I’ll never forget one of my first few FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) meetings as a brand new freshman in college. I showed up there because I thought I was a Christian and in my mind, FCA would be a great place to meet other Christians. I can still remember the low-lit room in the basement of one of the academic halls. There were about 20 people seated in a circle of chairs. I was there to listen and observe. It was a little awkward but so were all the initial activities that I went to at a college four hours from home where I didn’t know a soul. I was all ears (and all eyes) when I found out that a senior baseball player was giving the message on grace. I can still see his face in my mind: long and thin with kind eyes, a shy smile, and close cut blonde wavy hair. I can distinctly remember thinking to myself, “How is this guy going to spend 30 minutes talking about the prayer that you say before a meal?” That was my only understanding of grace.
And yet, though this senior baseball player’s name I’ve long since forgotten, I’ll never forget how he explained grace. He said, “Grace is like getting an A when you deserve an F.” Still, 22 years later, remembering this simple idea brings me to tears. You see, this night was the beginning for me of understanding grace – His saving grace.
As I searched my Bible for the word “grace,” I came across a passage in 1 Timothy, chapter 1. In the second half of 1 Timothy 1:13 Paul says “…I was shown mercy because I acted in…” Mercy? I thought I was studying grace. Let’s talk about mercy first then. Mercy is not getting what is deserved – or being spared the punishment that is due. Ok, so why is Paul shown mercy? Why does God not give him the due punishment for his actions?
In my Bible, that’s where my text stops on the page, just after the word “in.” It’s as if the reader stands atop a precipice.
What mystery is waiting to tumble onto the next page?
How would you finish that verse?
“I was shown mercy because I acted in…”
Before reading on, I thought to myself: How would I have finished this verse the hours before I heard the earth-shattering news about grace that evening in 1993 at FCA? I probably would have said, “God will show me mercy at the end of my life because I’ve been a good person. He will spare me punishment because I have not committed the ‘major sins’ and I’ve tried to live a good life.”
Listen to how Paul finishes 1 Timothy 1:13: “I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief .”
Even after walking with the Lord for 21 years, those two words shocked me – ignorance and unbelief. Read this carefully. Paul is telling us that he was shown mercy (in other words, he was spared his due punishment), not because of anything he had done that was deserving of mercy. In fact in the beginning of verse 13, he calls himself a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. Not only did Paul not know believe the truths about God, he didn’t even know them. He was ignorant and he did not believe. The scandalous truth is that Paul was shown mercy despite what he had done.
Wait – this passage gets even better.
Verse 14: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly , along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is explaining that he spoke against the Lord, he persecuted those who believed, and he used violence to get his way. And the Lord responded to him with mercy and grace. What is this grace that was poured out on Paul? It is unmerited favor lavishly poured out on the undeserving through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5).
You see, not only was Paul spared his due punishment, the Lord also covered him mercilessly (pun intended) with His grace. Imagine in your mind getting a shower at a fire hydrant. He was covered. It was spilling everywhere.
Do you see the scandal of God’s mercy and grace?
That night 22 years ago was my first exposure to this scandalous grace – that I would deserve an F for my ignorance and unbelief. And yet, six months after that FCA meeting when I chose to accept Jesus Christ as my sin-bearer, I was granted a perfect score. Instead of the wrath and death that I deserved, I was lavished with His love, His forgiveness, and given the very righteousness of Christ. In my ignorance and unbelief , God showed me mercy and grace. In Christ, at every point in my life where I sinned (and there are more than I could ever count), His perfect response was credited to me. Truth be told, in the years since I’ve realized more clearly that I don’t deserve an F. I deserve a zero. But in Christ, I have a 100%. His 100% given to me.
That is the good news of grace – His saving grace .
1 Timothy 1:15
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”