What might Timothy have thought when his father in the faith, the Apostle Paul, called himself the “foremost” sinner?
Is there sin you’ve been keeping secret from me, Paul? If not, you’re wrong. In fact, you’re the least sinful human being I’ve ever met.
By God’s grace, our spiritual role models will be the most holy human beings we know. Scripture holds the bar high for the character of all Christians, especially pastors (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). But as Paul shows in his first letter to Timothy, the most faithful servant of Christ needs no less mercy than the unrepentant sinner.
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance,” Paul says, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
This verse’s shock-factor only increases when context is considered. In the previous paragraph, Paul lists sinners who the law is laid down for:
“The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:9-10).
Then four verses later, Paul declares, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost!”
This mindset is essential for the pastor. Shepherds blind to their desperate need for mercy become obstacles to the gospel for the very flock in which the Holy Spirit made them overseers. They will exercise their God-given authority with arrogance and a quick temper, rather than with gentleness and lowliness in heart, as they grow puffed up with pride in their law-keeping.
And the arrogant pastor is the disqualified pastor.
For the overseer who aspires to know himself like Paul, here are three truths to think through from 1 Timothy 1:12-17.
1. Your Strength is Christ-Given
If a pastor is above reproach, his teaching makes dry bones live and his leadership dawns on his flock like the morning light, he should be overwhelmed by God’s grace in his life. Yet how often do we, like Israel, forget from whom our blessings flow? A strong Christian is constantly tempted to see his strength as his strength and, therefore, think of himself more highly than he ought to think.
For Christians to swim against the stream of a culture drowning us with encouragement to “be proud of yourself,” they must imitate Paul’s posture toward his strength: gratitude to God.
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Timothy 1:12-13).
Christ gives us strength in spite of who we are—despite that we, too, formerly lived lives contrary to sound doctrine.
Christ gives us strength because of who he is—a God merciful and gracious. Let us channel every ounce of strength we have as thanksgiving to God for his grace. May remembrance that our strength comes from the omnipotent God grow us in dependence on him.
2. You Need Christ’s Grace This Moment
Few professing Christians would deny, once upon a time, they needed to be saved by grace. However, it is far easier to forget our second-by-second need for God to be actively saving us by grace.
When Paul tells his testimony in 1 Timothy, he does not refer to himself as someone who was the foremost sinner, but rather as one who is the reigning foremost sinner.
“…Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 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” (1 Timothy 1:13-15).
Are you tempted to accuse Paul of false humility? If so, it’s understandable, if we compare the holiness of Paul to the holiness of other Christians. But Paul is measuring himself against another—“the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17).
In the presence of the holy, holy, holy God, Paul identifies himself as nothing more-humbling than the foremost sinner. And it’s this needy identity that allows him to marvel at God’s grace as a fountain that “overflowed” for him, and surely overflows still. Pastors need as much as grace on the day of their best sermon as in the hour they first believed.
3. Christ’s Mercy Toward You is for Others
God, indeed, loves you individually and intimately. But if he called you to pastoral ministry, he chose you in order that you and others might know him. Paul, God’s chosen instrument to carry his name before the Gentiles, knew this reality well.
“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.” (1 Timothy 1:16)
God chooses pastors to change eternities.
What a privilege. What a motivation to clothe oneself in patient-humility. People believe in Jesus for eternal life because they witness the display of Jesus’ perfect patience for the foremost sinners.
Do our fellow church members see us as examples of Christ’s perfect patience? How can they if we do not confess our sin and constant need for his perfect patience; or if we shepherd like our sheep require more patience from us than we did from God?
We are identifiable examples of Christ’s perfect patience only when we present ourselves as the foremost sinners.
Examples of Pretty Good Patience
No one on earth needs to cry out to Jesus as Savior more than pastors, because no one on earth needs Jesus’ perfect patience less than anyone else. Even God’s chosen are not extra-deserving recipients of gospel grace. That’s what makes it grace. That’s what makes them chosen.
May the Holy Spirit grant us all the eyes to see ourselves as the foremost sinner, that we may better enjoy him for his amazing grace, abundant mercy, and perfect patience.