact that Christian salvation was intended for sinners, and the more he increased his grasp of the magnitude of God’s grace, the more he deepened the consciousness of his own naturally sinful state, until he could write of whom I am the worst (the Greek word prōtos is used, meaning ‘chief’). Some have seen this as over-dramatic, but there is no reason why it cannot be regarded as a mark of sincerest humility. Paul sees himself in the vanguard of those whose sins have called forth the resources of God’s mercy. It is Paul’s custom to use superlatives of himself, whether ranking himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9) or less than the least of all saints (Eph. 3:8) or chief of sinners. Paul’s self-abasement is not morbid, any more than John Bunyan was morbid when writing his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
Ver. 15. This is a faithful saying.—
The gospel in a sentence:—
- The mission of the Son of God is here set forth—He “came into the world.” This expression would be an extravagance if it referred only to ordinary human parentage. The pre-existence of our Lord in a higher state was unquestionably an accepted axiom among the early Christians, a commonplace of primitive Christian belief; and we, believing in His deity, offer Him our lowly adoration as well as our thanks and love.
- The purpose of His mission could not be set forth more clearly and concisely than in the words, He came “to save sinners.” His object was not to become the temporal king of the Jewish people, nor yet to give the light of scientific, or philosophical, or even ethical knowledge to the Gentiles; but to redeem men from the condemnation of the law, and to deliver them from their sins. To reverence Him as a kingly man, or to honour Him as a great teacher only, is but an imperfect acknowledgment of His claims.
III. The exemplification of this purpose, given by Paul, is drawn from his own experience. He says, respecting himself, of sinners, “I am chief.” The word “sinners” is the same as occurs in the ninth verse, where it denotes those for whom the law was a necessity, for rebuke and restraint. Whom the law came to condemn, Jesus came to save. When, under the influence of chloroform, some critical operation is performed, and the patient wakes up to find that it is over, a great feeling of thankfulness rises up in his breast at the whisper, “thank God it has been successful,” for he knows that life is saved; but he would feel still more thankful if he knew what the skilful surgeon does, that there was only a fractional part of an inch in this direction or in that between him and death. Paul knew better than we do what he had been saved from here and hereafter, and his intensity of feeling about sin was an element in his spiritual greatness. May God give us also humbling views of ourselves and adoring thoughts of Him who has saved us! Conclusion: The truth that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, is “worthy of all acceptation.” “It is a faithful saying,” worthy of implicit credence, of absolute reliance, for it will not give way though you lean the whole weight of your soul’s salvation on it. It is worthy of acceptance by all men. And it is worthy of every kind of acceptation; worthy of being embraced by every faculty of mind, and heart, and will. You may understand it as a theological doctrine, but that is not enough; you may love it as a familiar pleasant-sounding phrase, but that is not enough. It deserves the homage of your entire nature. (A. Rowland, LL.B.)
The object of Christ’s coming into the world:—The person of the Saviour is to be considered; and “what think ye of Christ?” In the text, it is true, He is described by terms especially significant of His mediatorial character and work—He is called “Christ,”—a title of office, significant of the proper designation of the world’s Redeemer by the Father, to the distinct and essential offices of Prophet, Priest, and King—the Anointed, the Great Teacher; and who teacheth like Him? the anointed High Priest and the great High Priest who hath offered Himself a sacrifice, once for all, in His own body on the tree—and the anointed King in Zion who sits upon His throne, who rules in the midst of the earth—rules for the subjugation of His enemies, and for the protection of His friends! His advent into our world is here announced. “He came”—but the very language supposes His pre-existence—He necessarily was before He “came” into the world—yes, pre-existing with the Divine Father from everlasting; for “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He came into our world after He had been promised, in the earlier periods of time, to the patriarchs—and this promise they saw, and this promise they believed, and this promise they embraced, and they died in the faith of the Redeemer that should come. He came into the world after He had been shadowed forth by the various types and symbols which marked the Mosaic Institute; and at last, “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law,” to redeem them that were under the law. “Christ Jesus came into the world.” And what a world, my friends! Not a world prepared to greet and hail Him as its Lord—not a world prepared to receive and welcome Him, no! a world of rebels, a world of sinners—a fallen world, a guilty, perishing world, a world that was going down to ruin; and to ruin it inevitably would have gone, had it not been for the intervention of this high, this almighty Deliverer! What, then, was His errand in coming into our world? When God becomes incarnate there must be some mighty object to achieve—there must be some great end to accomplish to justify such an interposition. To this inquiry the text furnishes the answer, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This was the great object. He came to procure salvation for us—He came that He might bestow salvation upon us—the former in order to the latter. Still, however, though our sin is atoned and salvation procured, an unapplied remedy, you know, is of no service. It is not enough that the ransom has been paid; we must be liberated and share the blessings of freedom. If it be true that Christ has come to procure salvation for us, by His meritorious obedience unto death, then is it equally necessary that He should be exalted to bestow it. He saves from the power of sin by the power of grace richly communicated to the heart of the believer—a power that overturns the power of sin! Yes; and “sin shall not have dominion over you,” says the apostle; “for ye are not under the law but under grace.” He saves from all the condemnation and defilement of sin, by the cleansing virtues of His blood, by the healing power of His grace. Still, however, the salvation of Jesus Christ is not merely a negative thing—it consists not merely in deliverance from the guilt and positive evils to which, by sin, we are exposed. He walks in the light of God’s countenance, he derives comfort from the great Fountain of all Consolation; now it is that the Word of God is the rule, now it is that the love of God is the principle, now it is that the glory of God is the grand end of all his actions! But then, we have to leave this world—this is not our home; here we have no continuing place of abode; and we want not only saving while we live, but when we die. The salvation of Jesus is commensurate with all our necessities, it is adequate to all our demands, it contains all that our circumstances require; and He who saves us in life will not abandon us in death! Well do I remember—never, while memory holds her seat, shall I forget—what was spoken to me by the late Mr. Robert Spence, of York. Passing through that city, I had once an opportunity of calling upon that excellent man, who had himself been a preacher of righteousness for more than half a century; and said he, “I thought, ere now, that I would have been at the end of my journey—that ere now I should have arrived at my Father’s house; but it has pleased the Heavenly Grace to spare me a little longer, and I feel considerably stronger than I was. But when I came into this room and happened to pass that glass, I caught a sight of myself—I was struck,” said the venerable man; “I thought what a little, old, infirm creature I had become—a mere remnant of myself; but instantly,” continued he, “I lifted up my heart to the Lord, and I was favoured with such a manifestation of His grace and love that, though alone”—but he was not alone, for God was with him—“I said, ‘Well, welcome, old man! welcome, infirmity! welcome, death! and welcome, heaven!’ ” Yes; and the religion of Jesus can make him rejoice in the midst of affliction, and welcome infirmity, welcome old age, and welcome death; because death, to the Christian, is but the gate of life. Then, though the body go down to mingle with the clods of the valley, the ransomed spirit wings its etherial flight to the regions of eternal day! The body, too, is to be saved! One said to me lately, “Oh, never mind the body!” but Jesus Christ remembers the body. He is the Saviour of the body as well as of the soul; and we look for Him in this way we look for Him that He may “change our vile bodies and fashion them like to His own glorious body, according to the working of that mighty power whereby He is able to subdue all things unto Himself.”
- What is the light in which mankind ought to regard this saying? First, as “a true saying”; and then, as “worthy of all acceptation.” Let it be remarked, then, that those whom it pleased God to employ in order to propagate this saying, in the first instance, always affirmed that it was true. Besides, the God of essential and eternal truth has been pleased to affix His broad seal to this saying. He could not give His seal to a lie. How is this? Why, He enabled those men to perform miracles in order to attest it. How do you prove, inquired another, that what you declare is true? Bring hither yon leper, excluded from all intercourse with his fellow beings, standing afar off, bring him hither to me, and in the name of this Jesus, and to prove that He “came into the world to save sinners,” I pronounce the word, and his leprosy shall immediately depart from him! And it was so! The saying again is pronounced and the question is repeated. Bring hither the dead body, says an apostle, you are about to cast it forth into the tomb; but no, bring it hither; I pronounce the word, and that dead body shall start into life! And it was so! There is another way, however, in which the truth of this saying is to be ascertained, and it is, of all others, the most satisfactory and consoling. It is in the way of experiment, bringing this truth to trial, to the test. How is this? Why, here is a man, and I have now present in my mind’s eye a case which, I suppose, twenty years ago actually occurred—here is a man who in early youth begins to think it would be to his credit to begin to evince independency of mind, to throw off all the fetters of education and early impressions, and to think for himself. He associates with those who speak with great disrespect of this Divine volume, who begin to sneer, or have been in the habit of sneering, at all serious religion and serious Christians: by and by he begins to imbibe their spirit, and to acquaint himself with all the objections urged against revealed religion; by and by he begins also to sneer and laugh at the Bible, he casts off fear and plunges headlong into infidelity; he is then, perhaps, admired as a man of liberal mind, of genius, and of intelligence; and the individual I refer to was a man of fine understanding and cultivated mind; but by and by disease marked him out as its victim, he saw some of his companions in infidelity die; not one of them died comfortably—some of them died most awfully; he began to consider with himself, Whither, after all, am I going? I never disbelieved the Being of a God; but then, although I have always regarded Him as a good and benevolent Being, have I acted as I should, as a creature—as a dependent being, sustained by His power and bounty? Have I always revered and loved and served Him as I ought? This I have not done! What have I done? I go to my natural religion, as it is sometimes called; I study moral virtue, I endeavour to do good, and thus endeavour to recommend myself to this benevolent Being. But in natural religion he finds no relief for a troubled mind, no balm for a guilty conscience. What, thought he, shall I do? I will have recourse once more to the Bible, I shall begin to read it seriously. He did read it, the more he read it the deeper was the impression on his mind, that this is no human fabrication, in this book surely God has spoken: he read, and on every page he saw something of this Saviour and about this salvation. The thought flashed upon his mind, and he exclaimed, Oh, that this were but true! Oh, that I could believe this! I should find relief immediately: here is a system adapted to my condition. Oh, if it were but true, that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,” make an atonement for sin, and procure salvation for me! Here is a system that suits my case and provides for my necessities! Oh, that it were true! At last he resolved to make the experiment: he read this book, and sincerely prayed to God to teach him what is truth. I believe he read this very text, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Is this the saying, and is this Jesus the Saviour of sinners? Oh, help me, he prayed, to believe this, teach me to believe this, I desire to believe this, I would believe this! Lord, I believe this—help Thou my unbelief! I venture my soul on this Saviour—I cast myself on this atoning sacrifice. What happened? “His chains fell off—his heart was free!” His load of guilt was removed, his misery was banished; joy and peace and love unspeakable sprang up in his heart, and his soul began to exult, disburthened of its load. Not many days had elapsed before he met one of his old companions, who had grown gray in infidelity. What is this, he inquired, that I hear of you? I hear you have become a Christian! How do you know that there is a word of truth in the whole affair? How do you know that such a being as Jesus ever existed? Know! was the reply, know! I know it by an argument of which you never were the master, I know it by a process to which you are a total stranger, I know it is true that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” for Jesus Christ has saved me! Well, then, but it is not only “a true saying” and worthy merely of all attention, examination, and observation, commending itself to the approbation of every well-regulated mind, but it is also “worthy of all acceptation.” It is worthy of acceptation because of its truth; if not true, it could have no just claim upon—it would be unworthy our acceptation. It is worthy of acceptation, again, because it is so vitally interesting. A thing may be true and yet not interesting to me; but here is a saying which is proved to be true, and which is surpassingly interesting to all the children of men. What so worthy the acceptance of the diseased man, as some sovereign specific which shall not only remove the malady but restore to health and vigour his emaciated frame? The saying has been accepted by the great, the wise, and the good, in different countries and ages of the Church; yes, and some of the greatest and wisest of men that ever lived, of learning, too, various and profound, have received this saying—have stedfastly believed its truth and realized its power. And who art thou who art giving thyself credit for having superior lights and superior intellects? But not only is this saying worthy of acceptance, but “of all acceptation”—of the acceptance of all. If, in the next place, any portion of our race in any part of our world, could be found, who were absolutely and irrevocably excluded from all interest and benefit in this saying, I honestly confess to you, that I see not how such a portion of our race could regard this saying as worthy their acceptation. That is not, that cannot be worthy my acceptance, in which I cannot, by any possibility, have any interest. And not only is this worthy the acceptation of all, but of the highest acceptation of all. As though the apostle had said, This is no ordinary saying; it is a message from the throne—a message of mercy from the throne; oh, hail it, welcome it, receive it as coming from the throne, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners!” And having thus realized the truth and power of this saying ourselves, let us do all that we can to circulate it—let us always speak well of this Jesus, and endeavour to recommend the Saviour to all our fellow creatures. (R. Newton, D.D.)
The faithful saying:—
- Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1. Jesus Christ was somewhere in existence before He was seen here. He “came into the world.” Think of a new planet or star just created in our system and shining forth. We should never say, it is come here; we should say this of a planet or star that had travelled into our system from some distant region. And it was from a region distant indeed that Christ came here, from a heavenly one; and the place He held in that region, was the most distant and the highest. He was not an angel in heaven; He was the everlasting God. He came from the very summit, the lofty throne, of heaven to save us. 2. There are lost sinners in our world, whom it was needful for Christ to come into our world to save. Every man that breathes in our world is a sinner. And every sinner everywhere is necessarily a lost sinner. This is the nature of sin, it ruins whomsoever it touches; ruins him fatally and irrecoverably; in Scripture language, it destroys him. And on this property of sin, the ruinous nature of it, is grounded partly the necessity of Christ’s interposition in our behalf. We say that His coming from His throne to save us, shows the greatness of His love to us, and so it does; but it shows as plainly the greatness of our misery. 3. And when Christ came into the world to save sinners, He came determined to save them. He knew He could do so, otherwise He would not have come. We do not go to the frozen regions of the north to gather there the flowers and fruits of sunny climes. We never think of going into vaults and charnel houses to raise the dead. Nor would our blessed Lord have come into the world for our salvation, had He not felt as He came, that He could work out salvation for us.
