“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.”
A faithful saying!
Which can stand much repetition in our time, when its contents are almost obliterated with all the tinsel and noise hosting the myth concerning a jolly old St. Nick, a myth which has largely replaced the infallible truth that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
A reliable, trustworthy doctrine which was intended to be not merely a formula of faith to be taken on the lips of the professor, but a tried doctrinal truth which constitutes the very heart of the gospel. A truth which has passed through many a controversial melee; which has engendered the gibes of Satan, and brought the professors of it into the flames of persecution. A truth which nevertheless has emerged as the granite rock out of the tempestuous sea—more sparkling and glorious than ever. Which was embedded itself in the hearts and has been expressed on the lips of the believing church as an unshakable conviction.
Worthy of all acceptation!
Because it merits your approbation, and appropriation! Because your faith, that gift of the grace of God in you, embraces it as the fundamental, basic truth upon which all your faith and hope rests.
Such is the nature of the saying and your reaction to it when you learn to know yourself as a sinner, among whom, like the apostle, you consider yourself to be chief.
The saying was undoubtedly restated so many times that it is pointless to say that the apostle is referring to any particular statement which Jesus Himself made, or that others made concerning Him. In other words, you cannot find in the gospels any literal statement as it appears in the text; while all of the gospels, and especially that according to John, emphasize the truth of the statement again and again. How often the Lord speaks of His coming into the world to seek and to find the lost. And does not Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, declare: “Yea, Lord; I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world?” O, indeed, it was a faithful, reliable, trustworthy saying which was handed down to and appropriated as infallible truth by the apostle.
Once the apostle evidently considered it a preposterous lie, and therefore he sought to silence those who repeated it by having them imprisoned and killed. It is this fact that he bemoans in the context when he says: “Who was before a blasphemer, and persecutor and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” How different was his attitude and his reaction to the saying when the grace of God captured him, implanting in his heart faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.
A faithful saying, worthy of all acceptation!
Does this mean that the saying is worthy to be accepted by all men? or does it mean that the saying should be considered worthy of acceptance in its entirety? It should not be difficult to see that the apostle refers to the former, and that for two reasons. In the first place, it goes without saying that the statement: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” should be accepted in its entirety. The saying cannot be altered, nor can any portion of it be omitted without destroying the saying. And in the second place, the last part of the saying, namely, “to save sinners,” implies that the “all” refers to all sinners, and since all men are sinners therefore the saying should be acceptable to all men. It merits the appropriation and reception of all.
Christ Jesus came into the world!
That is the first element in the saying that commands your acceptance! Into the world He came!
But was He not always in the world, that is, since its creation? Indeed He was, but not as Christ Jesus! Surely as the son of God, and more particularly as the Logos, the Word of God, He is the very Word by which God called the world, the cosmos, into being. He is also the Word which God continually speaks that sustains the world and all that is contains. But the apostle is not thinking merely of the world of creation and the Divine Logos whereby the world came forth from the hand of the Creator in all its splendor, harmony, and beauty. Rather it is that created world as it now lies under the curse of God in the midst of sin and death. It is the world of which Satan is prince, and in which fallen mankind gropes in darkness and in slavery to sin. It is the world of creation as it also came under the curse for man’s sin, and which now groans and travails in pain, waiting for our redemption, and looking in hope to be delivered.
Into that world Christ Jesus came!
God’s anointed Saviour!
That He is Saviour is already indicated in the name Jesus! “For thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world: but that the world through Him might be saved.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Anointed of God! That is the significance of the name Christ! God set Him apart in His eternal counsel, appointed Him, and by His spirit qualified Him to be the Saviour of the world—the world that God loved. Through the conception of the Holy Spirit, therefore, and through the birth of a virgin, Christ Jesus made His entrance into the world, our world of sin and death, but God’s world which He planned to save through the way of sin and grace.
Wonder of wonders! The Divine Saviour came into the world!
Oh, indeed, He was sent of the Father!
