1 Timothy 1:15
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.
You and I need mentors.
You and I are called to be mentors.
Last week we reflected on these two realities as we introduced to you the Apostle Paul, the mentor to a young man, Timothy, who Paul, in turn, was training to mentor others.
Paul was very much aware of the dangers of any kind of religious conversation. Religious people can easily rationalize their way into the baptizing of wrong doctrine and immoral lifestyles. Young Timothy was pastoring in Ephesus, a church daily confronted with wild speculations of religiously and philosophically inclined persons who could produce theologies and lifestyles tailor-made to one’s own quaint orientations. Paul opens his letter by mentoring Timothy to be one who mentors men and women in biblically-sound doctrine and godly lifestyles.
In a way, he gets to the point quite quickly. He doesn’t waste any time or words. He knows the tendencies of first century and twenty-first century men and women to produce their own boutique theologies and boutique lifestyles.
Paul knows the stress on sound doctrine and godless lifestyles could come off somewhat legalistically. After all, you and I know people whose doctrine is sound as can be, and their lifestyles and outward actions conform to Scripture, but who live like they were weaned on a sour pickle. That’s why Paul integrates right into the middle of his teaching what the motivation for such instruction is. He writes: “But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (
Paul is now a veteran follower of Jesus, an older man looking back over his own rugged years of being a disciple. He is able to see the forest for the trees. He is able to strip away a lot of the doctrinal and lifestyle barnacles that can become attached to us. He wants to make clear the ultimate goal is not just that of having a correct theology and a straight-arrow lifestyle. At the heart of this there needs to be a deep, underlying love that emerges from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Alexander Maclaren likens this to the great river, which is the Nile, and the tributaries from which that river emerges. He says that we have here, as in the Great Lakes in central Africa out of which the Nile issues, the stages of flow. There are the twin lakes of a “pure heart” and a “good conscience.” These come from a “sincere faith,” which lies higher up in the hills of God. And as these waters mingle, they run down into the “love,” which is the “aim of such instruction.”
Another way of saying this is that God gives the instructions of His Word, both in terms of sound doctrine and a godly lifestyle, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit in faith grasps the Word in a way that nourishes a “good conscience” and a “pure heart,” which ultimately produces in us what Jesus referred to as the greatest commandment of all, “to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”
Do you capture the flow of this? God’s Word is designed by the Holy Spirit to enable us to come to faith, faith that has a pure heart and a good conscience and ultimately produces love. The cycle of life in this flow, in which the mountain streams of God’s teaching sound doctrine and godly living merge by the Holy Spirit into the stream of faith and produces those two great lakes of a pure heart and a good conscience; the great river being that of love that nourishes the arid land alongside the river.
Last week we challenged you to allow the Apostle Paul to be your mentor. He knew how to mentor.
I urge you, as we continue our preaching on 1 Timothy, not to try to memorize an outline of the book. Instead, ask the Holy Spirit to leave you with some principle, some message, some transformational insight that will help you become a more faithful follower of Jesus Christ, engaged in a lifestyle that has this kind of natural flow.
Today I would like to direct your thoughts to three specific questions that emerge from this
Question One: What did Jesus Christ come to do?
I have done a little survey on this question, and I have found that there are some natural responses that people give.
One response is that “Jesus came to establish the religion of Christianity.” Really? Show me anywhere in the Bible that it says that. I guess you would have to say that, in reality, there is a religion called Christianity that emerged as a result of the coming of Jesus. But if you think carefully on this, sometimes that very religion gets in the way of what Jesus came to do. Christianity is not just one more religion alongside Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam and the whole list of world religions.
Another response is that “Jesus came to make people good and good people better.” Really? In a way, He did, because the cumulative effect of His presence in a person’s life is that which produces a higher level of ethical conduct. Let’s not get too carried away with that notion. Jesus spent more of His time raising questions on the attitudes of some very religious, highly-ethical people than He did denouncing the actions of people whose breaking of God’s list of commands was quite obvious. Jesus had real problems with people who took great pride in their high standard of ethical behavior.
