One of the reasons we are studying this epistle is to learn what the Christianity of the first-century was all about. We are calling it “vintage Christianity.” And this epistle is a good place to learn about this, especially because Paul was concerned at the end of his ministry to leave behind a legacy of faithful, apostolic churches. If we want to stand in this tradition, we need to hear what Paul had to say.
Last time, we learned that the mark of vintage Christianity is love. Paul wanted Timothy to stop the false-teachers because their doctrine was undermining love. However, love doesn't just come out of nowhere. It comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. The fact that love and faith are always mentioned together shows that you cannot have biblical love operating in the church unless it is comes from faith, which is based on The Faith, the gospel. Thus, you cannot have vintage Christianity without the gospel. It is the message of genuine Christianity.
Why is the gospel so important as the message of vintage Christianity?
When John Bunyan wrote a book in 1666 describing his conversion experience, he decided to name it Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a title which had as its inspiration Paul's own words about his conversion experience in verses 14-15. And, like Paul in our text, he understood the importance of the gospel, in that it could do what the law could not do. In another book, The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan creates a person called Interpreter, to explain to the main character the difference between the law and the gospel:
Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large parlor that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he had reviewed it a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now, when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a damsel that stood by, “Bring hither water, and sprinkle the room;” the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
Interpreter: The Interpreter answered, This parlor is the heart of a man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel. The dust is his original sin, and inward corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first, is the law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now whereas thou sawest, that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about that the room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou wast almost choked therewith; this is to show thee, that the law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, Rom. 7:9, put strength into, ,1 Cor. 15:56 and increase it in the soul, Rom. 5:20, even as it doth discover and forbid it; for it doth not give power to subdue. Again, as thou sawest the damsel sprinkle the room with water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure, this is to show thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then, I say, even as thou sawest the damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of glory to inhabit. John 15:3; Eph. 5:26; Acts 15:9; Rom. 16:25,26.
This is exactly the point that Paul is making in the text before us. The gospel can do what the law cannot. This was important because the false-teachers were promoting the law in a way that minimized faith in Christ: in teaching the law (v. 7), they had swerved aside from the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith (v. 5-6). Paul later identifies two of the false-teachers as Hymenaeus and Alexander, who had made ship-wreck of their faith (v.19-20). And just like the girl with the broom, their teaching was only stirring up the sin in the hearts of their followers instead of subduing it. Therefore, Paul has to correct this wrong use of the law, which he does in verses 8-11, and then to contrast it with the power of the gospel, which he illustrates by his own experience in verses 12-17.
Is this relevant?
Someone might ask this question. After all, the false-teachers were promoting the Mosaic law. This is clear in verses 9-10, which many commentators have noticed corresponds with the Ten Commandments. But many people today don't accept the Ten Commandments as any more authoritative as any other ancient law code. In fact, many today don't accept moral absolutes at all. It might therefore be claimed that this business about the law is something most people don't struggle with any more. Legalism might be rampant in some fundamentalist Christian communities, but by and large legalism has been replaced with licentiousness.
It needs to be pointed out that even licentious people can have problems with legalism. The code they judge themselves by may not be the Mosaic Law (it almost certainly isn't!), but they nevertheless have an inner code by which they judge the rightness and wrongness of their actions. Paul calls this their conscience. It may be deadened to a large extent, it may be misinformed, but it nevertheless is there, and it operates, even if on a lesser scale. It comes out in attitudes by which we compare ourselves with others: “I'm better than they are.” On what basis do we say this? It is because we all operate with a standard by which we judge our actions and the actions of others.
So anyone can get mired in the same problem that Paul is dealing with here. No matter what our “Law” is, if we believe that we can save ourselves by our own efforts, then we are legalists. If we are not looking away from ourselves to Christ, we are legalists. And that is exactly the mistake the false-teachers were making. The tragedy is that they were not saving themselves at all: they were neither sanctifying nor justifying themselves. Without Christ, we can do neither.
1. The Limit of the Law (8-11).
That doesn't mean that the law is bad. It means that, like anything else, we have to use the law correctly. The highway system in our country is an amazing blessing. But you have to use it right: you have to drive on the right side of the road at an appropriate speed and have your wits about you. People that don't abide by these simple rules will wreck their cars, if not their lives.
What Paul says about the law is that it is good if someone uses it lawfully (v.8). It is important to underline this, because many have a wrong perception about the law of God, as if it has no role in the believer's life at all – as if it is inherently bad. But this is not true; the law is “good, and just, and holy” (Rom. 7:12). Historically, theologians have identified three proper uses of the law: the pedagogical use of the law, the political use of the law, and the pious use of the law.1 A failure to use the law in these ways has led to great confusion and trouble in the church.
