I Timothy 1:15-17 “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
There is a grandeur about these words, and no one can fail to benefit from them because they portray the unique beauty of the Christian message. But there are certain groups of people who should find them particularly instructive. Firstly, those to whom, perhaps unbeknown to themselves, a pseudo-sophistication has entered their faith. It shows itself in a condescension towards the ‘crude message’ of salvation. It has always been possible to become ashamed of the gospel. Are we beginning to look back at our early convictions and say, “We used to think we had all the answers then.” This can happen to any Christian but especially to theological students and ministers. Where today are the preachers called by God, who stand in the awesome loneliness of the pulpit, leading their congregations in the pastoral prayer, reading the Bible to them (in whose pages they, alone in that church, spend their lives), and preaching to the world the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Here is a text that has no flourishes; it is so unadorned. Where is its mystery? How can someone parade his learning here? This is a plain, common-sense announcement. It is an immense burden to read at the beginning of a sermon verses like these, and we understand why Spurgeon in the 56 volumes of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit did not have a single sermon on the very similar text John 3:16. Our text tests a congregation’s understanding of Christian preaching, as few other scriptures.
Again, these words are helpful for the Christian experiencing the fiery darts of Satan, and doubting his faith. We grow weary battling with the forces of apathy and ignorance. Is our insistence on personal conversion to Jesus Christ correct? Have we got it wrong? Our prayers and pleas for people to come to Christ – are they justified? Do we see ourselves growing less ‘intolerant’ and more ‘inter-faith’? Is that the way ahead? We go through periods of uncertainty. What does the Bible say when it is being most lucid and straightforward? One great answer to doubts is to consider again such simple words of Paul as these, none of which have more than two syllables. They are enormously reassuring to those engaged in the unending call to Christian evangelism.
Again, these words are helpful to those who are not yet Christians. They contain the essence of the gospel. They are the door to God. If you know the power of these words coming upon you then that is the beginning of grace. There was once a Cambridge student called Thomas Bilney. Short in stature, his life empty, full of guilt and despairing, but then he obtained a New Testament. He said this, “At the first reading, as I well remember, I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul – O must sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul! – in I 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).” Thomas Bilney took the message of our text and gave it to everyone, and one of the people converted through what Bilney told him became the mightiest evangelist of his age, Hugh Latimer. Subsequently they both were burned alive chained to the stake because of their loyalty to these words of Paul. So you can see how important these simple verses are for a grasp of true Christianity. Many from the time of the apostle Paul have been converted through believing them.
Then I want you to notice how Paul tells us of his conversion. Here he does not give any personal details of what happened. He does not say that it was like an electric shock, or that he began to breathe deeply, and had goose-pimples, or that he laughed and cried, but ‘now he is happy all the day.’ There is nothing like that, and we are relieved, because spirituality is not a matter of the feelings. When people hear testimonies like that they think, “Well, that’s nice for her.” How different is Paul’s approach. You see what he does? He quotes with the utmost approval the first of five ‘trustworthy sayings’ which he mentions in the three Pastoral epistles. They are Christian commonplaces, brief well-known utterances familiar to every first century disciple. About thirty years has passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and clearly such summaries of the faith have entered the warp and woof of the Christian community, the essence of the gospel having been crystallised in these words. They were passed from mouth to mouth. Mothers taught them to their children; such phrases became proverbs in the church, and living aphorisms that reflected the convictions of that first generation of believers. Where will you find deeper insight into the heart of Christianity? Spontaneously the apostle found himself quoting these phrases. Had he heard the apostle John quoting, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”? There is something Johannine about the language. But surely the sentence goes right back to words of Jesus Christ himself. He said similar things:- “The Son of man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10): “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46). So when Paul writes about his own understanding of the faith he takes a simple Christian saying and says, “This is what I believe.” But he is saying more: “This is what everyone who professes to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ must also believe.” Let us then look at this text.
1. The Content of the Gospel is True. v.15
“Here is a trustworthy saying.” Some teach false doctrines, myths and endless genealogies (vv. 3&4). Others have wandered away and turned to meaningless talk (v.6). But here is something utterly different, words that are totally trustworthy. They have all the truth of God himself behind them. The Lord Jesus who said, “I am the truth,” also said, “Thy word is truth,” and “the Scripture cannot be broken.” If it were written in the Word of God then that was sufficient for the Son of God. “It is written,” he quoted to the Devil on three occasions. So here are words in the Bible – which itself is truth – and we are told that this saying is especially trustworthy. So it is something almost doubly true.
