Here we go again (see Tabletalk May 2009). The apostle Paul is dredging up the past once more. We, in turn, ask again, is there anything to be gained by recalling a past that is somewhere on the spectrum between flawed and degraded? It is
widely assumed not. Don’t go back there. Forget about it. The apostle Paul is even enlisted in the cause of forgetfulness: “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on…” (Phil. 3:13–14, NASB). If you “dwell on the past,” as the phrase goes, you’ll only discourage yourself, expend unnecessary emotional energy, and limit spiritual progress. Yet here is the apostle Paul, doing so once more.

Sad it is when a theory is ganged-up on by a bunch of facts. The apostle Paul says that “we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3). At first glance, these are not encouraging words. But his recollection can’t be dismissed as a momentary lapse. Repeatedly he goes back to his shattered past and recalls the depths of his own depravity. Listen to him again: “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13).

Here’s what I was, he says: “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.” I don’t mind bringing up this dark history and telling you about it. Further, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Tim. 1:15b).

He keeps “beating himself up,” as we might see it. Of all the sinners in the world, he is the “foremost,” the “chief” (KJV). This could be a bit of hyperbole. Still, he doesn’t mind employing sanctified exaggeration when it comes to his own past wickedness. Elsewhere he speaks of himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8) and “a nobody” (2 Cor. 12:11). Does the apostle have a self-image problem? Is he down on himself? Or do we have something to learn from him about the Christian’s self-concept?

The self-esteem, self-image, and self-worth gurus fail to grasp the method in the apostle’s past-dredging madness — but there is a method, to be sure. Recalling the darkness of one’s past is valued as a means of reminding oneself (and others) of the greatness of God’s grace. How great is God’s grace? John Newton knew. It is so amazing that it could save even a wretch like me! Catch it? There is correspondence between one’s self-concept as a wretch and one’s grasp of the magnitude of God’s grace.

Back-peddle through our passages. A nobody? Yes, but God’s “grace is sufficient.” His “power is perfected in weakness,” so that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–11). “The very least of all the saints?” Yes, yet “to me…this grace was given” (Eph. 3:8). Chief of sinners? Absolutely. Yet “the grace of our Lord was more than abundant” (1 Tim. 1:14). Grace that is lavished in these proportions is meant to be an encouragement to other believers: And “yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16).

Be encouraged, all ye sinners. If even a wretch like the apostle Paul, “the foremost,” could be saved, then there is hope for all the rest. Christ demonstrates “His perfect patience” especially in dealing with particularly bad sinners. This encourages other sinners. He is “an example for those who would believe in Him.”

Now back to our passage. Bad as we were, degraded as we lived, “disobedient, deceived, enslaved…hateful,” yet, “the kindness of our God…appeared,” and “He saved us…by the…renewing [of] the Holy Spirit…through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:3–6). Since this is what we were, and this is what God has done, then let us be reminded to live proper Christian lives. This means, he says, on the one hand, being subject to authorities, obedient, and especially “gentle, showing every consideration for all men” (vv. 1–2), and, on the other hand, “be careful to engage in good deeds” (v. 8). The apostle Paul’s exhortations to good works bookend his description of the depth of our depravity and the height of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

The method in the madness is this principle: he who is forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47). Grasp the magnitude of your forgiveness, and you’ll be eager to obey. Measure it by the depths from which you were rescued and the heights to which you have been raised. Dwell on it. Ponder it. As you do, the more you will love Christ in return, the more you will desire to serve Him, and the more you will look with compassion upon those still stuck in the mire from which you have
been delivered.

For Further Study