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.
 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.
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