In our Gospel lesson today we see two groups of people around Jesus: the sinners and the self-righteous. The charge made against Jesus was that he received sinners and ate with them—which was true! The self-righteous grumbled about it while the sinners were glad.
And so let me ask you: in which group do you find yourself (sinners or self-righteous) and what is your attitude towards the charge against Jesus that he welcomes sinners: grumbling or gladness?
Martin Luther once said that Christ dwells with sinners. In saying this he was simply echoing the words of Paul that Christ came to save sinners and the words of Jesus that he did not come to call the righteous but the sinner—that it is the sick who need a physician.
And so each week we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean—that we are poor miserable sinners. We do this NOT because we like beating ourselves up over our failures but because we want to be found among those people (sinners though they are) who are welcomed by Jesus- and forgiven of their sins- and abide forever with Christ.
The child of God who follows Jesus Christ does not have to be afraid or ashamed to admit their sin because they know that Christ Jesus came to save sinners. Paul writes:
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.
When Jacob was growing up we would have him stand by the door and put a little pencil mark on the door frame along with the date to mark his height. And as he got older and taller he would look at those marks down below with a kind of wonder at how much he had grown and almost disbelief that he had ever been that small.
So it is for the child of God who looks at Christ’s redeeming work in his life—that it is wonder and amazement of gratitude that fills our heart over the change he makes in our lives! Paul was an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was appointed to take the message of salvation to the Gentile world. He was one of the greatest Christians who had ever lived. And yet that he is not how he began.
He had been a blasphemer of God—a persecutor of Jesus Christ—and a hateful opponent of the Gospel. But Jesus saved him and his life was changed forever. When Paul looked at what he had been and what he had become he was filled with gratitude and thankfulness. He could look back upon a past life of sin as something that was no longer a burden for him but a testimony of the greatness of God’s forgiving love for him. Luther once said:
God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
When we confess our sins of “thought, word, and deed”--those three little words capture an entire lifetime of sin that we can never begin to number. But as great as that list of sins is, the greatness of Jesus’ forgiveness is greater.
There is no need for self-righteousness that wants to hide our sins away. Instead, we confess them and know that they are forgiven. That knowledge cannot help but fill us with gratitude and thankfulness for the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul says:
I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
I want you to understand what Paul is- and is not- saying. He is not saying that his sins were somehow less than others because they were done in unbelief and ignorance and so he somehow earned God’s grace and mercy.
Just the opposite was true! It was his ignorance and unbelief that NECESSITATED God’s mercy and grace. So profound was his alienation from God that he thought his persecution and blasphemy was a service to God. For Paul to be saved, God would have to act in mercy and grace.
So it is for us. We have no power to save ourselves or forgive ourselves or raise ourselves from the death of unbelief. The Bible says that by nature all of us are dead in sin and trespass and that our minds by nature are not open to God but at war against God.
But the grace of God found in the love that Jesus has for sinners was poured into us and overflowed into our lives. The word that Paul uses is that of an empty vessel being filled completely until the water overflows the top. That was the depth of our need—that was the height of God’s grace in Christ—that is what Jesus came to do for us all. Paul says that:
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.
The Pharisees never did understand this and many people are still confused about it today—that the entire purpose of Jesus coming into the world was to save sinners.
Not put a stamp of approval on what we are already doing. Not to bring us a reward for being better than others. Not to smooth our life’s journey of all the bumps and bruises. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.
This is the great truth of our Christian faith and it is worthy of our belief because it speaks the truth about Jesus (that he is the Savior of the world) and it speaks the truth about us (that we are sinners who need saving.) In fact, Paul goes so far to say that he is the chief of sinners.
This is where we struggle—to admit that we are the worst of sinners--and because we will not admit it we lack the joy and thankfulness that God wants to give us as his children.
So why did Paul confess this about himself? After all, in the big scheme of things he could look around at a world full of people that to all appearances were much worse than he was. He lived in the day of Nero—one of the most evil rulers the world has ever seen.
But Paul counted himself the chief of sinners because his eyes were not fixed upon others like the self-righteous Pharisees but upon the Lord Jesus Christ and himself in comparison. He had no doubts about the greatness of his own sin when he looked to Jesus and measured his own life against that standard-- but that knowledge did not crush because he knew that Jesus had come to save sinners just like him.
Paul readily admits his sin, calls them by name, and counts himself the worst of sinners but it is thankfulness and joy and that fills his heart because he knows that however numerous and great his sins- the grace of God has been poured out upon him abundantly for his salvation.
This is the secret to a joy-filled, thankful Christian life—not to deny or sins or excuse them or hide them away under a thin veneer of self-righteousness but to call them what they are and receive from Christ a pardon that is even greater.
This is the secret to living the kind of life that draws other people to Christ because they can come to Christ as the sinners that they are and know that they will not receive judgment (either from Christ or his people) but forgiveness. Paul says that:
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.
From the moment that news about Paul’s conversion to Christ began to spread throughout the Roman world there were questions: Isn’t this the one who raised havoc in Jerusalem? Isn’t this the one who put Christians in chains! And the answer way “yes”!
There were very few more powerful demonstrations of the powerful love of Jesus Christ than the day that Paul the persecutor was saved by Jesus and became Paul the preacher! Not just his message but Paul’s whole life was a sign of what Jesus wanted to do for all people—a sign of just how far his love and forgiveness went-- that even those who persecuted could come to him and be forgiven and have new life.
Paul gladly acknowledged his sin not only because he knew that Jesus’ love was greater—he acknowledged them because he was a living, breathing sermon illustration that people could see with their own eyes and learn through him how great God’s loves really is.
You see, when we are self-righteous like the Pharisees, it not only blinds us to the love of Christ --but when we continue to act that way after becoming Christians it blinds others to the presence of Christ in us—the same Christ who wants to welcome sinners so that the saving purpose of God would be accomplished and he would glorified forever because of his goodness. Paul concludes with these words of praise:
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
In our Old Testament lesson today we heard the promise of God that he himself would have compassion on us and tread our iniquities underfoot and cast our sins into the depths of the sea.
In our Gospel lesson we heard about the joy of the heavenly angels in heaven when one sinner repents and believes in Jesus.
You see dear friends in Christ, your salvation is the great, loving purpose of God that stretches from eternity to eternity and it is why he sent Jesus to save sinners—and when we confess our sins and when we trust in Jesus and when we invite others to do the same God is glorified and all eternity will be e filled with the praise of God’s redeemed people for this great work of salvation. Amen.