- The description St. Paul gives us here of the truth he states. He calls it a “saying,” “a faithful saying,” and one “worthy of all acceptation.” 1. It is a saying. And who says it? God Himself, Christ Himself. He might have come into our world, and never have told us that He had come here, or why He had come. And it is not God or Christ only, who says this. The prophets declared it before it took place: the glorious company of the apostles said it afterwards; the noble army of martyrs died rather than not say it; the holy Church throughout all the world has in every age acknowledged it; and as for the Church above, it says this oftener, perhaps, than it says anything else, and loves to say it better. Heaven often resounds with this saying and other sayings like it. 2. And this is a faithful saying, a true one. It is not only said, but it ought to be said, for it is true as truth itself. He had what St. John calls a testimony or witness of this truth within himself. He knew it, just as we know at this moment that our hearts are beating, and our pulses going, and that we are living and breathing men. He had experience of the fact. And valuable as are the many outward testimonies we have to the truth of the gospel, and convincing as they are to a sound, unbiassed judgment, they are all nothing in comparison with this 3. This saying too, we are told, is worthy of all acceptation. The words will admit of two interpretations. It is, first, as our communion service renders the passage, “Worthy to be received of all men.” Few sayings are so. Many things which we hear are worth no man’s attention. They are either false or trifling; they are better not listened to. And others have only a limited interest. They may be worthy of one man’s notice, but not another man’s, for they do not concern him. This saying, however, concerns every man, and concerns him deeply. O how eagerly will some of us listen to some things! the news of the day perhaps, the scandal of our neighbourhood, and the trifling occurrences that fill up the trifling lives of our fellow-men!—things, it may be, in which we have little more interest than the inhabitants of some distant planet; but this saying, to which sometimes we have scarcely an ear to give, involves in it the highest interests of us all. This saying is worthy also of the utmost reception we can give it, the most entire and cordial acceptance. Some things that we hear are worth putting into our memories but not into our hearts; they are dry matters of fact. But here is something worthy of our memories and hearts also; worthy of being attended to, worthy of being remembered, worthy of being thought on and studied, worthy of being delighted in, worthy of being laid hold of by our whole heart and mind—in this sense, “worthy of all acceptation.” A feeble or cold reception of this saying is no reception at all of it. Where the gospel saves the soul, the heart first opens itself to receive it, and when it is in the heart, the heart feels it to be its treasure and its joy.
III. The view which the apostle takes of himself while contemplating this truth. Of the sinners, he says, whom Christ Jesus came into the world to save, “I am chief.” (C. Bradley, M.A.)
Worthy of all acceptation:—
- It is worthy of all acceptation because it is the full development of the theme with which revelation is charged; it lies not only in the track, but it is the full outcome of all that God has been aiming at in all His providential guidance and government of men, from the first days of the creation to the hour when the “Child was born, the Son was given,” whom He had from of old promised to the world. From the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of the Apocalypse, the main thread in the Scripture is this work, the saving of sinners. And if we study it we shall find that it is the vital core of all the great movements of human society. The Bible opens with the statement that the great burden of man’s existence here is sin, and that the great need of man’s being is salvation. The inner meaning of it is true for all time, and is the key, I believe the Divine key, to human history. The theme there is sin, wilful, conscious, guilty transgression, revealed as the root of all man’s infirmity, degradation, and misery.
- It is worthy of all acceptation, for it alone explains and justifies the whole course of human history. This life of ours is altogether too sad, too burdensome, too dark a thing to be suffered to live on, if there be no great hope for the future to lighten it. The world is very beautiful and glorious, you may say; it is a happy thing to be born with faculties finely touched like ours into a world like this. Yes, unspeakably beautiful and glorious is this earth of ours, and our life here might well be a paradise of pure delights. But sin poisons all. Despite of all the beauty, all the joy, the great masterpieces of human thought and utterance are in the minor key. Sadness is the dominant tone in all our literature, sorrow is the staple experience of mankind. I say frankly, that if I were compelled to look at life and the world, cut off from all the comfort and hope which streams down upon us through the Christian faith, I should be sorely tempted to the conclusions of the pessimist philosophy, that there has been some terrible blundering in the constitution of the world. But set in the heart of it all Christ’s mission to save, and the darkness lights up in a moment. This dread experience of sin becomes through grace a stage in an unending progress. This school of our discipline, this house of our bondage, this field of our conflict, is but a stage of development, a step of progress, and all its deepest experiences have relation to blessed and glorious issues in eternity.
III. It is worthy of all acceptation, for it is essential to the dignity and the worth of life. Is life worth the living? Yes, a thousand times yes, if it is the life of a forgiven man in a redeemed world. What man needs is not to forget sin, to make light of it, to shut out the world of spiritual terrors which it unveils. It will not be shut out. What man needs is free loving and righteous forgiveness—forgiveness which is not a weak winking at transgression, or an idle peace, peace where there is no peace, but a forgiveness resting on an atonement which reveals righteousness, magnifies law, and satisfies the deepest convictions of man’s righteous conscience on the one hand, and the holy heart of God on the other. This horrible doctrine of the absolute indelibility of transgression has been the cause of untold anguish through all the ages of human history. Sin must fruit in sorrow, and forgiveness cannot annul the act of sin, or obliterate its issues. But there is an infinite difference between the experience of the man who is working out the penalty of sin, with the sense that behind the sorrow there is the vindictive hand of the law-giver, who will exact the uttermost farthing of retribution, and that of the Christian, who knows that behind all that he endures, and is entirely reconciled to enduring, is the eye and the hand of the Almighty Father of his spirit; an eye which watches his struggles and sorrows with the tenderest compassion, a hand which is guiding and ruling all the discipline to blessed and glorious issues in eternity. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation; for through it, “where sin abounded grace doth much more abound; that, as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign, through righteousness, unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord.”
- It is worthy of all acceptation, because, while it lends dignity and worth to life, it alone lends hope to immortality. An essential part of the benign work of love is the reconciliation of man with law. Forgiveness is a blessed fact, unspeakably blessed, but chiefly as the means of realizing a still more blessed fact—purification. On that absolutely the well-being and the bliss of the soul rests in eternity. And what is the cry of all the nobler heathen faiths? Deliverance from self. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, because it is charged for man with the promise of eternal life; not eternal existence under these dread and soul-crushing conditions, but eternal life, free, pure, noble, blessed life, finding its spring of perennial joy and fruitfulness in the sunlight of the face of God. The salvation which is by Christ Jesus offers to man not only pardon and peace, but renewing, restoration; a new heart, a new life, a new power, a new supreme attraction, drawing man ever by its sweet but resistless constraints into closest and holiest fellowship with the life of God through eternity. And this is Christianity. (J. B. Brown, B.A.)
The world small for so great a transaction as redemption:—It seems a little place, this world of ours, to be the scene of such transcendent transactions. But size, as we measure it, counts for nothing on high; as far as we can see, it is the method of God every where to work from what man calls insignificant centres over vast areas of life. It is emphatically thus in history. England is but a little country, Greece was less, Judea least of all; and yet from these intense radiating centres influences have streamed forth which will be fruitful of high results throughout eternity. The cultivated homes of men are but little oases in the midst of desert and ocean spaces, of vast extent and dreary monotony; fruitless and useless in our weak judgment; though we are now beginning to see that they are essential to the high development of the limited regions which can nourish the noblest forms of life. Who shall tell what is to grow out of the transactions of which this little, but most highly developed and glorious, earth has been the theatre, to the great universe and the kingdom of heaven in eternity? (Ibid.)
The gospel and its recommendation:—
- The gospel. It means good news. Here is a man ill; the word that tells him how he may be cured of his disease is gospel—good news. It claims to be the best news. Such is our text, and that because it tells about three things—1. It tells of a divinely-appointed Saviour. It tells of “Christ Jesus,” and there is gospel in the very name. I thank God for that name. I have sometimes ventured to compare it to what we are all familiar with—the sign-board above a shop-door, telling what is to be got there; or the name on the door of a lawyer or physician, telling what men may expect there. A sick man sees the doctor’s name on his door, and applies to him without hesitation. He says, “The man is a physician, a doctor; that is his profession; he is there for the very purpose of receiving and curing the sick and dying, and I have a claim on his services which he cannot, dare not, refuse.” And so here is One who has His name, as it were, on His door; His profession, His business described in His very name—“Jesus.” It tells His occupation—the Saviour. But He is also spoken of as the “Christ,” that is, the Anointed One. Let us go back to the olden times again. There is one who has been guilty of some sin, which lies heavy on his conscience and heart. He takes the prescribed offering, a lamb, and goes with it to the priest, that that lamb may suffer and die for him, as his sacrifice, his substitute; and when its blood is shed, his sin is atoned for and put away. But the question comes up, “Is He a right priest? Has He a Divine commission?” Yes; because He is “anointed,” the holy oil was poured on Him, setting Him apart to the holy office; and as He is an anointed priest, there is no cause to fear. Or take another case: a crime has been committed, and the offender is sent to the king, who alone can give pardon for such an offence. The pardon is given; the man hears it from the king’s own lips. But here, too, the doubt arises, “Has He a right to give it? Is He commissioned to grant a pardon? Is He the real king? Will the pardon stand?” Yes; because the holy anointing oil was poured on Him, which marks Him out as the God-anointed king. And like other great official persons, He carries His credentials with Him. 2. It tells of the mission and work of Christ. By His “mission,” I mean His being “sent,” His coming on His great errand of mercy and love. “Christ Jesus came into the world.” What a word of wonder is this! I have been in one of our Highland cottages, and have had the place pointed out where our Queen has sat. There is a sacredness about the spot that can hardly be told, so that you scarcely wonder that some of our humble Scottish peasants have said, “None shall ever sit on that seat again!” You can fancy the mingled pride and enthusiasm with which they tell of the condescension of the greatest sovereign in the world visiting their lowly dwellings. She came into this humble cottage of mine!” And yet what was that to this—Christ Jesus came into the world”? There is a lazar-house for the reception of lepers in all the stages of their dreadful disease. No man who enters comes out but for burial. One of these good, devoted men, the Moravian Brethren, has his heart filled with compassion for the sufferers, and with the desire to point them to Christ and to heaven; and knowing that he bids a life-long farewell to all outside, he cheerfully enters, and the door closes, shutting him up in a kind of living grave. You say, What a marvel of love and pity! And yet, what are all these as compared with this—“Christ Jesus came into the world”? And then, in regard to the work which He came into the world to do, notice the words—“to save sinners!” Most wonderful of all! Strangers, enemies, rebels—these are some of the descriptions that you have in the Word of God of those whom He came to save. 3. It tells of the objects of His care and love. I have spoken of these, in the general, as “sinners.” We now get a step further forward—“sinners of whom I am chief,” or “first.”
- Having spoken of the gospel itself, I ask your attention now to its recommendation: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation.” 1. It is true. The great drawback about many things that are very attractive is that they are not true. You have met with some entertaining volume. It interests you deeply, and lays thorough hold of your heart. You would rather lose a meal, or an afternoon’s play, or an hour’s sleep, than lay aside your book. And as you finish the reading of it, with the tear in your eye, and your young heart beating quick, you say, “That is a fine story, a wonderful story. I have seldom read anything like it.” Ay, but do you know it is not true; it is just “made up”; it is all unreal. Sometimes you have pleasant dreams; you are happy as can be; you have gained some object on which your hearts have long been set; but you suddenly wake up, and it is but an empty dream. Friends who have come home from India have told us, that when passing through the desert, they have seen the “mirage,” with its grassy slopes and graceful trees casting their shadow on the lake beside which they seem to be growing, most beautiful to the eye; but it is only a vision, and in a moment vanishes out of sight. But I have this to say in favour of the wondrous gospel story, that it is true. I wonder if you ever got the length of doubting it? There is an old man who is often to be found in his humble cottage, with his large family Bible spread out before him, always open at the 14th chapter of John. A youth, who is a frequent visitor, coming in to ask for him, says, “I wonder why you are so often reading these words, when you know them all by heart; I should be for reading what I did not know.” “Well, master,” is the old man’s reply, “you are right enough, I dare say; but it seems to do me good to get a look at the real words; it helps an old man’s faith, for when I see them, I say, There they be, and I cannot doubt them. You see the thought of a mansion in heaven for an old sinner like me, and my Lord going before to prepare it, and coming back to take me to it—why, it is all so wonderful, that if I could not get a look at the words sometimes, I am afraid I should be just doubting again.” 2. It is trustworthy. Paul tells here that he has tried it, he has made the experiment, and can now recommend it from personal experience. I fear to trust myself on such a slender support, and gaze with dismay upon the abyss below. I look for another way, but there is none. At length I hear a voice from the other side saying, “The plank bears; I have tried it; I have crossed it; it will bear you; plant your foot firmly on it, and you will get safely across.” I look across, and see a man larger and heavier than myself; and when I see him, I pluck up heart, plant my foot on the plank, and cross in safety; and once I am over, I too can testify, The plank bears; I can say, It is trustworthy; I can give others the benefit of my experience: “It has saved me, and now I can recommend it to you.” 3. It is all-important. It is worthy of all acceptation, and therefore of all attention. It is no trifling matter. 4. It is welcome-worthy. It is spoken of here as being “worthy of all acceptation.” “Oh, that dreary gospel,” I think I hear some one saying, “I suppose we must needs have to do with it, or we cannot be saved. It is very much like a medicine. I am ill, I must take it, or I shall not recover, but it is bitter and repulsive.” Not so, says Paul; this gospel is “worthy of all welcome.” I might compare it to those letters from beloved friends, which the arrival of the mail from some distant country brings to us. (J. H. Wilson, M.A.) For whom is the gospel meant?—
- Even a superficial glance at our Lord’s mission suffices to show that His work was for the sinful. 1. For the descent of the Son of God into this world as a Saviour implied that men needed to be delivered from a great evil by a Divine hand. You would never have seen a Saviour if there had not been a fall. Eden’s withering was a necessary preface to Gethsemane’s groaning. 2. If we give a glance at the covenant under which our Lord came, we soon perceive that its bearing is towards guilty men. If there had been no sins and iniquities, and no unrighteousness, then there had been no need of the covenant of grace, of which Christ is the messenger and the ambassador. 3. Whenever we hear the mission of Christ spoken of it is described as one of mercy and of grace. In the redemption which is in Christ Jesus it is always the mercy of God that is extolled—according to His mercy He saved us. 4. The fact is, when we begin to study the gospel of the grace of God we see that it turns its face always towards sin, even as a physician looks towards disease, or as charity looks towards distress. 5. The gospel representations of itself usually look sinner-ward. The great king who makes a feast finds not a guest to sit at the table among those who were naturally expected to come, but from the highways and hedges men are compelled to come in. 6. And ye know that the gospel has always found its greatest trophies amongst the most sinful: it enlists its best soldiers not only from amongst the guilty, but from amongst the most guilty.