The pedagogical use of the law is exemplified in Romans 7:7. There Paul says that “I had not known lust, except the law had said, 'Thou shalt not covet.'” Paul is saying that the law opened his eyes to see his desperate condition. The law teaches us that we are sinners, completely unable to remedy our position. We all need to see this if the gospel is even to be meaningful to us.
The pious use of the law is explained by Paul in Romans 8:4. There, he says that Christ died in order that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us – in other words, so that we might be empowered to fulfill the law, which formerly we were not able to do because of our death in sin (cf. Rom. 8:6,7). This is confirmed in Hebrews 8:10; at the heart of the new covenant is the promise that God will write his laws in our hearts. Since this is a quotation from Jeremiah 31, there is no doubt that the law in question is moral law expressed in the Mosaic covenant. We call this the pious use of the law because it is integral to true piety: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22).
The political use of the law is what Paul is talking about here in our text (v.9-10). He lists thirteen categories of sinners, and then sums it up with “and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine” (v.10). But note that the kinds of things Paul lists are for the most part criminal acts that societies have punished people for doing. When Paul says that the law is not made for a righteous person but for notorious sinners (v. 9), he is pointing to the fact that the law is not made for law-abiders but for law-breakers in the sense that the law only springs into action whenever someone transgresses the boundaries it sets. In other words, this text points out the restraining purpose of the law. It restrains sin, not by conquering the sin in our hearts, but by attaching certain civil penalties to it in order to restrain the outward expression of sin in the community.
The point Paul seems to be making, then, is that the law can only restrain sin but it cannot conquer it. There is a limit to the law. The law is made for sinners as such. It is not made to change them, it is made to control them. It is not made to turn sinners into righteous people; for that end, it is powerless. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh...” (Rom. 8:3). The law cannot make us keep the law, but it can punish us when we break the law.
And this was the problem with the false-teachers. They were evidently teaching the law as if it had the power to change the heart and make a person acceptable to God. They were teaching that the law could in itself sanctify and justify. This is what Paul wants to contradict.
However, this doesn't mean that the law has no place in the life of the believer. When Paul says that we are no longer under the law, he means the law as a way to get right with God. He means we are no longer under a covenant that gave people commandments but gave them no power to fulfill them. That is the difference between the covenants: the old covenant commanded but gave no power; the new covenant commands but delivers us from the bondage of trying to keep the commands in our own strength or trying to keep them to get right with God. The New Testament is full of laws and commands (just read Romans 12!). In fact, Paul says that he is under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21).
So we should strive for holiness by paying attention to what God has commanded us. But the lesson of our text is that we should do so in faith, and to say with Paul, as we try to do the impossible, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In fact, this idea of Christ strengthening us to do his will is exactly what Paul will testify to in the next verses.
2. The Power of the Gospel (12-17).
We need to see this part of the passage in connection with the preceding verses. Some think that this passage is just an impromptu expression of praise on Paul's part, after mentioning in verse 11 that the gospel of the glory of the blessed God had been committed to his trust.
But I think it is more than that. What Paul is doing in these verses is to show that the gospel can do what the law cannot, and he uses himself as the primary example of this. However, he then goes on to generalize in verses 15,16 to all believers. In other words, this is not just true of Paul, it is true of everyone who has believed on him to life everlasting. How is this power of the gospel demonstrated?
(1) First, it is seen in God empowering Paul to live a life of faithful ministry (v. 12). When Paul says that God counted him faithful, putting him into the ministry, he isn't saying that his faithfulness to God before the ministry is what prompted God to put him into the ministry. This would contradict the spirit of a passage that is suffused with Paul's recognition of the grace and mercy of God as that which was behind who he was and what he did: “By the grace of God I am what I am...”(1 Cor. 15:10). Also, it would just contradict the facts. This is because Paul's conversion and call to the ministry happened at the same time. There simply was no faithfulness to God on Paul's part before his conversion. It must mean therefore that God judged that Paul would be faithful after he appointed him to the ministry. How would God know this? It is because God empowered Paul, gave him strength. God knew Paul would be faithful, not because Paul had it in him, but because God empowered him.
This is amazing if you consider what kind of ministry Paul had (cf. 2 Cor. 11:23-33). It was not easy. And yet he was able to say in the face of almost certain death, “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). In fact, this purpose of his to finish his course was fulfilled: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). We know how Paul did it: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” “By the grace of God I am what I am, and I labored more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was in me.” Paul was not a super-Christian because of the abilities he had. He was a faithful Christian because of the grace of God.
