The Chief of Sinners
by Ethan R. Longhenry
"Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief: howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me as chief might Jesus Christ show forth all his longsuffering, for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life" (I Timothy 1:15-16).
Even though we may live in a society that vaunts the self-worth of the individual, attempting to "empower" people to understand how great they are, many people are constantly bedeviled by guilt and shame. They acutely feel that they are terribly sinful people. In their eyes there can be no rehabilitation for them. They have come to the conclusion that nothing can atone for their sins.
If this belief system had any truth or merit, Saul of Tarsus would have certainly been able to accept it. He had approved of the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58), worked to lay waste to the church (Acts 8:3; I Timothy 1:13), and was heading to Damascus to do more damage (Acts 9:1-2). He then sees a great light, and we can only imagine how he must have felt when he heard that the "Lord" is the Jesus whom he has been persecuting (Acts 9:4-6). The guilt! The shame! How terribly wrong and misguided his work! He had believed that he was doing God's work; instead, he now understands that he has opposed God's work and even complicit in murder. Little wonder that he declares himself the "chief of sinners" (I Timothy 1:15)!
Did Saul head back for home, despondent and frustrated, assured of his own sinfulness, dejected and despised? Did he declare that his sin was so great that it could not be forgiven? Absolutely not! He was made to understand the will of the Lord-- God's enemy will now be used to champion God's cause (Acts 9:15-16). The chief of sinners will be put to work in God's Kingdom to warn others about their sins (cf. I Timothy 1:12-16). When he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and was immersed in water for the remission of his sins, he obtained that mercy and forgiveness that so many today feel that they cannot obtain (cf. Acts 22:14-16)!
Why is it that so many people believe that they cannot be forgiven of their sins? The problem is really threefold.
The first problem is that people have this innate sense that they must diligently work to atone for sin. They understand that they have done wrong and therefore seek to "make it right" somehow. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that all of this moral striving cannot really cover or atone for sin. The shame and guilt that have come as a result of sin are still there. Such people feel as if they cannot be forgiven, and in a sense they are right-- they cannot be forgiven through their works. No one can be made righteous through the works of any law, and no one can atone for sin through their efforts (Galatians 3:11; Ephesians 2:8-9).
The second difficulty involves an implicit challenge to the power and sovereignty of God. For a person to believe that they have sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven means that they believe that God is somehow unable to forgive them, that Christ's blood cannot atone for what they have done. Paul shows how this view is a lie, for few are the people today who have sinned as grievously (in human terms) as Saul of Tarsus, and yet Christ's blood could cover his sin (I Timothy 1:12-16). God is greater than our sin, and if we desire to be cleansed through Jesus, then we can be clean!
In the end, the challenge has less to do with God in Christ and more to do with the people themselves. We can see that there is no one who has sinned so terribly that they cannot be forgiven-- instead, God really does want to save sinners, and therefore He wants people to be forgiven and saved (I Timothy 1:15, 2:4). The problem is not even with shame and guilt, for such ought to exist when we have sinned (cf. Genesis 3:10; Isaiah 59:1-2). The challenge often is that even if God is willing to forgive people of their sins, they are not willing to forgive themselves. They cannot envision a time when they have released themselves from the burden of sin and death as God is willing to do for them in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:1-11). They maintain a measure of control while holding onto that shame and guilt, whereas God calls us all to release that control and trust in Him (Galatians 2:20; II Corinthians 5:7).
We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). There is nothing we ourselves could ever do to atone for that (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all really deserve condemnation because we have sinned (Romans 6:23). These are all accurate statements of reality, no matter how difficult or challenging they are to swallow. There are too many more people who will not concede these realities than there are who are enslaved to them. Nevertheless, as assuredly as we have sinned and are worthy of condemnation, God has provided the means of reconciliation through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ (Romans 5:5-11). We can obtain mercy and pardon through our obedient faith even though we can never deserve it (cf. I Timothy 1:12-16; Romans 6:16-23). Nevertheless, we must place our confidence in trust in God. If God is willing to be for us, we should not be against us (cf. Romans 8:31). If God will justify us, we ought not condemn ourselves (Romans 8:33-34). If God wishes to show His abundant love toward us, cleanse us of sin, and provide eternal life for us, why should we stand in the way (cf. Romans 8:35-39)?
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, no matter how sinful they are. Let us proclaim that truth, praise God for that truth, trust in God, and be willing to be cleansed and healed!