The well-known narrative of the evangelist Luke relates the birth of Christ as a special event that took place here on earth. It tells of a young mother, a modest and unsophisticated woman. During the night, in the presence of her supportive husband, she laid her newborn child in a manger. Lowly shepherds left their flocks in the fields of Bethlehem in order to visit the child. Certainly, the birth of Christ is a story that belongs to this earth. Yet, it belongs to heaven too, for it reveals heavenly, miraculous occurrences: the appearance of the angel announcing the birth of the Savior of mankind, the manifestation of the glory of the Lord, and the singing of the heavenly choir. Moreover, the child in the center of the narrative is of supernatural origin. He left his heavenly home and came to this earth. Full of love and grace, God came to this world in the person of his Son. God the Son remained what he was, divine, and he became what he was not, human. In other words, God became man.
The incarnation of the Son of God is the greatest mystery of the Christian religion. No human mind can fully fathom it. The purpose of the Incarnation is another precious and amazing wonder. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15).
Paul alluded to this marvelous declaration as a faithful saying. The Christian church at first possessed only the Old Testament Scriptures. The New Testament was still in its formative process. At that time, various pronouncements summarizing the gospel truth were often publicly expressed and circulated. One of these expressions was "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." The apostle declared this and certain other statements to be faithful sayings. Accordingly, these phrases received apostolic sanction and divine authority.
Moreover, this divine statement is worthy of complete and wholehearted reception. Why is this so? Because this declaration, with its wondrous blessedness, is God's greatest message ever! When God speaks, we are always required to respond in an appropriate manner. However, when God communicates to us that he sent his Son into the world to save sinners, we ought to realize that we shall not escape if we despise so great a divine salvation!
Many a sinner refuses to bow before God and slights his most profitable and valuable truths. Is it not written, "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11)? Others received him. "To them gave he power to become the sons of God" (John 1:12). They "were born, not of blood, ... nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). How essential it is to realize that divine grace is needed for wholehearted reception of the message of salvation. This truth, that we need help from above, should never lead us to neglect the infinite riches of this faithful saying. When troubled by our sinful inability, our urgent plea should ever be "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law" (Ps. 119:18).
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." He who came to save was and is divine. The Son of God assumed a sinless human nature. Christ, the anointed of the Father, came from a heaven of holiness and bliss into a world of sin and sorrow to save sinners from their treacherous and perilous woe. For this wondrous purpose, he came in love and mercy to this earth, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death, triumphantly arose, and gloriously ascended to pour out his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit opens the spiritual eyes of sinners, reveals to them their sin and ill desert, and leads them to the One who came to save. He came to save sinners. In the original Greek, the emphasis falls on the word sinners: "Not the righteous, Jesus sinners came to save" (J. Hart).
The apostle continued to emphasize this truth when he referred to himself as the chief of sinners. Is this perhaps an exaggeration? No, Paul grew in grace. He gained more self-knowledge and a deeper appreciation of the gospel message. Once he acknowledged that he was not worthy to be called an apostle (see 1 Cor. 15:9). In a later epistle, he, even more humbly, alluded to himself as "less than the least of all saints" (Eph. 3:8). Here, again at a later period of his life, he sincerely confessed to be the chief of sinners. Paul's best works could not comfort him. Deeply humbled by the grace of God, the apostle realized that his only hope was in the love of Christ. Thus he sounded forth this heartfelt encouragement to sinners troubled by the greatness of their transgressions. It echoes the Spirit's gracious voice: "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Isa. 55:7).
This article (slightly revised) originally appeared in The Messenger, the magazine of the Free Reformed Churches of North America. The author quotes the KJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2002.