“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.”
1Timothy 1:15 ESV
I’ve always found this statement, made by the apostle Paul, to be fascinating. I’ve found it fascinating because, in our minds, the statement being made and the identity of the one making it seem like a complete contradiction. It doesn’t seem that these words should be coming from his mouth.
We think this way because, after all, Paul is a saint. We read through the book of Acts and we see the great work he did for the Lord. We see how he carried the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, starting churches wherever he went. We see how he endured the persecution that resulted from his ministry. And history tells us that he went to his death, that he was beheaded, as a result of his service.
We also see that Paul wrote a huge portion of the New Testament. So his ministry impacted not only the early church, but the church of today. His teaching makes it clear to us what God has done for us and how we’re saved.
Because of this, we tend to think that the apostle Paul is much greater than the rest of us. We tend to think that he was a far better person. But, in the above passage, we see that this is not how he thought of himself.
Paul thought of himself as the foremost of sinners. In other words, he thought that he was more sinful than everyone else. And, while we might think he’s saying this to come off humble, this is far from the case.
In verses 12 and 13 of this chapter, Paul points out that, before he was saved, he was a blasphemer, persecutor, and an insolent opponent. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 he says that he is the least of the apostles, and doesn’t even deserve to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the church of God. And in Romans 7, we see that his struggle with sin was not something that existed only prior to his conversion. We see that, even after he was saved, he wrestled with his sinful nature each and every day.
Paul genuinely thought of himself as the greatest of sinners. And he believed that God showed him mercy as an example to those who were to believe in the Lord. He believed that he was an example of the patience of God.
In other words, if God could save someone like Paul, the foremost of sinners, then people could know that he’d save them as well. If God could display patience to someone like Paul, then people could know that God would also be patient with them.
This is something we often forget when it comes to our life and ministry. We often think that, if we’re to be used by God, if we’re to successfully share our faith, we have to appear holy. The problem with this is that, despite our best efforts, we continue to fail in great ways. So we make up for this by putting on a façade. We pretend to be better than we really are.
However, I believe we should take the mindset of Paul to heart. Although we should seek to serve the Lord faithfully, and although we should ask him to work in our heart that we might live obediently, we shouldn’t deny our failure. Instead, we should understand that, because of our failure, the grace of God is seen more clearly. We too should proclaim to the world that, if God could save a people like us, he can save them as well.
It isn’t hypocrisy to proclaim the gospel while we struggle with sin. After all, if we had no sin, there would be no purpose for the gospel. In the gospel we hear that Christ came into the world to save sinners. He came into the world to save a people like you and me.