Intro: Jer 13:23 – Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil. God’s question through the prophet is contained in the context of God’s coming judgment against Judah. God will punish his people with exile because they failed to repent and change their behavior. In that context, the leopard cannot remove his spots. Those who practice evil are likely to continue to do so. But that is not always true is it? God can change people.
I. The Apostle Paul was not always the “apostle Paul”. He had a past that was 180 degrees from the present. I do not think we could classify Paul’s past as “skeletons in the closet” because he never attempted to hide his past from those whom he knew in the present.
A. Paul was always willing to acknowledge his past because it provided a powerful backdrop to exhibit the grace of God.
II. Some Perspectives from Paul’s Past. Notice how he describes his former self in 1 Tim. 1:12-14 – And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, 13 although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. 14 And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Paul uses some powerful descriptions to depict his past. Jamieson sees a threefold characterization:
- In His relationship to God – He was a blasphemer – a blasphemer is one who slanders God, who overtly speaks evil of Him. Not only had Paul been a blasphemer, he had compelled others to blaspheme. Acts 26:11– 11 And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
- In his relationship to Christians – He was a persecutor – He tried to destroy the church by putting Christians in prison and facilitating their murder. Gal 1:13 – 13 For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.
- In his relationship to others – He was an insolent man – (some translations have “injurious” here). He was one who was unwilling to show kindness and insulted others. Given Paul’s violent past, it is no wonder that Ananias (Acts 9:13) and the disciples (Acts 9:26) were slow to accept him.
Paul’s words here demonstrate at least 3 significant perspectives about our past:
A. God Loves Us In Spite of Our Past – “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me because He counted me faithful…” Paul is overwhelmed by the very thought of what God had done for him.
1. The word “enabled” here is also translated “strengthened”. Paul now recognizes that he was powerless in his previous condition as a sinner. He later near the end of his life he uses this same word to describe the source of his power. Phil 4:12-13 – 12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. 13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
2. God saw something of value in Saul of Tarsus. So He does in the life of every sinner. This is the nature of God’s creation (we are created in His image) and of His love (He loves us even when we are sinners) Rom 5:8 – 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
3. We must be careful how we interpret the love of God. It is not a soupy sentiment, but a deliberate decision. It is not that God is apathetic about our sin. In fact, His love is a clear and determined response to our sin.
a. There are some who reason that since God loves me he will allow me to do what I want. This is clearly false. True love will not allow this. If you love your children you discipline them and seek what is in their best interests.
b. God does love us in spite of our sin, but God’s love will not allow Him to leave us in our sin. 1 John 4:9-10 – 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
B. God Saves Us In Spite of Our Past – In these immediate passages in 1 Tim. 1, Paul makes this point three times. He was saved in spite of his past.
• vs. 13 –“Yet I obtained mercy…”
• vs. 15 – “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief…”
• vs. 16 – “I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.”
1. My relationship to God is based entirely on God’s willingness to forgive me. If God is not willing or able to forgive, I cannot be forgiven. Therefore God’s forgiveness is a necessary and powerful act. 2 Corinthians 5:17 – 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
2. Forgiveness does not erase all the consequences of my sin. I may still bear a penalty.
3. But God’s willingness to forgive makes it possible for me to return to Him. The scriptures speak of a reconciliation. (we are alienated from God as result of our sin, and we cannot reconcile ourselves back to Him.) Col 1:19-22 – For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight —
4. Paul calls the gospel the “word of reconciliation”. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 – 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
5. Often people use their past as an excuse – “That’s just the way I am” “I have always been this way and nothing can change who I am”. God erases and answers all those lies of Satan through the cross. If God can change Saul to Paul He can change you and I.
6. In Romans 6 Paul rejects the notion that Christians can continue to sin because God’s grace is sufficient to cover all sin. Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? God forbid! (Rom. 6:1-2) Why not?
• Because the Christian has died to sin. A change has taken place that has ongoing significance.
• Paul says we died to sin, we were buried with Christ (in our baptism) and have risen to a new life. (6:4)
• The old man of sin (the habitual lifestyle that once controlled us) has been crucified with Him (6:6) and we are no longer slaves of sin.
• Rom 6:11-13 – 11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
• 1 Cor 6:9-11 – Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. The overall acceptance of sinful conduct that we are witnessing today is connected to Satan’s lie that there is no hope for change. The gospel message (as good news) is rooted in the fact that God does change people, and we must always be willing to lovingly point those trapped in sin to the source of that change.
C. God Uses Us In Spite of Our Past – Paul noted that God had both strengthened (enabled) him and put him into service. This is incredible considering what Paul (Saul) previously did in his service to God. Acts 8:3 – 3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Acts 9:1-2 – Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
How could someone who worked so hard to destroy the church possibly be used to build it up?
1. Paul answers that question without equivocation. 1 Cor 15:9-10 – 9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
2. Paul consistently proclaimed that God was the source of his new life and the power of his ministry. 1 Cor 2:1-5 – And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Conclusion: God specializes in reformation. Paul, the apostle, stands for eternity as an example of God’s power to change lives. What is in your past? Whatever it may be God loves you, God is willing to forgive you, and God is able to use you. But you must come to Him through faith and obedience.