- The more closely we look the more clear this fact becomes, for the work of salvation was certainly not performed for any one of us who are saved on account of any goodness in us. 1. All the gifts which Jesus Christ came to give, or at least most of them, imply that there is sin. What is His first gift but pardon? How can He pardon a man who has not transgressed? 2. Our Lord Jesus Christ came girded also with Divine power. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me.” To what end was He girded with Divine power unless it be because sin had taken all power and strength from man? 3. I will not omit to say that the great deeds of our Lord, if you look at them carefully, all bear upon sinners. Jesus lives; it is that He may seek and save that which is lost. Jesus dies; it is that He may make a propitiation for the sins of guilty men. Jesus rises; He rises again for our justification, and, as I have shown, we should not want justification unless we had been naturally guilty. Jesus ascends on high, and He receives gifts for men; but note that special word, “Yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God may dwell among them.” 4. And all the gifts and blessings that Jesus Christ has brought to us derive much of their radiance from their bearing upon sinners. It is in Christ Jesus that we are elect, and to my mind the glory of electing love lies in this, that it pitched upon such undeserving objects.
III. Now it is evident that it is our wisdom to accept the situation.
- This doctrine has a great sanctifying influence. 1. Its first operation in that direction is this: when the Holy Spirit brings the truth of free pardon home to a man it completely changes his thoughts concerning God. “What,” says he, “has God freely forgiven me all my offences for Christ’s sake? And does He love me notwithstanding all my sin?” 2. Moreover, this grand truth does more than turn a man, it in spires, melts, enlivens, and inflames him. This is a truth which stirs the deeps of the heart, and fills the man with lively emotions. 3. Besides, this truth when it enters the heart deals a deadly blow at the man’s self-conceit. 4. Moreover, where this truth is received there is sure to spring up in the soul a sense of gratitude. 5. And I think you will all see that free forgiveness to sinners is very conducive towards one part of a true character, namely, readiness to forgive others. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
A faithful saying:—
- Here is a wonderful saying. It was but thirty years since the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ had been preached, yet these words had become a saying, a blessed proverb. It summed up briefly and yet fully the source and purpose of the gospel—its height and depth, its length and breadth. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Look into it. No such wonderful saying was ever heard in the world before or since. The Jew was willing to believe that the God of Israel could admit into His high presence the holy men to whom He had entrusted some great enterprise, and who had proved themselves worthy of such an exceeding honour. Abraham, Moses, Elijah—for such men God might come in all the majesty of His splendour and commune with them. The Greeks believed that for the gifted and the great, for splendid heroes who had wrought prodigies of valour on the battle-fields or in the games, the gods might stoop to give some token of their favour and protection. That was familiar enough. But that God should care so much for men who had slighted Him, and forgotten Him, and insulted Him, and rebelled against Him! That God should care for coarse, low, ignorant people, whom it was a disgrace to notice, and who were incapable of any goodness! This was ridiculous, worse than merely incredible. To the Greeks such an idea was a folly, to the Jews it was an offence. Yet still more wonderful was the saying—that God, the God of Glory, should come down as a man, should become one of us and one with us, taking upon Himself not only our nature, but our curse—the awful load of the world’s sin; and that He should bear for us all shame and agony!
- Experience has proved it a faithful saying. The early disciples passed from one to another, setting their seal to its truth, until it came to be supported by a host of witnesses. And since St. Paul wrote that, the great cloud of witnesses has ever been growing. There is nothing in the world to-day that has such testimonies to commend it as this gospel of our salvation. I call up the memory of saintly men and women in my own little native town, dear old souls, many of them poor, but with such purity in their faces, such love in their hearts, such peace in their lives. With others life was a hot and fevered unrest, but about these there was an atmosphere of holy calm. What was it that made them so bright, so happy, so hopeful, that kings might well have envied them? They are ready with the reason—“It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Go to-day whither you will, north or south, east or west, and find the homes that are happiest, the lives that are sweetest, the souls that are sunniest, the hearts and hands that are most eager and most earnest in helping others—you shall find it amongst those who set their seal to this as true—“It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Come yet again and stand by the deathbed; that rends the veil from all pretences. I see the face pinched and pale with sickness, yet is it lit up with a brightness as if the eyes did look within the veil. Fear is gone, and all is peace. Bend and listen as the lips are parted for their last utterance. “It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” My brother, this gospel is no fancy of fanatics; no delusion of the dark ages. Nothing in this world comes to us so hallowed and so commended. Can I find another Christ Jesus? Can I find another salvation which comes with such evidence of its faithfulness as this? Surely it is worth my accepting. I will take for my own that Saviour who has come into the world to save sinners. If this is a faithful saying, then are there three things that do greatly concern us every one. 1. If Jesus Christ has come into the world to save us, then we must be in great danger. Whatever is the use of trying to save a man if he is not in any peril! 2. If this be a faithful saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, then surely none but Jesus Christ can save me. My struggles and resolutions cannot avail, or Christ need not have come. 3. If this be a faithful saying that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, then He has come to save me. If He has come to save sinners He means people who have sinned—real sinners—not good people who call themselves sinners because it sounds humble. The desperate cases are those which my Lord ever seeks first of all. Luther tells us, once upon a time the devil said to him, “Master Luther, thou art a great sinner and thou wilt be damned.” “Stop, stop,” I said, “one thing at a time. I am a great sinner, it is true—though thou hast no right to say so. I confess it. What next?” “Therefore thou shalt be damned,” quoth he. “That is not good reasoning,” said I. “It is true that I am a great sinner—but it is written, ‘Christ Jesus came to save sinners’: therefore I shall be saved! Now go thy way. So did I cut off the devil with his own sword, and he went away sorrowing, because he could not cast me down by calling me a sinner.” (M. G. Pearse.)
Christ’s power to save:—I seem to see Saul rising on that road to Damascus, brushing the dust from his cloak, and wiping the perspiration from his excited brow, and then swinging out his hands towards all ages as he cries, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” In my church in Brooklyn, at the close of the service one day, a man came from the back part of the house and sat down near the pulpit. I saw him waiting, so I came down at the close of the service, and asked him if he would not go in amongst those making inquiry for their souls. He said, “No, sir; you cannot do me any good. I came from the Far West, but you cannot do me any good. The gospel is not for me—I am a victim of strong drink.” He said, “I won’t tell you my name; you know it. I rose to be one of the first men of my State. I have a beautiful wife and beautiful children, but am bringing them all to ruin. I thought if I came here I could be saved; but find I can’t. Yesterday I was coming down on the Hudson River train. There was a man sitting beside me with a flask of strong drink. He asked me if I would have some of it. I said ‘No’; but, oh, how I wanted it! The arid tongue of the liquor seemed thrusting itself from the side of the cork, and I felt I must fly from that presence. I went to the platform of the train and thought I would jump off; but we were going at the rate of forty miles an hour, and I came back. That thirst is on me, and you cannot do me any good.” I said, “You do not know the grace of God. Come in here, and we will pray for you.” We prayed for him, and I then went to the drug store, and said to the doctor, “Can you give this man anything to help him to destroy that thirst?” Well, the physician put up a bottle to help him. I said, “Give him a little more,” and he put up another bottle. I then said to the man, “Put your trust in God, and when this paroxysm comes on take your medicine.” He passed away from me into Boston, and was gone from me some weeks, when I got a letter enclosing the small amount of money I had paid for the medicine, and saying, “Thank God, Mr. Talmage, I have got cured, and the fear of the thirst is put off, and I have not taken any of the medicine. I am preaching every night on righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, in one of our large halls, and I send you two papers to show how the Lord is blessing me.” I have heard from him since, and the Lord has seen him through, and will see him through. Oh, the grace of God! Try! Try it! (T. De Witt Talmage.)
The mission of Christ to the worst:—All the great hereditary and historical religions of mankind, both of the East and the West, are religions designed for morally respect able people, for men who, in their own opinion, are good and deserving persons, or are earning merit and future bliss by trying to become so. That was and is the essence of Bhuddism, of Brahminism, of Laoutsaism, of Islam, and of the natural, philosophical religions of Europe and America. They are the religions of men who “are going about,” like the Jews of the first century—the Jews of corrupted Judaism, “to establish their own righteousness” and title to immortal life, or to Nirvana. The genuine Christianity, taught by the Lord Jesus, the Christ of God, the one genuine message of the Eternal Creator to the human race, is the one and only religion proposed to, and pressed upon, the wicked. It is sent forth over all the world, as salvation for the lost, as complete and immediate salvation. (E. White.)
The sinner’s door:—When I began my ministry in Dundee, I had the privilege of meeting many of those who were blessed under the preaching of the sainted Murray M’Cheyne. I was told of one case of conversion which is rather peculiar. The person was much troubled, his mind was filled with gloomy darkness, and he had no peace nor rest. One day, as M’Cheyne was preaching to Christians, not to those outside of Christ’s fold, the man got peace. After the service he went round to the vestry to see the minister, who did not need to inquire if the visitor had got peace, it shone in his face; so he simply asked, “How did you get it?” He answered, “All the time I’ve been trying to enter in at the saints’ door, but while you were speaking I saw my mistake, and entered in at the sinners’ door.” It is the only way; you need not come to God as a saint, or a pretty good sort of a person, but simply as a sinner, wanting and needing salvation. (W. Riddell.)
