Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. I never liked the wording of the confession of sins in the old Lutheran hymnal: “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment” (The Lutheran Hymnal). It always struck me as strange that at the very moment in the worship service when we celebrate the freedom of Christ’s forgiveness, we would begin by groveling in our guilt. Calling yourself “a poor, miserable sinner” is a little bit harsh, don’t you think? It feels a lot like the hymnal is kicking a man when he’s already down. Most people coming to worship already know they are sinners. That’s why we’re here: to hear the Good News about God’s grace, not to get our consciences beaten up.
Furthermore, as one parishioner pointed out to me long away, why should I confess “all my sins and iniquities” if past sins have already been confessed and forgiven? The Psalmists sings, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12, ESV). And through the prophet Jeremiah, the LORD promises, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). If God forgives and forgets, then why can’t we?
Yet despite my feelings, perhaps there is something helpful about remembering our past sins, especially because they are forgiven. After all, feelings are rarely a good litmus test for theological truth and spiritual reality. Feelings will deceive and mislead you, but the Scriptures never will. Time and again, throughout the Bible, for some reason, forgiven sinners keep reflecting on their past sins. For example, in Psalm 51, even after he was forgiven for his affair with Bathsheba, King David said, “My sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3b). And in our epistle lesson, the Apostle Paul calls himself the “foremost” sinner, or, as the old King James version put it, the “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
Why would Paul speak of himself in this shocking way? After all, he is a hero of the faith—Saint Paul—and one of the greatest missionaries ever to live. Paul’s credentials included the fact that he was “appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Tim. 1:11) and “an apostle of Jesus Christ by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). Why would a pastor, of all people, let alone a pastor of Paul’s stature, speak so disparagingly of himself? Was this simply part of the self-deprecating way in which some preachers speak of themselves for humorous effect?
No, despite Paul’s high calling, he remained ever mindful of his past. He never forgot where he came from. The Apostle Paul and nearly everyone around him remembered his dark past, how “previously [he] was a blasphemer and persecutor and a violent man” (1 Tim. 1:13, CSM). No doubt some of you recall time when Paul served as the coat check for the stoning of Stephan, the first Christian martyr, and the way in which he gave approval to that deacon’s death (Acts 7:54-60). At that time, Paul was known by a different name: Saul of Tarsus. In Acts 8, Luke tells us, “Saul approved of [Stephan’s] execution…. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1-2). In fact, it was on his way to Damascus in order to arrest Christians, when Saul/Paul was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” that Jesus met him in blinding light on the Damascus road.
“Saul, Saul,” Jesus asked. “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
That very day Paul put an end to his violent persecution of the Church. He came to faith in a most extraordinary conversion—perhaps the biggest turnaround in history. Several days later he was baptized. Yet even in those early days of his beginning as a believer in Christ, the Lord said of Paul, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
God did amazing things through the Apostle Paul. He racked up more miles in his missionary travels than any of us probably ever will attain in our frequent flyer programs. He founded new churches all around the Roman Empire and on two continents. He was persecuted for preaching the very faith he once tried to destroy. At various times in his ministry, he was shipwrecked and stoned, mocked, arrested, attacked by mobs, beaten and left for dead. He even paid the ultimate price for his preaching and faith, dying a martyr’s death when he was beheaded at Rome.
Still, Paul never forgot where he, the chief of sinners, came from. Throughout his epistles, he makes frequent mention of his evil past (cf. Gal. 1:13ff; Phil. 3:5-6). Despite his amazing ministry record, his himself admitted, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9).
Yet it was not because of a guilty conscience that Paul kept bringing up his past as a violent and wicked persecutor of the church. Nor did he trot out his conversion story as a kind of emotional appeal for people who are always impressed by stories of prodigal sons and changed lives. To the contrary, Paul rejoiced in the grace of God! As he says, “The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:14). Twice in our epistle lesson, Paul writes, “I received mercy…” (1 Tim. 1:13). “I received mercy” (v. 16). For despite everything Paul did in his past, the Lord Jesus did even more for Paul.
