Chief of Sinners

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.

Costume Jewelry or Tarnished Silver

How do we know “It’s In There!” – the raw ingredients for living the victorious Christian life?  We know because the Bible tells us so.  The Bible says:

  • You are holy and beloved. (Col 3:12)
  • The seed of God lives in you. (I Jn 3:9)
  • You have a new heart. (Ez 26:36)  Your old deceptively wicked heart has been removed.
  • Your new self is created in the likeness of God; in righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:24)
  • When you look in the mirror, you see a representation of the glory of the Lord. (II Cor 3:18)
  • He who has died with Christ has ceased from sin. (I Pet 4:1)
  • The time for sin is in your past. (I Pet 4:3)
  • God’s divine power has granted to you everything pertaining to life and godliness. (II Pet 1:3)
  • You share the divine nature. (II Pet 1:4)
  • You have a moral resemblance to Christ. (I Jn 2:29)
  • You are a new creation. (II Cor 5:17)
  • Your old nature died with Christ (Rom 6:6)
  • Holiness is your new default mode.  (All of the above and more)

Add to this the fact that the apostles’ exhortation to ethical behavior is always based on our new identity (Eph 4:1); not a new list of qualities to strive for or an ABC formula for spiritual success, and it all adds up to a fundamentally positive description of believers.   At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I keep getting up on my New Covenant soapbox and celebrating all that became new when we accepted Christ because the “miserable-sinner Christianity” that runs through so many Protestant confessional formulas and catechisms is still alive and well in the twenty-first century church.  (See the recommended article by Robert Saucy, “Sinners” Who Are Forgiven or “Saints” Who Sin?)

I am reminded of the word picture Dwight Edward’s uses for this issue in his book, Revolution Within, and I quote.  “Costume jewelry is essentially worthless metal covered with an attractive coating.  So many believers see themselves in that way – sinners through and through, yet covered by the blood of Christ.  Tarnished silver is a much truer image of who we are after conversion.  While we are covered by the infinite righteousness of Christ, we are also new creations in Christ (silver) clothed in an earth suit that is sin-saturated (tarnished).  The new you isn’t a sinner but rather a saint who struggles with the tarnish of sin.”

Is this talk of costume jewelry and tarnished silver and forgiven sinners and sinning saints just theoretical and theological splitting of hairs?  On the contrary, I think it has tremendous implications for how we live.  Let’s see if we can flesh out some of the practical implications next time.

It’s In There!

“But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (II Cor 3:18).

When you looked in the mirror this morning, what did you see?  Or better yet, who did you see?  If you are a believer, you saw the glory of the Lord.  I can guarantee it and I was not even there beside you.  But I am not the only one to make that assessment.  The Apostle Paul did as well.  In the context of Paul’s line of reasoning in II Corinthians chapter 3 comparing the old and new covenants, Paul says in his conclusion, “Unlike the children of Israel, who symbolically have a veil over their face when the old covenant is read, you, believer in Jesus, have had the veil removed in Christ.  And on top of that, when you look in the mirror with your unveiled face you actually are looking at some representation of the glory of the Lord right there in your own face because the Lord, the Spirit, is living inside you.”

Do you remember that old Prego spaghetti sauce commercial from the 1980’s?  A dad and son are appalled to find the lady of the house abandoning her homemade spaghetti sauce recipe and heating up sauce out of a jar.  They take turns quizzing the cook,

“What about the garlic?”
“It’s in there!”
“What about the oregano and onion?”
“It’s in there!”
“What about the special herbs and spices?”
“It’s in there!”

The commercial ends with the tag line, “Prego Spaghetti Sauce; it’s in there!”  If you are too young to remember, it was a big hit.

I thought of that commercial as I was reading over II Corinthians 3:18.  When you look in the mirror, do you wish you saw a person diligent in their work?  “It’s in there!”  Do you wish you saw a person who is loyal to their friends, even to their own hurt?  “It’s in there!”  Do you wish you saw someone who is patient with their toddlers, teenagers, or aging parents?  “It’s in there!”  Do you believe it?

Does this mean we are always at the top of our game or bordering on perfection?  No.  The same verse that highlights our view of God’s glory in our own faces also teaches that our increasing display of God’s glory is a transformational process.  It is an ongoing journey.  But the raw ingredients required for change are already “in there”.  By virtue of the provisions of the New Covenant, the new nature, the new heart, the new identity, the new disposition, the new power, the new everything needed to display God’s glory is in you.  “It’s in there!”