A gospel text:—Mr. William White, one of the London City Missionaries, relates the following interesting fact: “Some years ago, through the kindness of the late Joseph Sturge, Esq., of Birmingham, a large grant of copies of The British Workman was made to the London City Mission, a portion of which was allotted for my district. Some time after distributing my share of that grant in my district, I visited a man who was very ill. After some conversation, I said, ‘Well, my friend, the best news that any one can ever bring you is contained in this text from the Bible, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” ’ His face was immediately lit up with a smile, and raising himself in the bed, he pointed to the patched window and said, “Oh, sir, I know that already. Look there: that’s a piece of the paper you once gave me. My wife tore it up, and mended the window with just that piece of it that has that text on it. And since I’ve laid here, day after day, I’ve read it over and over till I’ve got it off by heart.” The City Missionary adds: “I believe the Holy Spirit made that text on the patched window a blessing to the man’s soul.” Of whom I am chief.—
The chief sinners objects of the choicest mercy:—I. The salvation of sinners was the main design of Christ’s coming into the world. II. God often makes the chiefest sinners objects of His choicest mercy. For the last, that God doth so, observe—1. God hath formerly made invitations to such. See what a black generation they were (Isa. 1) by the scroll of their sins. They were rebels, and rebels against Him that had nursed them: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me” (ver. 2). He comes to charge them “laden with iniquity” (ver. 4). They had been incorrigible under judgments. “Why should ye be stricken any more? Ye will revolt more and more” (ver. 5). 2. God hath given examples of it in Scripture. Manasseh is an eminent example of this doctrine. His story (2 Chron. 23) represents him as a black devil, if all the aggravations of his sins be considered. (1) It was against knowledge. He had a pious education under a religious father. An education usually leaves some tinctures and impressions of religion. (2) His place and station: a king. Sins of kings are like their robes, more scarlet and crimson than the sins of a peasant. Their example usually infects their subjects. (3) Restoration of idolatry. (4) Affronting God to His very face. He sets up his idols, as it were, to nose God, and built altars in the house of the Lord, and in the two courts of His temple, whereof God had said He would have His name there for ever (vers. 4, 5, 7). (5) Murder. Perhaps of his children, which he caused to pass through the fire as an offering to his idol (ver. 6); it may be it was only for purification. “Moreover, Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he filled Jerusalem with blood from one end to the other” (2 Kings 21:16). (6) Covenant with the devil. He used enchantments and witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit (ver. 6). (7) His other men’s sins. He did not only lead the people by his example, but compelled them by his commands: “So Manasseh made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, and to do worse than the heathen God had rooted out” (2 Chron. 23:9), to make room for them. Hereby he contracted the guilt of the whole nation upon himself. (8) Obstinacy against admonitions: “God spake to him and his people, but they would not hearken, or alter their course” (2 Kings 21:10). (9) Continuance in it. He ascended the throne young, at twelve years old (ver. 1). It is uncertain how long he continued in this sin. 3. It was Christ’s employment in the world to court and gain such kind of creatures. The first thing He did, while in the manger, was to snatch some of the devil’s prophets out of his service, and take them into His own (Matt. 2:1), some of the Magi, who were astrologers and idolaters. To call sinners to repentance, was the errand of His coming. And He usually delighted to choose such that had not the least pretence to merit (Mark 2:17): Matthew, a publican; Zaccheus, an extortioner, store of that generation of men and harlots, and very little company besides. He chose His attendants out of the devil’s rabble; and He was more Jesus, a Saviour, among this sort of trash, than among all other sorts of people, for all His design was to get clients out of hell itself. What was that woman that He must needs go out of His way to convert? A harlot (John 4:18), an idolater; for the Samaritans had a mixed worship, a linsey-woolsey religion, and, upon that account, were hateful to the Jews. What was that Canaanitish woman who had so powerful a faith infused? One sprung of a cursed stock, hateful to God, rooted out of the pleasant land, a dog, not a child; she comes a dog, but returns a child. 4. The commission Christ gave to His apostles was to this purpose. He bids them proclaim the promise free to all: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). All the world; every creature. He put no difference between men in this respect, though you meet with them in the likeness of beasts and devils, never so wicked, never so abominable. This commission is set out by the parable of a king commanding his servants to fetch the maimed, halt, and blind, with their wounds, sores, and infirmities about them (Luke 14:21; 14:23). 5. The practice of the Spirit after Christ’s ascension to lay hold of such persons. (1) Some out of the worst families in the world; one out of Herod’s (Acts 13:1), “Now there were in the Church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers, as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” It is likely to this intent the Holy Ghost takes particular notice of the place of Manaen’s education, when the families where the rest named with him were bred up are not mentioned. Some rude and rough stones were taken out of Nero’s palace. Yet some of this monster’s servants became saints (Phil. 4:22): “All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Cæsar’s household.” To hear of saints in Nero’s family is as great a prodigy as to hear of saints in hell. (2) Some of the worst vices. The Ephesians were as bad as any, such that Paul calls darkness itself (Eph. 5:8). Great idolaters. The temple of Diana, adored and resorted to by all Asia and the whole world, was in that city (Acts 19:27). Take a view of another corporation, of Corinth, of as filthy persons as ever you heard of, “such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11). Well, then, how many flinty rocks has God dissolved into a stream of tears! Great sins are made preparations by God to some men’s conversion; not in their own nature (that is impossible), but by the wise disposal of God, which Mr. Burgess illustrates thus: as a child whose coat is but a little dirty has it not presently washed; but when he comes to fall over head and ears in the mire, it is taken off, and washed immediately. So when a wicked man falls into some grievous sin, which his conscience frowns upon him and lashes him for, he looks out for a shelter, which in all his peaceable wickedness he never did. III. Why God chooses the greatest sinners, and lets His elect run on so far in sin before He turns them. 1. There is a passive disposition in the greatest sinners, more than in moral or superstitious men, to see their need; because they have not any self-righteousness to boast of. This self-righteous temper is like an external heat got into a body, which produceth an hectic fever, and is not easily perceived till it be incurable; and naturally it is a harder matter to part with self-righteousness than to part with gross sins, for that is more deeply rooted upon the stock of self-love, a principle which departs not from us without our very nature; it hath more arguments to plead for it, it hath a natural conscience, a patron of it; whereas a great sinner stands speechless at reproofs, and a faithful monitor has a good second and correspondent of natural conscience within a man’s own breast. Just as travellers that have loitered away their time in an alehouse, being sensible how the darkness of the night creeps upon them, spur on, and outstrip those that were many miles on their way, and get to their stage before them; so these publicans and harlots, which were at a great distance from heaven, arrived there before those, who like the young man, were not far off from it. As metals of the noblest substance are hardest to be polished, so men of the most generous, natural, and moral endowments are with more difficulty argued into a state of Christianity than those of more drossy conversations. 2. To show the insufficiency of nature to such a work as conversion is, that men may not fall down and idolize their own wit and power. Two things are certain in nature: (1) Natural inclinations never change, but by some superior virtue. A loadstone will not cease to draw iron while that attractive quality remains in it. The wolf can never love the lamb, nor the lamb the wolf; nothing but must act suitably to its nature; water cannot but moisten, fire cannot but burn; so likewise the corrupt nature of man, being possessed with an invincible contrariety and enmity to God, will never suffer him to comply with God. And the inclinations of a sinner to sin being more strengthened by the frequency of sinful acts, have as great a power over him, and as natural to him, as any qualities are to natural agents; and being stronger than any sympathies in the world, cannot by a man’s own power, or the power of any other nature equal to it, be turned into a contrary channel. (2) Nothing can act beyond its own principle and nature. Nothing in the world can raise itself to a higher rank of being than that which nature hath placed it in. A spark cannot make itself a star, though it mount a little up to heaven; nor a plant endue itself with sense, nor a beast adorn itself with reason, nor a man make himself an angel. It is Christ’s conclusion, “How can you, being evil, speak good things?” (Matt. 12:33, 34). Not so much as the buds and blossoms of words, much less the fruit of actions. They can no more change their natures than a viper can cashier his poison. Now, though this I have said be true, yet there is nothing man does more affect in the world than a self-sufficiency and an independency upon any other power but his own. This temper is as much riveted in his nature as any other false principle whatsoever; for man does derive it from his first parents, as the prime legacy bequeathed to his nature. If a putrefied rotten carcase should be brought to life, it could never be thought that it inspired itself with that active principle. God lets men run on so far in sin, that they do unman themselves, that he may proclaim to all the world that we are unable to do anything of ourselves at first towards our recovery without a superior principle. The evidence of which will appear if we consider—1. Man’s subjection under sin. He is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14), and brought into captivity to “the law of sin” (ver. 23); law of sin, that sin seems to have a legal authority over him; and man is not only a slave to one sin, but divers (Titus 1:3), “serving divers lusts.” 2. Man’s affection to them. He doth not only serve them, but he serves them, and every one of them, with delight and pleasure (Titus 3:3). They were all pleasures as well as lusts, friends as well as lords. Will any man leave his voluptuousness, and such sins that please and flatter his flesh? No piece of dirty muddy clay can form itself into a neat and handsome vessel; no plain piece of timber can fit itself for the building, much less a crooked one; nor a man that is born blind give himself eyes. IV. God’s regard for His own glory. 1. The glory of His patience. We wonder, when we see a notorious sinner, how God can let His thunders still lie by Him, and His sword rust in His sheath. “I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God, and not man” (Hosea 11:9). If a man did inherit all the meekness of all the angels and all the men that ever were in the world, he could not be able to bear with patience the extravagances and injuries done in the world the space of one day; for none but a God, i.e., one infinitely longsuffering, can bear with them. Not a sin passed in the world before the coming of Christ in the flesh but was a commendatory letter of God’s forbearance, “To declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Rom. 3:25). And not a sin passed before the coming of Christ into the soul but gives the same testimony, and bears the same record. “Howbeit, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him” (ver. 16). This was Christ’s end in letting him run so far, that He might show forth not a few mites, grains, or ounces of patience, but all longsuffering, longsuffering without measure, or weight, by wholesale; and this as a pattern to all ages of the world; ὑποτύπωσιυ, for a type: a type is but a shadow in respect of the substance. To show that all the ages of the world should not waste that patience, whereof He had then manifested but a pattern. A pattern, we know, is less than the whole piece of cloth from whence it is cut; and as an essay is but a short taste of a man’s skill, and doth not discover all his art, as the first miracle Christ wrought, of turning water into wine, as a sample of what power He had, was less than those miracles which succeeded; and the first miracle God wrought in Egypt, in turning Aaron’s rod into a serpent, was but a sample of His power which would produce greater wonders; so this patience to Paul was but a little essay of His meekness, a little patience cut off from the whole piece, which should always be dealing out to some sinners or other, and would never be cut wholly out till the world had left being. This sample or pattern was but of the extent of a few years; for Paul was but young, the Scripture terms him a young man (Acts 7:58), about thirty-six years of age, yet he calls it all longsuffering. Ah, Paul! some since have experienced more of this patience; in some it has reached not only to thirty, but forty, fifty, or sixty years. 2. Grace. It is partly for the admiration of this grace that God intends the day of judgment. It is a strange place: “When He shall come to be glorified in His saints, and to be admired in all them that believe in that day” (2 Thess. 1:10). It is the glory of a man to pass by an offence (Prov. 19:11), i.e. it is a manifestation of a property which is an honour to him to be known to have. If it be thus an honour to pass by an offence simply, then the greater the offence is, and the more the offences are which he passeth by, the greater must the glory needs be, because it is a manifestation of such a quality in greater strength and vigour. So it must argue a more exceeding grace in God to remit many and great sins in man, than to forgive only some few and lesser offences. (1) Fulness of His grace. He shews hereby that there is more grace in Him than there can be sin in us or the whole world. That grace should rise in its tide higher than sin, and bear it down before it, just as the rolling tide of the sea riseth higher than the streams of the river, and beats them back with all their mud and filth. It was mercy in God to create us; it is abundant mercy to make any new creatures, after they had forfeited their happiness (1 Peter 1:3). (2) Freeness of grace. None can entertain an imagination that Christ should be a debtor to sin, unless in vengeance, much less a debtor to the worst of sinners. But if Christ should only take persons of moral and natural excellencies, men might suspect that Christ were some way or other engaged to them, and that the gift of salvation were limited to the endowments of nature, and the good exercise and use of a man’s own will. Therefore it is frequently God’s method in Scripture, just before the offer of pardon, to sum up the sinner’s debts, with their aggravations; to convince them of their insolvency to satisfy so large a score, and also to manifest the freeness and vastness of His grace (Isa. 43:22–24). It is so free, that the mercy we abuse, the Name we have profaned, the Name of which we have deserved wrath, opens its mouth with pleas for us (Ezek. 36:21). Not for their sakes. It should be wholly free; for He repeats their profaning of His name four times. This name He would sanctify, i.e., glorify. How? In cleansing them from their filthiness (ver. 25). His name, while it pleads for them, mentions their demerits, that grace might appear to be grace indeed, and triumph in its own freeness. (3) Extent of His grace. The mercy of God is called His riches, and exceeding riches of grace. He pardons iniquities for His name’s sake; and who can spell all the letters of His name, and turn over all the leaves in the book of mercy? Who shall say to His grace, as He does to the sea, Hitherto shalt thou go, and no further? His exchequer is never empty; “Keeps mercy for thousands” (Exod. 34:7), in a readiness to deal it upon thousand millions of sins as well as millions of persons. He hath a cleansing virtue and a pardoning grace for all iniquities and transgressions (Jer. 33:8). (4) Compassion of His grace. The formal nature of mercy is tenderness, and the natural effect of it is relief. The more miserable the object, the more compassionate human mercy is, and the more forward to assist. Now that mercy which in man is a quality in God is a nature. How would the infinite tenderness of His nature be discovered, if there were no objects to draw it forth? Now the greater the disease, the greater is that compassion discovered to be wherewith God is so fully stored. (5) Sincerity and pleasure of His grace. Ordinary pardon proceeds from His delight in mercy; “Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage. He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18). If He were not sincere, He would never change the heart of an enemy, and shew kindness to him in the very act of enmity; for the first act of grace upon us is quite against our wills. It is so much His delight, that it is called by the very name of His glory: “The glory of the Lord shall follow thee” (Isa. 58:8): i.e. the mercy of the Lord shall follow them at the very heels. Christ does not care for staying where He has not opportunities to do great cures, suitable to the vastness of His power (Mark 6:5). 