This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
As every believer faces the burden of his sin, there is one truth that should especially echo in our hearts. This truth is faithful; it is absolutely trustworthy. It is worthy of all acceptation; we should have no hesitation in making it our confession. We must not doubt it in the least. This truth is at the very heart of the gospel: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”
That must be our confession each day of our lives. We are chief sinners deserving eternal damnation. But, Jesus Christ came to save sinners, such as we are.
Two kinds of sinners populate the world: the self-righteous sinner and the self-conscious sinner. How sad is the case of the self-righteous sinner in the church today. He thinks to himself, “I’m actually a pretty good person when it comes right down to it.” He admits to making a few mistakes in life; but he certainly is not as bad as the person across the aisle. He does not think of himself as an unworthy sinner; therefore, he does not look to Jesus Christ for salvation either.
But how beautiful it is when the self-conscious sinner says from the heart, “I am chief among sinners.” When we see ourselves that way, then we will look outside of ourselves for salvation. Then, and only then, will we look for all our salvation in Jesus Christ. We will say, “Without Jesus Christ, I am lost.” And, we will rejoice in the fact that if Jesus could save a sinner like Saul, He can certainly save sinners such as we are.
What a gracious Savior we serve! “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.”
The first thing we need to know about ourselves is that we are sinners. We miss the mark of God’s righteousness. Not merely that we have committed sins, some greater and some smaller, veering slightly to the right or to the left. But that we have corrupt natures that aim in the opposite direction of God’s law, natures that are prone to hate God and the neighbor. We sin when we fail to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, as He has commanded us. We sin when we omit any duty or when we do what God has forbidden us. Greedy thoughts, insincere words, and careless deeds abound. Our self-sacrificing, our kind words, our offerings for the causes of Christ’s kingdom, and even our prayers, are tainted with sin. Having sinned and come short of the glory of God, we deserve to pay the wages of sin, which is eternal, spiritual death in hell.
But, thanks be to God, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” like us! That truth brings us face to face with God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. God did not send Christ into the world to save the righteous. He did not come to save those who dress nicely and go to church, who send their children to the Christian school, who pay tithes, and who hold down good paying jobs. If that were the case, then salvation would be a matter of meriting. Jesus came to save sinners. Salvation, therefore, is a matter of pure mercy and grace.
Mercy is God’s great, loving compassion according to which He saves us out of our helpless misery. His mercy did not start when we looked for it. It did not start with us asking for it. It is not something we earned. God simply showered us with mercy according to His undeserved favor towards us in Jesus Christ. That grace towards us is not only abundant, it is exceeding abundant. “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” ().
“Jesus Christ came into the world.” He did not have to come; He could have left us in our misery. He dwelt in heavenly glory as God. But He became poor for our sakes. In His abundant mercy and grace, He chose to come into the world to save sinners. He emptied Himself of His glory and took on the form of a slave, coming in the likeness of men. He came into the world as it now stands under God’s curse. His entire life He carried the burden of our sins because God made Him to be sin for us. Carrying the guilt of our sin, He humbled Himself to the death of the cross and made a full payment for our sins.
“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.” The inspired apostle does not want us to entertain any doubt whatsoever about this. This is absolutely true: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners….
Of whom I am chief!
With the apostle Paul, this is our confession: “I am the chief of sinners.” The holy apostle Paul confessed this! And he was not exaggerating just to make a point; he meant it. Can we say that about ourselves and mean it?
Notice that the apostle does not say, “of whom I was chief.” Rather, he uses the present tense, “of whom I am chief.” So too, when we make this confession, we must not talk about the way we were in the past, as though we are not that way any longer. But with the apostle we must say that about ourselves today, “I am the chief of sinners.” God convicts us of our sins as the Holy Spirit applies His law to our hearts. The self-righteous sinner says, “I am more righteous than others.” He spends time finding fault with his wife, or children, or brother or sister in the church. He thinks he is so much better than his neighbor. But when God shows us who we truly are in comparison to His own perfect holiness, we come to the conclusion, “No other sinner can be as bad as I am.” By His mighty work in our hearts, God makes us conscious of our sins and humbles us in His presence.
Does that mean we actually think we are more wicked than every other sinner? Worse than Cain who murdered his brother? Worse than Jezebel who influenced Ahab to kill God’s prophets? Worse than the Jews who persecuted Jesus? Worse than Judas who betrayed Jesus? No, that is not what the apostle means. We are not confessing that we are more wicked than every other person in the world.
Rather, our confession arises from the fact that God shows us our own hearts, while we cannot see anyone else’s heart. We can see the wicked thoughts and intents in our own hearts; but all we can know of others is the outward. When we compare our inward, filthy hearts with the outward appearance of others, there is no comparison. In our own hearts we see wicked thoughts we would never dare verbalize. We perceive evil motives arising from pride and selfishness. The inward filth we see in ourselves compared to the outward manifestations of sin in others, tips the scales against us so that we cry out, “I am the chief of sinners.”
Secondly, the apostle’s declaration, “I am the chief of sinners” has to do with his closeness to God. The truth we have in view is the fact that, as we become conscious of the glory and holiness of God, we will become more conscious of our own sin. Like Isaiah, when we see the holiness of God we will cry out, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips…” (). The more we see the glorious radiance of God’s holiness and righteousness, the more we will see the darkness of our sin.
Do we make that confession: “I am the chief of sinners”?
If we do not first see the horror of our sin, we will never rejoice in Jesus Christ our Savior. The inspired apostle saw the horror of his sins and sinfulness; therefore, he rejoiced in the fact he obtained mercy: “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy…” (). He brings up his sins in the same breath as God’s mercy. What a gracious God we serve! He shows us mercy in spite of our great sins and sinfulness.
How can we be assured of God’s grace and mercy toward sinners?
First, we must know that our sins, no matter how great they are, cannot separate us from God’s love toward us in Christ Jesus. If the apostle sinned so callously against God, even stoning believers to death, and yet he obtained mercy from God, then we must not despair of God’s mercy when we call upon Him. We must never think to ourselves, “My sin is too great.” If God forgave David for his adultery and murder, He will certainly forgive us for our adulterous and murderous thoughts and acts when we call upon Him. If God forgave Peter for denying Jesus during His trial, He will certainly forgive us when we ask Him to forgive us for denying Him by our words and actions.
Why did Paul, the notorious sinner, obtain mercy from God? To show God’s patience toward His elect people, though we sin against Him so grievously. “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (). God’s longsuffering toward Paul demonstrated His glorious grace to others. God’s bearing with us and our sins demonstrates to others what a gracious and merciful God we serve.
Not only must we be assured that God’s grace is greater than all our sin, but we must also be assured that we are recipients of His abundant grace. How can we know this? If in our hearts we believe that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Do we know our sins and sinfulness? Do we believe that Christ Jesus came to save sinners? Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? That is the fruit of Christ’s great love for sinners. We come to see ourselves more and more as the least of all saints and the chief of sinners, and that salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.
May we ever confess this faithful saying, to the glory of God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son.