Rev. Michael Aitcheson is church planting pastor of Christ United Fellowship (PCA) in Orlando, Florida. He has served in several ministry capacities since 2004 and he completed his Master of Divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando in 2011. He was ordained a PCA Teaching Elder in 2013.
This morning, our text is going to come from a familiar passage, in 1 Timothy 1:12-17. We’ll spend a few moments this morning wrestling through some of these thoughts, but let me read our text this morning and then ask the Lord for His blessing on our time. Hear these words, 1 Timothy 1:12-17:
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.
Let us pray. Our God and our Father, we thank You for Your Word, we thank You for the promises contained therein, we beg Your help today. Open the eyes of our hearts, grant us understanding, remove the block out of our fears, turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, sanctify us today in the truth, Lord empower me for this, Your service; may my words be Yours and what is not of You let it fall to the ground. I boast now in my weakness, O God, that Your power would rest upon me. Anoint me now for this, Your service, by the power of Your Spirit. Not to us be the glory, O Lord, not to us, but to You alone. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Well, my friends, as you all heard earlier, I am a church planter. And so, as a church planter, one of the things that I spend most of my time doing is meeting people, gathering people, and telling people about Jesus, inviting people into our home, loving on them whether they are a believer or an unbeliever. But as a church planter, I have a special interest in reaching people who do not know Jesus. Much of my time is dedicated to that at the front end, though I am called to shepherd and love on the found, I am constantly in pursuit of finding the lost. And it’s very interesting when you get into conversation with people, and get to understand what they believe about salvation, what they believe about God, what they believe about eternal life. You run into some interesting things, you also run into some things that, sadly, and often times become cliché, to our ears, like, “I think that, you know, if I do just enough, the man upstairs will…” you fill in the blank; “I feel like if I give enough to charity the man upstairs will…” fill in the blank. I remember on one occasion, at our local park, I was talking to a woman of Palestinian descent with a host of other backgrounds, very fascinating woman, and she was what you would probably consider maybe an open Muslim; a secular Muslim, open to other thoughts and very much interested in raising her children in a Christian church, as well, exposing them to that. And so, we started talking about what might church look like. Now at this time, there was no gathering of people it was just, me, my wife, and, I think, maybe there was one, possibly two, kids at the time. All of my kids have been born into a church planting context. In fact, all of my kids have been born prior to us particularizing. And so, we started to exchange ideas, and I said, “Well, that’s interesting. I like your openness…” and so on and so forth, but I wanted to make sure that in as loving a manner as possible, I communicated to her that there could be some very strong distinctions between what she believes and what we believe about getting to spend eternity with God. I was not belligerent, we weren’t confrontational with one another, I just asked her a few diagnostic questions. She said, “Well, I think that if I do enough good things, if I’m good enough, the man upstairs he will let me in.” That’s where she rested her hope for eternity.
Now we hear this phrase “works righteousness” so often that it almost becomes rote to us, we get stuck in the monotony of it. You’re not saved by your works, you’re saved by grace. But believe it or not, my dear friends, believe it or not, beloved, there are quite a few people who are very much convinced that if they commit enough virtuous acts, that it will counter all of the displeasing acts that they have committed before God. There are some genuine and loving and very kind people who will say, “That’s wonderful what you believe, but here’s what I think it really looks like; if I just do enough wonderful things, I cannot help but believe that God is kind enough to grant me entrance into His dwelling for all eternity.” Now, of course, you and I know just what the reality is, we’ve firmly fixed our focus on Christ Jesus as our hope. But I would like to hazard a guess— I’m going to step out on a limb this morning— and say that though we know that intellectually, I would hazard guess that all of us, in the very least prior to being saved, for some maybe not all, understands what it’s like to rest and trust in our works. To rest and trust in our achievements as a source of our salvation. And I’ll tell you this morning that even as Christians, we still struggle with it. We think often times, especially those of us who are educated Christians, we rest our hope in our knowledge about Christ instead of resting our hope in the source of our knowledge, the object of our salvation.
I think we’re all familiar with that struggle of resting in our achievements, resting in our knowledge, resting in a host of things that we’ve done, or knowledge that we possess as a source of our hope. But I think Paul encourages us this morning— I believe we’ll be encouraged to walk in humility as we are reminded in this text. And this is something that should never ever become rote to us, this is never something that should ever become boring to us. It should be something that’s fresh upon us on a regular basis. I believe we’ll be reminded that our salvation is based only on the work of Christ. Especially, again, I’ll remind you, and, I include myself in this, for those of us who struggle with glorying in how much we know about Christ instead of glorying in Christ, the source of our knowledge. And this text we will see here that Paul is writing to Timothy, he’s covering a host of things about false teachers, about the law. And Paul, he transitions into this testimonial period where it concludes with his bursting out in praise for the grace that he received in Jesus Christ. So, Paul’s testimony is one that he just stops, somewhat midstream in this letter, and just breaks out; he erupts into praise as he thinks about what God has done for him in Jesus Christ. I want us to consider three points, three divisions in our texts this morning; the power of God, the purpose of God, and the praise of God.
