READ : 1 Timothy 1:12-17
The world has plenty of human religious teachers and moral exemplars to learn from and imitate. We don’t need Jesus Christ to be just another one of those. We need him to be a Savior. It’s the reason why he came.
I think everyone is looking for a truth or the truth or some truth that is solid, dependable, and trustworthy. Whether it’s a system of belief, or a religious faith, or a political program, or even simply a new diet, we want to know whether or not we can rely on what it claims to be able to do. For most people today the ultimate validation of truth claims comes from science. Have you ever noticed how often appeals are made to “experts in the field,” or how many times a statement is buttressed by the claim, “the latest research shows . . .”?
But scientists disagree with one another; experts can be wrong. There’s really only one source of absolute truth, truth we can always depend upon. And that is the Bible, the Word of God, God’s own revelation of ultimate truth and reality. Christians believe that the entire Bible is God’s Word, inspired by his Spirit and unerringly true in everything it teaches. But there is a wonderful series of statements scattered throughout the New Testament letters we call “the pastoral epistles” that invite our special attention. Each one (and there are five of them) is introduced with the same phrase: “the saying is trustworthy, and deserving of full acceptance.”
When the apostle Paul introduces these “trustworthy sayings,” what he writes literally in the Greek language is the phrase, “faithful is the word.” This word comes from God and it is dependable and reliable. It is utterly true. “What I’m now about to tell you,” Paul is saying to his readers “is utterly dependable. It’s not just true; it’s not simply a piece of factual information. You can stake your life on it!”
Here’s the first of these faithful sayings. It comes in the middle of a passage from the first letter of Paul to Timothy, chapter 1:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
1 Timothy 1:12-17, English Standard Version (esv)
A Truth about God
Here it is, something you can count on. “The saying is trustworthy, and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” It’s a fine statement, and on the surface it sounds quite simple. It tells us a basic truth about Christ. It answers the question of why he came into the world; Christ came to save sinners. We’ve heard it a thousand times.
But let’s think about that statement just a little more deeply. When I stop to do that, I notice in the first place that this is a rather unusual thing to say about a person, that he “came into the world” in order to do something. Now it’s true that you and I came into the world in the sense that we were born, but we really didn’t have much to say about that or to do with it. Nor could we claim to have had a purpose in mind for our coming. But Jesus isn’t like us. He was not born into the world in the usual way.
When the Apostle says that Christ came into the world, he is reminding us of all the deep mysteries of the godhead. He’s pointing to the deity and pre-existence of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was and is the Son of God, the Lord who did not consider his equality with God a thing to be clung to. As Paul said in Philippians, he laid aside his divine glory and humbled himself, taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5ff.).
Christ decided to come into the world. He had a choice in the matter. We don’t. But everything he did was strictly speaking voluntary.
And think as well about the purpose of his coming. Why did Jesus enter our world and assume our flesh and blood? What he did demands an explanation.
This is a striking thing for someone who is God to do, even a shocking thing. Our fallen world, as we well know, can be a very unpleasant place. It is not God’s natural habitat. So why would Christ choose to come here? Why did God become a man?
Was it to prove his love for us, to show how much he cared for us, how willing he was to identify with his own creatures? Yes. Was it to teach us most clearly what he is really like, by putting a human face, a human body, human words and actions on God? Yes again. Was it to set us an example, to show us what an authentic human life really looked like? That too. But most of all, Paul says, he came to save us.
An example can’t save us. It can only show us how far we fall short. A teacher can’t save us; he can only point us toward the truth. Only a savior can save us, and that is what Jesus Christ supremely is and that is what he supremely does.
The gospel, somebody has said, is not good advice; it is good news. And the good news is that Christ saves sinners who cannot save themselves. If we could have done that, he needn’t have come. For God to have taken human nature upon himself and to have lived a perfect life and died a sacrificial death just to inspire us or set us a good example simply doesn’t make sense. That’s like using a Rolls-Royce on a rural delivery route; it’s too much car for the job. The world has plenty of human religious teachers and moral exemplars to learn from and imitate. We don’t need Jesus Christ to be just another one of those. We need him to be a Savior. It’s the reason why he came.
A Truth about us
But if this trustworthy saying reveals to us a fundamental truth about Jesus Christ and the meaning of his coming into our world and his dying on the cross, it also has something to say about us. The truth that it reveals to us about ourselves is summed up in that one word “sinners.” What comes to your mind when you hear that word? Do you picture to yourself some sort of horrible person a genocidal dictator, say, or a brutal mass murderer? Whatever example comes to your mind, I would hazard a guess that it is the image of someone very different from yourself. But the picture that came into the apostle Paul’s mind was the person he saw in the mirror each morning.
Listen to what Paul adds at the end of his trustworthy saying: “Here is a trustworthy saying . . . Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners (Paul says it again), Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
Paul, the worst of sinners? But he was a good man to all appearances. He was moral, law-abiding, highly respected, intelligent, self-controlled, and religious, especially religious. He was also, according to his own testimony, “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of God and of the people of God. He was the worst of sinners. “But I received mercy,” Paul is quick to add, “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (v. 14)
“Amazing grace!” Many centuries later, another great sinner and preacher would describe himself in Pauline-like words: “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.” And just like Paul, Newton too only wanted to sing about the amazing grace that had saved him and changed his life and destiny forever.
So the question comes to each of us. Do you see yourself in this word “sinner?” Or only the reflection of others? If it is true that Christ came into the world to save sinners, then, of course, it is also true that only sinners can be saved by him. And if you refuse to include yourself in that category, then he really doesn’t have anything for you, and you have nothing to do with him. But here’s some good news. If you know yourself to be a sinner in need of God’s amazing grace, then this is a trustworthy saying and you ought to accept it: Jesus Christ is for you. He came to save you.