If you have been around Berean Bible Church for any length of time, hopefully you know our mission statement. It reads; To influence friends who are living in spiritual darkness that they also may know the joy of loving the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have been attempting to live this out, at times is can be discouraging. When I have shared the gospel, people seem to either not be interested or they say that they are already saved even though they are living in sin. At times it can get discouraging. So, this morning I want to remind you of the transforming power of the gospel. Look with me at Paul's testimony in:
1 Timothy 1:12-17 (NKJV) 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. 15 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. 16 However, for this reason 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. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
This is Paul's personal testimony to the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Humanity is filled with people who have problems and are problems and the world attempts to transform these people through;
Psychology: when someone's behavior is bad, we run them to a psychologist. Parents take their problem children to a psychologist hoping to have them changed.
Education: we think that if we can educate our people, we can change our society. Listen to the words of a great man of God. "I am much afraid that the schools will prove to be great gates of hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures, engraving them in the hearts of youth. I advise no one to place his child where the Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not increasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt." -- Martin Luther.
Positive thinking: some think that we can think ourselves into changing. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called "The power of positive thinking."
Society: we try to reform people. Prison reform-- 75% of people released from prison will end up back in it. Economic reform: will not transform us. What country is more affluent than America? And yet conditions worsen; murder, rape, violence, robbery, and AIDS all continue to increase.
There is help for man, he can change, but only by the transforming power of the gospel. Man can't help himself. Only God can change a man.
Earlier this year many proponents of the death penalty stepped out of character momentarily to plead for mercy on behalf of Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer, sentenced to be executed by the state of Texas. Karla had committed an unspeakably horrible crime. A drug addict and prostitute, she broke into her ex-boyfriend's apartment and with a pick axe, brutally murdered him and another woman. She was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Once in prison, she heard the gospel and trusted Jesus Christ, and her life changed dramatically. For 14 years she lived her faith as a model inmate. As the day of her execution approached, the media spotlight was directed toward her. She was the subject of Nightline and was a guest on Larry King Live and the 700 Club. Those who saw her on TV had a hard time imagining the cold-blooded murderer she once was; her life had clearly changed, as those who knew her well would testify. She petitioned the authorities for a change in her sentence from death to life in prison. Many people advocated Tucker's cause, standing up for her as character witnesses or sympathizers. They include prison guards, former prosecutors, the detective who arrested her, and the brother of the woman she murdered. (The Pope and Pat Robertson also spoke in support of her.) Repeatedly, on national TV, she gave credit for the change in her life to Jesus Christ. The petition was not granted. On February 3, 1998, Karla was executed by the state of Texas.
Karla isn't the first "bad sinner" to change her ways. Other notorious murderers have made the same profession of faith, including David Horowitz (Son of Sam), and Mark David Chapman (murdered John Lennon). Some people suspect the validity of these jailhouse conversions, but the fact is many times they are real and the changes they produce are permanent.
Another high-profile criminal conversion in recent history is that of Charles Colson, former hatchet man for Richard Nixon. Though he was not guilty of murder, he committed crimes during the Watergate era that earned him a prison sentence. While in prison, he trusted Christ. The change in his life was dramatic, and it cannot be denied that the church (and society as a whole) has reaped the benefits of his conversion. After his release from prison, Colson established Prison Fellowship, a jail ministry that spans the globe, and has become a significant leader and spokesman for the evangelical church.
It's hard to imagine that a person's life can move in one direction for decades, and suddenly, miraculously, change its course. But it happens. Some of you here today are living proof.
This kind of phenomenon can also be seen in scripture. There are countless examples; probably the best known is that of Paul. For years he was an enemy of the church. He considered it his job to eliminate the threat of Christianity by killing Christians.
Acts 9:1-2 (NKJV) 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.
Acts 22:4 (NKJV) "I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women,
Then one day, on a trip to Damascus, he had a face-to-face encounter with Christ and his life changed forever. Eventually Paul became the most significant person (besides Jesus) in the history of the church.
These are all extreme examples, but I hope they will remind you of a wonderful truth taught in the Bible: No matter how badly you have messed up, God can forgive you: he can give you the strength to change your life. In our text, Paul expounds this very principle. He mentions three important truths that underline this fact. First of all...
1. God's love is unaffected by our past.
Paul acknowledges that he had a past to live down. He said...
1 Timothy 1:13 (NKJV) although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
Notice what he says of himself:
Blasphemer-- means one who slanders God. He was a blasphemer because he denied the deity of Jesus Christ and forced others to deny it.
Acts 26:11 (NKJV) "And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme...
Paul's attacks on believers were, in reality, attacks against Christ.
Acts 9:5 (NKJV) And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" Then the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads."
