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.