ignorantly in unbelief?

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.) 

Caravaggio's 'Conversion of St Paul'

Caravaggio's 'Conversion of St Paul'

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?

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2 comments

  1. Perhaps this is semantics, but could Paul’s ‘ignorance’ be referring not to the error of his actions but rather the truth of the Gospel (i.e. his unbelief)?

    The reason I ask this is that it may make a little more sense when one thinks of the negative case. To elaborate, I see the ‘negative’ argument as “If Paul had not been acting in ignorance – but in full conscience of his actions – would he have been denied God’s grace (and if so why)?”

    Here the subject to which Paul is ignorant is very important: on one hand if he is referring to his actions then anyone who knowingly sins would not receive God’s grace, on the other hand if he is referring to the Gospel anyone who understands the Gospel and knowingly rejects it would not receive God’s grace.

    So, in answer to “What then does Paul mean when he cites the ignorant unbelief of his actions as the reason why he was shown mercy?” I would contend that he cites ignorant unbelief in the Gospel (not his actions) as the reason he was shown mercy. This may be what you were getting at and I’ve just restated your case but I think there might be a bit of a difference.

    I feel cheeky not bothering to reference back up passages but hey I’m at work, my Bible’s at home and I have yet to find a really good online version! Maybe tonight I’ll add some meat if there’s debate on the issue. IF you want to know that I knowing sinner can be saved consider Roman’s “the good I want to do I don’t do” tongue twister and for rejecting the Gospel leading to God’s denial of grace I’m thinking 2 Peter and 2 Timothy but that’s a pretty general refference I’m sorry!

    1. Thanks Ed, your distinction between the two possible ‘objects’ (if I can speak this way) of Paul’s ignorance is really helpful. And I think I’m with you.

      I get kind of antsy about the idea that anyone who knowingly sins won’t receive grace. Partly of course because like most Christians I often find myself falling into that category (although the argument from Christian experience should probably not decide an exegetical issue like this). But more because of the story of Peter’s restoration: He denied Christ! Deliberately, knowingly, repeatedly. But Jesus restored him. (Sure, he hadn’t yet had dealing with the risen Lord or received his Spirit in the way Jesus promises in John 14, so his understanding was limited. But Jesus’ affirmation of Peter’s ‘confession’ at Caesarea Philippi does credit him with a heck of a lot of insight.) I guess I feel that our call to Christians who are sinning should be something like: ‘STOP! Turn back and receive the mercy and forgiveness that God freely offers in Jesus’, rather than ‘You’re probably beyond saving’ (although the danger of putting yourself in this position seems to function much like ‘STOP!’ in Hebrews)…

      Anyway, I’ll stop tying myself in knots now and just say that I wonder if Paul’s receiving mercy wasn’t a matter of ‘you haven’t gone too far, so I’ll have mercy on you (although if you had gone further and acted knowingly, you’d be stuffed)’. Perhaps it was more a matter of the ignorant unbelief (keeping the two together) that characterised Paul’s actions meaning that the only thing that could save him was God’s mercy.

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