Persecutor-- Paul had used every means open to him under the Jewish law to annihilate the church:
Acts 8:3 (NKJV) As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
Paul was a mass murderer of Christians. What could be worse than killing people because of their faith in God?
Injurious-- is from the Greek word hubristes, which indicates a kind of arrogant sadism; it describes the man who is out to inflict pain for the sheer joy of inflicting it, a person who finds delight in his own cruelty and in the suffering of the other person. It is no wonder that after Paul was saved Ananias said, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem." (Acts 9:13) Paul was a mass murderer, a violent, arrogant, sadistic man. In verse 15, he goes on to say, "I am chief." He saw himself as the "worst of all sinners." This isn't a false humility, Paul really viewed himself as the worst sinner.
1 Corinthians 15:9 (NKJV) For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Ephesians 3:8 (NKJV) To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
Notice that he doesn't say, "I was" but "I am."Now, someone in the church today would probably say to Paul, "You need to think better of yourself, you have a poor self-esteem. You need some psychological counseling to bolster your poor self-image and build up your self-esteem."
This is not biblical! The Bible never urges self-acceptance, self-love, self-assertion, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-forgiveness or any of the other self-isms that are so popular in the church today. The only thing the Bible tells us to do with self is to deny it.
Who was worse than a mass Christian killer who tortured people for sheer pleasure? He persecuted God's people unto death. This is no exaggeration, he was the chief of sinners.
The fact is, God's grace can transform us in spite of whatever sins we have committed. There is nothing we can do to keep God from loving us. It doesn't matter what we have done.
We see this throughout scripture, especially in the gospels. Not once do you see Jesus judging an individual based on their past. When people came to him who had committed sexual sin, or had dabbled in the occult, or had spent their lives cheating others in business, his message was the same: "I do not condemn you; go and sin no more." People found love and acceptance in Jesus in spite of what their past had been.
A woman visited a church and told the pastor that God could never love her; she had committed the worst possible sin. In a fit of rage, she said, because her baby wouldn't stop crying, she shook him so hard that his brain was permanently damaged. Every day she is reminded of the fact that her own child is forced to live with the consequences of her sin. The guilt was too much for her. She said she had no right to be a mother, she had no right to be a Christian, in fact, she had no right to live. "God couldn't possibly love me after what I did," she said. She didn't understand the truth that: God loves us and extends His grace to us in spite of our past.
Regardless of what you have done, there is nothing you can do that will cause God's love for you to change. He loves you so much that he could not possibly love you more, and he will never love you less. The Bible teaches that God chose to love us in eternity past and nothing can change that love.
2 Timothy 1:9 (NKJV) who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began,
This is not an excuse to sin; but it is reason to hope. No matter what you have done, or no matter what has happened in your life, God doesn't view you as a second-class citizen. He doesn't consider you a has-been. His love for you is as great as it ever was. It doesn't matter who you used to be, God loves you in spite of your past. Secondly...
2. God can save us in spite of our past.
Now, look at what Paul says:
1 Timothy 1:13-14 (NKJV) ..... 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 goes from abounding sin to super-abounding grace. The grace of God rose higher than Paul's sin. Grace is God's loving forgiveness, exemption from judgement, and promise of temporal and eternal blessing given to guilty and condemned sinners freely without any worthiness on their part, and based on nothing they have done or failed to do.
He goes on to remind us of this basic Biblical truth:
15 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
When I say that God can save you, this is exactly what I mean. First of all, he can forgive you completely and wipe the slate clean. Secondly, he can change you into the type of person he wants you to be.
When a person puts his trust in Christ, he or she becomes a new creation;
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NKJV) Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
That is only the beginning of all that God does in your life. In Romans 8:28 he says that God will work all things together for your good. It doesn't matter who you used to be, God can save you in spite of your past, and he will change you in spite of your past.
Too often we use the past as an excuse: "I've always been this way...I've always had a problem with my temper...Everyone in my family is overweight...I just don't have any self-control...I come from a long line of alcoholics..." and on and on. We tell ourselves that this is who we really are, and there is nothing that can be done about it.
I'm telling you today that there is something that can be done about it. God can change you. He can part the Red Sea, he can make the earth stand still, he can hold back the rain for years at a time, he can heal the sick and he can raise the dead. And he can change you into a better person.
One day John Wesley (founder of the Methodist Church) was riding on horseback through the English countryside when he was stopped by a voice that said, "Your money or your life." As the man took Wesley's money, Wesley said, "Sir, you may someday regret this sort of life you are living. If you do, remember, the blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sin." Many years later, at the close of a Sunday evening service in which Wesley had just preached, a man approached him, begging for the opportunity to speak to him. It was the same man who had robbed Wesley years before. Now he was a successful businessman and a faithful Christian. The words Wesley had spoken to him proved to be life-changing. The man said to Wesley, "I owe it all to you." Wesley said, "No, not to me, but to the precious blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin."
