The Chief of Sinners Saved
“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. 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. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” —1 Timothy 1:12-17
There is tremendous power in Christian testimony. All who are saved are not called to be preachers; all do not have the gift of teaching. But all who have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ ought to have something to say about the great change that comes into the life when Christ is received as Saviour and owned as Lord. The Apostle Peter tells us we ought to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). We may not know very much about theology; we may not be very familiar with the deeper Christian doctrines, but if we have definitely trusted Christ then we ought to be able to say with the one-time blind man of John 9, “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” (verse 25). We were blind before we saw the Saviour, but when He revealed Himself to us His glory shone through those darkened lids of the eyes of our souls and lighted them forever.
I know there are some people who are inclined to discount Christian testimonies; they do not seem to enjoy meetings in which people come together to tell what the Lord has done for them. But it seems to me that the way the Lord uses testimonies in the New Testament ought to be a rebuke to them. Take, for instance, the case of Saul who became the Apostle Paul, the writer of this letter to Timothy. We have the story of his conversion at least six times in the New Testament. In Acts 9 we have the historical account of this great event; in Acts 22 we find him telling about it to his Jewish brethren on the steps of the fortress by the temple in Jerusalem; in Acts 26 we hear him relating his experiences again before the Roman governor Festus, King Agrippa, and his consort, Bernice; then in the Epistle to the Galatians, chapters 1 and 2, Paul goes over the wondrous story once more, and he tells how he, the one-time enemy of the cross of Christ, reached the place where God revealed His Son in him. In Philippians 3 we have his testimony repeated. He tells us of his religion before he saw the Lord; and how afterward, because of that marvelous vision of Christ in glory, he was able to say: “but what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8). Then here in the first Epistle to Timothy, in this opening chapter, he says, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, an a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.”
There are many people who profess to be Christians who do not have any conversion story to tell. Of course I recognize the fact that some came to Christ early in life, as mere children; and they have but a hazy recollection, if any remembrance at all, of what took place at the time. We are not to doubt their conversions because they cannot give a clear account of them. The Lord Jesus said to adults, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Children are ideal subjects of the kingdom. It is wonderful to win the children to Christ before they come to know anything of the wickedness and corruption of this world. I know some people sneer at child conversion, but it is a great thing to save the children. An evangelist had spoken on several occasions in a particular church. On one occasion he met some friends after the meeting, and one asked, “Any results from your message tonight?” The evangelist said, “yes, three and one-half converts.” The friend said, “You mean there were three adults and one child.” “No;” replied the evangelist, “there were three children and one adult.” The three children have their whole lives before them, but the adult has lived half his life and has only a fraction left. That is the reason the evangelist said “Three and one-half converts.” That ought to be a word of encouragement to all Sunday School teachers and young people’s workers to sow the seed in the hearts of boys and girls. Remember it is the incorruptible seed, and you can count on it to spring forth into life.
If people have passed through the years of childhood and come up to youth or maturity without accepting Christ, and then at last are convicted by the Spirit of God of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and they turn to the Lord and trust Him as Saviour, they ought to have a very definite story of conversion to tell. They should certainly know this: that they were lost sinners; they were helpless; they were unable to save themselves, and then they heard the voice of Jesus bidding them come to Him, and they came in all their sin and guilt; they trusted Him, and He saved them; they ought to know the reality of the new birth.
The apostle said, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me.” Stop there for a moment. “Enabled me!” How many people there are, when you speak to them of the importance of coming to Christ, who will say, “Yes, I would like to become a Christian, but I am afraid I would not be strong enough to live the Christian life, and I do not want to make a profession and break down, and thus bring dishonor on the name of the Lord.” If it depended upon us, we certainly would break down. But when we once trusted Christ as our Saviour the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, to be the power of the new life; it is He who enables us to live for God and serve Him as we seek to make His Gospel known to others. It was this over which Paul rejoiced. “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry.” Do not misunderstand the expression “counted me faithful.” Saul of Tarsus had been unfaithful. The word for “faithful” is the same as “believing.” “He counted me to be a believer.” And whenever anyone believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, God saves him. And He saves us in order that we may serve Him.
