In Fellowship Group the other night we read the passage containing these puzzling words of Paul (1 Tim 1.13):
I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
What stumped us was the logic. Why does he say ‘because I acted ignorantly in unbelief’? Is this the reason why God showed mercy to Paul? (For the Greek nerds out there, it’s a hoti and causal force is about the only thing that fits.)
So is it a matter of: ‘Sure, I’ve done the wrong thing. But I didn’t know what I was doing. In fact, I thought I was doing the right thing by hunting down followers of this so-called Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. So it makes sense for God to be lenient and forgive me, right?’
I’m not sure that’s it. The way the beginning of the verse relates to v. 12 tells against it:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
Paul knows that his salvation and appointment to Christ’s service is totally a matter of grace. It cuts right across his previous character and direction, which although it may have seemed right to him ran painfully against the grain of reality. He might have convinced himself (and everyone else) the he was a faithful servant of God. But the reality was far different.
What then does Paul mean when he cites the ignorant unbelief of his actions as the reason why he was shown mercy?