The Chief of Sinners (1 Timothy 1:12-17)
Many years ago, I had a very close friend who had been an alcoholic at a very early age. His parents had split when he was a very young child, and he had a horrible time coping with his new reality.
Before this friend was even close to the legal drinking age, he had a horrible, horrible problem. He had done several weeks in a rehabilitation center and then attended AA meetings whenever he could. Finally, with the grace of God, this friend was able to overcome that addiction. He was dating the daughter of a missionary when we were in school, and this friend once confided in me that it was the first non-sexual relationship with a girl he’d had in many years.
But do you know what? He was one of the most strong and devout Christians I ever met. When I was struggling with sin, do you know to whom I went?
God was able to use this young man in amazing ways because he had been forgiven of so much.
What about you? Have you ever known someone whom God forgave of so many sins and that person became a beacon declaring what God can do with broken people? Have you ever sought spiritual help from such an individual? Is it the case that some of you fall in that category? I don’t know the background for all of you. It may be that you yourself committed some horrible and public sins, sins you wish no one else ever knew about.
Paul was certainly that way. In this passage, the Apostle to the Gentiles calls himself the chief of sinners. God, Paul says, poured out bountiful forgiveness on him. Paul thanks God that the great forgiveness he received could be an example to others. If a murderer, a blasphemer, and an insolent man could find forgiveness in Jesus’ blood, anybody can!
Paul demonstrates that there is no sin which God cannot forgive, and Peter demonstrated that truth at Pentecost. When the multitude, the same multitude Peter had condemned for killing the Messiah, asked what they should do, Peter told them to repent and be baptized. Instead of telling them that they had committed the most heinous crime in history and that they had no hope of forgiveness, Peter tells them how they can be saved. Paul demonstrates that same truth in this morning’s text.
In fact, Paul thanks God that a broken vessel can be used to glorify God. What if we, instead of just thanking God for our physical and spiritual blessings, what if we thanked Him for the example we can be to others?
Paul offers thanksgiving in this passage, not simply because he himself had been forgiven, but because God was able to use him as an example of His bountiful grace and mercy. What if we stopped focusing so much on self and allowed God to use our example to bring others to Jesus? This morning we’re going to think about this need: “Let God use your story.”
Scripture (1 Timothy 1:12-17)
Paul thanked Christ Jesus, for He had enabled the Apostle. Throughout Paul’s ministry, the Lord strengthened him. When Paul pleaded for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). 2 Timothy 4:16-18. Paul here says that Jesus gave him the strength to be put into the ministry.
Jesus counted Paul faithful and put him in the ministry.
Paul does not say that he was faithful when Jesus put him into the ministry; rather, Jesus counted him faithful. The Greek term for “counted” means to think or to esteem or to regard.
When I bought my car last week, Tammy and I filled out a bunch of credit papers. Did Toyota Credit know that I’d pay those payments we set up? No, but they counted me faithful. They believe I’ll make them.
That’s happening with Paul in this text. When Jesus put Paul into the ministry, the Lord had not seen one single act of faithfulness to the Lord. But He put Paul into the ministry. Obviously, Jesus knows heart and knows the future, but He still counted Paul faithful before any demonstration.
Jesus put Paul into the ministry. You do not want just anybody in the ministry. I have some friends who preach, but they wouldn’t know the truth if it knocked them on the head. Yet, Jesus put Paul into the ministry. Jesus saw in Paul a great deal of talent to be used for the cause of Christ
Paul was not at all a good person. He was a blasphemer—Jews condemned blasphemers to hell. He was a persecutor—He held the coats of those who murdered Stephen and was on his way to Damascus to murder disciples when Jesus called him. He was an “insolent man”—the idea is a violent, overbearing man; not someone you want to meet.
Paul received mercy, because he acted ignorantly in unbelief. In Judaism, ignorance did not excuse you, but it did lessen punishment. You know, however, that today ignorance is no excuse (Acts 17:30-31).
God’s grace was “exceedingly abundant”—With the sins Paul committed, he could only be saved by grace that was “exceedingly abundant.”
Paul makes mention of “faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” The faith Paul had in Jesus would lead to his salvation (Acts 16:31). Only because of God’s abundant love for us are we able to have salvation (Rom 5:8).
Christ came to save sinners: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk 19:10).
