Two of Paul’s statements in 1 Timothy 1:12–14 require some comments before we examine verses 15–16. First is Paul’s idea that God judged him faithful when He appointed the apostle to service (v. 12). Paul does not mean that the Lord first looked into the future and, seeing that he would be a good servant, chose him for ministry. God, of course, can see the future precisely because He has ordained it (Isa. 42:9; Eph. 1:11), but the sense here is that it is our Father’s choice to change Saul into Paul the apostle that makes him a faithful appointee.
Secondly, Paul says he “received mercy” because he “acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). Ignorance, however, does not excuse sin, earn God’s grace, or ensure our forgiveness. Someone may do evil because he is ignorant, to a degree, of the Lord’s standard, yet he can still be punished justly for violating the divine will, albeit less harshly than someone who knowingly breaks the law of God (Luke 12:41–48). The apostle does not deny this; he is merely alluding to the reason why forgiveness was available to him when he committed one of the most heinous sins of all — the persecution of the body of Christ. If the apostle had denied Jesus with true awareness of His identity, he would have been guilty of blaspheming the Spirit and would have put himself outside of God’s mercy (Matt. 12:22–32). Paul was not beyond the Lord’s absolution, for he persecuted the Messiah unknowingly; still, because ignorance cannot obligate God to show mercy, Paul’s pardon was made possible only by divine grace.
On account of the radical change that ensued when he met Jesus on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1–25), Paul holds up His life as the proof for God’s intent in sending His Son. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), and if the Lord could redeem Saul, His ardent foe, then He can save anyone. This is why Paul saw his transformation as an example for all who would believe after his conversion (v. 16). God was patient with Saul, preserving him even in his insolence so that He could accomplish His saving purpose. Such is the way He has dealt with all of us, patiently enduring our hatred of Him as His enemies until that day He made us His friends (Rom. 5:8; James 2:23).
John Calvin writes, “The more any one is oppressed by his sins, let him the more courageously betake himself to Christ, relying on this doctrine, that he came to bring salvation not to the righteous, but to ‘sinners.’” God’s saving purpose is at the same time the most basic element of the gospel and the most profound. Have you fully embraced the Lord’s desire to save sinners through Jesus Christ? Have you declared this purpose to others?