The Bible is a remarkable book. It has been subject to more intense scrutiny than any other book for 2,000 years yet its integrity remains unscathed and its influence unequalled. The way the 66 books of the Bible hold together is simply stunning. All the evidence to which we can lay our hands emphasises its trustworthy nature. That is why we have a foundation for believing.
Why go to church on Sunday unless you go to hear something trustworthy, not a preacher who has his own ideas about religion? Why pray unless you can be sure that you are praying to the God who has revealed himself unmistakably in the Scriptures? What do we have to say to the world if the Christian message is untrustworthy? Why should men listen when you call them to high ideals and urge them to turn from the sins that are corroding our culture if it only our refined tastes that are being offended? We speak in the name of Jesus Christ when we tell men that the very jots and tittles of Scripture cannot be dismantled, and the sayings of the Bible are worthy of our trust. They must not merely be noticed but believed.
Do you listen to the Bible being explained in sermons? Have you ever taken up the Bible to read it? Try it. Begin regularly reading it, starting perhaps in the New Testament. Wherever you probe it you find a book of extraordinary spirit and life. It is full of life-changing energy. I am so impressed by the different biblical sayings that God has used to persuade men of the truthfulness of the gospel. For Thomas Bilney we saw that it was by these very words of I Timothy that his unbelief went; for Augustine it was reading the saying, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature;” for Jerome Hines, the Metropolitan Opera singer, it was the saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased;” for Dr Mark Tippett, a former professor of accountancy at the University in Aberystwyth, it was the saying, “I and my Father are one;” for Martin Luther it was the saying, “the just shall live by faith;” for Alexander Henderson it was the saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber;” for Matthew Henry it was the saying, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise;” for William Cowper it was the saying, “God hath set forth Christ to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;” for William Carey the saying was, “Let us therefore go forth unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach;” for J.C.Ryle the saying was, “for by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God;” for C.H.Spurgeon the saying was, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” Those very different words became the means of leading those men to the same Lord.
The Bible is trustworthy. It was that discovery that changed the life of Helen Roseveare when she was a medical student at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1940’s. She had gone to a Christian Union Conference at Ealing, London, and she simply did not fit in with the whole religious ethos of the week-end, but the light began to dawn as she was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. She says, “The truth began to penetrate my thick skull – it was true! It was no myth. It was no out-dated fairy-tale. This God was real, and true, and vital. He cared … he loved me enough to die for me …”
Our young people spent a week’s camp in north Wales ten years ago and one of the men in the congregation came back from it a changed man. When he came to talk to me about church membership a month or two later I asked him which of the evening speakers had affected him. “O it was none of the speakers,” he said, “I just saw that it was true.” It seems to me that there is no other reason for becoming a Christian than that.
2. The Scope of the Gospel is the Whole World. (v.15)
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.” That is a correct translation, emphasising that this saying is worthy of complete and unreserved acceptance. But it can also mean that it should be universally accepted. Let the full world of mankind accept it. Paul, Timothy and the Ephesian congregation have, but let all humanity accept them. In the next chapter Paul says, “God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4).
In other words, without the word of God the whole world is lost. Our conviction is that without the Bible the world would have perished long ago. It is the Word of God that keeps the world going. Joseph Fort Newton once imagined the scenario in which England woke up one morning and found that the Bible was gone. Not only every copy of the book, but all trace of its influence and every echo of its music had been erased from life. The result was appalling. The great literature became well-nigh unintelligible. Shakespeare was almost unreadable. The pages of Milton looked like a moth-eaten tapestry. Everyday speech stammered and faltered.
A change came over the whole temper and tone of the nation. Life became hectic, hurried and vulgar. Old restraints were thrown off, leaving instinct and appetites to run wild. All values were blurred, and life itself became little and mean, not so much tragic as tedious, trivial, frivolous, or else drab. Something fine, high, and fair had gone out of it.
Well, something like that has actually happened to our land, and it is the greatest calamity of this century. The Bible is not actually lost, but it is unknown. The people do not read it for themselves, they do not hear it preached or read to them. Few have any notion of what it means. It fills one with dismay to see generation after generation growing up which knows nothing whatsoever of the Bible, even that it has two Testaments, and four gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is a totally closed book to them It might as well not exist. They cannot accept it because they do not know it.