3. Power. The Scriptures make conversion a most wonderful work, and resemble it to creation, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead, &c. What vast power must that be that can change a black cloud into a glorious sun? This and more doth God do in conversion. He doth not only take smooth pieces of the softest matter, but the ruggedest timber full of knots, to plane and show both His strength and art upon. 4. Wisdom. A new creature is a curious piece of Divine art, fashioned by God’s wisdom to set for the praise of the framer, as a poem is, by a man’s reason and fancy, to publish the wit and parts of the composer. It is a great skill of an artificer, with a mixture of a few sands and ashes, by his breath to blow up such a clear and diaphanous body as glass, and frame several vessels of it for several uses. It is not barely his breath that does it, for other men have breath as well as he; but it is breath managed by art. And is it not a marvellous skill in God to make a miry soul so pure and crystalline on a sudden, to endue an irrational creature with a Divine nature, and by a powerful word to frame so beautiful a model as a new creature is! The more intricate and knotty any business is, the more eminent is a man’s ability in effecting it. This wisdom appears—(1) In the subjects He chooseth. We will go no further than the example in our text. Our apostle seems to be a man full of heat and zeal. I say, to turn these affections and excellencies to run in a heavenly channel, and to guide this natural passion and heat for the service and advancement of that interest which before he endeavoured to destroy, and for the propagation of that gospel which before he persecured, is an effect of a wonderful wisdom; as it is a rider’s skill to order the mettle of a headstrong horse for his own use to carry him on his journey. (2) This wisdom appears in the time. As man’s wisdom consists as well in timing his actions as contriving the models of them, so doth God’s. He lays hold of the fittest opportunities to bring His wonderful providences upon the stage. His timing of His grace was excellent in the conversion of Paul. (a) In respect of Himself. There could not be a fitter time to glorify His grace than when Paul was almost got to the length of his chain; almost to the sin against the Holy Ghost. Christ suffered him to run to the brink of hell before He laid hold upon him. (b) In respect of others. Behold the nature of this lion changed, just as he was going to fasten upon his prey. And was it not a fit time, when the devil hoped to rout the Christians by him, when the high priests assured themselves success from this man’s passionate zeal, when the Church travailed with throws of fear of him? (3) This wisdom appears to keep up the credit of Christ’s death. The great excellence of Christ’s sacrifice, wherein it transcends the sacrifices under the law, is because it perfectly makes an atonement for all sins; it first satisfies God, and then calms the conscience, which they could not do (Heb. 10:1, 2), for there was a conscience of sin after their sacrifices. Not a light, but a great transgression. Now, if Christ’s death be not satisfactory for great debts, Christ must be too weak to perform what God intended by Him, and so infinite wisdom was frustr te of its intention, which cannot, nor ought not, to be imagined. Now, therefore, God takes the greatest sinners, to show—(a) First, the value of this sacrifice. If God should only entertain men of a lighter guilt, Christ’s death would be suspected to be too low a ransom for monstrous enormities. (b) The virtue of this sacrifice. He is a “priest for ever” (Heb. 7:17); and therefore the virtue as well as the value of His sacrifice remains for ever: He hath “obtained an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12), i.e., a redemption of an eternal efficacy. And those who were stung all over, as well as those who are bitten but in one part, may, by a believing look upon Him, draw virtue from Him as diffusive as their sin. Now the new conversion of men of extraordinary guilt proclaims to the world, that the fountain of His blood is inexhaustible; that the virtue of it is not spent and drained, though so much hath been drawn out of it for these five thousand years and upwards, for the cleansing of sins past before His coming, and sins since His death. (4) For the fruitfulness of this grace in the converts themselves. The most rugged souls prove most eminent in grace upon their conversion, as the most orient diamonds in India, which are naturally more rough, are most sparkling when cut and smoothed. V. The fruits of converting grace, &c. 1. A sense of the sovereignty of grace in conversion, will first increase thankfulness. Converts only are fit to shew forth the praises of Christ (1 Peter 2:9). But suppose a man had been all his lifetime like a mole under ground, and had never seen so much as the light of a candle, and had a view of that weak light at a distance, how would he admire it, when he compares it with his former darkness? But if he should be brought further, to behold the moon with her train of stars, his amazement would increase with the light. But let this person behold the sun, be touched with its warm beams, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing those rarities which the sun discovers, he will bless himself, adore it, and embrace that person who led him to enjoy such a benefit. And the blackness of that darkness he sat in before, will endear the present splendour to him, swell up such a spring-tide of astonishment, as that there shall be no more spirit in him. God lets men sit long in the shadow of death, and run to the utmost of sin, before He stops them, that their danger may enhance their deliverance. 2. Love and affection. The fire of grace cannot be stifled, but will break out in glory to God. God permits a man’s sin to abound, that His love after pardon may abound too (Luke 7:47). 3. Service and obedience. Such will endeavour to redeem the time, because their former days have been so evil, and recover those advantages of service which they lost by a course of sin. They will labour that the largeness of their sin may be answered by an extension of their zeal. 4. Humility and self-emptiness. As no apostle was so God-magnifying, so none was so self-vilifying as Paul. Though he was the greatest apostle, yet he accounts himself less than the least of all saints (Eph. 3:8). 5. Bewailing of sin, and self-abhorrence for it. 6. Faith and dependence. (1) At present, in the instant of the first act of faith. Great sins make us appear in the court of jurisdiction, with a naked faith, when we have nothing to merit it, but much to deserve the contrary (Rom. 4:5). The more ungodly, the more elevated is that faith which lays hold on God. (2) In following occasions. Pardoning such great sins, and converting such great sinners, is the best credential letter Christ brings with Him from heaven. Men naturally would scarce believe for His own sake, but for His work’s sake they would, because they are more led by sense than faith. For every great conversion is as a sea-mark to guide others into a safe harbour. As when a physician comes into a house where many are sick, and cures one that is desperate, it is an encouragement to the rest to rely upon his skill. If men believe not in Christ after the sight of such standing miracles, it is an aggravation of their impenitence, as much as any miracle Christ wrought upon the earth was of the Jew’s obstinacy, and does put as black a dye upon it: “Ye, when you had seen it, repented not afterward, that you might believe Him” (Matt. 21:32). Further, such conversions evidence that God’s commands are practicable, that His yoke is not burdensome. 1. First, the doctrine manifests the power of the gospel. God gains a reputation to the gospel and the power of Christianity, that can in a moment change persons from beasts to men, from serpents to saints. 2. Groundlessness of despair. Despair not of others, when thou dost reflect upon thy own crimes, and considerest that God never dealt with a baser heart in the world than thine was. Comfort of this subject: If God has made thee of a great sinner the object of His mercy, thou mayest be assured of—(1) Continuance of His love. He pardoned thee when thou wert an enemy, will He leave thee now thou art His friend? (2) Supplies of His grace. Thou hadst a rich present of His grace sent thee when thou couldst not pray for it, and will He not much more give thee whatsoever is needful when thou callest upon Him? A wise builder does not begin a work when he is not able to finish it. God considered, before He began with thee, what charge thou wouldst stand him in, both of merit in Christ and grace in thee; so that the grace He hath given thee is not only a mercy to thee, but an obligation on Himself since His credit is engaged to complete it. (3) Strength against corruptions. Can molehills stand against him who has levelled mountains? Can a few clouds withstand the melting force of the sun, which has dissolved those black mists that overspread the face of the heavens? No more can the remainders of thy corruption bear head against His power, which has thrown down the great hills of the sins of thy natural condition, and has dissolved the thick fogs of thy unregeneracy. 1. To those that God hath dealt so with. (1) Glorify God for His grace. (2) Admiration is all the glory you can give to God for His grace, seeing you can add nothing to His essential glory. 2. Often call to mind thy former sin. It hath been the custom of the saints of God formerly. When Matthew reckons up the twelve apostles (Matt. 10:3) whereof he was one, he remembers his former state, “Matthew the publican”; but none of the other evangelists call him so in that enumeration. (1) It makes us more humble. Thoughts of pride cannot lodge in us, when the remembrance of our rags, bolts, and fetters is frequently renewed. (2) It will make us thankful. Sense of misery heightens our obligation to mercy. Men at sea are most thankful for deliverance when they consider the danger of the foregoing storm. A long night makes a clear morning more welcome. (3) It will make thee more active in the exercise of that grace which is contrary to thy former sin. (4) It will be a preservative against falling into the same sin again. The second branch of exhortation is to those that are in a doubting condition. The main objection such make is the greatness of sin. Oh, there was never such a great sinner in the world as I am! But—1. Art thou indeed the greatest sinner? I can hardly believe it. Didst thou ever sin after the rate that Paul did? or wert thou ever possessed with such a fury? 2. Suppose thou art the greatest, is thy staying from Christ the way to make all thy sins less? Art thou so rich as to pay this great debt out of thy own revenue? or hast thou any hopes of another surety? 3. Are thy sins the greatest? Is not the staying from Christ a making them greater? Does not God command thee to come to Christ? and is not thy delay a greater act of disobedience than the complaint of thy sinfulness can be of humility? 4. Were thy sins less than they are, thou mightest not so easily believe in Christ, as now thou mayest. Great sins and a bad heart felt and bewailed, is rather an advantage; as hunger is an incentive to a man to seek for meat. If men had clean hearts, it is like they would dispose of them otherwise, and rather think Christ should come to them. Men’s poverty should rather make them more importunate than more modest. If, therefore, thou art afraid of drowning under these mighty floods which roll upon thee, methinks thou shouldst do as men ready to perish in the waters, catch hold of that which is next them, though it be the dearest friend they have; and there is none nearer to thee than Christ, nor any such a friend; catch hold therefore of Him. 5. The greatness of thy sin is a ground for a plea. Turn thy sins into arguments, as David doth, “for it is great” (Psa. 25:11). If thy disease were not so great, Christ’s glory would not be so illustrious. Pardon of such sins enhanceth the mercy and skill of thy Saviour. Plead therefore—1. The infiniteness of God’s mercy. It is strange if thy debts should be so great, that the exchequer of the King of kings cannot discharge them. Hast Thou not said that Thou art He “that blots out transgressions for Thy own sake”? (Isa. 43:25); that Thou dost “blot out iniquities like a thick cloud”? (Isa. 44:22). Is there any cloud so thick as to master the melting power of the sun; and shall ever a cloud of sin be so thick as to master the power of Thy mercy? Has not Thy mercy as much strength and eloquence to plead for me, as Thy justice has to declaim against me? Is Thy justice better armed with reason than Thy kindness with compassions? Have Thy compassions no eloquence? Oh, who can resist their pleasing rhetoric! 2. Christ’s, and God’s intent in His coming, was to discharge great sins. He was called Jesus, a Saviour, because He was to save His people from their sins. And do you think some of His people’s sins were not as great as any men’s sins in the world? 3. Christ’s death was a satisfaction for the greatest sins, for God could not accept any satisfaction, but what was infinite. “One sacrifice for sins for ever,” &c. (Heb. 10:12); not one sin, but sins; not little sins, but sins without exception. Let thy objections be what they will, Christ shall be my advocate to answer for me. 4. Christ is able to take away great sins. Did He ever let any one that came to Him with a great infirmity, go back without a cure, and dishonour Himself so much, as that it should be said, it was a distemper too great for the power of Jesus to remedy? And why should there be any sin that He cannot pardon? But, may the soul say, I do not question His power, but His will. Therefore—5. Christ’s nature leads Him to show mercy to the greatest sinners. 6. Christ was exalted by God upon this very account (Heb. 7:25). 7. Christ is entrusted by God to give out His grace to great sinners. Christ is God’s Lord-almoner, for the dispensing redemption, and the riches of His grace. Fourthly, the caution which this subject suggests. 1. Think not thy sins are pardoned because they are not so great as those God has pardoned in others. A few small sands may sink a ship as well as a great rock. Thy sins may be pardoned though as great as others, but then you must have equal qualifications with them. They had great sins, so hast thou; but have you as great a hatred and loathing of sin as they had? 2. Let not this doctrine encourage any person to go on in sin. God never intended mercy as a sanctuary to protect sin. 1. It is disingenuous to do so. Great love requires great duties, not great sins. Freeness of grace should make us increase holiness in a more cheerful manner. 2. It is foolish so to do. Would any man be so simple as to set his house on fire because he has a great river running by his door, from whence he may have water to quench it; or wound himself, because there is an excellent plaster which has cured several? 3. It is dangerous to do so. If thou losest the present time, thou art in danger to lose eternity. There are many in hell never sinned at such a presumptuous rate. He is merciful to the penitent, but He will not be unfaithful to His threatenings. (S. Charnock.)
The pattern convert; or, the chief sinner saved:—
- This pattern convert had been the chief of sinners. 1. He had displayed invincible zeal in opposing the gospel. He believed in the Jewish religion, and he hated and persecuted the cause of Christ. He executed his mission in right earnest. He ever felt that no arm but the Almighty arm could have reached and delivered him from this terrible depth of ruin. 2. He had been an excessively proud man. Saul of Tarsus possessed a haughty spirit. His unconquerable love to the law arose from the pride and arrogance of his unregenerate heart. 3. His mental power, too, aided him in his work. He was a scholar of no ordinary character, blended with natural energy and grasp of intellect.
- The salvation of this pattern convert illustrates the mediatorial strength of Christ. The chief of sinners has been saved. 1. The salvation of Paul is an evidence of the sufficiency of the atonement. 2. The salvation of Paul is a proof of the efficacy of victorious grace. 3. The salvation of Paul proves the worth of intercession. Who first arrested the man on his way to Damascus? Christ—He pleaded with the persecutor and conquered him by love. 4. The salvation of Paul exhibits Divine patience. “That in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering”—patience.
III. This pattern convert proclaims the Saviour in the gospel as worthy of all acceptation. Why? 1. Because He is the revelation of the highest intelligence to man’s reason. He is the manifold wisdom of God—“God manifest in the flesh.” Reason could trace out the handiwork of God in every star that glitters in the heavens, but in Christ it sees God in human form. No such revelation of God was ever made before the incarnation as the one which we possess. Sir Isaac Newton revealed the great law that binds atom to atom, and all to its mighty centre; and angels have made glorious revelations; but in Christ we see God interested in, and saving His enemies. 2. He is the only antidote for sin. 3. He alone reveals the hope of immortality. Christ meets the highest aspirations of our nature by His resurrection and ascension; He has drawn aside the veil of futurity and “opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” 4. This revelation is based in truth. Other books contain pretended revelations, but they have no foundation in truth. The Koran, to wit: the gospel however is “a faithful,” a true “saying.” Prophecy, miracle and history, as well as its own almighty efficacy, prove that it is true. (J. H. Hill.)
The chief of sinners:—It was a characteristic of the religion of Paul, that it was eminently personal and practical. The idea, therefore, to which we direct your attention is this: That true religion, and great experience in it, cause the believer to regard himself peculiarly a sinner. We have several considerations to prove this.
