Amazing Grace | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 (cf Acts 9:1-19)
by John Fitzsimmons
Pastor, Sligo City Church
Listen to and download the audio sermon
A few years ago you may remember the movie Amazing Grace. The movie was based on the true story of William Wilberforce, a committed evangelical Christian, who led the campaign against slave trade in the British Empire and was responsible for steering an anti-slave legislation through the British Parliament. The film also recounts the experiences of John Newton as a crewman on a slave ship and his subsequent conversion to Christ, which inspired him to write Amazing Grace, probably the best known of all Christian hymns. Newton is portrayed as a major influence on Wilberforce.
Before his conversion to Christ John Newton would have slotted perfectly into the list of those who sin against God’s law in verses 9-10, which we looked at last time. He was a “slave-trader” (v10 NIV). In the opening line of his hymn Newton wrote; “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me.” One modern adjustment of Amazing Grace reads “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound! That saved and strengthened me!” There is a grace that strengthens, and Paul testifies to God’s strengthening grace in these verses... However when Newton wrote the words of Amazing Grace he was talking about a grace that more than strengthens; he was praising God for a grace that saves & transforms the worst of sinners, even a wretch like him! Adjusting the hymn only downplays the main point.
Paul in these verses wants us to grasp the same point John Newton’s hymn makes. He wants us to grasp that Jesus came to save wretches—the worst of sinners—that’s the big point! He wants us to see that the grace of God is an overflowing grace! And in these verses Paul holds himself up as an example of the abundant grace and perfect patience of God towards the worst of sinners. He wants us to grasp that; "Grace is amazing because it saves wretches, not because it puts a final polish on nice people." It is amazing because it saves the wretched ones and sanctifies them as holy ones in God’s service!
V12-14 “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. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
The apostle Paul experienced both God’s saving grace and his strengthening grace, so he knew the difference and the need for both.
All of us need God’s strengthening to enable us live for and serve him in this world, andwe should join Paul in thanking Jesus for it (v12). Paul testified in 2 Timothy 4:17 that “the Lord stood by me and strengthened me...” and he said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:1; “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” No matter what you are going through, or what you are facing, or what you have to deal with, or what God is calling you to; God’s strengthening grace is available to you in Christ. You do not have to go on in your own strength...
The words of Paul in Philippians 4:13 come to mind; “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul also prayed over the Church Timothy was leading; “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph 3:16). There is strength in your inner being Child of God—the strength of God—and that strength will take you through whatever you are facing... Paul wrote to the Colossians 1:11; “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might...”
So God’s strengthening grace is there for us to draw on. Just as well, because it takes the strength of God to live for God. Our effectiveness in ministry depends on how much we lean on his strength. It does not primarily depend on our talents, education, or practical know how. These things are helpful but there is no substitute for depending on the strength of God. Christ not only appointed Paul to serve as an apostle, he also supplied him with the strength to serve. All of us likewise need to be spiritually strengthened to live the life God has called us to. We cannot serve him faithfully without his strength.
One of our big problems is we try to do too much in our own strength. We try to cope with grief, deal with pressure, solve impossible problems, help others and serve God all in our own strength... Then we wonder why we feel weary in doing good, and become ungrateful and grow discouraged in serving God. The best thing we can do is simply own up to our weakness... Didn’t Jesus say to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9; “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Where is the wisdom in pretending to be strong when we are not? Especially when Christ has said; “My power is made perfect in weakness”!
Paul said in Colossians 1:29; “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Are you struggling today? Then struggle with all his energy, for it will bring you through every struggle life throws at you... and it will bring you through stronger – stronger in faith and love! But if you continue to struggle on in your own strength you will run out of energy and you will eventually lose heart. Psalm 73:26 says; “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10; “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Grace works better and harder than human effort, and it never runs out of energy because it continually draws on the strength of almighty God! God’s strengthening grace is with us and it will take us all the way... No wonder Hebrews 13:9 says “it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace...” It takes the strength of God to serve God! And we can be thankful today because his strengthening grace is available in overflowing abundance!
So the strengthening grace of Christ is very necessary for living the life God has called us to. However it is Christ’s saving grace that is Paul’s main focus in these verses, and the reality is; God’s strengthening grace is one of the many wonderful by-products of saving grace. Before Paul became an apostle, he had to become a Christian. Before he could know the deep reality of God’s strengthening grace he had to experience God’s saving grace!
V15-16 “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. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
Paul doesn’t hide the wickedness of his past. In verse 13 he says “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” He had broken God’s law more than anyone. These verses make it clear he saw himself as the greatest of lawbreakers. He had persecuted the Church violently. He was present at the stoning of Stephen, giving approval of his death (Acts 7:58-8:1). He was the ringleader of the vicious and violent persecution that followed. Acts 8:3 says; “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” However in the second part of 1 Tim 1:13 he says; “But I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Paul’s actions were in ignorance, he thought he was serving God when he was in reality against God; but God was very merciful to his enemy.
