I haven’t met too many people over the years who like to be told they are sinners. In fact, talking about sin in our culture is something that is largely avoided because we tend to believe that people are essentially good. We might make mistakes from time to time, but the starting point for any discussion about the nature of human beings in our Western society is that we are basically good.
However, when I read the Bible, look at the state of the world in which we live, or examine my own life it seems clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with our human nature. No matter how much we try to do the right thing, too often we end up saying and doing what is wrong. This indicates to me that there is something wrong within us which we can’t fix ourselves. While we can think of sinners as being morally bad people, we can also think of ‘sinners’ as people who need to be saved because we find it impossible to get things right, no matter how hard we try.
I’m not saying this to make people feel bad about ourselves. Over the centuries, the church has done wrong by using language like this to burden people with guilt. However, we still need to be honest with ourselves about the reality of who we are. The trustworthy saying Paul passes on to Timothy, and to us, is that Jesus came to save sinners. If we do not identify as sinners, then how can we be saved? The writers of the Gospels wrote that Jesus often talked with sinners and even ate with them, something for which Jesus was criticized by the religious leaders of his day (see Luke 15:1,2). If we are not willing to sit with the sinners, then how can we be sitting with Jesus?
Recognizing that we are sinners can help us find freedom to be ourselves. When we acknowledge that we get things wrong, we can be honest with ourselves and with others about our flaws and failures. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are, and we can more easily seek grace and forgiveness from each other. It also means that when other people do wrong, we can extend grace to them more easily. We can be more compassionate and understanding towards others because they get things wrong just like we do.
Paul’s intention in passing on this ‘trustworthy saying’ about Jesus coming to save sinners is to bring us good news. He continues,
… God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:16 NLT)
Paul is using his own life as an example to show us that if God can save him, then he can surely save us too. Paul had done some really bad things before he became a Christian. As he explains briefly in verse 13, he had blasphemed against God by trying to stop the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he had persecuted Jesus’ followers and had even been involved in some of their murders (see Acts 7:54-8:1; 9:1,2). Paul is arguing that if God can show mercy and patience to him after all the terrible thing he had done, then he will also show us mercy and patience. Paul wants us to understand that we get things wrong, but Christ Jesus came into the world to save us. Jesus’ death on the cross for us means that we can be forgiven, no matter what we might have done. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead gives us new life as children of God whom he loves and who bring our heavenly Father great joy (see Luke 3:22). If Paul can find grace and new life in Jesus after what he had done, then we can also find grace and new life in the love God show us through Christ.
This means that we can never be simplistic about our experience of Christian the life. One the one hand, we are sinners who need to be saved. However, we are also God’s saved children whom he loves and who bring him great joy. One of the great gifts Martin Luther gave to the church is the idea that we are both sinner and saint at the same time. There will be times in our lives when our sin will weigh us down and we will need to hear the liberating words of grace and forgiveness. There will also be times when we will need to be reminded that we get things wrong and we need Jesus to save us.
The main purpose of these words from Paul are to point us to Jesus. We all get it wrong in different ways and at different times in our lives because there is something wrong with us. We constantly need to be reminded that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This becomes good news for us, though, because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and to give us new life as God’s children whom he loves and who bring him great joy.
More to think about:
- What are some of your experiences, positive or negative, of talking about sin in the church? Do we talk about sin too much? Not enough?
- What are some ways in which 1 Timothy 1:15 can be heard as a threat by people? How might people hear these same words as a promise?
- Do you tend to hear these words more as a threat or a promise? Can you explain why you hear them that way?
- When you hear or read about some of the things Paul did before he became a Christian, would you say you are as bad as he was? How can his self-description as ‘the worst of sinners’ help you find God’s grace in Jesus?
- How might Paul’s words that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ help you in your relationships with other people when they do wrong to you?