Paul calls himself the “chief” of sinners. Paul knows his own sinfulness. He described his sinfulness in Romans 7:14-25. Because Paul was brought face-to-face with his sinfulness, he was able to repent and to become a powerful apostle.
Sometimes we compare our sins with other people’s sins. We, like the Pharisee in Luke 18, believe we are better than other people. Paul knew that wasn’t true of himself; his sinfulness was repugnant to him—he knew he was the chief of sinners.
Paul received mercy that he might be an example of God’s longsuffering and patience.
In other words, if God could save Paul, with his long litany of sins, He can forgive you. That is the key idea of this sermon. Because Paul had committed such heinous sins and had been forgiven, God could use the apostle as a mighty example of the Lord’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
How might the Lord be able to use you as an example of his great mercy? You need to “Let God use your story.” Let’s think of how you can allow God to use your story.
One: You need to think about your story.
Paul knew what his story was. He had been a murderer, and God was able to use him.
Many in Scripture had horrible records, but God was able to use them. Moses was a murderer, but he led the people of Israel out of Egypt. David was an adulterer, a murderer, and a liar, but he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14). Peter was a coward whose backbone melted by the fire at the high priest’s home, but it was he who had the keys of the kingdom.
We live in a time where there is no sin. There is a slogan that well illustrates that point: “There are no mistakes in life, just lessons.” I’m all for learning from mistakes and sin, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is sin. Galatians 5:19-21: Don’t ignore the fact that those “works of the flesh” will keep you out of heaven. “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 Jn 3:4).
What sin has been in your life? Have you committed sins that you don’t want anyone else to know about? Have you struggled with sin in the past? Do you have sins in your life right now that you really need to put away from you?
Think long and hard about the sin in our life, either in the present or in the past. What sin do you see? Before you can allow God to use your story, you need to think about what your story really is.
Two: You need to be living in Christ.
Can you imagine how powerful Paul’s example would have been if he had not been living in Jesus? Is it not the case that the transformation in Paul’s life testified to the power of God’s grace?
A hallmark of a Christian believer is walking one way before conversion and walking another way after conversion. Paul illustrates that principle very well. Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus to kill Christians, and he encountered Jesus along the way. Saul comes to faith, he repents, he is baptized into Christ, and his whole life is different: “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). The man who had gone to Damascus to kill believers in the Christ began to preach that Jesus is the Christ.
Throughout Scripture, we have the idea of a radical transformation when we come to Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor 5:17). “We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
How different is your life? Have you made the transformation you need to make? Have you put on the new man? What do you show to the world? If you need help putting on that new man, please see me or one of our shepherds.
Three: You share your story.
In this passage, Paul is sharing his story with Timothy. I’m confident that in some way Timothy needed to hear this truth; I don’t believe that God wasted one word in the inspired text. I just don’t know whether Timothy was struggling with something or if he needed to share this truth with others.
I do, however, know that someone needs to hear your story. Someone somewhere is struggling with the same sin you were able to remove from you. Your story could inspire hope. Your story could help someone keep fighting. Your story could save a soul.
Scripture discusses helping people move closer to Jesus. Galatians 6:1-2. What better way of helping someone bear a burden than to show how God helped you overcome that same sin or struggle? “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thess 5:14).
How can you go about sharing your story?
Pray that God Himself will help connect you with someone who needs to hear your story.
Let your light shine.
As you model righteous behavior, others will be attracted to you.
Share with others what’s appropriate to share.
I think sometimes people get the wrong impression that Christians think we’re better than anyone else. What if we started being upfront that we’re just as broken as other people, but God’s great mercy rescued us?
Look for people to help.
Too often in life we’re zooming down the highway wrapped up in our own concerns and worries.
What if we started consciously looking for people to help? What if we became concerned about saving souls of people who are on the road to a devil’s hell? What if we started to interact with everyone conscious of the fact that everyone will spend an eternity in either heaven or hell?
Set appropriate boundaries.
In Galatians 6, Paul warns us to be careful as we help bear other’s burdens lest we ourselves be tempted. We need to be very cautious that we are not pulled in to sin.
What would happen if we started treating people in light of an eternity that shall never end? How many might be brought to Christ? How many might would hear on that Great Day, “Well done, good and faithful servant?” Do you need to begin living differently in light of eternity?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.