There is a fearful prediction in the Bible which describes such a situation: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and from to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it” (Amos 8:11&12). And the bitter end of these people is described in one short sentence of doom: “They shall fall, and never rise up again.” The prophecy was fulfilled. Saul of Tarsus led the persecution of the preachers of the word and saw them scattered out of the land, and God’s judgment came upon those persecutors and destroyed them.
“Here,” Paul says, “is a trustworthy saying” for all the nations to accept. I have the authority of God to say to every person, “I have something trustworthy for you. I have good news for you, individually and personally.” I am to tell every soul in this congregation, and everyone who reads this message on the website or on the printed page, “Here is a trustworthy saying for you. You are to have no doubts at all about this. You are not to protest, “but I’m not religious. I’m not born again. I’m not converted.” I am saying that whatever your condition there is this terrific news for you.
But I am not only to tell all men that I have a trustworthy saying for them to believe, I am to beseech them to receive it. As though God did beseech them by me (II Cor.5:20). In that word Paul is using the term elsewhere used to describe our imploring God to give us something we long to have. “Great God, we beseech you grant this to us.” Here, though, God is beseeching sinners to accept this trustworthy saying, “It is worthy of your acceptance. I beseech you to receive it!” To that end I am to go into the byways and hedgerows, through the city’s streets and from house to house. I am to take the initiative and not wait for them to come to me, though they be disobedient and obstinate. All day long I am to stretch forth my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people telling them: “I have the most trustworthy saying that deserves your full acceptance.” That will mean tears and a heavy heart when I am rejected. The Lord knew that pain, and will his true servants ever get accustomed to that sadness, “I would have given you such good news, but you would not”?
3. The Essence of the Gospel is the Salvation of Christ. (v.15)
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The essence of the good news is about Jesus Christ. It’s not about experience; it’s not about utopias; it’s not about anything we have to do. He did not come to prepare salvation for us. He did not come to induce us to save ourselves, or to help us to save ourselves, or to enable us to save ourselves. He came to save us. Let us never forget that the gospel is not good advice, but good news. It proclaims a completed salvation for us.
“He came,” Paul says. He is looking back to a past event in history. From whence did he come? From the heights of glory came a Saviour. But no good thing can be expected from heaven for us can there? God has been provoked by our wickedness. What good thing can come from that holy habitation to this dark world? Only wrath and vengeance is revealed from heaven against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of man. Surely if there is going to be help it must come from earth. But the Son of God came from heaven, from the very One man had offended, to satisfy God’s justice and save man. He came not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. He came, who is equal to God in majesty and glory, in the state of a servant for our salvation.
There are two great impediments to man’s salvation. The first is the justice of God, and the second is the sin of man. Both these two must be satisfied or removed for a sinner to be saved. Justice cries out against our sin, “The soul that sinneth shall surely die.” So all the world lies guilty before God. Who can deliver a world? Only its Maker, without whom was not anything made that was made. Creatorial might become incarnate – think of it – born in our low condition, and under the law. The Lord Jesus keeps its commandments for us, and bore the curse of the broken law for us. God’s wrath is satisfied, and sinners are saved by the life and death of he who came. All by himself he saved sinners, by coming, by obeying, by dying and by rising he has taken those great impediments to salvation out of the way. There is nothing on God’s part for which to to accuse us or to condemn us. There is nothing left to hinder salvation. He has saved sinners.
Now perhaps there is one unbeliever hearing this. Isn’t that a solemn thing? One soul lost. One soul without God and without hope. I must feel that responsibility. I must ask am I to blame. I must ask is it because that one person hasn’t heard the news? Is it because I haven’t told them? Or that I haven’t made it clear enough, that I have made it all so wordy and complicated? Let me say it simply. We deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but from heaven God the Son came and died for us. That is the gospel. Have you understood that? Then why in the name of Jesus Christ is anyone still unsaved? Can I teach, and exhort, and plead, and beseech, and persuade, and hold forth my hands in entreaty hour after hour? Or what else can I do? Do you really accept that you are without God? Do you really accept that you are without hope? That there is no good news for you? Many men are without hope. Many great men…
Bertrand Russell was hope-less. Le me quote to you perhaps the most famous words he ever wrote: “Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving…his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms…no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave…all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system…the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins…” That is Russell’s despair. We are simply accidental collocations of atoms, and one day we all shall die and the atoms be scattered. Until our death what then do we do? “Man is a pygmy, hurling defiances at a soul-less universe,” replied Bertrand Russell.