If you look there at verses 12-14, Paul says, “I thank Him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because He judged me faithful, appointing me to His service.” So, Paul opens up this section with thanksgiving. He opens up this section with praise and with gratitude for Jesus Christ who gives him strength, who judged him faithful, and appointed him to his service. Beloved, the same grace that it took to bring us into fellowship with Christ is the same grace that sustains us on the journey. Paul would have us to understand that I’ve been called to this service by the grace of God, nothing of myself. I’m sustained in this service, not of anything in myself, but by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who gives me strength. And when you think about his former life, you cannot help but testify that it’s by the grace of God that a man like Saul would become a man like Paul, and then appointed to Apostle of Christ, author of numbers of New Testament books, agent of salvation for many. And Paul is not boasting here, he is not boasting, he’s acknowledging that that Christ call on his life came despite his former life.
So, we’ve got to focus in clearly here, not see Paul as boasting. Paul is not standing, beating his chest saying, “Look how great I am; God did these things because I was so great.” He says in verse 13, “Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Now, when we hear these words, these are very strong words. These describe a very, what seems like, wicked man. He was a blasphemer, he was an insolent opponent. That Paul’s focus, his chief end, was to destroy the Christians. He thought he was doing God’s bidding by ravaging, destroying, and disturbing the church. If you remember in Acts 8, he says, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Opposing Christ was a part of Paul’s regular routine. Opposition to Christ was his delight, and he thought he was doing God’s bidding. This was no common wicked man, this was quite a wicked man. He was, in some ways, the epitome of a wicked man, devoted to destruction. Continuing in Acts 26:9-11:
I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
So, he approved the death of Christians, he encouraged them to blaspheme, he drove them away. Can you not say of Paul that he was a textbook wicked man? He demonstrated what wicked incarnate looks like, if you will, if you’ll allow me to take liberty. I don’t think Paul wants us to take lightly just how destructive, just how wicked and sinful he was. I don’t think Paul wants to handle that rough-shot, I think he wants us to understand something about the depth of his sin, how pervasive and far-reaching, how many people his sin impacted. But Paul says, “I receive mercy because I acted ignorantly.” Now we don’t want to say Paul is not here saying that the basis of his salvation is because he acted ignorantly. The point here is we need to be clear that Paul did not receive mercy on the basis of his ignorance, he was still held accountable for his actions, he was still held accountable for his sins, but what we must understand is that God, who is merciful, did not judge Paul according to the sins, which he deserved. And what he deserved was death, he deserved those very same things that he was committing, but God did not judge him that way. God did not unleash the judgment that Paul deserved. He didn’t unleash it, He showed him mercy. That’s what God did.
Paul wants us to see the great divide between him and God, and what closed that distance was the mercy of God. And so, this was a wicked man, this was a deeply, deeply disturbed man. Verse 14 says, “And the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Overflowed that its super-abounded, it was an amazing overflow, it was a tidal wave of grace. It was a tsunami of grace, if you will. He was consumed with the love and kindness of God. Listen, I want to tell you all this morning that God’s grace is greater than our sin. You may struggle with condemnation, you may think, “God, I’ve messed up. Can you forgive me for my big blunder?” As deep as your sin goes, God’s grace goes deeper. There is no sin too great in your life, no sin too deep in your life, no sin so far in your life that the grace of God cannot reach it. Paul says that His grace super-abounded, it overflowed for him, the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. You know, we hear these things and we know them in our minds. It stirs us occasionally and we get excited about these things but sometimes I wonder if we are truly convinced. And one of the ways that you can tell just where we are in this matter is not only when we harsh on ourselves when we fail, but how do we treat other people when we see them fail? How do we look at others when we see them fail in a great, in a big way? When we see people sin in large portion, how do we respond to these people? In our minds, do we think, “Well, they’re irredeemable,” in our minds do we think or do we recount just how sinful we were? Do we recall on a regular basis the grace that sustains us? You see, because sometimes, the temptation for folks like us —who are so close to the Word, who are just constantly drinking from the well of Christ and in the Word of God, and filled with all these great wonders— is to think that we’ve arrived and to forget that the same grace that saved the apostle Paul is the same grace that saved us. Lest we walk in arrogance and look down on people when they fail, how do we treat others? Do we recall the power of Christ in our own lives?