- The view which a believer has of his own heart is more minute, and more extensive also, than any view he can take of another’s. He cannot draw upon another’s memory as he can upon his own. His quickened recollections furnish him with many a dark chapter, as his mind roves back upon forgotten years; and there is a vividness and freshness in the recollection of what a sinner he has been, which throws over his own experience an aspect of peculiarity. He can number his own sins as he cannot another’s. He can recollect the smallness of temptation, and the tender, and touching, and terrible motives which would have restrained him from his sins if he would only have felt them. Conscience, with an eye of fire, will look into his soul, and the aggravations of sin, which arose from a thousand circumstances of his condition and God’s forbearance toward him, will seem to invest his sinfulness with a criminality and an abomination beyond anything that he will dare to attribute to other people.
- Very much in proportion to the extent of a believer’s gracious attainments is pure conscience brought into exercise. We mean by this pure con science an exercise of that faculty as such, in its own nature and for its own ends, not mingled with other affections. And one great difference betwixt the convictions of a believer and the convictions of an unbeliever consists simply in this; the different impressions they have of the mere wrong of sin. A believer sees that wrong as an unbeliever does not. In sin itself he sees an evil which an unbeliever does not.
III. The rule of conscience is not a thing well understood by an unconverted sinner in his ordinary frame of mind. The deceptions of sin have been flung over it. But when the Holy Spirit justly convicted him, he saw sin in him self that he never saw before, and hope died within him. He discovered what God’s law meant and where it applied. Law reigns; and now, better and better under stood, sharper than any two-edged sword, a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; it is no wonder that every just conception of God’s law should tend to make the grace-enlightened believer conceive of himself as the chief of sinners. He sees that that code of spiritual purity has strange applications to his erring soul. His very spirit cannot hide from it for a single moment. It pursues the soul every where.
- The religious attempts of a believer constitute another consideration. They have been many, and he is fully conscious that they have sometimes been sincere and earnest; but oh! how often have they been baffled! What vain purposes! How little his strength! How many sinful desires! He utters the deep-toned cry, Chief of sinners! Chief of sinners!
- Throughout all the successful attainments of grace, a believer is invariably becoming better acquainted with God. The knowledge he has of the Divine character constitutes one of the most efficacious aids and impressive influences. The better he knows God the better he knows himself; and while his knowledge of God increases both his reverence and his attachment, his knowledge of himself fills him with humiliation and shame. Sin appears worse and worse to him as he knows God better.
- A Christian, especially amid his attainments in grace, is a creature of no little reflection. His knowledge increases, especially his knowledge of himself; and amid reflections and increasing knowledge in Divine things, again and again he is surprised and disappointed in a most painful and humiliating manner. Sometimes he is astounded, and disheartened, and driven to prayer by a wave of despondency that rolls over his soul. His reflection discovers sin as he did not expect, discovers it wherein he had little suspicion of its existence. He finds the imperfection of his repentance, that his very repentance (according to the graphic description of the apostle) needs to be repented of.
VII. That process of sanctification carried on in a believer’s heart by the omnipotent power of the Holy Spirit is very much carried on through the influence of two spiritual operations: first, the discovery of sin, and second, faith in the Redeemer of sinners to procure pardon and justification unto life eternal. There is the combined influence of compulsion and attraction; of violence and persuasion. The believer is driven off from himself at the same moment he is drawn toward God. But this process and these affections are some times interrupted. His soul wanders from God. And that it should ever wander seems to him one of the strangest anomalies in the universe! The conclusions from this subject are worthy of remembrance. 1. Never despair. There is mercy for the chief of sinners. 2. Never seek hope, consolation, or any comfort or encouragement to your soul by diminished ideas of sin. 3. Never judge of your Christian condition by the smallness of your humiliating convictions. Rather judge of it by the magnitude of them. 4. Never allow pride to have any place in your religion. Self-complacency all rests on ignorance and deception. 5. Never imagine that a deep sense of sin and all the humiliating ideas that grow out of it, are things of unhappiness and gloom. Quite the contrary. They are matters of peace and joy to a believer. (J. S. Spencer, D.D.)
The chief of sinners:—
- I have to try and hunt out the chief of sinners. Now who are they? They come under various characters, and may be classified in different lists. 1. We will begin with those who directly oppose themselves to God and to His Christ. These are chief among sinners. Paul did join their ranks. 2. And here I ought to put down those who hold views derogatory of the Deity and the person of Christ. 3. Another group of princes and peers in the realm of evil may be described as those who attack Christ’s people, and who seek to pervert them from the right way. 4. There is another group whom you will all allow to be of the chief of sinners—those who have sinned foully in the world’s esteem; violating the instincts of nature, and outraging the common sense of morality and decency. 5. And surely I may find another class of the chief of sinners among those who have become not only adepts themselves, but the tutors to others in the school of evil. 6. In this section we include those who have had much light, and yet have sinned against it; who have been taught better, who have had a knowledge of the way of truth, and yet have turned aside to crooked paths. 7. There are those, too, who sit under an earnest ministry, and yet go on in sin—they surely belong to the class of chief sinners. 8. Drawing the bow at a venture, there is another class I would single out, those who are gifted from their childhood with a tender conscience. 9. Yet again; if you have had warning in sickness, and especially if on your sick bed you have vowed unto the Lord that you would turn to Him, then you that are covenant-breakers, you that violate vows made to the Most High, you must also be put among the first and foremost of transgressors.
- Why those who are proverbially the chief of sinners are very frequently saved. 1. One reason is to illustrate Divine sovereignty. 2. Another reason is, that He may show His great power. Oh! how hell is made angry when some great champion falls! When their Goliaths are brought down, how the Philistines take to their heels! How heaven rings with songs when some chief of sinners becomes a trophy of the Divine power! 3. And next, how it shows His grace! 4. Again; great sinners are very frequently called by God for the purpose of attracting others. 5. And then, the saving of the chief of sinners is useful, because, when they are saved they generally make the most fiery zealots against sin. Have we not a proverb that “The burnt child dreads the fire”? I noticed my host, on one preaching excursion, particularly anxious about my candle. Now, as everybody ought to know how careful I am, I was a little surprised, and I put the question to him why he should be so wonderfully particular. “I had my house burnt down once, sir,” said he. That explained it all. No man so much afraid of fire as he, and they who have been in sin, and know the mischief of it, protest against it the most loudly. They can speak experimentally. Oh! what revenge there seems to be in the apostle’s heart against his sin! 6. And then, again, they always make the most zealous saints. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
The chief of sinners:—
- Why, then, did St. Paul call himself the chief of sinners? It is a startling designation, and the more you think of it the more startling you will feel it to be. It is a mere truism to say that the success of a religion depends to a large extent upon the personal veracity and goodness of its founders. Now, St. Paul was practically the founder of Christianity over a large area of the heathen world. It was he who had told them almost everything they knew of Christ. It was his version of Christ’s teaching, his view of the meaning and scope of His work, with which they were most, if not exclusively familiar. And he frequently declared that he himself was the style of man a Christian ought to be. “Be ye followers of me,” he said, “as I also am of Christ.” How, then, were they to understand him when he asserted himself to be the chief of sinners? It can hardly be denied that had such a confession escaped from the lips of any but a Christian apostle it would have produced a very perplexing, if not a thoroughly suspicious impression. Would any of the great heathen philosophers, or any one who aspired to found a religion, have ventured to terminate his career by an assertion of his own incomparable sinfulness? And if he had, would it not have discredited his mission or been considered too absurd to be serious? But it was not so with St. Paul’s confession. It gave no uneasiness to his most sensitive converts, no occasion for reproach to his most implacable foes. Does not this prove that Christianity had a way of dealing with sin peculiar to itself, and produced a type of character absolutely unique? But assuming that St. Paul used the words seriously, i.e., without any intentional exaggeration, what did he really mean? We are very apt to entertain defective and partial conceptions of sin. Many virtually restrict it to those modes of its expression which they themselves have experienced. They are troubled by some particular evil which natural inclination, or continued indulgence, has invested with special power. It may be the lust of avarice, or an envious and angry passion, or an unholy and impure desire. But whatever it may be, it is the sin which engages the attention and alarms the conscience of the man whom it attacks; and if he be a Christian it is the sin which he struggles against, and whose very touch fills him with a self-reproach almost too heavy to be borne. It is very natural that any one in this condition should come to conceive of sin as almost identified with his peculiar temptation. It is the sin he thinks about when any reference is made to the subject. And it is entire deliverance from its defilement that constitutes his highest idea of happiness. Was it, then, because St. Paul was pressed by some special thorn of this kind that he called himself the chief of sinners? We can hardly think so, if we remember the language and style of his Epistles. There is scarcely a sin which he does not mention and tell us something about. He points out wherein the enormity of certain transgressions consists. He shows us the disposition and temper out of which others are likely to spring, and how to resist or baffle their attacks. He draws up exhaustive catalogues of offences, for the purpose of reminding us that not one of them, however much it might be tolerated in heathen society, is consistent with citizenship in the kingdom of God. But if the apostle was not likely to exaggerate in this particular way, was it not possible he might do so in another? There are not a few who know the many shapes which evil may assume, but who know them theoretically, rather than practically. The world they know is a world of respectability, and perhaps of high moral principle. But they do not know the outer circles of our social life, the broad zone of lawlessness that surrounds the region of decency. And you feel accordingly that the conceptions of evil which such people have are necessarily defective. They may be filled with an intense conviction of the guilt of the sins they know, but their knowledge does not go far. And their self-accusations, when they are expressed, strike you, for this reason, as being unreal. They have an air of extravagance, unperceived by those who utter them, but quite discernible by anybody else. Was St. Paul, then, a person of this sort? Was it ignorance of life, or of human nature, that made him place himself first in the catalogue of sinners? It can hardly have been this, either, for he lived at a time when the world was at its worst, and very few men of his day had seen so much of it as he. He had known the chief priests and rabbis of Jerusalem, and the philosophers of the Grecian schools. He had traversed the rougher districts of heathendom, where passion gave itself vent in coarse and brutal fashion. He had beat about the slums of the largest cities, and lain in the common prisons with the scum and offscouring of the earth. You may depend upon it that the man who had written the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and had lived in Rome two years during the reign of Nero, a reign when all kinds of devilry literally ran riot—knew perfectly well what he was about when he declared himself the chief of sinners. The truth is that St. Paul had a very rare and exceptional insight into his own heart, and also into the nature of sin. There was no part of him allowed to be at rest, no reserve of energy which lay idle, and which might have developed, had it roused itself up, an unsuspected weakness or liability to excess. The whole force of the man went into his work. He was always on the stretch, always expending every particle of strength in following after the one aim of his efforts. Hence he felt himself all through. Every weak place betrayed its weakness. Every temptation to swerve from his path pierced him like an arrow. Every sluggish or selfish impulse acted like a drag upon his eager limbs. The very ardour of his devotion, the keenness of his pursuit, made the least hindrance an unspeakable pain. But not only so, he saw it with an eye that penetrated farther into its depths than that of any other has done. He detected the fearful possibilities of ruin that lie wrapped in its every germ. He knew the pervasive power that enables it to infect the whole nature of a man, if it once be suffered to escape from restraint. He knew how terrible were the passions that once strove in his own heart, and still slumbered there. And above all his bright vision of the holiness of God, his sublime conception of Christ’s purity threw a white light that beat upon his sin and exposed its every line, and feature, and movement. He saw it so distinctly and plainly that other men’s sins were hazy and vague, and dwelt in the region of comparative shadow.
- Why St. Paul appended this remark about himself to the statement in the verse. The drift of the passage leads us to believe that he meant it to confirm the faithfulness of the saying. It was equivalent to putting his subscription at the foot of it, as one who endorsed it or attested its truth. In proof of the assertion that Christ Jesus had come into the world to save sinners, he appealed to his own case as specially to the point. There was no room for despair when he had found mercy. It would not do much to recommend the skill of a physician that you declared he had healed you of a most virulent disease, if it turned out, after all, that your ailment had existed chiefly in your own imagination, and been little more than a touch of hypochondria. I should say that the most desperate man is he who is neither careless, nor a profligate, nor a formalist, but one who, earnest and correct in conduct, is conscientiously attached to a false or defective creed, and bent enthusiastically on pushing its claims. Such a one, sustained by the proud consciousness of always having done what he considered his duty, and therefore troubled by no compunctions of conscience, free from every impure or unseemly indulgence, convinced that he is right in his opinions, and so far enamoured of their excellence, or filled with contempt for their rivals, that he finds the greatest satisfaction in urging them upon the world, is not likely to be easily turned from the course he pursues. The fact is he cannot conceive any reason for a change. So there is no opening by which you can approach him. Was not St. Paul very much such a character as this? Christ proved able to accomplish what, humanly speaking, seemed impossible. He saved the man who of all men in the world seemed the least likely, and the most difficult, to be saved. And St. Paul never could look back to his conversion but with feelings of the most reverent awe and adoring thankfulness.
III. The statement itself—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Sinners were the object of His mission, and sinners without any distinction. Now, what He has promised is not merely to rescue us from some future danger, indeed has nothing to do with the future directly at all. “Christ saves us from sin,” he says, “here and now, and my case substantiates the statement.” And if you should ask how this can be, since he has just told us, not simply that he was the chief of sinners before his conversion, but is so still, the answer is, that Christ does not save us by any magical or mechanical process. He does not entirely sever us from the past and its transgressions, though He does secure that they shall not involve us in the destruction which is their natural result. He leaves us to fight a hard battle with the root of sin that still survives in our nature. Having robbed it of its power of irreparable mischief, He enlists us in completing its extinction. He spoils it of its old fascination. He exposes its emptiness and folly. He counteracts its force by revealing attractions that lift us above the sphere of its influence. And our present actual superiority to its rule is won through the gradual emancipation and strengthening of our character. Surely it is a much more crushing defeat to what has brought such misery upon us that it should be despised and baffled by its former victims. St. Paul, then, could say that he was the chief of sinners, and yet appeal to himself as an illustration of Christ’s power to save. Indeed, his very confession was itself an evidence of his redemption. It revealed a humility that implied the overthrow of pride and self-complacency, the very qualities in which the strength of sin resides. You are saved from its final triumph. Only see that you keep hold of the promise of mercy and of grace to help us in Jesus Christ. Let no onset of sin drive you from Him, no fresh development of its resources tempt you to distrust Him. You can only fight and overcome as you fall back on His word, and grasp the hope which it reveals. (C. Moinet, M.A.)