Well, is that what we are tonight? Pygmies? Or are we the creatures of the God who made this universe, who made man in his image, and who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son? He came to this world and lived the kind of life we all had failed to live, and died that death abandoned by God which we shall all have to face if we go on rebelling against him. He offers to us glory and honour and immortality. He offers, in the most profound sense, to share himself with us. And if there is one unsaved soul here who has not heard this good news that I trust you are hearing it for the first time with faith and hope. I believe that, alas, there is more than one who is unsaved, but I do believe that this church is clear from your blood. That you have heard often from this pulpit of that love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down. And that you have often heard from parents, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, and at the University Christian Union that God has good news for you, that if you come and bow before him and ask for salvation there is no way he will refuse you.
4. The Application of the Gospel is Personal. v.15
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am chief.” Of course this is not a scientific statement. John Stott dryly says that Paul “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 Message of I Timothy and Titus,” IVP, p.53). But when someone comes under the conviction that they are sinners they stop making comparison of themselves with other people. It is no comfort to an exercised sinner that he is better than the murderer he reads about in his paper. He stops thinking like that. Paul became so aware of his sinfulness that he could not conceive of anyone who could be worse. It was the old Pharisee in the temple who thanked God he was not as other men, but particularly the publican he could see out of the corner of his eye. He was much better than that man. We all begin like that, seeing the immoral and the drunkard and the swearer and the thief and being smug about ourselves. But when God shows us the state of our own hearts we bow our heads and beat our breasts and cry, “God be merciful to me the sinner.”
George Whitefield went to Plymouth to speak in the spring of 1743 and a shipwright called John Tanner went to hear him, intending to knock Whitefield off the table on which he was standing. But Whitefield was preaching on the words, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” (Acts 17:19) and Tanner was soon thinking about other things than violence. When Whitefield came to the cross of Christ he turned in the direction of Tanner and cried, “Sinner, thou art the man that crucified the Son of God.” This is the response it produced in Tanner’s heart: “Then, and never before, I felt the word of God quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. I knew not whether to stand or fall. My sins seemed all to stare me in my face. I was at once convicted; my heart bursting, mine eyes gushing forth floods of tears. Dreaded the instant wrath of God, and expected that it would instantly fall upon me. None but those who have waded through the deep waters of a convicted conscience can form any idea of the horror I endured.”
That was Paul’s experience. He was not worried about anyone who could be worse than himself. He knew everyone else’s sins from what he had heard and seen, but he knew his own sins first-hand. They made him acknowledge himself as “the least of the apostles” (I Cors.15:9), and “the least of all saints” (Ephs. 3:8), and here, the chief of sinners. Even the order of the words in the original is significant. He is writing, “the foremost of whom am I.” That is how the sentence ends. He applies the worst word in the text to himself. He had met the Lord Christ on the road to Damascus and in the presence of that glory all his righteousnesses seemed as filthy rags. He had not modified his convictions over the years. He does not say that when he was converted he was the chief of sinners. “I am that still,” he says.
I must ask you and I must ask myself, whether I feel today that I am a sinner? Not do I say so, as a compliment – “well, we’re all sinners” – but do I feel this? In my inmost soul is that a truth printed in great capitals of burning fire – I am a sinner? Then, if it be so, Christ died for me. I am included in his special purpose. I am labouring and heavy laden because of the weight of my guilt, and then I may hear the voice of him that says, “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.” If I know myself to be a sinner I cast myself upon the only Saviour from sin that there is in this world or the next. I believe in him and rest in him.
Nothing in my hands I bring;
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Those who know Christ as Saviour will never have any hope but that hope until their dying hours. They know that they are sinners. This they feel and this they mourn. And from their mourning they derive this comfort – “He sent his Spirit forth and convicted me and taught me of my true state. He would not have done this had he not intended to save me.” You see why our Saviour says at the very beginning o f the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:3&4). That is the gateway to the Christian life. There is no blessedness without poverty of spirit and grief for sin. You cannot live the Christian life of Matthew 5, 6 and 7 unless you have entered by the door of conviction of sin. I urge you to pray each night this simple prayer, “Show me my sin, and show me my Saviour. Show me my sin and show me my Saviour.” Don’t cease praying it until God has answered your request. Without the sense of sin you will feel no need of a Saviour. Without the Saviour there is only despair. But are you a sinner? Are you? Have you broken the law of God in deed and word and thought and omission? Are you a sinner biblically and theologically in the sight of God? Yes. Then pray that your feelings may match this reality. Then, that you may see the Saviour saying, “Come unto me!”