Paul says, “He counted me to be a believer, putting me into the ministry.” That is the only way one ever becomes a true minister of Christ. He must be put into the ministry by the Lord Himself. There are some men who have become ministers simply by solicitation or advice of friends or relatives. Others have entered the ministry, as it is called, because of worldly ambition. They think of it as one of the learned professions where there is an opportunity to give one’s self to the study of social problems, religious theories, and other questions. Again, others are moved by a real compassion for the souls of men; and they endeavor to qualify as pastors and leaders in Christian work, in order to carry out humanitarian plans for the alleviation of the miseries of underprivileged people. Some of these motives are good and some are not. But it is not in any of these ways that God makes ministers. He takes men up in mercy, saves them by His grace, and puts into their hearts a burning desire to make Christ known to the world. That is what He did for Saul of Tarsus. When God makes a man a minister, His word is as fire in his soul, and he can say, “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.”
“Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” Paul never could forgive himself for this in after years. He says in one place (1 Corinthians 15:9), “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.” And again, we read in Acts 22:20, “And when the blood of Thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him.” Paul looked back with horror upon those years. He was intensely sincere at the time. A man can be very sincere in wrong things. “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them” (Acts 26:9-10). God in grace saved him and all that was put away, but Paul never forgave himself to the day of his death for the part he had in persecuting the Church of God. He says, “I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” The poet was right when he wrote:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
“For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.”
Saul of Tarsus was persecuting the Church of God, but at the same time the heart of God was going out toward him until the time when His grace should be revealed to him, and Saul the persecutor should be changed into Paul the Ambassador of Christ. God had mercy on him because he acted in ignorance. He was sure that Christianity was all wrong. He did not understand until the day when he caught sight of the risen Christ in glory. “And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” Immediately after his conversion he began preaching Christ. “And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this Name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?” (Acts 9:20-21). It was grace that so mightily changed Saul: grace broke him down on the Damascus road; grace brought Ananias to him to give him a special message, showing how gladly the Church of God would receive him when he put his trust in the Saviour; grace empowered him to go forth and preach the Gospel. The man who goes forth to preach Christ must go in faith and love: faith in the One who lives to save; love for the souls of men. There are many professional ministers today, but a mere professional preacher is an abomination in the sight of God. The servants of God must be motivated by the love of Christ. That was what characterized Paul.
Now we get that wonderful declaration that has been repeated so often by Gospel preachers: “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.” Many have the idea that Christ came to save good people, but He tells us, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13). Listen to me: If you can prove that you are not a sinner, then I can prove from this Word that Jesus did not come to save you. “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12). He is the Great Physician, healing sin-sick souls. If you have never come to Him, will you not come today and prove the reality of His saving power? Do not fear that you are too great a sinner. “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.” The chief of sinners has been saved already; so you can only trail along behind. He who described himself as the chief is now in the glory. Therefore you need not fear that you are too bad for Christ.
Listen to the apostle’s confession, “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.” “I obtained mercy.” We do not receive salvation because we deserve it, “but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). “I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.” I get two things from that last clause: Paul says “The Lord saved me as a pattern.” Paul is a pattern to all future believers; he, the chief sinner, was saved by divine grace. Then I think Paul had this also in mind: He was saved by a revelation of Christ from heaven. Some day his own people Israel are going to have a wonderful revelation of Christ from heaven, and then they, as a nation, will turn to Him. So I believe Paul had Israel in mind when he said that he was a pattern “to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.”
He closes this section with a wonderful doxology. His heart is filled with worship and praise, and he bursts forth in these words, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal (incorruptible), invisible (Deity is invisible to the human eye), the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” This is the grateful expression of worship that rises from the heart of the saved sinner. It tells of a soul exulting in the matchless wonder of redeeming love.