I have often heard of people responding to the gospel and the love of God by saying something like this, “There is no way God could forgive me of my sin and love me.” In the past I dismissed the idea as a silly notion that nobody really believed and only used as an excuse to turn away from the gospel and remain in their sin. Yet, the more I live and understand the darkness and depth of sin, the more clearly I see and understand the struggle. As God reveals the sin in my own life and the more I talk with people about where they have been and where they are, I cannot help but in some way sympathize with the notion that our sin is just too dirty. And in the end, even after all I have been taught in classes and bible study and preaching, it is still hard to believe in a God of grace. It is so hard to move beyond our sin and rest in the mercy of a holy God. Yet, that is exactly what we are called to do. This is the very gospel that God has called us to proclaim to the nations. But how do we really convince ourselves? How do we really learn to rest in the grace of God? This morning, I want to look at the testimony of Paul here in this passage in 1 Timothy. I believe Paul’s words here concerning his own life offer us great comfort and guidance in dealing with our own guilt and shame over sin.
In verses 12-13 we see an incredible truth: in spite of Paul’s past, God considers him faithful and puts him into service. In Acts 9:15 we see the service Paul is given. God, answering the concerns of Ananias, says, “Go, for he (Paul) is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” Paul is given the amazing task of taking the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul ends up playing a major role in revealing the great mystery of the gospel, namely that God desires men from every tongue and every tribe to believe in Christ. Even if Paul had not written much of the New Testament, God’s gift of service to Paul would still be counted as amazing. It is very easy to see the great call Christ placed on the life of Paul. So what was Paul doing to deserve such a call?
Well, to answer, consider Paul’s own testimony to Agrippa in Acts 26:9-13. Paul was a zealous persecutor of the church. He despised the name of Christ and longed to silence all who believed in this name. We have heard this before, but we must not miss the weight of Paul’s actions. He was a leader of those aligned against the name of Christ. And the real crazy thing is that his trip to Damascus had the very purpose of persecuting the followers of Christ. Talk about being caught red-handed! Paul’s conversion took place in the middle of his persecution of the church. Can we not help but marvel at that? Keeping all of this in mind as we return to Paul’s testimony in 1 Timothy, we run up against a tough question: How could Paul be considered faithful? How could God have such a service for Paul to do?
The answer lies in verse 14. As extraordinary as it is, it is no mystery what changes the life of Paul. Paul testifies that the grace of our Lord was more than abundant. The grace of God found Paul on the road to Damascus. And because of it, Paul no longer found himself a persecutor of the church, but rather, the pastor. The grace of God completely changed the direction of the life of Paul, as it does with every life it touches. And understand this, this is not a sentimental good-story-for-the-great-life of the Apostle Paul. This is reality. This is a man who hated the early Christians. This is a man who stood by and approved the murders of many men of God (including Stephen). This is real life, dirty, earthy sin. And this is also the proclaimer of the gospel to the Gentiles. And this is also the man who started numerous churches all over the region stretching into Rome. This is the man who shouted, “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
My brain cannot work out logically the story. I cannot calculate the grace of God in the life of Paul. Likewise, I cannot calculate the grace of God in my own life. To even call it amazing is cheap.
Paul puts to rest any preponderance of the notion that the grace of God is not enough to cover our sin. Look at verses 15-16. How does Paul present his high view of the grace of God? He simply preaches the gospel. The gospel does not allow us to believe for one second that our sin is greater than the grace of God. If we hold to great a view of our own sin then the gospel is not honored in our lives. In fact, our lives and thoughts are set against the truth of the gospel. We can no longer shout with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is to power of God for salvation of everyone who believes.” Rather, we shrink back and our crippled by our sin. May this never be. Paul tells us to use his life as an example of the great patience of God.
Now, I want you to understand this. Paul begins this passage by talking about the service God had called him to perform. Hear this, God does not just show us grace for the sins we have committed. No, His grace even stretches into the obedience He has called us to. God not only forgave Paul for persecuting the church, He also made him pastor. Or consider Peter. The very lips that cursed Jesus the night before His crucifixion were used to establish the church which would stand on the hope and truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And I think of myself. Why in the world would God allow someone who refuses to stand for truth on a daily basis to stand before others and proclaim the very truth his life often denies? Church, these can only be explained by the grace of God.
If we deny the grace of God in our lives and allow our sin to cripple us and keep us from serving Christ, we simply make a mockery of the work of the cross. Paul says Christ came to save sinners, of whom Paul calls himself the chief. We have all been there. We have all come to that place in our lives where we feel as if we are the worst. We all know that ache. And we know the temptation to simply agree with everything our logic is telling us, to fall headlong into the pit of self-pity and to refuse to believe that God could love us in spite of who we are. But that is exactly where this testimony of Paul meets us. Paul calls himself the worst and at the same time calls the grace of God enough. Let us take heed of his example.
Recently, I have been dealing a lot with holiness and the idea of being obedient to a holy God. Now some may be wondering how all this fits in with grace and love. Again that is the beauty of the gospel and the beauty of God. In trying to understand sin in my own life and how to deal with it biblically, I have come to the conclusion that there are two ways in which sin corrupts us, both resulting from a low view of God. The first is simply repeated sin that results from a low view of the holiness of God. The greater our view of God’s holiness becomes, the more we long to be holy even as He is holy. The second way sin corrupts us is in our guilt over sin. This results from a low view of the grace of God. It cripples many of us from following and serving God in the way that He has called us.
But Paul will have neither. The one who writes and calls us “slaves to righteousness” also writes of the “more than abundant” grace of God and the “perfect patience” of Christ. His writing demands that we hold a high view of God’s holiness and at the same time a high view of His grace. I am learning that these are the challenges of the Christian life. We are called to run with all joy as hard as we can after the obedience of God. Yet, at the same time, we are called to rest in His grace when we fall so short time and time again. It is not an easy balance, but I believe in the balance is where we find the abundant life that Jesus spoke of in John 10. Today, let us strive to have a great view of the holiness of God and at the same time a high view of His grace. I think that is exactly what the testimony of Paul calls us to do.
So what do we say to those who are so broken by their sin that they feel God could never love them? And what do we say to those who are so in love with sin that they feel no need for a Savior? And what do we say to ourselves when our sin cripples us and leaves us full of guilt? We simply say the same thing, namely that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. We preach to the world and to ourselves the holiness and grace of our great God. And when the weight of the truth begins to rest on our souls, we will say with Paul, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”