Fourth Sunday after Trinity:—
- How are we to understand this language of the apostle respecting himself? You will, I hope, at once dismiss from your minds any thought that the apostle was exhibiting to his son Timothy what some would call a graceful humility. We ought to assure ourselves that no humility can be graceful, because none can be gracious, which has not its foundation in truth. Of all qualities, this is the one which it is most monstrous to counterfeit. He would speak of himself as he would of another man, honestly and simply. If it was the fact that he had laboured more abundantly than all the apostles, he did not shrink from announcing it. Neither must we say that St. Paul was led to give himself this title because he had a sudden and keen remembrance of his life when he was a persecutor of the faith. But he could not think himself—we know from the words which he uses when describing his previous history that he did not think himself—worse than other persecutors merely because he was more zealous than they were. He was certainly not the chief of sinners because he acted out a wrong conviction more vigorously than others did. Nor must we forget that the words, literally taken, do not warrant us in supposing that St. Paul referred wholly or chiefly to the past. If he says, “I am first, or chief,” Timothy must have understood that he was not charging himself with the crimes of other days, but was expressing what was in his mind at the time he wrote. The law proved its justice by affixing to each palpable outrage and overt act its meet recompense of reward. St. Paul had been a zealot in enforcing the law; he had never brought himself within the range of one, even the mildest, of its formal censures. “But by the law,” he says elsewhere, “comes the knowledge of sin.” It prohibits offences; it awakens a man to perceive that there is in him a disposition to commit these offences. Here then St. Paul found himself “first.” Yes, in a most awful sense, alone. He had no means of ascertaining how far other men had separated themselves from the righteous, loving mind of God. The law said, “Thou hast done it.” And by degrees he found that the law was only echoing without what a Living Voice was saying to him within. The Spirit of God convinced him of sin. And since the more he knew of the attraction of the Divine magnet, the more he knew the strength of the inclination there was in him to wander from it, the more he attributed any right direction of his spirit to its influence—he could say, with no affectation, with the inmost sincerity, “Of sinners I am first. More of this love has been shown to me than to any I know; my resistance therefore has been greater than that of others. If the light has overpowered me, there has been a struggle with it, there is a struggle with it, which I dare not say is equally mighty and desperate in them.” If this was the warrant for this mode of speech, you will not wonder that he should have used it with even more emphasis in the later days of his earthly pilgrimage, than in the earlier. You will think, perhaps, that St. Paul’s large and intimate acquaintance with the moral abuses and corruptions that sprang up in the members of the different Churches which he had planted, may have diverted his mind from this contemplation, and may have proved that there was a wickedness about him which had never penetrated within him. But you must not fancy that he thought more gently of himself as he became acquainted with the party-spirit and sensuality of the Corinthians, or when he found the Galatians regarding him whom they had once loved with such a violent affection, as their enemy because he told them the truth. I rather suppose that he detected in himself all the evils which caused him such bitter pain in them, that he understood their heresies and carnality and suspicions by the seeds of the like which he found in his own heart; that he never condemned them without passing sentence upon tendencies which might at any moment start to life in him. I apprehend that in this way the more he did this—the more he understood his relation to his flock as their minister and priest—the more he perceived that he was the first among sinners. By such processes, he was, I conceive, trained to a real, not a mock humility.
- The words, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” sound to us like a commonplace which we heard in the nursery. There was some strange hostility between his mind and the mind of a righteous Being, his Creator. Could they be reconciled? There was some bondage upon his will. Could it be set free? This experience, this demand, is met by the broad announcement: “One is come from that righteous Being with whom thou art at war, expressly to make peace. One is come to save sinners out of their sins.” He might doubt long and ask earnestly whether news so good could be true. He must have a real emancipation, real peace with God. The claim of every one calling himself a Deliverer and Reconciler must endure the severest of all tests. Was He able to do that which none else had been able to do? Could He accomplish what the law and sacrifices, that he held to be most Divine, had not accomplished? No one could settle them for him. An archangel could not force him to accept the gospel merely on his authority. The poorest man might bring it with such evidence to his conscience that he could not but say, “It is true.” And when he had said this, the repetition of the truth to which he had given his adhesion could never become a flat or a stale one. Was this all? Was there no brighter light coming to him every moment from that heaven into which he believed the Son of God had ascended? no clearer and deeper insight into the effects of His coming to our world than had been vouchsafed here at first? Surely there was. It is contained in the plural, “sinners.” His experience had been personal. He had known sin in himself. He had known deliverance in himself. But that sin consisted in separation from his fellows as well as from God. That deliverance consisted in reunion to his fellows as well as to God. Jesus Christ had saved him; but He had not come into the world to save him. There was not a man who had not the same needs as he had; there was not a man who had not the same Helper as he had. (F. D. Maurice, M.A.)
Sin:—Let us begin by thinking what St. Paul could possibly mean by calling himself “the chief of sinners.” We know very well that he did not mean, that, either before his conversion or since, his life had been anything but most decorous and respectable. “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God unto this day.” And, in writing to friends, he could describe himself in those early years before his conversion, as “touching the righteousness which is in the law blameless.” It is equally certain that he did not mean that his life had ever been careless, and thoughtless, and worldly. He speaks of himself in one of his Epistles as “profiting,” that is, making progress, “in the Jews’ religion above many my equals,” that is, my cotemporaries. He had also been a very religious man; religious after a wrong pattern of religion, it is true, but still thoroughly and ardently religious after the common type and pattern of the day. And yet this man of blameless life and strict religion, writing quietly in advancing years to a favourite friend and pupil, can speak of himself as the “chief of sinners.” What can he mean by such language? One thing is already quite clear. St. Paul must have thought of sin in a way very different from that in which most of us are in the habit of thinking of it. To us, the “chief of sinners” would be a man of utterly profligate and vicious life, who had broken the commandments of God in the most reckless and high-handed way. And so little does our notion of “the chief of sinners” agree with what we know about St. Paul, that, when he calls himself so, while we admire his humility, we barely give him credit for sincerity. He can scarcely have meant it, we think. But I am sure we shall make a great mistake, if we resolve that “I am chief” of our text into a passing pang of pain, shot into his mind by the sudden recollection of those old days, when, as the historian says, “he made havoc of the Church,” and “breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” None of us would dream of denying the fact of our sinfulness. That we are sinners we all confess. But the confession is often a very hollow one; means very little; means often only this—that we know we are not perfect, but we believe we are not worse than most people, and are a good deal better than some, and may reasonably expect to do well enough at the last. That St. Paul should speak of himself as the “chief of sinners,” seems to persons, who are thinking thus of sin and meaning no more than this by their confession of sinfulness, only an outrageous extravagance of language—a temporary fit of morbid self-reproach. We may be quite sure of this, that so long as we go on comparing ourselves with other people, and judging other people, we shall never come to any real sense of sin, or to any true penitence for it, or to any heartfelt desire for its forgiveness. Such comparison of ourselves with others is utterly false and misleading. Neither must we rest satisfied with judging ourselves by any external standard or rule of life, whether it be the law of God, or the law and custom and fashion of the society of which we are members. We may be models of propriety; exemplary in every department of conduct and life. And yet that may be true of us, which Jesus said was true of the religious world of His own day: “This people honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me.” For indeed, this terrible matter of sin goes far deeper than outward conduct. Outward conduct may reveal the depths of sin within, may reveal them to the man himself, as well as to the world around. But no outward conduct is a measure of sin. Judged by outward conduct one would have said of St. Paul, that he was as near perfection as a man could be. At this point of our inquiry we must try to get nearer, if we can, to St. Paul’s experience. The recollection of those old persecuting days was lying very heavily on his conscience, when he wrote the words of our text; not heavily in the sense of making his forgiveness doubtful, but heavily in the sense of revealing the possibilities of sin within. When he came to himself in the moment of his conversion, the fact that he had been a persecutor of the disciples of Christ, fancying all the while that he was doing God’s service, must have made the first rude breach in the self-righteousness of Saul the Pharisee. Time and thought would only enlarge that breach and make it more practicable. If he had deceived himself so grossly once, fancying that to be right and virtuous which was so manifestly wrong and wicked, why not again? It is often such a rude shock as this to vanity and self-confidence that marks an epoch in a man’s spiritual life, awakening, and ultimately transforming him. In this way it is that “men may,” and often do, “rise by stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things.” We must learn humility. We must learn the bitter lesson of self-distrust. No true progress is possible until this lesson has been learned. Along with this experience—perhaps as part of it—there went another. It was part of the sorrow and humiliation of Saul’s conversion, that it revealed to him the painful fact, that his life and work had been set hitherto in a wrong direction; that he must break with his past, and begin all over again; that he had not only missed the mark, but had been aiming at a wrong one. Steadily did he set himself, nobly and courageously, to retrieve the past; to undo what he had done, and to do the very opposite. And again and again that old past rose up against him, to make the new course more difficult. In this way, I fancy—or in some such way as this (for who are we, that we should dare to gauge the experience of a Paul?)—he seems to have come to those deeper views of sin, with which his letters are pervaded. Our English word “sin” suggests little or nothing of itself to us; but the Greek equivalent, certainly, and, I think, the Hebrew also, have their meaning printed broadly and legibly upon them. To “sin” in those languages, is to miss the mark; to fall short of the mark; to go wide of the mark; to fail; to come short of the true standard. Now the moment we lay hold of this, as the deepest meaning and real essence of sin, that moment self-righteousness becomes impossible to us. There may be those here, who cannot bring the sense of sin home to their consciences with any keenness, so long as sin is regarded merely as “transgression of law”; so innocent and blameless have their lives been. But let them think of “sin” in this deeper, truer aspect, as missing the mark, failing to be that, which it is in us to be, and which God by His Spirit and His Providence is calling us to be, and who can hold out against the conviction, that he is in very truth a sinner, and a very grievous sinner, if not the very chief of sinners? And this sense of sin will become deeper, and this confession of sin will become more penitent and genuine, in proportion as we pass out of our natural darkness into the light of God, and begin to discern more clearly what our true standard is, and what our gifts and capacities are: what it is in us to be, and what God is seeking to make of us. The greater the gifts and capacities and endowments, the more keen will be the sense of failure and shortcoming. Such reflections as these, honestly pursued, cannot fail, to use St. Paul’s expressive phrase, to “conclude us all under sin”; to bring the weight and pressure of a genuine sense of sin to bear upon us all. Now, however painful this may be, it is unquestionably the first step in the right direction. We cannot become what God would make us until we are made deeply and sincerely conscious of sin and infirmity, of unworthiness and unprofitableness. But we must not leave the subject so. St. Paul could never leave it so. His own personal confession of sin, deep and contrite as it is, is set in the midst of a burst of triumphant hope. “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Yes—“sinners of whom I am chief”; but then “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and, therefore, to save me. (D. J. Vaughan, M.A.)
1:15 “It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance” This phrase is used 5 times in the Pastoral Letters (cf. 3:1, 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8). It is used much like Jesus’ “amen, amen” (translated “truly, truly” or “verily, verily”) to introduce significant statements. It is one of several words and phrases that lift up and describe apostolic truth
- “Word of God” (cf. 1 Tim. 4:5; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 2:5)
- “word of our Lord” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13)
- “words of truth” (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15)
- “words of faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 4:6)
- “teaching” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:9, 2:1)
- “deposit” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20)
- “truth” (cf. 2 Tim. 1:14; 2:18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4)
- “the Gospel” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:11; 2 Tim. 2:8, 10, 11)
- “the faith” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:7)
- “Scriptures” (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15–16)
© “Christ Jesus came into the world” This implies Jesus’ pre-existence (cf. John 1:1, 15, 8:57–58, 16:28, 17:5; 1 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6–7; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3; 10:5–8), which was a major doctrinal issue related to His deity (He was incarnated, not created). This may address the gnostic aspect of these false teachers.
|SPECIAL TOPIC: PAUL’S USE OF KOSMOS
Paul uses the term kosmos in several ways
1. all the created order (cf. Rom. 1:20; Eph. 1:4; 1 Cor. 3:22; 8:4, 5)
2. this planet (cf. 2 Cor. 1:17; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:15; 3:16; 6:7)
3. humans (cf. 1:27–28; 4:9, 13; Rom. 3:6, 19; 11:15; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 1:6)
4. humans organized and functioning apart from God (cf. 1:20–21; 2:12; 3:19; 11:32; Gal. 4:3; Eph. 2:2, 12; Phil. 2:15; Col. 2:8, 20–23). It is very similar to John’s usage (i.e. 1 John 2:15–17)
5. the current world structures (cf. 7:29–31; Gal. 6:14, similar to Phil. 3:4–9, where Paul describes Jewish structures)
In some ways these overlap and it is hard to categorize every usage. This term, like so many in Paul’s thought, must be defined by the immediate context and not a pre-set definition. Paul’s terminology was fluid (cf. James Stewart’s A Man in Christ). He was not attempting to set up a systematic theology, but proclaim Christ. He changes everything!