We see here the power of Christ. Look with me now at the purpose of Christ in verse 15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The saying is trustworthy, it’s dependable, it’s faithful, it’s true, it stood the test of time, and it’s deserving of full acceptance. When I was a kid there was an old saying that I was taught, and it went something like this, “A promise is a comfort to a fool.” Well, we know much of that depends on the one making the promise, but Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6 that you’re foolish if you don’t take comfort in this promise. That the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being saved but it’s the power of God for those of us who believe. Beloved, Paul says that this saying is one that has stood the test of time. It’s not just one of those axioms that under close scrutiny will collapse. It’s not just one of those wives’ tales, it’s not one of those legends that are passed down, Paul says to us it is trustworthy. With all of your heart, with all of your mind, with all of your soul grab hold of this saying. Believe it, let is saturate every fiber of your being, and cling on to it for dear life. It’s deserving, it’s entitled to full acceptance. Christ Jesus, the divinely anointed King, came into the world to die for sinners. This is our very God, He took an interest in us as we sang earlier. It’s an amazing love that God would take such a concerted, intentional, interest in His people so as to die for them. And that’s what Jesus did for us. This is the gospel succinctly stated.
People ask me, “What do you believe?” Well, I believe God did the work that was required. I don’t disagree with you that there was some work to be done, but where we disagree is who did the work. Well, what do you mean, “I don’t think I can do enough?” Christ Jesus did it all. He came into the world to die for sinners. The gospel succinctly stated that it’s not a possibility, it’s not a perhaps, it’s not something interesting to think about; Paul would have us to understand that this is a guarantee, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, He died for sinners, and He saved sinners. Salvation is found in no other name than Christ Jesus. That is, we were once under God’s wrath and now we have peace with Him through Christ. We were once eternally separated, now we have eternal fellowship for those of us who are in Christ. We once were dead men walking, now we have life more abundantly in the here and now, and we look forward to life eternally with our Savior. This is the multifaceted beauty, the multi-aspect beauty of the gospel, like a diamond.
Not only did he die to save sinners, it has eternal implications. That means if he died for us and we believed, we spend the rest of eternity with Him. Paul says here that it’s a trustworthy saying. He says, “And of these sinners, I am the foremost.” And so, we pause here, and we realize there is no boasting in our own strength, no boasting in anything we’ve done. Our works are not enough. Let me free you up this morning and let me humble you lest you think you need to go on and read an extra chapter of Geerhardus Vos to gain God’s favor, or lest you think you need to go and cover a volume of Herman Bavinck in one setting. God is all the more pleased with you if you don’t. Let me free you this morning, people, let me bring your report from the field. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s no paper, there’s no book, there’s no thesis, there’s nothing you can accomplish or fail to accomplish to make God love you less. His love is final. The saying is trustworthy that Christ Jesus came to save sinners, not Mike Aitcheson did enough to save himself, not Dr. Tweeddale did enough to save himself, not Dr. Lawson. It’s Christ Jesus. Don’t even hold on to yourself, let that go. It will only wear you out, it will only frustrate you, it will only anger you. Let me free you there and let me humble you on the other side, lest you think more of yourself than you ought. Your greatest achievements still mean nothing, because gratefully they pale in comparison to what Christ has already done.
Paul says, “Of whom I am the foremost,” that is number one, he’s first in-line, he’s head of the class, and Paul is not exaggerating here as we already discussed previously. Now was Paul the worst sinner in the world? We don’t know. Did he commit the most acts any human being possible before being saved by Jesus? I don’t know, only God knows that. But there is a certain ethos, there’s a certain character, there’s a certain reality that Paul is trying to communicate to us. Once he encountered the grace of Jesus Christ, he understood something about the magnitude of his sin. And that’s what happens when we are devastated by the grace of God. We realize, man, oh my goodness, I cannot believe just how vile I was. And sometimes we can’t understand just how ugly we were until we encounter the beauty of our majestic King. And Paul says, “I was the foremost.”
You know, in our Reformed circles, I think this is one thing we get pretty good. There was a joke someone said to me one day, “Why do you Reformed folks always talk about how bad you are?” I said, “Well, you know, we could be worse.” He said he was in a Bible study and one guy said, “You don’t know how wicked I am.” The guy next to him, “You have no idea, I’m the foremost of sinners. Let me tell you what I did last night, let me tell you how mean I was.” The next guy said, “Well, let me tell you what I did this morning,” and then the other guy one-upped him and said, “Let me tell you what I’m thinking about you all right now.” We, as Reformed folks, I think we get this part right. Paul wants us to understand that he was a super-sinner saved by super-grace, and this is the posture all blood-washed believers should take. We should all think that we are the worst sinner, that we are the foremost sinner. That’s the type of humility with which we should walk, “I’m the worst, Lord. Thank goodness you saved me. I’m the foremost.” That’s the type of ethos that should exude from us. No matter how small or great our sin, it’s a trespass against an infinite God. I believe it was Dr. Sproul that says, “Sin is cosmic treason.” I heard that as a high school kid, that it’s cosmic treason. When you sin, you sin against an infinite God. No matter how great or how small your sinning has been, it’s against a very big God, the King of the cosmos. And so, we should all have that same attitude.
