Living in the so-called “Bible Belt” of the United States for several years now, I am accustomed to the large lighted signs churches there use to draw attention to their services. Some signs even offer a concise message—a saying—to prod thought and promote faith. One church sign I saw stated, “Satan Subtracts and Divides, God Adds and Multiplies.” Another sign warned, “Forbidden Fruit Creates Many Jams.” Another sign promised, “God Answers Knee- Mail.” Still another sign advised: “Read the Bible: Prevent Truth Decay.”1 What a worthy message when so many unbiblical notions are widely voiced and steadily promoted in our syncretistic and religiously muddled society. Our textual passage, 1 Timothy 1:12–17, shares a saying first century Christians joyously voiced as they worshiped, and it was their word of witness as they evangelized. Paul has preserved that saying here, and he commended it as “sure and worthy of full acceptance … Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (v. 15).2
We are all familiar with” sayings,” those maxims that hold true-to-life insights gained by human trial and error, wisdom from life below shared and taught to guide our behavior. But the saying in our text is no trial-and-error truth, it is a revealed truth that God disclosed “from above.” Remember the angel’s informing word to Joseph: ” ‘[Your wife Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ ” (Matt.1:21).2 And remember what Jesus said about Himself to Zacchaeus, ” ‘The Son of man came to seek out and to save the lost’ ” (Luke 19:10).2 Yes, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
The prophet Isaiah said this about humans: “All we like sheep have gone astray; / we have turned every one to his own way” (53:6a).2 The result has been lostness and many fated ills.
The salvation Jesus offers rescues us from two life-threatening realities. The one reality is God’s wrath, His indignant anger against sin. Sin angers God because it violates God’s righteous will and spurns God’s wisdom, causing sad consequences to result. Some of those consequences are sad here-and-now outcomes from selfish choices, happenings for which we have sayings such as “You reap what you sow” and “No one can do wrong and get by.” There is always a connection between sinful choices and sad outcomes, between sowing and reaping, between disobedient actions and inevitable disorder. But God’s wrath includes more than sad here-and-now consequences. A life of sinning invites eternal consequences as well, consequences the Bible refers to as “the wrath to come.” Jesus warned that ” ‘he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him’ ” (John 3:36).2 Jesus came into the world to save us, not only from the wrath of God, but also from the waywardness which makes one deserve that wrath. I speak of “waywardness” because that word best describes the conditioning selfishness induces in us, and that word embraces the gamut of deliberate human failures. Waywardness involves wrongdoing, and Scripture has explained that “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17).2 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners from God’s wrath and from the waywardness that makes one merit the effects of that wrath.
The Testimony of Paul
The textual passage reports Paul’s testimony about how he came to experience that salvation. Four words stand out boldly in his testimony about what issued from Christ to change his life and destiny: mercy, grace, faith, and love.
Like every other human, Paul had a sinful past that needed to be remedied and he had a flawed personality that needed to be corrected and harnessed. He was well-educated. He was highly gifted. He was a tough minded person whose tremendous energy and personal forcefulness had made him noticed and valued. He had dedicated himself to the service of a religious system, and he was doing well by its standards. But although well-educated, highly gifted, tough-minded, personally forceful, and intensely religious, Paul was a sinner who needed to be saved from his sins and from himself.
Paul tells us in this passage how that needed change in his life took place. Looking back on his life before conversion, and remembering what he had slanderously spoken against Jesus, Paul confessed: “I was formerly a blasphemer.” Remembering how he had zealously sought out and arrested followers of Jesus, he admitted: “I was a persecutor.” Remembering how he had ordered the torture of Christians, and the undeserved death of Stephen, which he directed, Paul lamented: “I was a man of violence.” Paul had been a religious zealot, an eager enthusiast for the system, but sinfully wrong because in it all, he was opposing the Son of God.
Although years beyond the past he mentioned here, and despite the incredibly active and fruitful life he had lived since experiencing conversion, Paul still felt a stinging shame from that past, a shame so deep that he considered himself “the chief of sinners.” So deeply did Paul lament his past, that even the Lord’s honoring summons to be one of His apostles did not make him feel worthy. “I am the least of the apostles,” he told the Corinthians, “unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (I Cor. 15:9).2 But what he lamented about his past was all in the past. Jesus Christ had saved him from his sins and had harnessed his selfhood for right living. He was busy witnessing across the Roman Empire world about Jesus as Saviour, and was making what became an indelible imprint on Christian life and thought.
Twice in his testimony Paul stated “I received mercy.” He mentions this first in verse 13 of 1 Timothy 1, concerned to explain how, despite his past, he had been divinely appointed to serve Jesus. Due to God’s mercy, the magnitude of Paul’s sinfulness as a blasphemer, persecutor, and man of violence had been matched by the grace and faith and love found in Christ Jesus. As for that “grace,” Paul spoke of it as an abundant quantity of favor sent in his direction, a gift Jesus Christ personally addressed to him: “The grace of our Lord overflowed for me” (v. 14).2
I do not want to come across as pedantic or bookish at this point, but the Greek term translated here as “overflowed” (huperpleonazo) is so pictorial—and was so personal to Paul—that I must say something more about it. It is a compound term that means “to be plentiful, great in quantity, to be in surplus.” Paul himself coined that term in seeking to express adequately what he had experienced of God’s grace: he took pleon, a comparative that means “more, greater in quantity,” and added the prefix huper, which means “over, above,” to express the notion of superabundance. If used with reference to pouring liquid into a vessel, or to a river at spate, the word means “to run over, to be in such abundance as to overflow.” That is the way Paul understood God’s grace, and that is actually the way God’s grace operates: it is sufficient, it is efficient, and it is abundant. God’s favor toward us is always offered in an abundant measure, and that favor is always more than a match for all aspects and stages of our human condition. The songwriter expressed it well: “Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace, freely bestowed on all who believe!”
