Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa;
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. 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. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12–17, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
"I don't go to church because it's full of hypocrites!"
"Well, there's always room for one more!"
Sin is an ugly thing. But, sometimes we give the idea to other people that we in the church think we are without it. That we in the church think we have somehow gotten past sin, and so we look down our noses on the sins of other people. Dana Carvey's Church Lady. A hypocrite is someone who says they believe something but don't really believe in their heart. The word hypocrite is the ancient Greek word for an actor. Someone who pretends to be something that they are not. To be a hypocrite is indeed sinful. And we are, in the church, hypocrites, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves in the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8). Or even if we give the impression that we are without sin. Or we think that our sins are insignificant and other people sins are great. It's because we think that sin is on the surface. Because we think that deep in our hearts were really good people. That we, because we go to church, deserve to receive God's grace. And that going to church helps us to prevent the outward sins and that's what makes church a good thing to do. And, we think, that's what makes us better people than the people who don't go to church.
The truth is all sin is damning. And Jesus was particularly critical of hypocrites. (Matthew 23:27ff). He calls them "whitewashed tombs". Beautiful on the outside but full of dead people's bones on the inside. He calls them snakes. He says they lead people to hell by their words and actions. When it comes to being a hypocrite Jesus calls it a deadly sin. And it's so easy for us to fall into the trap. We don't go to church because we don't have sin. We go to church because we are sinners. In fact, the church is for sinners only! It was Martin Luther who said that the church is a hospital for the sin sick.
At first in our text, it may look as if St. Paul saying something good about himself. After all he says God made him an apostle because he "judged me faithful." But Paul is no hypocrite. The telltale sign comes in a very simple word in the middle of the text. Listen again:
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.
Paul isn't saying he was a sinner when he persecuted Christians, but is not a sinner any longer. He says, "Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost." It's not a thing in the past that isn't true anymore. St. Paul calls himself, currently, a sinner. There isn't some magic that happened to him on the road to Damascus that removed sin from his life. He is plagued by sin every day. He struggles to do what God wants him to do. He struggles to avoid doing what God clearly says in His Word he should not do. Paul wants to do what God wants him to do. But he falls well short, and he knows it. In other words Paul is a Christian. In Romans chapter 7 St. Paul describes his struggle:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15–24, ESV)
Paul is not describing something extraordinary here. He is describing the normal Christian life. He's not describing his life in the past. Notice how all the verbs are present tense. He is describing his Christian life now. Christians are not without sin. In fact we see our own sin more clearly in light of God's law, and in light of our desire to do what God would have us do, then anyone else. We should always be on guard to not give the impression we believe we are sinless. You and I, sinners that we are, deserve the same punishment as any other sinner in the world. Our sins are damning. St. Paul talked about this very thing when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 2:12b-13)
... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12b–13, ESV)
He's not saying "do something good, so that you can be saved." He is saying "see the truth about your salvation." You are a damned sinner unable to save yourself. God works to save you. That's exactly what the Good News is! God saves you and you do not deserve to be saved. God has no need to save people who are not sinners. You and I are saved simply by God's grace, that is his undeserved love.
St. Paul describes exactly how this happens in this text also. He says God changed his opinion about Paul when he "judged him faithful". God looked at Paul and instead of judging his sin, he judged the sin of Jesus. Of course, Jesus was without sin. Paul was not faithful, but Jesus was faithful in Paul's place. God changed his mind about Paul because Jesus offered his life of good works in place of Paul's life of sin. And Jesus offered his perfect life as the substitute punishment that Paul deserved for his sin. It was not earned by Paul, but came by God's grace. Just as Paul says in the text,
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.
In other words Paul trusts in Jesus Christ for his salvation.
Dear Christian, what Paul describes in his life is true for your life as well. You are a damned sinner. You deserve nothing but God's wrath and eternal punishment. You struggle with sin every day of your life. You will struggle with sin every day until death kills your sinful flesh. But thanks be to God,
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners...
You didn't stop being a sinner when the water was poured on your head in Holy Baptism, but God "judged" you faithful! Because when the water is poured on your head the great exchange is made. God changes his opinion about you when he judges you faithful. God looks at you and instead of judging your sin, he judges the sin of Jesus. Of course, Jesus is without sin. You are not faithful, but Jesus is faithful in your place. God changes his mind about you because Jesus offers his life of good works in place of your life of sin. And Jesus offers his perfect life as the substitute punishment that you deserve. It is not earned by you, but comes to you by God's grace. So you can say with St. Paul, the "grace of our Lord overflowed for me."
So this is what it means to be Christian. Not to be without sin, but to have sin forgiven. To live in the freedom and joy of knowing that our sin is not counted against us but was nailed with Jesus to the cross. Not to look down our nose at those who are sinners, because we stand with them in their struggle. And to strive to do what is pleasing to God, not for the sake of earning anything with him, but instead in gratitude because the "grace of our Lord overflowed for[us]." Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.