Another response is that “Jesus came to develop a new theology or ethical system.” I can see how one might think that. The teachings of Jesus were radical in His day, and they still are today. His theological understandings transformed the theological understandings of the first century, and they still do today. That was not the primary reason of His coming.
I’ll grant that you could build a case that Jesus founded a new religion called Christianity. Jesus came to help people live a better life, and Jesus came and brought a whole new theological and ethical perspective. But these were not His primary purposes in coming.
The Apostle Paul declares in the most succinct way possible the answer to why Jesus came. He puts it in these words: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost” (
Our mentor, Paul, is helping us zero in on that which is of highest importance. When he calls us to sound doctrine, when he calls us to a godly lifestyle, he is calling us to get rid of those doctrines and lifestyles that are “. . . contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (
You see, Paul wants to keep the focus – not on the bad news of our human condition, our mixed up theology, our bad behavior – but on the good news of Christ’s power to save.
The phrase “Jesus Christ” expresses precisely what the glorious Gospel is all about. The glorious Gospel is not about a religion called Christianity, the effort to make people better, to develop a new theology or an ethical system. The glorious Gospel is all about Jesus Christ.
Paul’s statement goes on to say, “. . . Jesus Christ came into the world . . . .” This is a concise statement of incarnational theology. The Gnostic would say that God and Spirit are good, while matter and fleshly concerns are bad. Paul demolishes that dichotomy by declaring in unequivocal terms that the entire message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about the Holy God actually becoming human in the Person of Jesus Christ, taking flesh, walking among us, coming into this very world, experiencing what we experience without succumbing to sin.
The completion of this declaration is this: ” . . . that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners . . . .” The coming of Jesus Christ accomplished a lot of very good things and, when distorted, perhaps some that are not so good. But He came into the world with one specific goal. He came to save sinners!
Paul wanted to make clear, so that no one would misunderstand what he was saying, that Jesus didn’t come into the world just to save those other bad people. Jesus came to save all of us. This is the same Apostle Paul who wrote to the church at Rome, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (
In no way was he going to distance himself from sin. In no way was he talking from the perspective of self-righteousness in his own endeavor to create a pure heart in himself, a good conscience in himself, and a sincere faith in himself, which emerged ultimately into sound doctrine and a godly lifestyle by love. Paul was not even just providing a rhetorical device to drive home his point by implicating himself as a sinner. Paul was driving the stake in the ground as to why Jesus Christ came. He was defining the glorious Gospel, the Good News. He was implicating himself as one who needed this Good News just as much as anyone else. His bottom line declaration is, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
What did Jesus Christ come to do? Jesus Christ came to save sinners like you and me.
Question Two: What is your story?
Answer: You tell me.
The Apostle Paul tells his story. He says, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. 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” (
Paul cites this glorious grace of Jesus Christ operating in his life as a model for the rest of us. When he declared himself to be the “foremost” of sinners, he is dramatically declaring the ambiguity that marks all of our lives. On the one hand, Paul could have built a great case for how good he had been. In fact, he does that in
Time after time, in his writings, he gives his testimony. Paul’s testimony is a mixed bag. It is a story of self-righteousness. It is a story of clandestine activity, even terrorism, to advance the ends that he thought were right. He stood by, encouraging the martyrdom of Stephen. He was traveling to Damascus to kill the followers of Jesus when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him and confronted him with his sin, extended mercy to him, and gave him an opportunity for radical life transformation. That’s Paul’s testimony. It is the case story that gives hope to you and me of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul is saying, if Jesus Christ came to save a sinner like him, he could also save you and me.
Max Lucado, in The Applause of Heaven, describes God’s transformation of Paul in these terms:
Before he encountered Christ, Paul had been somewhat of a hero among the Pharisees . . . .
Blue-blooded and wild-eyed, this young zealot was hell-bent on keeping the kingdom pure – and that meant keeping the Christians out. He marched through the countryside like a general demanding that backslidden Jews salute the flag of the motherland or kiss their family and hopes good-bye.
All this came to a halt, however, on the shoulder of a highway . . . . That’s when someone slammed on the stadium lights, and he heard the voice.
