My travels as an evangelist back in the early 1990’s took me to some small towns in the hills of West Virginia. In one old chapel in a coal mining community I met an elderly woman named Tommy Ann. I remember her both because I thought she had an unusual name, and because of her unusual story that week. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, her husband’s unusual story.
At the close of a service early in an extended series of revival meetings, I stood by the church door greeting folks as they departed. Tommy Ann introduced herself to me. Then she took me by the hand and looked into my face with an obvious earnestness.
“Pray for my husband, that he’ll come to one of the services this week.” she asked.
Tommy Ann had been a Christian for decades, but her husband would have nothing to do with Christ and the gospel. He refused to ever attend a church service.
“I will pray that he comes this week, and that he gets saved.” I promised her.
She said, “Just pray that he comes to a service. That alone would be a miracle.”
I repeated myself, “I will pray that he comes, and that he trusts Christ.”
She shook her head, as if her husband being converted was just too much to believe. “Just pray that he comes.”
The meeting went on for eight days – Sunday to Sunday. I do not recall which night of the week it happened, but Tommy Ann’s husband did indeed come. He sat in a pew next to his wife. He sang from the hymnal, and listened to a gospel message. And at the close of the service, he met with the pastor who led him to Christ.
In I Timothy 1:15, the apostle Paul described himself as the foremost of sinners. It is striking that in the latter part of a long life of faithful service Paul would identify himself this way. He recalled in this letter that in an earlier time he was a blasphemer and a persecutor. He violently disrupted church services, dragged Christians to prison, and was party to the murder of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. But God saved Paul by His grace. And Paul went on to preach the faith he once destroyed. (Gal. 1:23)
Paul wrote that God saved him in part, “that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” (I Tim. 1:16) In Paul, God displayed His wonderful attribute of loving forbearance. God patiently endured Paul’s wicked provocations, and waited while He gave him opportunity to repent. One commentator observed, “Paul stood before the eyes of all after generations as a witness to the power, the grace, and the love of the Lord; so that the greatest of sinners need not doubt that grace.”
Nor should any saints doubt that grace. If you are ever tempted to believe someone is just too far gone, too wicked, too set in their ways to be saved, remember Saul of Tarsus. Don’t despair. Don’t stop praying. Your spouse, your wayward child, your co-worker, no matter how stubborn and sinful, may yet be saved by the grace of God.
A story attributed to John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, says he was once asked if he expected any surprises in heaven. He replied that three things will surprise him: The people there whom he did not expect to see. The church-goers whom he expected to see who are not there. The third and greatest surprise will be to find himself there, knowing the wickedness of his own life.
Perhaps you too will be surprised to meet in heaven that one you somehow thought God could never save. If God can save Saul of Tarsus, He can save anyone. After all, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” including the chiefest of them. (I Tim. 1:15)