It is very important we see that it’s when Paul was at his worst that he received mercy... Paul’s conversion story in Acts 9 opens with these words; “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” This is how the mercy of God found Paul. Paul is not seeking Christ he is against Christ - he hates everything to do with Christ. That’s how his conversion story starts! There is no sign at all of repentance and faith; he is breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord... which Jesus took very personally (Acts 9:4). But while Paul was 100% against Jesus, Jesus visited him with mercy & in Paul’s own words in 1 Tim 1:15; “and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Then repentance and faith followed!
What does this say to us? It tells us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy... It teaches us salvation is more about what God does than what we do – in fact it is all about what God’s does... It tells us the person who is most hostile towards Christianity, could yet prove to be one of Christ’s greatest instruments... It teaches us it is less about people coming to Christ and more about Christ visiting them with mercy & grace. And it tells you that if you are at your worst today this may be the very day when God visits you most powerfully...
To help illustrate Paul’s main point commentator N. T. Wright brings us back to the days of black and white TV when there was a programme called the Lone Ranger... The Lone Ranger was the only Texas Ranger left alive after the death of his colleagues and family, and he committed his life to upholding law and justice in a time of lawlessness. The Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, became almost as famous as him. Silver shared his master’s exploits with an almost perfect harmony. But when we first meet Silver, the horse is not only unbroken, untamed, but is assumed to be unbreakable, untameable. Tonto, the Indian who becomes the Lone Rangers close friend, declares that it’s impossible to tame such a horse. There was a wildness about him which would make normal horse-tamers give up on him. But the Longer Ranger is not put off. This is the horse for him & by some secret means he calls the animal to be his, & the horse responds & gives him a lifetime of service.
Here is N. T. Wrights point: “from the moment when the Lone Ranger shows he can tame the untameable horse and make it into his servant, and even in a measure his friend, the viewer knows he will be able to conquer all other obstacles in his path... He has already taken the hardest case, and the easy ones will now be – well, easy.”
This is exactly the point Paul is making with his own testimony. God has taken the wildest—the most blasphemous and violent of sinners—and has transformed him into not only a believer but also a trustworthy apostle. And if God can do that with Paul, then there is no heart too hard, no anger too bitter, to person too wicked, no guilt too great, no life too misguided that it remains outside of the reach of God’s patient mercy & transforming grace.
When Jesus took hold of Paul with his mercy & grace he was underlining, in the most powerful way, the purpose of his coming – to save sinners! If he could save Paul—the chief of sinners—then he can save any sinner! If God’s mercy could conquer even the rock-hard heart of Paul then surely there is no one beyond the abundant mercy of God... that is the BIG point this text is screaming at us! “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” This example challenges us to never write off anyone as being beyond God’s mercy... including ourselves!
Transforming Grace (Costly Grace)
If salvation is real, transformation will ALWAYS follow! The grace of God does no half jobs. It will finish what it starts. Saving grace is transforming grace. This was true in Paul’s life and it was true in John Newton’s. There are two equally wrong views of salvation: 1. Salvation by works & 2. Salvation without works! What’s so amazing about grace if it leaves us as we are? God’s overflowing grace; while it met Paul where he was at, it did not leave him there. Grace can never be overemphasised but we live in a day when it is misunderstood and abused. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship opens with a chapter entitled Costly Grace. In it he compares cheap grace of his day with costly grace he sees in Scripture. In the chapter he notes among other things that;
“Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
True grace transforms... True grace ignites a lifetime of repentance and faith towards Jesus Christ! This is what it done in Paul’s life... It changed & redirected him completely. Bonhoeffer continues;
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the peril of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”
This is exactly the kind of grace Paul experienced. Didn’t he say in Philippians 3:7; “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted loss for the sake of Christ.” Grace is amazing because it transforms sinners, not because it excuses sin... It is amazing because it transforms a person’s whole perspective on life... It is amazing because it enables a person to take up their cross and follow Jesus no matter the cost. In Paul’s conversion story in Acts 9 Jesus tells the understandably cautious Ananias to go and meet Paul... In verses 15-16 Jesus says; “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” This overflowing grace was an extremely dangerous reality for Paul. It called him to suffer for Christ, and ultimately cost him his life. But this same grace enabled Paul to see that; “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In the time of the apostle’s grace truly called a person to “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” – it produced radical discipleship! Sadly today grace has been reduced in large part to “put up your hand and repeat after me...” Maybe that’s what’s wrong...
Paul finishes our text for today with an outburst of praise; “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.” Paul didn’t just sing it, he lived it! The grace of God’s turned Paul from a blasphemer into a worshipper who was willing to lay down his life because Jesus is worth it... and that’s how he crowns his testimony – with worship! What has the grace of God done in your life? How has it changed you? Where is your cross? Where is the sacrifice? Where is the commitment to his cause? Where is the evidence of true grace working in your life?
Maybe you need the strengthening grace of God today to keep living the life God has called you to... Or maybe you need the saving-transforming grace of God to come and ignite true repentance and faith in your heart...
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you...