When he found out whose voice it was, his jaw hit the ground, and his body followed. He braced himself for the worst. He knew it was all over . . . .
He prayed that death would be quick and painless.
But all he got was silence and the first of a lifetime of surprises.
He ended up bewildered and befuddled in a borrowed bedroom. God left him there a few days with scales on his eyes so thick that the only direction he could look was inside himself. And he didn’t like what he saw.
He saw himself for who he really was – to use his own words, the worst of sinners.
. . . Alone in the room with his sins on his conscience and blood on his hands, he asked to be cleansed.
. . . The legalist Saul was buried, and the liberator Paul was born. He was never the same afterwards. And neither was the world.
The message is gripping: Show a man his failures without Jesus, and the result will be found in the roadside gutter. Give a man religion without reminding him of his filth, and the result will be arrogance in a three-piece suit. But get the two in the same heart – get sin to meet Savior and Savior to meet sin – and the result just might be another Pharisee-turned-preacher who sets the world on fire.
Again I ask you the question: What is your story? Please tell me. Every one of us has a story. Perhaps it is not as dramatic as that of the Apostle Paul, but still it is your story.
Are you in the process of being transformed by the glorious grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? Tell me about it.
Just this weekend I finished reading Surprised by Joy, the autobiography of C.S. Lewis, describing the first half of his life. It is the story of a precocious lad from Belfast, raised in a home and society that went through the motions of a religion called Christianity, but as far as he was concerned did not seem to be transformed by it. The death of his mother in his youth brought about major changes. His father was never quite the same again. He and his brother were shipped off to boarding schools. Although he was confirmed and went through the outward appearances of Christian confession, he increasingly closed himself off to the claims of Jesus Christ for his life. He saw firsthand the horrors of World War I. He read widely all kinds of high-quality literature, some of which was very critical of the Christian faith, some encouraging him to come to the point that he even denied the existence of God. I encourage you to read the story of his life. Observe him as he tells his story of how gradually, as he was willing to read the works of some writers who were followers of Jesus and to engage in conversation with his intellectual peers, who themselves had repented of sin and put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, this young Oxford don was willing to at least acknowledge the existence of God. His was not the dramatic confrontation of Paul’s on the road to Damascus. Lewis came to faith in Christ over a period of years, agonizing with intellectual doubt, and yet found himself increasingly more and more open to God’s claims upon his life. He who loved the myths of literature came to realize:
Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all.
He goes on to describe how, as the closer he came to faith in Jesus Christ, the greater resistance he felt within himself. He writes:
As I drew near the conclusion, I felt a resistance almost as strong as my previous resistance to Theism. As strong, but shorter-lived, for I understood it better. Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to “Spirit” and from “Spirit” to “God,” had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, and more compulsive. At each step one had less chance “to call one’s soul one’s own.” To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.
As you can see, the Apostle Paul’s experience of salvation in Jesus Christ was momentary, cataclysmic, dramatically life-changing. In almost an instant, he was turned around and headed in a different direction.
For C.S. Lewis, it involved a rejection of a childhood mythological Christianity as his lifetime dreams went up in smoke. Then God searched him out and gave him a second chance, with a long process, an intellectual and spiritual struggle. But when he did come to faith in Jesus Christ, it happened naturally. In a way, it was just as life-transformational as it was for the Apostle Paul.
What is your story? Are you experiencing Christ’s power to save? Or are you headed in a different direction, resisting the wooing of His Holy Spirit?
Jim Birchfield, on these past two Wednesday evenings of our ALPHA experience, has shared his testimony of how he came to faith in Jesus Christ. His is a dramatic story of one who was doing his own thing in the business world and increasingly discovering that this was not as fulfilling as he had expected it to be. Married, with a young family, quite successful in his bi-coastal business career, he came to a course offered at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church similar to what we call ALPHA, and he realized that the vacuum in his life and the restlessness in his heart could only be met through faith in Jesus Christ. You know God’s transformation. In mid career, Jim is a living evidence of it right here in our community.
Is that your story? Or one similar? If your odyssey is similar to his, open your life to examine the claims of Jesus Christ.
