The 16th Sunday After Trinity September 11, 2005


Chief of Sinners

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Scripture Readings

Exodus 32:7-14
Luke 15:1-10


7, 388, 342, 652 [WS 2000 alt. 777]

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

May the love of God the Father fill you with wonder; may the sacrifice of God the Son fill you with gratitude; and may the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit fill you with hope and confidence, all unto Life Eternal. Amen.

Dear Representatives of the Lord Jesus:

“I am the best!”

“I am the worst!”

What a dramatic swing of emotions these two phrases elicit in the minds of those who hear them. The first conjures up feelings of resentment and disgust—our natural reaction to anyone who thinks himself grand or superior in some way. The second summons just the opposite emotions as most of us naturally side with the underdog and warm to true humility in others.

Despite the fact that we tend to admire and respect humility far above self-proclaimed greatness, most of us would rather be the former rather than the latter; that is, most of us would rather be the best than the worst. Even more interesting is how poor we are when it comes to accurately evaluating and labeling ourselves as one or the other. Folks in our society tend to think of themselves as the best, even when they are, in reality, the worst. Many of you saw the survey a few years ago of elementary students from each of the industrialized nations who took a math test and were then asked about that test. American children scored at or near the bottom of the grade curve; yet when asked, they stated that they believed themselves to be the best in all the world when it comes to math.

Here is where an interesting human quirk comes into focus. Since we recognize the general social loathing for arrogance (nobody likes a bragger) we tend to speak deceitfully in that regard. In other words, the only difference between those children taking the math test and the rest of our society is that those children were honest. Adults have just learned to disguise their arrogance a bit better than children, since they know how poorly it plays in our society.

Once again we see that while this sort of thing is tacky in the social realm, it is downright tragic when the same sorts of things play out in the spiritual realm. In other words, though arrogance is bad in secular pursuits, it is absolutely tragic when it comes to matters of faith. There too human beings tend to think of themselves as superior, but tend to be less than honest when it comes to expressing those feelings. How many of us, for example, would have used the words of the tax collector in the temple? Who among us would privately lament to his Lord: “God be merciful to me, the sinner!”? (Luke 18:13). The man’s words indicate that he did not justify his sin by grading himself on the curve. He did not confuse the issue by comparing himself to others. He compared his actions to God’s Holy Law and recognized himself as a spiritual failure in need of forgiveness and redemption.

Our text today takes us into this world of honest evaluation, and helps us to answer a specific question for ourselves: “Who is the worst of sinners?” Our text is found in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, the First Chapter:

And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

These are the inspired words given to us by our Holy God. We are humbled by the perfection and holiness of these words, and desire to be guided and nurtured by them. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth(John 17:17). Amen.

Dear Fellow Heirs of Eternal Life in Jesus Christ, just who, in your opinion, is the worst or chief of all sinners, and why in the world would we find it important to ask such a question?

Let’s look at the last question first. Why bother with this sort of question? Why concern ourselves with questions about best or worst or any such thing? The answer is that we can become quite good at skirting the issue of our own personal guilt whenever we manage to identify a worse scoundrel than the one we see in the mirror each morning. In plain language, it’s no big deal for us to go from “not the worst” to “not bad at all” to “perfectly acceptable.”

What’s the problem with that? Why is that such a big deal? Justifying ourselves because we are not as bad as someone else strikes at the very heart of Christ and the Christian faith. Here’s how: Whenever human beings deny their utter sinfulness and depravity apart from Jesus Christ, they make Jesus Christ Himself optional and unimportant. What is more, such delusions make the Gospel itself pointless—even boring—and cause sinful human beings to close their ears to the very words of Life. The Gospel, of course, represents the only thing that can create and sustain saving faith. No self-righteous man wants to hear even once, let alone over and over again, about a Savior from sins that, in his mind, really don’t concern him. “Jesus died for your sins on the cross” becomes a silly, pointless statement to those who deny the fact that without Jesus Christ they were and are “dead in trespasses and sins(Ephesians 2:1).

That, on the other hand, is exactly what made the message of Jesus Christ such a vitally important truth to the Apostle Paul. In our text he describes himself as the chief of sinners. Like Martin Luther and the other great men of faith who followed him, Paul was a brutally honest man. Such men had the ability to honestly evaluate their own thoughts and actions, and to compare them not to the thoughts and actions of other men, but to God’s perfect standard of righteousness. Paul was finally able to look at himself with total clarity and honesty when he was converted on the way to Damascus. From that point on Paul recognized that what had once provided him with false pride and false comfort, was in reality ugly persecution of God’s Church. In our text he accurately describes himself as a former “blasphemer, persecutor, and an insolent man.[v.13] Insolent carries the flavor of an overbearing, contemptuous, and violent individual—a bully. Paul bullied and persecuted gentle Christian folk in and around Jerusalem and by so doing he did the same to Christ Jesus Himself.