5. Those who Benefit from the Gospel are the Objects of Unlimited Patience v.16
“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (v.16). You see Saul of Tarsus striding down the road to Damascus, foaming with rage, his eyes fixed upon arrest, torment and death, determined to have no rest while there was one follower of the Nazarene still alive. Then at mid day he saw in the way a light from heaven above the brightness of the sun. Imagine that great pillar of light, and it came from a man, the Son of God himself. He had descended in his glory to meet this man who was out to destroy those who loved him. Is his sword of vengeance in his hand? Is he about to smite this evil man? Will his first words be, “Depart you cursed man into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!”? No, it is that same patient Jesus who in this world was slow to anger, slow to speak, and swift to hear. When he was spat on, hit and mocked none of that cruelty could make him frown. Behold the meekness and gentleness of Christ! After they had nailed him to a cross and suspended him from it he said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” For six long hours he hung on the ragged irons without one impatient feeling. He did not cry to the sky, “Hurry up and end it all.” He meekly bore the sin of man: he patiently bore the Father’s wrath. That is the measureless patience of the Lord. It was displayed on the cross, and is displayed in God’s dealings with Saul of Tarsus. Here is this great jewel – the divine patience. And God seeks a setting in which to place it – some fine jewellery box lined with black velvet against which this jewel may sparkle. God chooses Saul of Tarsus in whom to display this divine grace. Where sin has abounded there you see the wonderful patience of Christ.
Paul is the great example of the unlimited patience of Christ for every other believer. Paul uses the word ‘example.’ When I first was taught to write we were given a piece of paper on which an exemplary copperplate proverb had been written along the top line, for example, “Patient waiters are no losers.” And on the lines underneath we would attempt to write just like that exemplary line. Paul’s life is the ‘pattern’ for us of a sinner who continually provoked God, but who was the constant recipient of his long-suffering. The devil will come to us when we find ourselves slipping into sinful attitudes, and he will say to us, “It’s all up with you. How can you expect God to go on forgiving you when you sin again and again? We must say, “There was one worst than me – the chief of sinners – and he provoked God much more than I have. God was patient with him and he will be patient with me too.” It is true. But I would plead with you not to provoke God’s patience when he warns you of your cold heart.
It seems to me that there is an instructive example of this in a testimony of Major General Richard Dannatt CBE MC the president of the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association. He writes in their current magazine (“Ready” Volume 1997-2002, No 9, Oct-Dec 1999) of some extraordinary providences he experienced through which he came to realise that the Saviour was displaying unlimited patience to himself. As a young man he had professed faith in the Lord but there was little progress and a Laodicean spirit had set in – he was lukewarm in his religion. Then the Lord began reminding him that he was becoming an object of the divine patience. On 7th February, 1973, in very unpleasant circumstances in Belfast, at the end of a day of much shooting and people being killed, two gunmen outflanked the position he had taken up as his platoon headquarters. He was briefing one of his Section Commanders on redeployment plans. His driver was down beside his vehicle as the sentry when suddenly a hail of bullets whizzed down the street. The Corporal and the driver were both shot on either side of him and the driver later died. He walked away unharmed. He was 22 years of age, and the Lord had shown him mercy, but after that close call there was still not an end to his lukewarmness.
Then two years later, on 17th July 1975, he was with his Company Commander in a mine clearance operation in South Armagh. They began to go forward to a good location from which they could observe some suspicious object. After a few yards his Company Commander passed him an air photograph, which he suggested Dannatt should stay and study while he went forward alone. So Dannatt stopped and looked at the photograph. Half a minute later and thirty yards away 70 lbs of commercial explosive detonated. His friend was killed instantly. Dannatt walked away unharmed. Again God was merciful to him, but another close encounter with death did not end his lukewarmness.
Two years later, on 15th March 1977 Dannatt was driving along a West German autobahn from Berlin to the Hook of Holland. He was going home to be married. It was in the wee small hours of the morning and he was very tired. He fell asleep at the wheel and the car went off the road at 70 mph straight into a field. At that point, where his car had gone off the road, the field and the road were absolutely level. Two hundred yards further on there was a twenty-foot bank and a wood. He got out of the car without a scratch. But even then, that further warning from a patient Lord did not end the lukewarmness. On each of those three occasions he had failed to take stock of his Christian life.
