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.
1 Timothy 1:16
Paul described himself as the “first” of sinners – not in terms of chronology but in terms of intensity. In a sense we may each feel like Paul when the Spirit convicts, when the splinter in our eye becomes to us the size of a log (Matt 7:3-5). Conviction of the Spirit magnifies our sin that we might be forgiven, that He might by His grace remove the offense. Sin offends God but it also offends us – even our own sin does that – for we are created in the image of God and we know that sin is beneath us in our original design. When the Spirit convicts He also convinces us that Jesus is the answer and we can be forgiven and set free.
These words of Paul, however, were not merely from the emotion of deep conviction – Paul had been a persecutor of the church, a blasphemer of the gospel and the work of God, and a violent and arrogant man – he was “a sinner of the first rank” and it should be remembered that when he began his ministry of proclamation many Christians still smarted from the wounds of his persecution. Fathers had been torn from their families and imprisoned by Paul – families cast into poverty and ruin. People had been dissuaded from hearing more about Jesus of Nazareth. In his heart and in his actions he had given full vent to the spirit of anger against the early church of Jesus Christ.
But he “acted in ignorance,” he wrote (1 Tim. 1:13). That is, he had been convinced that he was right, and his guilt is modified somewhat by this. As Jesus cried from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), so there is a sense in which some sins that are very intense in nature are lessened in the eyes of God because of the ignorance and unbelief of the sinner. I think about the parent who punishes his child too severely, but he does so sincerely hoping to help his child. Probably he is raising him the same way he himself was raised. The child may be emotionally harmed and resent it later in life, but in the eyes of God the guilt of the parent, though not entirely erased, is modified, since he acted sincerely, though ignorantly. This is the idea that Paul seeks to convey.
But this does not entirely erase the guilt, and Paul’s guilt, though lessened, was not completely taken away by his ignorance and unbelief alone. Each of us, in someway or another, is influenced by others, by ignorance, and by unbelief. We are each victims of our upbringing and of our culture. This alone is not enough to erase guilt – if it were then Christ died for nothing, for all we would have needed is for God to say, “Too bad,” and welcome us into an eternity where sin is left unresolved, where guilt is never confessed, where responsibility is never acknowledged, and where victory over sin is never gained.
The gospel proclaims, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15 and Luke 19:10). The point of Paul’s words, regarding acting “in ignorance and unbelief,” was to point out that his heart had not as of yet fully considered the possibility that Jesus was indeed the Christ, that the Christians were right, after all. An unstable man, who professes and then retracts and professes again and retracts again, who says one thing and then another, who has his hidden sins deep within, who knows very well the truth, and believes some of the truth – at least to some extent – but then acts contrary to the truth he claims to believe, who is “double minded and unstable in all that he does” (James 1:8), presents a much more difficult dilemma for salvation. He is similar to those who “always learning but never able to come to the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).
Today we look at the Islamic terrorists who act in a similar spirit to the Pharisee Saul – persecutors of the church, violent and arrogant men, yet they are acting in ignorance and unbelief. This passage means simply that there is hope in heaven for them, that the forgiveness found in Christ in terms of potential, can cover their sins completely. They can be forgiven and reconciled to God through Christ, through the gospel and the conviction and conversion of the Spirit.
But the “Christian” who claims to be a good person, but violates his conscience, and succumbs to the weakness of the flesh, is another matter. There is less in him to mitigate his guilt before God, though he seeks through self-righteousness to excuse himself. “I am a good person,” he protests while acting in an entirely selfish way, not caring about the pain he causes to others. Christ said, “I wish that you were hot or cold” (Rev 3:15).
Sinners of the first rank realize their need of grace of the first rank – which is exactly what God provides through Christ – grace that is greater than all our sin. The call to follow Christ is a call to surrender entirely to His Lordship, and only in that act of surrender is true victory over sin found.
Lord, thank You for Your grace. None of us could stand before You in our righteousness. Convict us of our sin that we might know our need of grace. Convince us of Your love, that we might stand strong, forgiven, cleansed, victorious. Amen.