Contrast this with the false-teachers. They had abandoned the faith and turned aside to senseless babble (v. 6,20). They had made a wreck of their lives and ministries. Why? Because they were not looking to Christ, because they were not completely surrendered to him. Christ was not at the center of their lives – the things of this world had their hearts (cf. 6:5). On the other hand, Paul's confession was “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” This was the difference. On the one side, Paul lived out the gospel, with his faith in Christ, and on the other side, the false-teachers lived out their doctrines, with their hearts on this world. But only Paul made it to the end. Only the gospel gave the power to persevere.
(2) We see the power of the gospel in Paul's background as an unbeliever (v.13). Paul describes himself as “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.” In other words, Paul is identifying with the sinners of verses 9-10. He was one of those guys at one point. But it was not the law that saved him, it was the mercy of God: “but I obtained mercy.”
It might be thought that Paul is claiming some kind of prerogative to the mercy of God, when he says that he obtained it “because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” But Paul's ignorance and unbelief did not make him worthy of the mercy of God! What Paul is saying here is that he did not commit the unpardonable sin. He did not sin against light. He really didn't believe that Jesus was the Christ. He really believed that the Way was worthy of persecution. He didn't know. That didn't make him any less a sinner – after all, he calls himself the chief of sinners in verse 15 – but it did make him eligible (not worthy!) to receive mercy.
It really was amazing to Paul that God saved him. Paul had done the unthinkable – he had persecuted the people of God, and in doing so, had persecuted the very Son of God. And yet God rescued him. God took the most hardened of all the opposers of God's people, and made him the foremost spokesperson for the gospel. What can explain this? The gospel, not the law. Christ met him on the road to Damascus, the Pharisee who was steeped in the law of Moses, and it was Christ who changed him.
(3) We see the power of the gospel in Paul's conversion to Christ (v.14). Though the words “I obtained mercy” already point to Paul's conversion in verse 13, Paul elaborates on this in the following verse. Opposed to the triad of blasphemer-persecutor-injurious person is the triad of grace-faith-love. Paul's previous life hardened against the gospel was completely overpowered by the grace of Christ. Thus, as Paul identifies himself in verse 13 with the sinners in verses 9-10, in verse 14 he identifies what it was that rescued him from that condition: it was the grace of Jesus that created in an unbelieving, cruel heart, faith in Christ and love to him and his people.
God is still in the business of taking Sauls and turning them into Pauls. Most of you know of Henry Martyn, missionary to the Muslims of Persia in the nineteenth century. Of the men sent to help him in his translating work was a wild Arab named Sabat. His story is told in Constance Padwick's biography of Martyn:
He was first driven to Christianity by remorse. The friend of his youth, with whom he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, came across an Arabic Bible in Cabul, of all unlikely places, and far from any human teacher became a disciple of Christ. The change in him could not be hid, and he had to fly for his life. He came to Bokhara. Sabat his friend was in the city.
“I had no pity,” said Sabat afterwards. “I delivered him up to Morad Shah the king.” In the market-place they cut off one of the Christian's hands, Sabat the informer standing by in the crowd that watched. Then they pressed him to recant.
“He made no answer,” Sabat said, “but looked up steadfastly towards heaven, like Stephen, the first martyr, his eyes streaming with tears. He looked at me, but it was with the countenance of forgiveness. His other hand was then cut off. But he never changed, and when he bowed his head to receive the blow of death all Bokhara seemed to say, 'What new thing is this?'”
Sabat could not ease himself of his friend's last look. In South India he read for himself the Book that had made a martyr. Then he all but bullied the chaplain, Dr. Kerr, until he gave him baptism. (pp 176,177).
This is exactly the lesson Paul would have us to derive from verses 12-14, for in verses 15-16 he says that his case was no outlier. What happened to Paul can happen to all.
Verse 15 really is the heart of the gospel: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” What the law could never do, Christ did: he saves sinners. Notorious sinners, like the sinners mentioned in verses 9-10. Like Paul, like Sabat. Like you and me.
When Paul says that “Christ Jesus came into the world” he is pointing to the fact that the salvation of sinners took God becoming flesh in order to die in the place of sinners. Thus, the gospel itself implies that any other way of salvation is a mirage. If it takes God to save men, then men cannot save themselves. The law cannot save men, only Christ can. And he does.
How do we join Paul in this great salvation? How do our sins get forgiven? How do you gain eternal life? Paul tells us: he was a pattern “to them which should hereafter believe on him [Jesus] to life everlasting.” The gospel tells you what God has done to save sinners. It is not up to you to save yourself. But there is an appropriate response: confess you are a sinner, and commit your life to Christ in faith. And in believing all that Jesus has done for sinners becomes yours. All that remains is praise: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
1I took these categories from Philip G. Ryken's commentary on 1 Timothy.