“I received mercy,” Paul further explained, “that in me, as the foremost [among sinners], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (v.16).2 These are the words of a graceclaimed person. This is the testimony of a Christ-claimed life. This is the witness of one who had experienced what salvation does, and this remains an exultant message about what salvation means and how it can happen for all others.
Saving people, changing lives, is what Jesus came into the world to do. He saves from the wrath of God, and He saves from the waywardness that makes one worthy of that wrath. By saving us, Jesus gathers us into His purposed life, renews us, and sets us on the right path. It is all motivated by His mercy, grace, faith, and love.
O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
Spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loves us, ever loves us, Changes never, never-more!
How He watches o’er His loved ones,
Died to call [us] all His own;
How for [us] He intercedeth,
Watching o’er [us] from the throne!3
Those who have experienced such mercy, love, and grace, will readily understand why Paul broke into praise as he concluded his testimony to Timothy about his conversion and call to service: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (v. 17).2 Sinners order their own lives and understandably lament their fate, singing the blues, but the saved offer praise, grateful for a gracious Saviour. And they let their gratitude show in how they live.
The Testimony of Others
The psalmist exhorted his fellow worshipers: “Let the redeemed of the LORD say so” (Ps. 107:2a).2 George Fox, the Quaker leader, understood that injunction to involve much more than speech, so he advised: “Let Your Lives Speak.”4 That is no simple deed, nor a spasmodic event; it is the business of a lifetime. It is the necessary and lifelong business of everyone who, like Paul, has been forgiven and knows Christ as the saving change-agent that He is.
The legendary Fanny J. Crosby knew something about the “faith and love that are in Christ Jesus,” and she said so in the many poems she wrote that became gospel songs. Through those songs, her name became prominent in late nineteenth century urban revivalism. Although blind from eight weeks of age, when her eyes suffered maltreatment during a spell of sickness, Fanny Crosby nevertheless grew up equipped with spiritual insight, and she let her life steadily speak for Jesus. She considered her poems and hymns about salvation as the great work of her life. Thank God for her witness the next time you sing “Saved by Grace,” or when you rejoicingly sing “Blessed Assurance,” or when you prayerfully sing “Saviour, More Than Life to Me.” Thank God for her witness when you sing the exultant lines of “To God Be the Glory,” or the invitational lines of “Praise Him! Praise Him!” or utter the plaintive prayer “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” These are all songs of simplicity and emotional warmth, but behind them was not only a concern to state and shape what any worshiper could readily use, but also a heart afire with gratitude for grace. As one redeemed, like Paul, Fanny J. Crosby had ready words about her Saviour.
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Like Paul and the many others who have borne witness to this truth, I conclude this message by sharing my witness to it. Having experienced the mercy, grace, faith, and love that Jesus offers, I, too, know what it means to be saved:
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary, and worn, and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.5
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and He still does! Spreading this word is the central issue in preaching, and gaining its acceptance is every true preacher’s major concern. Let us never forget that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, KJV). With the apostle Paul, I gladly and gratefully thank “him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to [this] service” (1 Tim. 1:12).2 And I am ready—anytime, anywhere, and here and now—to tell everyone:
I know a great Saviour, I do; don’t you?
I live by His favor, I do; don’t you?
For grace I implore Him, I worship before Him,
I love and adore Him, I do; don’t you?
I need Him to lead me, I do; don’t you?
Heav’n’s manna to feed me, I do; don’t you?
Whatever betide me, I need Him beside me,
In mercy to hide me, I do; don’t you?
I want Him to use me, I do; don’t you?
For service to choose me, I do; don’t you?
I want Him to bless me, To own and confess me,
Completely possess me, I do; don’t you?6
Editor’s note: Each year Ministry sponsors the Ministry Professional Growth Seminar, a live satellite broadcast. This is an adaptation of a sermon delivered during a previous broadcast. This issue of the journal will be distributed at many downlink sites that will participate in the April 21, 2009 satellite broadcast.
1 See Markeshia Ricks, “Divine Signs,” Tuscalossa News, Saturday, April 2, 2005, section D.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Revised Standard Version.
3 Samuel T. Francis, “0 the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” no. 238, Worship the Lord: Hymnal of the Church of God (Anderson: Warner Press, Inc., 1989).
4 See Margaret Hope Bacon, Let This Life Speak: The Legacy of Henry Joel Cadbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 218.
5 Horatius Bonar, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” no. 414, The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Waco, TX: Word Music, 1986).
6 Melville W. Miller and E. O. Excell, “I Do, Don’t You?” no. 17, Gospel Pearls (Nashville: Sunday School Publishing Board, National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., 1921).