Some of you have heard my testimony. In some ways, it doesn’t quite qualify with the drama of the three I have mentioned. In a way, I wince when someone says to me, as one person did this summer, “I can’t relate to you, John. I can relate better to Jim Birchfield. I’m in mid-stride in life, like he was, and for me to come to faith in Jesus Christ would be more like it was for him than for you who came as a five-year-old.”
I am reminded of those testimonies I heard at youth camp or at youth rallies when people came and told the stories of their wild years before faith in Jesus Christ. Gary Demarest relates the woeful comment of an outstanding young woman at one of his youth groups who, after he had preached on the witness of a former pimp and drug addict, responded, “I guess the only way I could possibly be anybody in Christian witness would be to become a junkie and a prostitute, and then get converted!” She had a point, didn’t she, because of the way the testimony had glamorized the past wickedness.
My testimony, like hers, seems so bland. It tends to be when you come to Christ early in life. I fantasized a much more dramatic story in which, after decades of wild and riotous living, two or three marriages, business failures, and a lifelong battle with alcoholism, with a fifth of whisky in one hand and a revolver in the other, I was ready to jump from the open window of my forty-five story hotel room, when I tripped over a loose venetian blind cord and fell backwards onto a Gideon Bible, which just happened to be open to
You know something? I’ve gotten long beyond that wistful yearning to have a dramatic testimony. The longer I have walked with Jesus, the more aware I am that my testimony to the “glorious Gospel” of Jesus Christ in some ways is even more dramatic, if much less titillating. I said to my friend this summer, “Thank God for Jim Birchfield’s testimony and the fact that his example is very helpful to you. But let me ask you this: “Which would you rather have for your children, the testimony of a mid-life conversion or one of knowing and experiencing God’s grace from childhood right through to the sunset years of life?” With that, he shook his head and said, “I get you!”
You see, even Timothy had the benefit of a godly mother and grandmother. He came to faith early in life. His story was different from that of Paul.
You see, the glorious Gospel is there for each of us. Our stories may differ. Some may be quite dramatic, and some of us have been blessed with Christian nurture from our earliest days.
As I prepared this message, I came across this statement by Charles Haddon Spurgeon in a sermon he preached well over a hundred years ago on this text. He wrote:
To every man who is ever saved by the gospel, it comes as a piece of news as novel, fresh, and startling as if he had never heard it before. The letter may be old, but the inward meaning is as new as though the ink were not dry yet in the pen of revelation. I confess to have been tutored in piety, put into my cradle by prayerful hands, and lulled to sleep by songs concerning Jesus; but after having heard the gospel continually, with line upon line, precept upon precept, here much and there much, yet when the word of the Lord came to me with power, it was as new as if I had lived among the unvisited tribes of central Africa, and had never heard the tidings of the cleansing fountain filled with blood from the Savior’s veins.
What is your story? Is it one of dramatic spiritual transformation, as in the case of the Apostle Paul? Is it one of gradual wrestling with the tough intellectual issues of the faith, repudiating your childhood profession and now coming back to Jesus Christ in middle life, as in the case of C.S. Lewis? Is your story one like that of Jim Birchfield, never having really given much consideration to all of this, putting your chair outside of the circle of the discussion group, feeling such conversation is preposterous, only to realize your need of the Savior and finding His transformation of life? Or is your story more like that of Timothy’s, Spurgeon’s or mine, coming early in life to faith in Jesus Christ, genuinely knowing your need of a Savior? You do not have a dramatic story to tell except wherein the story is all the more dramatic as decade upon decade you have found God’s faithfulness, His presence in times of doubt, and His forgiveness of sins more subtle but just as malignant – pride, self-righteousness, judgmental attitude, a selfish condescending spirit to those struggling with some of the more dramatic sins of the flesh.
Question Three: Do you have the assurance of salvation?
Answer: Yes, you do!
Let me sketch a hypothetical situation. Imagine, much to your surprise, you were to die later today and step into the presence of Jesus Christ in heaven. Imagine that Jesus is standing before you. He looks you square in the eyes and says, “What right do you have to enter my kingdom of heaven?” What would you say?
