If you were to survey people about why Jesus came to earth, you’d probably get a variety of answers. I did this very thing a few years ago with some high school kids when I was on staff with Young Life. They gave answers they’d heard from people at various times.

You can probably guess the answers they gave. Some people thought Jesus came to show us a better way to live. He came as an example of love, and He wanted to call us to a higher, more loving way of life. Others said He came to shine a light on the plight of the less fortunate. He came as a sort of social activist, to right the wrongs in society. Some said He came as a liberator, to free slaves and women and downtrodden people from their oppressors.

There may be a grain of truth to each of these views, but they tend to miss the clear teaching of Scripture in passages such as 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.

Why did Jesus come into the world? Paul tells us in verse 15: to save sinners. In this series on 1 Timothy 1:12–17, we’re looking at Paul’s paradigm of salvation, how it gives us the what, the how, and the why of salvation. We’ve previously covered the what of salvation, and in this installment, we’re going to look at the how.

Paul introduces this statement by calling it “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.” This statement summarizes the gospel in just a few words. And its applicability is immediately obvious. If you are a sinner, this statement has meaning for you. We need someone to save us. And Jesus came to do just that.

To speak of salvation is to introduce a big topic. Paul doesn’t tell us all that is involved in salvation here, but he expands on it elsewhere in his letters. In Romans 3, he tells us that we gain righteousness through Christ apart from our works. In Romans 5, he tells us that we are saved by confessing our faith in Christ. In Galatians 4, he says we are adopted into God’s family through the work of Christ.

Christ came to save sinners, and He has surely accomplished what He set out to do. That salvation is not hypothetical; it is not contingent.

From these things, we can say that whatever else we might note about salvation, we know that it happens through the work of Christ. Salvation was the aim of Christ’s work. It is what He came to accomplish. Salvation—deliverance from sin and reconciliation with the Father—is tied up with, it is accomplished by, the work of Christ.

It is good news for us that Christ came to save sinners. Paul included himself among those who need to hear that good news as well, for in 1 Timothy 1:15 he calls himself the foremost of sinners. This may be a strange thought, as we often think of Paul after his conversion. This is the guy who wrote much of the New Testament, who planted churches all around the Mediterranean Sea, who endured hardship and persecution so that others could hear the gospel. How can he say that he’s the foremost of sinners?

Probably what he had in mind was a comparison with the Lord rather than a comparison to other people. You can see this in how Paul describes himself in some of his other letters. There’s a progression over the course of his life as a Christian. In 1 Corinthians 15, he calls himself the least of the Apostles. In Ephesians 3, he says he is the least of the saints. And here, he says he is the foremost of sinners.

It is often the case that as we progress in the Christian life, we gain a greater awareness of our sin. We seem to sink lower and lower in our own eyes. This is related to the fact that, at the same time, our understanding of God’s holiness grows higher and higher so that the gap between our sin and God’s holiness grows bigger and bigger.

This is probably what Paul is thinking. Maybe you’ve been in the same place. You look at the gap between your sin and God’s holiness, and it’s overwhelming. As Paul reflects on God’s mercy, he is deeply aware of how far short of God’s holiness he fell. His sin loomed large, such that he saw himself as the greatest of sinners. But the good news is this: the cross of Christ is able to bridge that gap. Always. No matter how deep someone’s sin, he can be saved.

Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1:16 how salvation becomes ours. He speaks of “those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” We are to believe. In believing in Christ, in having faith in Christ alone, we receive the work that He has done on our behalf and we rest upon it, not trying to add our own works and trusting that it is sufficient for our salvation.

Christ came to save sinners, and He has surely accomplished what He set out to do. That salvation is not hypothetical; it is not contingent. It will not be undone when God realizes what big sinners we are.

Paul knows that if Christ saved him, who had done so much to persecute the church, then no one was beyond saving. Even that person who we might think can never be saved. Even you and me. The cross of Christ covers the sins of anyone in this world who has faith in Him. No one is beyond the reach of the Lord.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 24, 2020.

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