But He also came! Preparing a place for Himself in the womb of the virgin, He is born of the seed of David, born under the law. It was in Bethlehem of Judea that He chose to make His lowly entrance into our world. At His birth the heavenly angels of God are sent to signal its reality, and the lowly shepherds from the fields of Ephrata rush to be the first witnesses of His humble appearance; for the virgin brought forth her first-born Son, God’s Only-Begotten, and dressed Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.
Thus He made His entrance into our world, and into our nature!
And He came to save sinners!
Not to save all sinners did He come! Nor was it His intention in coming into our nature to make salvation possible for all men!
Rather, among all the sinners are His people whom He came to save! Those given Him by the Father from everlasting, when He was anointed and appointed to be their Saviour!
To save them He had to first enter their state. This He could and did do when He assumed their nature, and in that nature assumed also their guilt, and with their guilt passed under the righteous judgment of the Holy God. Moreover, to save these sinners He had to merit righteousness for them by walking with their guilt in the way of perfect obedience. To save them He not only had to bring a sacrifice of atonement in His blood for their sin and guilt, but at the same time fulfill the law of God so perfectly that He Himself could not be condemned. In other words, as their anointed Head and Redeemer He must not only satisfy God’s justice over against their sins, but He must also merit the right to have them declared perfectly righteous in the same judgment of God. But this is not all. For He must not only be Christ Jesus for them—He must also be Christ Jesus in them, shall they be saved. So as Christ Jesus He by His Word and by His Spirit enters their hearts and applies unto each of them His saving grace. So His itinerary in the world takes Him from Bethlehem over the hill of the skull to Pentecost and the upper room, and by the Spirit of Pentecost through the preaching of the gospel into every heart—regenerating, calling, justifying and sanctifying them—applying unto them His saving power.
Thus He saves them by delivering them from the greatest possible evil, and bringing them into the possession and enjoyment of the highest possible bliss.
Sinners He saves!
Those who through their first father Adam have missed the mark of the high calling of God to love Him with all their heart, mind, and strength. And who ever since can only increase their debt—who consequently are totally depraved and inclined to all evil. But who have been brought to a spiritual knowledge of their depravity, of their sin and guilt and corruption, having been confronted with the law and the gospel, and in whom the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus dwells—convicting them of sin, and impelling them to cry out to the living God: O, God, be merciful to me the sinner. Sinners they are who sense their great need of the Saviour and the salvation He came to realize for them and in them.
Of whom I am chief!
But is not the apostle mistaken? Should he not, rather have said: Of whom I was chief? And is not his statement a gross exaggeration? Is it not the same apostle who elsewhere declares: “touching the righteousness which is in the law blameless?” And are there not myriads of sinners who would heartily disagree with the apostle? Would not Augustine and John Bunyan take the apostle to task for this exclusive appropriation of the title: chief of sinners? And how about you, my reader, do you agree with him?
As to that first question, no, the apostle is not mistaken. He may have been and was a forgiven sinner, and a cleansed sinner, and a sanctified sinner, but he would still have to say, not, I was, but I am a sinner. And the answer to the second, again is: no, this is not an exaggeration. When the apostle saw his sin in the light of the salvation wrought by his Saviour, then his sin was so great that the sins of others could not compare to it. The meaning cannot be that the apostle was guilty of more sin than any other fellow sinner, except in his own assessment, in his own condemnation of his own guilt. And that is why Augustine and John Bunyan, along with myriads of other sinners, and why you and I will say the same as Paul: Of whom I am chief.
There is here the personal appropriation of the faithful saying! Though we are not saved apart from the people of God who are saved from their sins, there is nevertheless a personal appropriation of Christ Jesus the Saviour which forces you and me to stand at the cross alone and experience that salvation as if He died for us only. Like the publican (Luke 18:13) we exclaim: “God be merciful to me (not: a; but: the) sinner”; as if among all the sinners there is none like you and me.
That is what saving grace does to the sinner. It makes him to exclaim: I am the least of all saints, and the foremost of all sinners. It humbles us into the dust so completely, that it can be fully appreciated that salvation is of Christ Jesus alone!
It is that Saviour, God’s anointed Servant, whose coming into the world we celebrate this Christmas tide, because He saved us from our sins!