Paul repeats and recounts the story of his past not as apology but as a way to show how truly amazing is God’s grace. “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” (1 Tim. 1:12). All of this is to say: God does not call the qualified; he qualifies the ones he calls. He gives grace to the humble, even if he must humble them before giving them grace. And so Paul’s life becomes a story of hope and encouragement to all of us. If God can forgive a sorry sinner like Paul, the “foremost” and “chief” of sinners, then certainly, he can—and will—forgive sinners like us.
I sometimes think that we should put up a sign outside our church that says NO PERFECT PEOPLE ALLOWED. Although perhaps that wouldn’t work, because then Jesus couldn’t come! Maybe a better sign would be ALL SINNERS WELCOME! After all, the Church is not a dusty museum full of dead saints, but a hospital full of sinners. Heaven itself is full of scoundrels because every saint has a past! Not just Paul, but also you and I. All of us have said, done, and thought things that would horrify our family, friends, and fellow believers if they could see what are hearts are really like. Remember: we are “poor, miserable sinners” (TLH). None of us deserve God’s grace.
Yet there is no need to cower in fear or grovel in guilt. Jesus still fully and freely forgives us in his perfect love. “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” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Jesus came to save sinners. He died on the cross, not because we are so wonderful and good, but precisely because we are wicked scoundrels. And yes, while he sometimes associated with those holier-than-thou Pharisees puffed up with pride, the Gospels tell us that Jesus much preferred to hang out with the downcast and outcastes, with the worst of the worst. As the Pharisees charged in our Gospel lesson: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2, NIV). Jesus was the friend of sinners. He still is.
At no point was this point driven home more powerfully in my life than the time I celebrated Communion in a maximum security prison in Illinois. During my first academic quarter at seminary in St. Louis, I had to select an institutional module for exposure to the kind of chaplaincy work that pastors often do. I chose prison ministry. Most weeks a few other seminarians and I would gather at the Madison County juvenile detention center to lead Bible study and sing a few praise songs on my guitar with troubled youth, most of them from East St. Louis.
Yet towards the end of the term, the chaplain took us to the state men’s prison so we could see what life was like behind bars. On the drive to the prison, I asked the chaplain if there were murderers and rapists there. “Of course,” he snapped, “but don’t ask anyone what they did. It’s rude to ask, and most of the prisoners will lie if you ask them anyway.”
After we arrived, we passed through security and underwent a pat down. The prison guards carefully scrutinized our identification and compared it to the FBI background checks we underwent weeks earlier before being cleared to visit. We listened to the clang of the doors locking us in. We ate prison food in the cafeteria, nervously looking over our shoulders and wondering if our conspicuousness made us easy hostage targets if a prison riot broke out.
Finally, we went to the chapel and handed out Bibles and hymnals to prisoners as they arrived for worship. As the inmates gathered for worship, I cringed at the thought that they were murders and rapists. What was I doing in a place like this? But when the time came to kneel at the Communion rail, I realized that there was no essential difference between them and me. Whether a murder, rapist, or seminarian, we were all sinners, and we were all brothers in Christ. Jesus died for them the same as he did for me. The same bread and wine given to me by Jesus were the same bread and wine given to them. How humbling! How wonderful!
That is what the Lord’s Supper is all about. Jesus welcomes sinners to his Table and feeds us with his Body and Blood “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). The Lord’s Supper isn’t for good people. The Lord’s Supper is for sinners. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Paul’s words today remind me of one of my favorite hymns, the words of which apply not only to Paul but also to me:
Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed His blood for me,
Died that I might live on high,
Lives that I might never die.
As the branch is to the vine,
I am His, and He is mine.
Truly, God’s searching, seeking love never gives up on lost sinners—“the ones who are about to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16, CSM). All this gave Paul reason to break out into a beautiful doxology: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17). In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.