© “to save sinners” This is the purpose of Christ’s coming (cf. Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10; 1 John 2:2). Also it shows the basic tenet of the gospel concerning fallen humanity’s need for grace (cf. Rom. 3:9–18, 23; 6:23).
© “I am foremost” The greater the light, the greater the consciousness of sin (cf. v. 16; 1 Cor. 15:9; Eph. 3:8). Paul felt guilty over his persecution of the church (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:1; 9:1–2; 22:4, 19–20; 26:10–11), but felt empowered by God’s grace, love, and provision for sinners through Christ’s finished work (cf. v. 16).
15. Moreover, what holds for Paul holds for all saved sinners. Hence, there is first the statement of a truth applicable to all sinners whom Christ came to save. This is followed immediately by a clause of personal appropriation. Reliable (is) the saying, and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save, foremost of whom am I.
Paul’s saying with respect to the glorious purpose of Christ’s first coming, this is the theme of the marvelous declaration which may be regarded as the very core of the gospel, its sum and substance. (It is comparable to John 3:16, on which see N.T.C.).
The saying is viewed from three aspects: 1. its reliability, 2. its contents, and 3. its personal appropriation.
- Its reliability
Simple and great, like a granite rock, stands the word reliable, at the head of the sentence, without any connecting particle. It indicates that the proposition which it introduces has sustained the very crucial, fiery test of experience. It is not a mere formula but a considered judgment. It has been passed from mouth to mouth, as such sayings have the habit of doing, and, having embedded itself in the heart of the Christian community, where all the fears, hopes, struggles, and joys of these early Christians played around it, has survived gloriously. It has, in fact, become a sparkling epigram, a pithy, current commonplace, demanding and receiving the immediate, spontaneous, and enthusiastic assent and endorsement of all believers who hear it. The saying is the testimony of Christian experience, and is now also the utterance of the Holy Spirit.
The Pastorals contain five of these reliable sayings: 1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:8, 9; 2 Tim. 2:11–13; Titus 3:4–8. Although the clause, “Reliable is the saying,” occurs only in these five passages of the Pastorals, and exactly in that form nowhere in the other ten epistles, this does not give anyone the right to conclude that Paul cannot have written the Pastorals. Surely no reason can be shown why the one who wrote, “Reliable (is) God,” (1 Cor. 1:9) and “Reliable (is) the One who calls you,” (1 Thess. 5:24) could not have written the grammatically exactly similar statement, “Reliable (is) the saying.”
The famous saying, having been subjected to the flames of persecution and ridicule of Satan, had emerged from this crucible more sparkling and glorious than ever. Though not even four decades had elapsed since the death of the Savior, it had become even at this early date an unshakable conviction, “worthy of full acceptance,” that is, entitled to wholehearted and universal personal appropriation with no reservations of any kind (or as we say colloquially “with no strings attached”).
- Its contents
The saying is, “That Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save.” Something should be said, first, about the form of this statement; then, about its meaning.
As to the form, it is asserted by several commentators that the saying is distinctly Johannine, since only John speaks of the Savior as “coming into the world.” Some, even among those who regard Paul as the author of the Pastorals, proceed farther, and do not hesitate to connect this Johannine character of the language with the fact that the destination of 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy was Ephesus (where Timothy was carrying on his work as Paul’s special envoy), the very headquarters of John! Accordingly, it is maintained that Timothy and the membership of the Ephesian church (on the assumption that the epistle was also read to the church), having become used to John’s style, through his labors in their city, would appreciate such phraseology more than would believers who lived elsewhere.
However, this representation is open to the following objections:
- The name “Christ Jesus” is Pauline rather than Johannine (it is never found in John’s writings, often in Paul’s).
- It would seem altogether probable that the apostle John did not reach Ephesus until after Paul’s death, hence also after the date of composition of 1 Timothy. The fact that Peter had received his “inheritance” in the heavens, and Paul his “crown” may have induced John to take charge of the orphan churches of Asia Minor. When we surmise that John reached Ephesus in the year 67 or 68, we cannot be far amiss (see also N.T.C. on John, vol. I, p. 29). But Paul wrote 1 Timothy in the year 63 or 64!
- To a considerable extent the phraseology is, indeed, Johannine, but only in this sense that John has preserved and transmitted it. He did not coin it! It was Jesus himself who, according to the Fourth Gospel, again and again referred to himself as having “come into the world” (John 3:19; 9:39; 12:46; 16:28; 18:37). His earliest disciples learned it from him and copied it. Hence, it is not surprising that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” began to use it (John 1:11); and so did others, for example, Martha (John 11:27). Accordingly, here in 1 Tim. 1:15 Paul is simply making use of the Savior’s own way of speaking about himself, and is employing language which, having been adopted from his lips by the earliest disciples, had been spread far and wide. It is only natural—in view, for example, of the close contact between Jerusalem and Ephesus, and of the “scattering” of the disciples due to persecution—that the saying had also reached Ephesus. And in this connection it is not at all improbable that the great apostle John, before leaving Palestine, had contributed his share toward perpetuating it.
As to the meaning of the expression, the combination “Christ Jesus” has already been explained (see N.T.C. on 1 Thess. 1:1, and footnote in the present Commentary). The fact that this divinely anointed Savior “came into the world” indicates not merely a change of location, a “descent” from one place to another (from heaven to earth), but a change of state and of moral and spiritual environment. Hence, it implies the supreme sacrifice, the climax of condescending grace. From the infinite sweep of eternal delight in the very presence of his Father, Christ was willing to descend deeper and deeper into the realm of sin and misery. (The “coming into the world” includes incarnation, suffering, death.) In the original the word sinners immediately follows the word world; hence, not as most versions have it, “… came into the world to save sinners,” but “… came into the world sinners to save.” The juxtaposition of world and sinners shows that world is an ethical concept. For the meaning of world see also N.T.C. on John 1:10, 11, including footnote 26. The Lord of glory, so pure and holy that before his presence even the most consecrated men fall down as though dead (Rev. 1:17; cf. Is. 6:1–5), voluntarily entered the sphere to which he does not seem to belong, namely, the sphere in which the curse reigns. The reason for his entrance into this realm of sin is given in the words “sinners to save.” This shows that the paradoxical coming was, after all, fully justified and gloriously motivated.
It took a former Pharisee to pour full and terrible meaning into that word sinners. As Pharisees saw it, even to eat with sinners was scandalous (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 15:1, 2). With a sinner a prophet was not supposed to have any dealings (Luke 7:39). When the Pharisees wanted to heap insults upon Jesus, they would call him “a glutton, a drinker, a friend of (tax-collectors and) sinners” (Luke 7:34). They divided mankind into two groups: “the righteous,” which was tantamount to saying, “ourselves,” and “sinners,” that is, “everybody else,” “the riffraff,” “the scum,” “the people of the soil,” “those who do not know the law.” The Holy Spirit through Paul takes this opprobrious epithet “sinners,” and applies it to all persons who are brought under conviction through the proper use of God’s law. For them, for them alone, Christ Jesus came (Matt. 9:13; Luke 15:7; 19:10):
“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and power;
He is able, He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more;
He is able, He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more.
“Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Bruised and mangled by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all;
Not the righteous, not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.
Not the righteous, not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.”
If those in Ephesus who were using the law unlawfully were ever going to be saved, they would have to experience a fundamental change. These “righteous” persons would have to become “sinners” before God. Thus it is seen that verse 15 stands in close connection with everything that precedes (not only with verses 12–14 but also with verses 3–11).
It was to save sinners that Christ Jesus came into the world. He did not come to help them save themselves, nor to induce them to save themselves, nor even to enable them to save themselves. He came to save them!
In Paul’s writings the expression to save means:
|to rescue men from sin’s:
|to bring men into the state of:
|a guilt (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14)
b slavery (Rom. 7:24, 25; Gal. 5:1) and
|a righteousness (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:1)
b freedom (Gal. 5:1; 2 Cor. 3:17) and
|(1) alienation from God (Eph. 2:12)
(2) the wrath of God (Eph. 2:3)
(3) everlasting death (Eph. 2:5, 6)
|(1) fellowship with God (Eph. 2:13)
(2) the love of God “shed abroad” in the heart (Rom. 5:5)
(3) everlasting life (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 3:1–4).
Note that over against each evil stands a corresponding blessing. To be saved, then, means to be emancipated from the greatest evil, and to be placed in possession of the greatest good. The state of salvation is opposed to the state of “perishing” or being “lost.” Cf. Luke 19:10; John 3:16.
- Its personal appropriation
“… Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save, foremost of whom am I.” This final clause (beginning with the word “foremost”) has caused a wider variety of interpretation than almost any other in Paul’s writings. The difficulty is this: it does not seem right that one who himself declares that before his conversion to the Christian faith he had lived according to the strictest sect of his religion as a Pharisee (Acts 26:5), should now call himself “chief of sinners.” For various interpretations which I reject, and the reasons why I reject them, see the footnote.
Complete objectivity in exegesis demands that we state that the immediate context would seem to leave room for only one explanation, and that this explanation is the very one which the ordinary student of Scripture in reading his Bible, in quiet meditation, and also in song, generally gives to it. When the apostle, his heart troubled by the vivid recollection of the gruesome deeds of the past, gives written expression to the deeply rooted conviction and the poignant sorrow of his inner soul, and states, “Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save, foremost of whom am I,” he must have meant, “Of all sinners whom Christ Jesus came into the world to save, I am the greatest.”
In fact, he not only states but emphasizes that no one else than he himself is “the chief of sinners.” In the original he reserves for the first personal pronoun singular a place at the very end of the clause. I can see no good reason for radically changing this word-order. The translation should be, “of whom foremost am I,” or “foremost of whom am I.” Paul fixes the attention upon himself as a clear illustration of the depth of human sin, in order that in verse 16 he may return to that wonderful theme on which he has just dwelt (see verses 12–14), namely, the exaltation of the power of divine grace, mercy and longsuffering.
This interpretation of the disputed clause not only suits the context but is also in line with what Paul says about himself elsewhere:
“For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9).
“To me, the very least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
In both these cases, just as here in 1 Tim. 1:15, the apostle is making a comparison between himself and other people whom Christ came to save (whether they were destined to become apostles or believers not clothed with any special office), and he makes the humble confession that he is the least of all saints, the foremost (or “chief”) of sinners whom Christ came to save.
Taken in that sense and as a description of what Paul felt, the words of the familiar hymn are entirely correct:
“Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed his blood for me;
Died that I might live on high;
Lives that I may never die.”
That the apostle, who certainly knew his own past, was able in all sincerity to describe himself as being “of sinners foremost” is less difficult to grasp if the following facts are borne in mind:
When, years before this, Paul for the first time heard the good tidings of salvation in Christ, he disbelieved. This disbelief he shared with many. Had his attitude to the Christian faith remained on this level, namely, one of unbelief, he would probably never have called himself, “of sinners foremost.” However, he became a persecutor, and not only “a” persecutor but the most bitter persecutor of all! His entire soul was wrapped up in the work of annihilating the church. He breathed threats and slaughter (Acts 9:1). Ruthlessly he bound and imprisoned both men and women. He did not confine his efforts to Jerusalem but was bent on uprooting the new religion wherever it was found, even if this would necessitate a trip all the way to Damascus. He was busy persecuting God’s people “unto death,” as he himself subsequently declared (Acts 22:4, 5). Had his plan succeeded, the church would have been smothered in its very birth; God’s eternal decree would have been annulled; and Satan would have triumphed. Indeed, so very great was his sin that, had it not been done in ignorance (see on verse 13), it would have been unpardonable. Accordingly, when the apostle now says, “… sinners to save, foremost of whom am I,” we must not begin to attenuate the meaning of “foremost.” We should permit this glorious confession to stand within its own context, without either adding to it or subtracting anything from it.
Paul writes “am I,” not “was I.” This indicates that even now, years after his conversion, he deeply regrets his past. Besides, even a fully pardoned sinner is a sinner.
1:15. Paul declared, Here is a trustworthy saying. “Pay attention!” he told them, because what he would now write was true, beyond debate. It carried the same force as Jesus’ declaration, “I tell you.”
And what was this undeniable truth? Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That was the point of his incarnation. Before Jesus was born, his mission was announced: You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He proclaimed his own intentions, stating, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). And that truth had been sounded by the apostolic witness: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Many people refuse to believe the truth that they are sinners. It is too hard to admit. They cannot admit that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23)—including them.
Paul pointed to his own experience as he spoke of sinners, claiming of whom I am the worst.
Paul could go back in his mind and point to his religiosity: “a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee … as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phil. 3:5–6). Even so, despite admirable efforts, Paul knew his own heart and mind, his selfishness, his motives, and recognized that nothing he could do would satisfy the holiness of God. He was a sinner in need of grace.
It is the place each person must come to, an admission that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (pp. 32–33). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Köstenberger, A. (2006). 1 Timothy. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 506–507). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Towner, P. H. (2006). The Letters to Timothy and Titus (p. 143). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Fee, G. D. (2011). 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (pp. 52–54). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Barcley, W. B. (2005). A Study Commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy (pp. 65–67). Darlington, England; Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). 1 Timothy (p. 5). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (pp. 38–41). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Guthrie, D. (1990). Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 14, pp. 78–79). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Exell, J. S. (n.d.). The Biblical Illustrator: First Timothy (pp. 48–71). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.
 Utley, R. J. (2000). Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey: I Timothy, Titus, II Timothy (Vol. Volume 9, p. 18). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 4, pp. 75–82). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Larson, K. (2000). I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Vol. 9, p. 151). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.