The apostle Paul understood exactly what Jesus was getting at with the whole ‘speck in the eye’ parable: Be careful of judging others without first taking an honest look at yourself! So Paul advises in Romans 12:3—
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Instead of looking at others and seeing evil, Paul followed his own advice and looked at himself first. Here’s how he judged what he saw there—“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). “Chief of sinners?” we think—really? Hitler, probably. Stalin, very likely. Dahmer—? He’s right up there. But Paul? This giant of an apostle, the archetypal missionary who penned between 13-15 books of our Bible? He hardly seems to fit into the same galaxy, much less the same category as these other men. So how can he claim this? Why? I think there are two reasons.
1) Paul was setting up an ‘argumentum a fortiori.’
‘Argumentum a fortiori’ is Latin for “arguing from [the] stronger [reason].” If Jack is strong enough to lift a piano over his head, it stands to reason he is also strong enough to lift a chicken over his head, as inadvisable as that might be. My favorite Bible verse to illustrate this type of argument is Romans 8:32—“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Now… where does an ‘argumentum a fortiori’ fit in when it comes to grace? Well, I ask you, doesn’t the knowledge that God can forgive a repentant someone ‘that bad’—as bad as the likes of a Hitler or a Stalin or a Dahmer— doesn’t that knowledge make a powerful case for God being able to forgive the likes of you? Yes, of course it does. But don’t let your understanding of grace stagnate there—remember, that’s too easy. Grace will remain academic until it’s personal.
2) Paul really believed it about himself and wanted us to believe it about ourselves too.
In his biography on the apostle Paul, A Man of Grace and Grit, Chuck Swindoll writes this—“’Chief of sinners.’ Though you may be tempted to soften that, let it be. Leave him alone in that description. Saul wasn’t attempting to sound modest. In his mind, he was the chief of sinners” (Swindoll, 13). Luis Palau has taken a well-known Christian maxim and changed it to say something similar—“Love the sinner, hate your sin.” This is where understanding grace must start. This is where grace becomes personal.
Remember the song ‘Amazing Grace?’ Don’t ever change the words in that second verse:
“T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.”
To become personal, grace must first teach your heart to fear. Fear what? Not what. Whom. Grace must first teach your heart to fear God. What is it we should fear from God? Punishment for our sins! It’s the grace of God that does this— that awakens in us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, an awareness of the seriousness of our sin compared to the holiness of God. But that’s just the half of it—once that ‘fear of God’ falls heavy upon you, the flip-side of grace kicks in—‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, AND GRACE MY FEARS RELIEVED—! How does grace “relieve” the fear it so recently aroused? By pointing us to the gospel: That Jesus took our lifetime of sin upon Himself and was punished for it, in our place, in order to make us right with God. ‘Personal’ grace is a brutally honest view of your own unmerited amnesty, coupled with the ongoing astonishment of unmerited favor.
The apostle Paul didn’t point fingers at anyone else to be the example of sin at its worst; he made himself the argument for grace. He was his own ‘argumentum a fortiori.’ Listen to him—“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
Paul refrained from pointing fingers and expects us to follow suit. Until you are honest enough with yourself to become your own ‘argumentum a fortiori’ when it comes to the ‘amazingness’ of grace, you just won’t get it; grace will continue to offend you. But once it’s personal… once you stop comparing and thinking of others as ‘worse sinners’ and see yourself as the heavyweight title-holder that you are, or—that you have the potential to become (‘There, but for the grace of God go I’)— once it’s personal, THAT presents the greatest opportunity—not just for understanding grace, but for ‘paying it forward’ as well. Let me tell you something: it’s a lot easier to “love your enemies” when you first see yourself as the ‘chief of sinners.’
Swindoll ends his chapter on Paul’s honest self-perception by quoting “Amazing Grace” in its entirety. Then he makes this fitting conclusion—“It’s all there, isn’t it? Our wretchedness. Our deliverance from fear. Our claim of grace to see us through… to lead us home. Go back and read the words again. Do you know the hymn? Go ahead, sing it to yourself. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Paul harmonizing with you.” I hear you, Paul. I hear you.
Surrounded By Grace,