|1 Timothy. 1:12-17. 2). The apostle and the gospel (continued).
This first ‘faithful saying’ is a concise summary of the gospel. *Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst* (15). First, the content of the gospel is true and trustworthy, in distinction to the speculative nonsense of the false teachers and (we might add today) the lies of secular propaganda. Secondly, the offer of the gospel is universal. To be sure, NIV, REB and NRSV all put that it deserves ‘full’ acceptance, meaning complete’ in the sense of ‘unreserved’. But JBP renders it ‘this statement is completely reliable and should be universally accepted.’ This fits the context, since Paul argues in chapter 2 that the gospel must be made known to the nations. Thirdly, the essence of the gospel is that Christ came to save sinners. The law is meant for the *condemnation* of sinners; the gospel for their *salvation*. That Christ ‘came to save’ sounds like one of his own statements (E.g. Lk.19:10; Jn 3:13; 12:46; 17:18; cf.11:27). It alludes to both the incarnation and his atonement, and clearly implies his pre-existence. Indeed, after a careful examination of all the salvation passages in the Pastoral Letters Dr Philip Towner concludes that salvation as a present reality, though yet to be consummated, is ‘the centre point of the message’ and so of ‘the sound teaching’ of the apostles.
Fourthly, the application of the gospel is personal. The universal offer is one thing (‘worthy of all acceptance’, AV); its individual acceptance is another (‘of whom I am the worst’). He has already called himself ‘the least of all the apostles’ (1 Cor.15:9) and ‘less that the least of all God’s people’ (Eph.3:8); he now humbles himself further as the ‘chief’ (AV), the ‘foremost’ (NRSV), ‘the greatest’ (JB) or ‘the worst’ (NIV) of sinners. Indeed, that is what *I am*, he writes, not simply what ‘I was’.
But can he mean it? Are we to understand him literally? This is an interesting hermeneutical question. Common sense tells us not to take his statement as a precise, scientific fact. For he had not investigated the sinful and criminal records of all the inhabitants of the world, carefully compared himself with them, and concluded that he was worse than them all. The truth is rather that when we are convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit, an immediate result is that we give up all such comparisons. Paul was so vividly aware of his own sins that he could not conceive that anybody could be worse. It is the language of every sinner whose conscience has been awakened and disturbed by the Holy Spirit. We may begin like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men’, but we end like the tax collector who beat his breast and said (literally), ‘God have mercy on me, *the* sinner (Lk.18:9). The Pharisee indulged in odious comparisons; as far as the tax collector was concerned, however, there were no other sinners with whom to compare himself; he was the one and only.
We may now summarize what this first and pregnant ‘trustworthy saying’ tells us about the gospel. It is true and trustworthy. It is intended for everybody. It concerns Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. And it must be received by each of us individually.
One cannot reflect on this faithful saying without remembering the story of Philip Bilney, who was converted through it. Elected in 1520 a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, ‘little Bilney’ (as he was called on account of his shortness of stature) was searching for peace but could not find it.
‘But at last’, he wrote, ‘I heard speak of Jesus, even then when the New Testament was first set forth by Erasmus…And at the first reading (as I well remember) I chanced upon this sentence of St Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!) in 1 Timothy 1. “It is a true saying and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am the chief and principal.” This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working, which I did not then perceive, did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that even immediately I seemed unto myself inwardly to feel a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch that “my bruised bones leaped for joy” (Psalm 51). After this, the Scripture began to be more pleasant unto me than the honey or the honey-comb…’
Perhaps Bilney’s most notable convert was Hugh Latimer, who later became the popular preacher of the English Reformation. Latimer greatly admired the courage with which Bilney went to the stake for his evangelical faith; he referred to him in his sermons as ‘St Bilney’.