This reminds me of a St. Peter story I heard this week. I thought I had heard them all. A powerful senator died after a prolonged illness. He arrived in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance, who says, “We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we are not certain what to do with you.”
“No problem,” says the senator, “Just let me in!”
St. Peter responds, “I’d like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we will do is have you spend one day in hell and one day in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”
“Really. I have already made up my mind. I want to be heaven” said the senator.
St. Peter responds, “I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”
With that, St. Peter escorts the senator to the elevator and he goes down, down, down, to hell. The doors open, and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a club, and standing in front of it are all of his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is happy and in evening attire. They run to greet him, hug him and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They play a friendly round of golf and then dine on lobster and caviar.
Also present is the devil who really is a very friendly fellow, who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that, before he realizes it, it is time to go! Everyone gives him a big hug and waves while the elevator rises.
The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven, where St. Peter is waiting for him. “Now it is time to visit heaven.”
So twenty-four hours pass with this powerful senator joining a group of contented persons, moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the twenty-four hours have gone by, and St. Peter returns.
“Well, then, you have spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”
The senator reflects for a moment and then answers, “Well, I would never have said it. I mean, heaven has been delightful. But I think I would be better off in hell.”
So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.
Now the doors of the elevator open, and he is in the middle of a barren land, covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags. The devil comes over to him and lays his arm on his neck. “I don’t understand,” stammers the senator. “Yesterday when I was here there was a golf course, and a clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, danced and had a great time. Now it’s all a wasteland full of garbage, and my friends look miserable.”
The devil looks at him and smiles and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted for us!”
Enough of such nonsense.
Let’s go back to heaven. You are standing before Jesus Christ, and He asks you what right do you have to enter the kingdom. What are you going to say?
“I have tried to live a good life!” That’s not the right answer.
“I went to church every Sunday and tithed and even taught Sunday School.” All very good, but that’s not the right answer.
“I really gave a lot of time to helping the poor, the homeless and addressing the justice issues of our day.” Terrific! Very important to do! But that’s not the right answer.
Do you know what the right answer is? “I have no right in and of myself. My right is in the fact that you, Jesus Christ, came to earth, died for my sins, and invited me to repent and put my trust in you alone for salvation.” That’s the right answer. That’s the answer that has the assurance of salvation.
Friday afternoon I attended the memorial service for Pat Dunigan. His daughter, Erin, recently graduated from Princeton Seminary, gave the memorial meditation. She told how, in the days before her father died of cancer, he talked about a lot of things. He taught her how to bake a wonderful bread he always baked as Christmas gifts.
Then, in a moment of candor, Erin asked her Dad if he was afraid to die, unsure of what she expected as an answer. Without hesitating, he said, “No, I am not afraid to die. I never have been. I know where I am going, and I know that it is a better place. I have always known.” And then he paused for a moment. “I’ve never needed toe crossings or altar calls or to put my hands up in the air when I sing songs in church. Some people do that, and that’s okay. But I don’t need that. It’s not for me. I just know, and I have always known.”
That’s the assurance of salvation. To know because of what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. You are His, and He is yours.
Paul concludes his own personal testimony with an ascription of praise to God that sends chills down my spine when I take the time to think of the privilege I have to be in personal relationship with such a Savior God. He declares: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (
What an ascription of praise! Both the first century and the twenty-first century place before us multiple opportunities for idolatry, to worship other gods. Our mentor challenges us to give our praise to the one true God.
And then Paul concludes with a challenge, coupled with a warning. He writes: “I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme” (
You and I are challenged to fight the good fight. Life will not be easy. It never is. But with faith in the Lord, and a good conscience that comes from being forgiven by Him and empowered by His Holy Spirit, we can live one day at a time, undergirded by His mercy, His peace, His grace.
The warning is that there are some who, rejecting their conscience, suffer shipwreck in the faith. We don’t know much more about Hymenaeus and Alexander, but we have seen enough, in our contemporary experience of those who profess a faith in Jesus Christ and then falter along the way, to realize how important it is to maintain a daily walk with Jesus Christ, who has the power to save – not only for eternity but in the challenges of each day.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, CA.