Paul says in verse 16, “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,” that word, literally “as an example,” is a sketch, he’s the pattern. Here is Christ, beautiful portrait of His patience; here’s Christ, beautiful artwork; here’s Christ, beautiful skill; here’s His masterpiece — he takes destroyed, rag-tag folks like ourselves and makes beautiful paintings out of us, beautiful illustrations, beautiful sketches out of us. That’s what Paul wants us to understand, that he’s an example, he is a sketch of God’s grace and His mercy. “But I received mercy for this reason,” jumping ahead, “Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Beloved, what we have in our Savior is One who is patience, One who is long-suffering when it comes to getting His own. My, how we must have that mindset when we’re reaching lost people.
Sometimes I think we have categories of people who are worthy to be saved. Heaven help us when we do that. Heaven help us when we write someone off. It was a dear woman at my church, Zeena Wilson, who said to me while I was in seminary, “Michael, you remember, as long as they are alive, there is hope.” We don’t know who the elect are, you keep praying and you keep loving on people, no matter how wicked they are. I was struck this week as I was reading Richard Baxter, and he said, in his Christian Directory, “How should we love our enemy? You should desire every good thing for them that you desire for yourself. You should desire your enemy to be saved by the grace of God.” And I just entered into a season of repentance in my office. I said, “God, help me. God, help me when my heart is filled with vengeance. God, help me when my heart is filled with writing people off and saying, ‘Forget it.’” We see here that Paul is an example of just how powerful the grace of God is to save the most wicked and vile among us. Just how sufficient His grace is to save the worst of sinners if you will. It’s the hymn writer who said, “That dying thief rejoiced to see the fountain in his day and there am I, thou vile as he, washed all sins away.” The dying thief rejoiced, the same grace that saved the dying thief, beloved, is the same grace that saved you and me. We are pictures of God’s beautiful grace to the lost world. We are sketches like the Apostle Paul of what God can do, what transforming grace does.
And we close here with our third point, the praise of God. This is quite simple, isn’t it? I had professor, Scott Swain, in seminary who said, “Doctrine should lead to doxology.” When we understand, when we encounter what God, in Christ, has done for us, it should lead to praise, it should lead to adoration, it should lead to affection, it should warm our hearts when thinking about just how wicked we could’ve been. When we think about the things from which God spared us, it should drive us to our knees, it should drive us to glory in the King of creation. When we think about His mercy, it doesn’t give us what deserve. We don’t get what we deserve and the things that we do get are things that we didn’t deserve. What we deserve is what Christ got. We got His grace, we got His mercy and that should drive us to praise.
Paul says, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” After giving glory to Christ for His amazing grace and coming into the world to saves sinners, Paul erupts into praise. Isn’t this the appropriate response when we think about what God has done for us? He says, “To the King of the ages,” was Christ not there in the beginning? How do we know this King? Were not all things made through Him, says Paul? The immortal, the One who never sees death or corruption in the grave, David said, “You would not abandon your holy one or let him see corruption in the grave.” Did not Jesus rise from the grave to prove His power over death and sin? Paul says to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible. Moses said to the Father, “Can I see your glory?” God said, “I can’t do that, Moses, no man can see the unfettered glory of God and live.” It’s too devastating. We can’t see the invisible God, but Paul says Jesus is the exact imprint of the invisible God. The God we cannot see, we see Him in Jesus Christ. Behold, the Son, the fullness of deity dwells in Him bodily is what Paul says. The God we cannot see has been made known in Jesus Christ, the only God. Does not the Bible say that He is the Alpha and the Omega? The gateway to eternity and no man can get to the Father except through Him. Yes, we come to know this God through Jesus Christ.
We come to know the King of the ages, we come to know the Father through the Son, and we praise God that He sent the Spirit to apply this great salvation to us. We praise God that we are sustained, we are strengthened, and we are kept by the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. Oh, how our Triune King is worthy of our affection this morning. Elected by the Father, salvation accomplished by the Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit. Paul says, “Amen.” Amen, let it be so. Hold on, my dear friends, to this trustworthy saying with every fiber of your being. In your times of doubt, hold on to this saying; in your times of arrogance, drop to your knees and cling all the tighter to this trustworthy saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of which we all are the foremost. Praise God, let us pray.
Our God and our Father, we thank you for your grace and your mercy. Lord, by the power of your Spirit, we ask You to seal this word to our hearts so that we would serve You with joyful obedience. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
Transcripts are lightly edited.