God can save you and he can change you no matter what kind of past you've had. For some people this change is immediate, for others it is a lengthy process. For everyone, it is a promise that we can cling to. It doesn't matter who you used to be, God will change you in spite of your past.
Someone might say, "Paul was a special case." That is not true. Notice what he says in:
1 Timothy 1:16 (NKJV) However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all long suffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.
For what cause? Because I was the chief of sinners. When God saved Paul, he took the world's worst sinner and made him the world's greatest Christian to show the world the transforming power of grace. "Pattern" is the Greek word hupotuposis, which means an outline sketch, an example. In his gallery of grace, the Artist-Savior had, as it were, drawn and put on exhibition a sketch, just like a master will first draw a ruff pencil sketch before attempting his final work. This sketch revealed Paul as an illustration, pattern, and model of the type of work sovereign grace was going to perform in the lives of all those who come to him by faith.
A boy had been disobedient to his parents from his childhood. When he became a young man, he left home, scoffing at his godly mother who faithfully prayed that he would turn to Christ. He went off to sea without even saying good bye to her. On his first voyage the ship encountered a wild storm. As he stood on deck, he cursed God. At that moment the ship lurched and he was thrown overboard. Quickly, a lifeboat was lowered, and it reached him just as he was disappearing beneath the surface. The crewmen rescued him and returned him to the vessel. Everyone thought he was dead, but the ship's doctor kept on trying to revive him. Finally he opened his eyes, and his first words were, "Jesus has saved my soul!" After he was completely recovered, he told how, in that horrible "leap" to the sea, his sins had crowded about him, dragging him down. But in that awful moment, he remembered a text his mother had taught him years before: "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" (1 Tim. 1:15). He said, "As I was sinking, I cast myself into the outstretched arms of the Savior."
Paul is saying, "I'm living proof that God can save any sinner." Thirdly...
3. God can use you in spite of your past.
1 Timothy 1:12 (NKJV) And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry,
The grace of God turned the persecutor into a preacher, and the murderer into a minister and a missionary! Paul was not only saved by Jesus Christ, but he was also used by him in the ministry. Paul went from the chief of sinners to one of the most committed and productive of all the saints. So dramatic was the change in Paul's life that the Jerusalem church suspected that it was a trick, and they had a hard time accepting him (Acts 9:26-31). God used Paul and he can use you in spite of your past.
If any man could have been written off as being "washed-up," it would be Jim Bakker. When that whole scandal hit in the eighties, he became the object of world-wide ridicule from both the church and secular society. He lost the enormous PTL empire, he was sent to prison, his wife divorced him, and he hit absolute rock-bottom. More than a few people said that he would never work in the ministry again.
While Bakker was in prison, he read the gospels and made an amazing discovery: much of what he had preached during the PTL heyday was not Biblical. While in prison, he committed his life again to knowing and serving God. Jim Bakker now works in a church in South Central Los Angeles. Gone are the Armani Suits, the cars, the jewelry, the "air-conditioned dog-houses", and all the other symbols of excess that characterized his PTL years. He is no longer a celebrity. He is a support-staff member in an inner-city church, telling people about Jesus, and he is being used by God to change people's lives. If God can use Jim Bakker, after the mess that he went through, he can use you, too.
Look at some examples from scripture. Moses was a great man of God; God used him after he committed murder. David was Israel's greatest ruler; God used him after he committed murder and adultery. Paul was the most significant figure in the days of the early church; God used him after he committed murder. Peter was a primary leader of the early church; God used him after he denied Christ. John-Mark was Paul's traveling companion; God used him even after he quit and abandoned the ministry.
As long as you have breath...as long as you have a life that you can surrender to God, he can use you. It doesn't matter who you used to be.
It comes down to this: The gospel has the power to save and transform the worst of sinners. You can forget the past, because God has forgotten the past. He is concerned with who you're becoming, rather than who you've been. If there are mistakes you made years ago, or months ago, or even days ago, I want you to know that God is willing to put it behind you, if you will confess your sins, and give you a chance to start over. You may have to live with the consequences of your mistakes, but you don't have to live with the guilt or the shame. He will set you free from all of it, and he will give you a chance to start again. It doesn't matter who you used to be. In spite of your past, God loves you, he will change you, and he will use you if you surrender your life to him.
Let's not ever be discouraged in our mission, knowing that the gospel can transform any sinner into a saint. Paul stands as a pattern of the power of the gospel to transform.