“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. 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 1:12-15
Confessing our sin is indispensible to the Christian life.
I have found it interesting, yet unsurprising, how often the apostle Paul mentions his life prior to his experience on the road to Damascus. In addition to that which I quoted above, you can also see him make mention of it to the church of Corinth in his first epistle to them (1 Corinthians 15:9), he uses it as part of his defense before his accusers at the temple (Acts 22:4), in another defense he laid out before King Agrippa (Acts 26:9-11), again in his letter to the Galatian churches (Galatians 1:13), and in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 3:6).
I find it interesting because this, for Paul, seems to be the one sin he mentions more than anything else. Undoubtedly there was still a sense of shame and an acknowledgment of his former waywardness that found its way into to his thinking on a regular basis. Or at least on a basis regular enough to cause him to write it to several churches and bring it up in several public addresses.
I say unsurprising, though, because we see this everywhere. Undoubtedly, the reason we know so much about Peter’s three-fold denial of the Lord was because he told people about it (Mark 14:66-72). Assuredly Thomas is known as the doubter today because he was known as the doubter among the apostles in his day (John 20:25). And we know that John and James themselves were arrogant (Mark 10:35-37) and violent men (Luke 9:52-55), and how could we find out unless they had shared these things?
In addition to that, though, my lack of surprise stems from the fact that we as Christians do the same thing today. There is not a true living saint who would not be able to disclose to you in some detail what his or her life was like before Jesus was first revealed to them in the beauty of the gospel. Even if that person attained a saving faith at a young age, the understanding of sin and its repercussions for a person’s life is indispensible to what the gospel is all about. It has been said that the only thing that we as Christians bring into our own salvation is the sin from which we need to be forgiven. It’s a striking way in which God makes for himself humble followers.
I get this sentiment from many places within the bible, but to keep it brief, just look how our opening passage ends, “The saying is trustworthy…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.” There are a handful of these “sayings” throughout the pastoral epistles, but suffice it to say, they are oftentimes proverbs, verses from hymns, and brief doctrinal statements. What we have here is likely a fantastic truth wrapped within a colloquialism of the early church. We can assume that most of the members of the early church (like most members of the current church) were not great orators, yet since they had been so radically changed by the gospel they needed and even desired some way to articulate the gospel to an unbelieving world. I can imagine this saying falling from the lips of an early saint when approached by a family member, or friend, or neighbor, or hostile questioner when asked, “What’s so great about this Jesus?” to which our Christian brother or sister would be able to reply “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.”
I bring these topics up because I have recently encountered a number of situations that have forced me to come face to face with a good deal of my own shameful and largely regrettable past.
These occasions have forced me to consider the way in which I lived before and even in the midst of a very messy conversion experience. I’ve often found myself becoming nervous before visiting friends and former relations in these situations not because I was ashamed of the gospel, but because these were people who knew my sin and knew it well. And because my own conversion occurred over a protracted period of time, they were also there to see the way in which I misused the gospel and oftentimes denied it in my actions.
Unlike Paul, I might end up writing pages upon pages about the various sins that marked life prior to my coming to faith. For Paul it was sufficient to remark that he was a persecutor and a blasphemer, and my aim is not to diminish that. However, do we not at times feel the utter sinfulness of our sin, both past and present? Do we not sometimes lament over the way in which we denied the Lord? And do we not feel grief over doing those things that are so offensive to a holy, heavenly, perfectly loving Father?
In a way, I hope we do. I trust that these oftentimes rough feelings are evidence of the new heart that we receive as new covenant believers (Jeremiah 31:33, cf. Ezekiel 11:19-20).
On the other hand, we need not be ashamed of these things any longer. It was Christ who came to die for sinners. It’s the Son of God who bore the wrath of God for our sins. He took upon himself all of those things that separated us from our heavenly Father and now he grants us access to him (Romans 5:1-2). And on top of all that, God even redeems our former waywardness and shows that he can be exalted not only in spite of it, but even through it, as was Paul’s case. As was mine. As I hope is yours.
Consider, for a moment, the grace that caused personal change in the restoration of Peter, the revelation to Thomas, the Lord’s adulation of John, the execution of James, and the obligation that was given to Paul (John 21:15-19, John 20:26-29, John 13:23, Acts 12:2, Acts 9:16). Yet it is God who restores and redeems the former brokenness and brings good out the evil (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28).
As for me, God has been so gracious time and time again to use the mess that I made of things in coming to faith to allow me to witness to his surpassing grace and kindness. I have shared my story so many times and been told by unbeliever and believer alike that they were deeply moved by the story of what God had done in my life, and so often what he did it in spite of myself. God uses our former sins and gains glory through them.
I trust this is one reason Paul talks about his former sins repeatedly, and so perhaps we ought to also. We need not glory in our sin. We talk about these things not to shine any light on ourselves, but if we have truly been struck by the power of the gospel, we do it to show the surpassing mercy and grace that are found in God our Savior. And when we have received it, we desire all others to see it as well, regardless of what they knew about us beforehand. So I pray you come, and behold the Lamb of God, who takes away and works redemption through the sins of the world.