The opening of 1 Timothy contains what is called a Vice List. This was a literary device used in Greek style of the time. The thing to know about vice lists is that they are meant to offer examples of the thing they speak against, and not exhaustive lists. Paul’s use of the vice list in verses 9-11 must not be used to suggest there is a group of people we need to keep out of the church (the lawless and disobedient, the ungodly and sinners, the unholy and profane, those who strike their fathers and mothers, murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, anything else contrary to sound doctrine).
My fellow Evangelicals, let’s face it. If we applied that list to our congregations, our churches would be even emptier than they are now. Maybe that’s our problem.
For most of the past century, our side of the Church has boiled the list down to two items, because “sin” to us nearly always means sexual sin. And we don’t want any sexually broken people in our churches, right? We want everyone to get all that straightened out before we let the church police give them their “E” card.
So if this passage isn’t about that, what is it about? Let’s look quickly at Paul’s outline for the passage and see if that helps.
1. Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine
2. The aim of our charge is love
3. Now we know that the law is good
4. The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless
5. Formerly I was a blasphemer
6. I received mercy
7. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners
8. I received mercy
9. To the King of ages be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Paul is including himself in the vice list. You’ll notice the word “blasphemer” isn’t in verses 9-11. It appears later, when Paul talks about his sin in verse 13. Rather than excluding people who have these sins in their lives, Paul is including them in the scope of God’s mercy while at the same time raising the bar in his own life. He is not just a blaspheming, insolent persecutor of the church. Paul is the head blaspheming, insolent persecutor of the church. He is the Chief. If anything stands out in the passage, it isn’t the vice list. It is the repetition in the outline above (points 6 and 8): I received mercy.
Are you a lawless, disobedient, ungodly, unholy, profane, violent, murdering, immoral, homosexual, slave-driving, perjuring liar? I have two things to say to you: God wants you and he loves you. I don’t know what God will do in your life if you agree with his assessment of your condition. I can say with assurance that God isn’t just calling you names. He wants you to know the truth. How do I know this? Because, just like Paul, the longer I live with him the more aware I am of what goes on in my own heart, of what my own hands have done, and of how flagrantly I have called him a liar by my attitudes and actions.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of a man I so gladly counted as a mentor. He was 83 when he died. Testimony after testimony was shared for two and a half hours by some of the 1000+ people who came to say goodbye, although it seemed like the service only lasted minutes. The number one thing that came through in those testimonies was not how good of a pastor or teacher or mentor or friend or father or man Bob Frederich was. The number one thing that came out was how aware Bob was of his own sin, and how consistently and transparently he witnessed to God’s mercy upon him in Jesus. If I live that long, I don’t think I could be any more aware of both those things – my sin and God’s mercy – than Bob was.
In verse 13 and again in verse 16, Paul uses the best word in the English language or any other language to describe God’s work in his life: “But”. Paul is saying, “I was all those things. BUT I received mercy.”
Oh! Lawless, disobedient, ungodly, unholy, profane, violent, murdering, immoral, homosexual, slave-driving, perjuring liar: God loves you. And for the rest of you whose own personal sin didn’t make it into Paul’s list: God loves you. And he will work the work of mercy in your life if only you will have it. Yes, some of these things are hard to hear. But I’d rather agree with God that I am all these things or any of these things that God calls me and know that God has Called me his own, than live out my days separated from him.
If you come to Christ, will God “make you all better?” No. Paul’s testimony certainly indicates that he wrestled with his sin, whatever it was, through out his life. But God’s mercy brings about God’s grace, and all of it is for the healing of your soul. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” (Ephesians 2:4-5 RSV)