Note well that Paul did not seek to hide behind any excuses. He did not point out the fact that he simply “watched the coats” of the men who actually killed Stephen. Note also, and this is very important, that Paul did not seek to justify his sins by pleading ignorance. His sins were still sins. He says only that God demonstrated mercy over against his ignorant actions. Society today doesn’t follow Paul’s lead. The world today does not humbly approach God and plead for his mercy. They seek to defend the sin itself as though they need no mercy.

Do not pass over this point lightly, for here is one of the most precious jewels offered to sinful human beings anywhere in the Bible. Paul acknowledged his sinful condition. He condemned himself as “chief of sinners” on the basis of God’s Law. Nor should we read his words as “Aw shucks, woe is me.” They were genuine and sincere—the man had physically persecuted God’s Holy Church! What defense could he possibly offer? He offered none, seeking no comfort or pardon whatsoever in his own actions. Paul simply acknowledged the terrible nature of his sins, and then…what? Ah, just look at what Paul said in connection with those terrible sins: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.[v.15]

These holy words are themselves the breath of life and hope! Don’t waste them by failing to apply them to your own heart and your own special circumstances. In order to rightly apply these words, consider for a moment the sins that you commit every single day, moment my moment. But don’t stop there. Also dredge up some painful memories from the past—sins you are absolutely too embarrassed to reveal—almost too ashamed to admit even to yourself. How have you dealt with those sins? How have you reckoned them? If they are sexual sins have you justified them because such sins have now become routine and acceptable? Have you justified yourself because there are worse perversions out there? If the sins are in the area of coveting, do you suppose they are less critical because they take place only in your heart? Where do your darkest sins lie? Have you stolen, injured, lied, abused? Do you use foul language, visit pornographic web sites, lack respect for authority, wish someone evil—even death?

Just who is “chief of sinners”?

Here let every single hand be raised, not because by so acknowledging we will gain for ourselves some measure of comfort or pardon. Let this attitude be in your heart for the very reason Paul cited in our text: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.[v.15] Hear those words, dear Christians. Breathe them in and let the amazing truth conveyed by those words comfort your troubled hearts and fill you with confidence and delight. The very fact that you are a sinner is that which makes these words applicable to you—gives you ownership. Those who deny their sins have no share in these words or in this message of forgiveness. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12).

This is, in fact, the heart and soul of the Christian faith: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Yet are we right and justified in applying these words to ourselves? Can we know with certainty that these words really do speak such pardon and peace also to our own hearts? Our text leaves no doubt. In fact that is the very reason Paul gave for the mercy that was shown to him. In our text he said, “However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.[v.16] Paul’s inspired argument is this: “Since I, Paul, am the worst of sinners, and since Christ Jesus demonstrated His mercy to me and came to suffer and die even for my sins, then every single one of you sinners who follow after me can also know that if God could love and forgive me, the chief of sinners, He can and does also love and forgive you.”

This is the “pattern” or “example” Paul was talking about in our text, and it proves we are justified in taking great comfort in these words, and speaking them in reference to our own past and our own future: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.[v.15]

Have we finally then answered the great question with which we began? Have we determined just who the “chief of sinners” really is? Would every single one of us now raise his hand and confess without hesitation or reservation: “I am the worst of all sinners”? If the answer from every single one of us is “Yes, I am the chief of sinners” then we are correct in our humility, but dead wrong in our answer. There is only one “chief of sinners.” Only one human being that is credited with more and worse sins than any single sinner in the history of earth. The chief of sinners is Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ. How can that be, when Jesus Himself never sinned? The answer, again, is the heart of the Christian faith and the source of our hope and comfort for in 2 Corinthians 5:21 we read: “For He (God the Father) made Him (Jesus Christ) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Our sins were not simply overlooked. The sum total was piled upon Jesus Christ. He received our sins, we received His perfection. Having placed all sins upon His Son, God the Father then vented the full fury of His wrath (the very thing that we had earned by our sins) upon His dear Son. The result for you and me is the full forgiveness of all our sins and eternal life in heaven. Thank you, Jesus, for the great victory you won for me, a poor, miserable sinner. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

Editor’s Note: Today marks the 4 year anniversary of the terrorist attack in New York and Washington D.C. The unfading memory of the 9-11 images together with the more recent images of the Gulf Coast disaster only reinforce the realization of our sinfulness and human frailty. As our nation remembers and copes, let us remember to pray for our country, its leaders, and for the souls of all as we seek to share the good news of salvation! God Bless our Native Land!

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