Whenever I teach on the topic of the provision and power of our new nature for living the Christian life, I usually encounter two objections which must be taken seriously. First, how do we reconcile the New Testament teaching regarding the death of our old sin nature and our experience with besetting sins? That is, if we have been set free from sin’s power, why do we encounter sin issues in our lives on a _________ (daily, hourly, minutely, secondly, you fill in the blank) basis? The second objection is more specific. If the “sinner” label is to be removed from our believer vocabulary – as I have suggested many times in this blog – why does the Apostle Paul call himself the “chief of sinners” (I Tim 1:15 KJV)?
The first objection has about twenty facets to it and may be difficult to address in a blog format, but we will do our best to tackle it shortly. For now, I will take on the easier task of answering objection two; Paul’s self-identification as chief of sinners.
I Timothy 1:12-15 reads, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in my unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love that are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (I Tim 1:12-15).
If we take verse 15 by itself – and out of context – it would be easy to suggest that Paul is referring to his present status with the label “foremost of sinners” based on the present tense “I am”. However, that assessment all changes when we look at the broader context. Putting the entire passage together, Paul’s point is this:
Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (vs 15) and to prove it you need look no further than myself. As sinners go, I am exhibit A (vs 15). Why? Because I was the worst. I was a blasphemer and a violent persecutor of the church (vs 13). But, incredibly, I received mercy (vs 13) and was saved even though, based on my former actions during my ignorant unbelief (vs 13), you could rightfully call me “foremost of sinners”. Top sinner clearly refers to Paul’s actions in his unbelieving past.
Paul’s humility here is not in calling himself a currently rotten person, mired in sin, that Christ by His mercy somehow accepts anyway. No, Paul’s humility in this passage is based on the richness of Christ’s grace to reach out to one who was a rotten person, mired in sin, and bring him salvation; not only salvation, but, as incredible as it sounds given his sinful past, put him into service as well (vs 12). It is a false humility to refer to ourselves as “poor wretched sinners”. It is not humility as all, but a rejection of all God provided in the New Covenant. Humility is recognizing that we brought nothing to the table to earn God’s gift of salvation and the indwelling of His very Spirit.
In another outpouring of Paul’s humility he calls himself “the very least of the saints; i.e. holy ones” (Eph 3:8). Even at his most humble, Paul calls himself a “saint”. And we should follow his example, not just in our own lives, but particularly when we address our brothers and sisters in Christ. You are indeed saints, holy and beloved.