So, eight months later, on Friday 11th of November 1977, Dannatt was in the Battalion headquarters in Berlin and when he went into the cloakroom, without any warning, he passed out. He found himself stretched out on the floor his right side paralysed and unable to make sense when he talked. He was rushed in an ambulance with blue lights flashing to the neurology department of the main German hospital. Medically he had all the symptoms of a classic stroke, but he was only 26 years of age. But there was no medical explanation for the physical cause of his collapse, even though that teaching hospital ran every test. He had to remain for four weeks in bed, and gradually his mind cleared, and his speech returned to normal. His right arm loosened and his right leg slowly came back to life.
Four weeks lying still was the period in which Richard Dannatt reviewed his Christian life, the warnings a patient Lord had been sending him, and now this. He received many sympathetic letters from family and friends – he had been married less than a year. One letter in particular was from an older Christian who had spoken to him and prayed for him in the past. In this letter he gave him one of the great trustworthy sayings which we find in the Bible. This is what Richard Dannatt read: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son…Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebs.12:5&10).
They were for Richard Dannatt, “the classic example of a blinding flash of the obvious. I had refused to learn the lesson on three occasions in the past, therefore God had no choice but to take a stick and beat me…As the years have gone by and the significance of the lessons learned realised, my wife and I are both able to rejoice and praise God together for his mysterious and loving ways.”
Christ is watching us moment by moment. Christ is praying for us moment by moment. Thus he saves us to the uttermost. Then let us not wound him in the house of his friends. Let us not turn this wonderful jewel of the divine patience into licentiousness. Let no one here take encouragement to sin from that long-suffering which went on praying for Saul of Tarsus and met him in mercy and saved him.
6. The Response to the Gospel is Doxology. (v.17)
“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (v.17). This is the answer to the charge that Paul has been boasting of his sin. Rather, and to the contrary, he is glorying in his salvation. That is what the chief of sinners says when he is saved. See the first word, ‘now.’ I love its existential reality. Paul has been looking back to Christ having come into the world and the patience he has been showing to Paul. ‘Now’ he says, I will praise the Lord. “But Paul, time enough for that in heaven.” “No, I am going to do that now.” Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, be glory for ever. Grateful love is like fire in the bones. If it stays in it burns us up, but if it bursts out there will be fires too. See this flame of love burning in the heart of Isaac Watts:-
Were the whole realm of nature of mine,
That were a present far too small.
Love so amazing so divine
Demands my soul my life, my all.
This is the Lord who saves men. What a gulf between the two. The one, “The King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God”, and the other, “the chief of sinners.” The gulf has been bridged by grace and the only fitting response is doxology. This King has pardoned rebels. He will never lose his kingdom, never abdicate, cease to reign, nor die. The King eternal. He is immortal and so can give life to dead souls. He is invisible and yet the Holy Spirit has given us eyes to see him and hearts to trust in and rest upon our invisible Lord. He is the only God there is. All the gods of the nations are nothings, but our God is the King. He alone is worthy of honour and glory for ever and ever.
That is Paul’s song of praise. You understand, Paul doesn’t give thanks to keep going the patience of Christ. Philandering husbands may try that with their long-suffering wives, bringing them gifts and saying how wonderful they are, but they aren’t fooled by it for long. Paul doesn’t arraign these attributes of God as an attempt to pay God back – as if he were saying, “I have been an object of your patience. You are an object of my praise. Even-Steven” No Paul bursts into worship because it is fitting to do so. Just as spontaneously fans burst into applause at the skill of a sportsman, just as grieving relatives cling to each other, just as we weep at the death of Little Nell, just as people rest after toil, so all of us give praise to God for all that he is and everything that he has done. It is right and proper and appropriate. It fits.
Of course it is also enriching. But that is a side-benefit. We feel complete when we sing our great hymns of worship – “Great God of wonders all thy ways are matchless, godlike and divine.” How many wonderful things do we have from God. How good God is. In doxology we find happiness, and victory over sin, and power to go on with our witness. A man without praise is a miserable man.
Thirty-five years Paul lived in sin. Twenty years after that he wrote these words: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” Is there not some thirty-five year-old man here tonight who had better turn over a new leaf? Is there not some woman here who has had enough of sin? Is it not time you ended you miserable existence and began to live? Turn to the Lord. May the Lord tun you and they shall live unto God, world without end. Amen.
3 October 1999 Geoff Thomas