By God’s Mercy to Sinners
1 Timothy 1:12-17
If there is a word that we cherish from the Christian Reformation it’s how much they appreciated the word, “grace.” God’s undeserved love. His mercy to sinners. That word better than any other explains to the world, why we are saved. Why God would send Jesus. It sounds so nice that God is a gracious God to us—slow to anger and abounding in love. We love God’s grace… That is until you think through the implications about grace. And instead of our banner cry, “sola gratia” (by grace alone) upon which we say, “Here I stand!” we recognize that the word grace is really quite an offensive idea.
Let me ask you a question. Think for a minute and picture in your mind the worst human being you can imagine. The most evil person, the worst person to ever live. Who comes to mind? Searching through the history books there were some pretty awful sinners. Wicked and murderous monsters who are responsible for humanity’s greatest atrocities. How many of you thought of Hitler? Or Stalin? Pol Pot? How about a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer who from 1978-1991 murdered 17 young men and boys after meeting them after luring them to his apartment and then at their bodies and saved them in boxes and freezers? These guys are the worst of the worst. They are responsible for killing millions of innocent people in their own countries, of organized torture and genocide. And we can rightly say hell can’t be hot enough for someone like that. Even people who don’t like the idea of hell, make exceptions for the likes of these historical bad guys. No one feels in the slightest sorry for Hitler or Stalin and their eternal fate in hell.
Now imagine how you would feel if when you get to heaven you find a man who could rightly be called worse than Hitler or Stalin? The worst of all sinners? And he is walking around in glory with all the other saints. Would you want to embrace this man and welcome him to heaven? Would you want to embrace such a person who might walk into our church and sit down to worship with us receiving forgiveness just like you?
12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
If Paul were here listening to this sermon, his answer to the question, “who is the worst person ever to live?” was simple, “I am the worst.” And he had good reason to say that. Before he was Paul, the Apostle—he was Saul, the zealot. You can read in the book of Acts how young Saul earned his self-given title as worst of sinners in all the persecuting and violence he perpetrated against Christians. He stood there giving approval as the Jewish leaders threw stones at Stephen to murder him for his testimony about Jesus. Saul took up the sword against the Christians and became the enemy of the church with the intent of destroying Christianity. He made it his personal business to wipe the name of Jesus off the face of the earth.
And then we hear how the Lord poured out his grace so abundantly on Saul—enemy of the Christian church number one. In Acts 9 we hear that Saul went on a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus with the purpose of hunting down more Christians to imprison. And as he neared the city, Jesus appeared to him from heaven in a bright light and changed Saul’s life forever.
4 “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
In an instant, Saul’s sin was washed away as he was baptized and became a Christian. Almost overnight he turned from Christianity’s greatest enemy to Christianity’s greatest mouthpiece. Not surprisingly when Saul later went to Jerusalem to join with the Christians there, they were afraid of him, not believing he really was a disciple. How would people in Paul’s day feel if a guy like Paul gets into heaven by God’s grace while their Jewish family and friends who didn’t believe in Jesus, but were nice people didn’t go to heaven? It just sounds so unfair.
Paul’s answer to this is simple.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
Paul’s own life was to be an example of how grace works. Jesus came into the world to save sinners, even the very worst of sinners by his blood shed on the cross. His sacrifice was for all people—including the Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots and serial killers like Jeffery Dahmer.
In a famous 1994 interview, Stone Philips, the anchor of a popular TV news magazine interviewed the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer who was in prison in Portage, WI serving a 937 year sentence for his crimes. In the interview, Dahmer, confessed that he did do all those nasty things to his victims, and that he deserved to be in prison for the rest of his life. But he also confessed quite adamantly, that he believed in Jesus Christ, as his only true Lord and Saviour and along with Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit as the only true God. He said, that he had come to know the Lord while in prison and was now at peace with God. Shortly after that interview Jeffrey Dahmer was himself murdered by another inmate, and by his confession we would say is now sitting with our Lord in heaven in paradise alongside of Paul, the apostles and all the saints who stand in God’s grace.
To many people this is a terribly offensive thought. Imagine—some of Jeffrey Dahmer’s own innocent victims he killed are suffering in hell because they died in unbelief, while their murderer is in heaven, forgiven before God by grace. People like him get into heaven, in spite of their wickedness, because of the forgiving grace of God. Meanwhile little sweet grandma’s who wouldn’t hurt a fly, are not in heaven because they didn’t believe in Jesus. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were offended that Jesus would eat with sinners like Matthew, the tax collector, who became one of his disciples.
It all goes to show how offensive grace is. The cross of Christ says some of the most offensive things possible about you and me that you could say about someone’s relationship with God. Namely—none of us, not you not me are better than Jeffrey Dahmer, or Hitler, or Paul. All of us were so wicked deserved the death penalty, an eternal one, and only because Jesus was willing to endure our shame, our guilt, and cross are we allowed to escape. More than escaping punishment, we are welcomed into heaven. It’s not that things just turned out this way, Paul says, God planned it!
The example of a Paul or a Jeffrey Dahmer confessing Christ shows us exactly what grace is—God’s love, undeserved. God loved them in Christ although they didn’t deserve it in any way. And he loved you, and showed patience with you although you did not deserve it either. In the end we are led to have nothing but praise for what Christ Jesus has done:
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Grace leaves us standing in awe. Why should God save me? Why should God forgive me? Because I cannot find a reason. Just like Paul could find no reason in himself to say, “This is why God saved me.” Quite the opposite. Paul says the reason he was shown grace is because of how bad a sinner he was—so that anyone wondering whether or not Jesus could pay for their own grave sins and atrocities might see in Paul the example of God’s grace. And then we can go to sleep at night reminding of ourselves, “This is a trustworthy saying: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
There’s no other way about it. There is no other place we can safely stand and be certain of our forgiveness. If Jesus only paid for the sins of the deserving sinners, or those people who didn’t really sin all that bad—we could never be certain of our own forgiveness. Or if God’s grace is other that God showing forgiveness to the least deserving of sinners—than we are all condemned.
Instead we see how amazing grace is—that we can rejoice with Paul and praise God that he has redeemed even you, even me. And with the humility that grace gives us, instead of feeling offended that God should save even the worst of sinners, we simply feel blessed to be a part of God’s family. Instead of looking down on other people whose sins are to be shunned and shamed by society, we say—“God’s grace is also for you.” Instead of judging other people’s struggles with sin, we say, “There but for God’s grace, go I.”
Grace is the reason God saved us—and that reason resides completely and wholly in God and his mercy and love, and not in us. And grace is what changes our hearts to reflect God’s grace on the world around us so that more sinners, terrible, wicked, stubborn monstrous sinners might be transformed by God’s grace to heaven bound children of God. This is where we stand, by God’s mercy to sinners. Amen.