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.
Powerful. Punching. Offensive. Humbling. There are many words that can describe the effect elicited by such a simple, yet mangled in modernity, truth. In these days, much misguided meaning has been imported to this text (and others like it), while very little has been extrapolated from it. Of course, this passage is no exception. There are a plethora of others with which we’re guilty of doing the same. Let us now briefly consider the richness of this text, even just on its surface level.
So, in this day and age, how do most people tend to think of this verse? Typically, with this verse, and other verses like it, they import the idea into the text that “Jesus died for every sinner without exception.” But that’s not what the text says. When someone says something to you, as an authority, you’re not to pour your own meaning into their words. Instead, you must take into consideration several different things.
1. What are the individual words they’re using in their communication?
2. What is the context in which they’re using these words?
3. If you’ve communicated with them before, how should you interpret these words with consideration to all the other conversations you’ve had with them?
By these, then, we can determine what the text says and what the text means.
Okay, then, let’s apply these criteria to 1 Timothy 1:15.
Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. So we have a who, what, and why to address, in order to extrapolate the meaning from the thrust of this passage. Who? Jesus. What did He do? He “came into the world.” And for what purpose (Why)? “To save sinners.” So that’s incredibly simple, right? Jesus (the Object/subject of the sentence) came (verb) to save (purpose) sinners.
The immediate context surrounding the Apostle’s words here are verses 12-17 of the same chapter:
12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 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. 16 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. 17 To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
One may ask, “So how does reading the surrounding text help?” Simple. Verse 15 is Paul’s line about why Jesus came into the world. But he prefaces this with a testimony of all the things he once was: blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent. Here, he has shown what it means when Christ saves a sinner. He takes him from what he was and makes him something else.
Next there is a consideration of the exhaustive context (although, for the sake of brevity in this post, my exhaustive will be a selected range from Scripture, and not a detailed exegesis of every passage that deals with this subject matter). Think about Jeremiah 32, where a prophecy of Christ refers to Him as “the Lord our righteousness.” Now, let me ask you, can all people without exception lay claim to Christ as their righteousness? No. Consider the Lord’s very Name, Jesus=Joshua, Yeshua, which itself means “salvation” or “he saves.” We also read in Matthew 1:21, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
So we see, then, what the text does not say. It does not say “Jesus died to save all sinners without exception.”Nor does it mean such.
What 1 Timothy 1:15 does say & mean, as well as a plethora of other passages, is that Jesus came to accomplish a mission, to bring about a solution to a problem. He did not come to make a solution doable. He did not come to hopefully make a difference. No, He came to save sinners. And that is precisely what He did. He accomplished His mission. He didn’t merely make men savable, He actually saved some men!
God, by definition of being God, cannot fail. Nor will he. Instead, may we always remember His words concerning Himself (Isaiah 55):
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.