The Biblical Basis
“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 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. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (I Timothy 1:15-17)
Not too long ago, I was traveling by train in a foreign country and disembarked several stops too soon. Not my first time. The doors opened, people started getting off, and I followed without giving a second thought. Took me a little while to notice. I wandered down a couple of avenues before realizing I had jumped off prematurely. Brutal! My mind had gone adrift into a wilderness of worries and projects. I had forgotten where I was supposed to be going. Just going with the flow, and lost. You may be able to relate.
Sometime in the seconds after the train or subway doors close behind you, present reality snaps back into focus. The surroundings make it clear you have not found your final destination. Besides the irritation of lost time, you have to face that little twinge of humiliation when you turn around in front of all those onlookers in order to wait for the next transport to arrive and carry you along the same course you just abandoned.
Of course, that’s assuming you notice. What if you don’t even realize you got off too soon? Now it gets really confusing and difficult. Who knows how long you could wander through a maze of roadways and alleyways before realizing something had gone awry!
Don’t Stop Short
I think we can do this with the gospel. The gospel tries to guide us somewhere in life with God and one another. There is a particular posture of the soul God has in mind for us—a certain end point to which He uses the gospel to lead. Sometimes we can stop short of this terminus. We might board the gospel train, ride it awhile and enjoy a few of its stations, only to stop short of the destination to which His grace zealously drives us. Paul doesn’t want this to happen. Not in his life, not in ours. Nor does he want it to happen in the lives of those we counsel.
In the passage above, we can see how the reality of his salvation carried Paul into a certain attitude and posture of life. It brought him to an important conclusion: genuine, heartfelt worship and enjoyment of God. He didn’t stop short of it. We could say there were three particular “stations” he traveled through until he reached this destination. Each junction assumes an important place in the journey, but none of them are intended to be a final resting place.
Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Here is Station 1. Christ did not come into the world to condemn people, but to bring life to already condemned people (John 3:16-17, 36). It was not His aim to help people feel better about themselves, but rather to help them see the desperation of their estate and their vast need for Him (Matt. 9:10-13).
It was not His mission to simply give people better skills for obeying the law of God, but to fulfill God’s law on their behalf and provide righteousness for them. His death atoned for sins. In His death, Jesus absorbed the wrath of God in our place. So we have been justified, forgiven, and granted eternal life in Him. This is entry point gospel truth. All of us need to know and believe this. Christ came as a Redeemer to sinners.
Yet Paul didn’t stop there. He made it even more personal. After all, he was one of those sinners Christ came to save. In fact, he was the worst sinner Christ came to save. This is the 2nd Station.
No sin disturbed and grieved him more than his own. No sinner, he thought, needed God’s grace to greater degree. The gospel teaches each of us to think this way about ourselves. There is simply no sinner more wretched and desperate than the sinner we each see in the mirror.
Now, it could be extremely tempting to get off the train at this point. If Paul wants to view himself this way then fine, but why should I? I know I’m a transgressor, but surely not the worst of all. The world is full of murderers, adulterers, and thieves—all sinners worse than I, right? My spouse is the main cause for concern in my marriage. My children bring the biggest troubles to my household. The workplace I have been given, the physical body I live in, and the parents who raised me (or failed to raise me) are the real problems of my life. These explanations roll so easily from my mind and off my tongue. I find it very tempting to think and talk this way.
Of course, God doesn’t let me think or talk this way about my condition in relation to everybody else. Circumstances and other people can provide pain and hardship in my life, but everything that comes out of me is always, well, me (Prov. 4:23; Luke 6:43-45; Gal. 5:16-23). What comes out of me expresses who and what rules me. I may not be the author of all my troubles, but I am the author of my deepest and most serious troubles. How could I say otherwise with a straight face?
Apart from grace, my heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick (Jer. 17:9). The Lord wants me to realize that I am the greatest problem in my own life. There should be no one else’s sin I am more acquainted with than my own. Fully celebrating the incredible benefits of my salvation depends upon staying aboard at this point. If I want to spend my days in deep worship and enjoyment of God, then I must learn to embrace just how dark, deceptive, and ugly my sinfulness actually looks in His presence (Isaiah 6:1-5).
Praise God the train keeps moving. Paul kept going, so should we. There was a reason the foremost sinner of all received God’s grace: to display the magnitude of Christ’s perfect patience. Paul’s salvation was not primarily or centrally about Paul, but God. It was not simply for Paul to enjoy, but for all “those who would believe in Him for eternal life” to enjoy (1 Timothy 1:16). The gospel doesn’t let Paul stay stuck in his sinfulness. It drives him to see God and His steadfast love more vividly by displaying God’s mercy toward him, the foremost sinner.
I think this is remarkable. We have been loved, adopted, and forgiven by God in order to be living, dramatic testimonies of the depth of His grace. If we spend our days at Station 2, confessing the woefulness of our sinful condition before God and others, then we are failing to see and understand what the gospel tries to help us see and understand. We have been redeemed. Our sins have been paid for and washed away. The gospel beckons us to look at Him, and view ourselves in Him. This is Station 3. The good news of Jesus Christ helps us behold the riches of God’s kindness toward all who believe (Rom. 11:22).
Beholding and believing this, by irresistible impulse, should compel genuine worship and awe toward God. Just as Paul was caught up in a fit of God-centered praise, so should we be. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Tim. 1:17) This is the gospel terminus: deep, lasting delight and praise in God our Savior. A strong pull to joyful worship is one way we know our souls comprehend the good news of our redemption. The same may be said for those we counsel. A growing grasp of the gospel proves itself through a growing desire to worship Jesus Christ.
As believers, it is not enough to simply say Christ came into the world to save sinners. And we are still not home once we acknowledge our woeful estate as sinful creatures. Finishing the story of the gospel in any given moment or day means a healthy expression of worship toward our always near, benevolent, and patient Father in heaven who has provided for us so great a salvation to us through His Son Jesus Christ.
Join the Conversation
Try to think about a few questions in closing.
In your own life, does the gospel lead you to its chosen destination? Or do you often get diverted?
In your counsel to others, do you tend to lead them off the train too early, exhausting yourself by wandering the streets of personal sin? Do you get on the train at all? Are you trying to get people to enjoy life and love God without them first knowing the gospel, and comprehending the depth of their sin, and seeing the depth of God’s patience in their salvation?
Does your life and counsel include a regular and healthy dose of genuine worship and celebration of your merciful God?
Note: This article was first posted at the blog home of the Association of Biblical Counselors and is re-posted with permission. You can also read the original post at Gospel Terminus.