The Chief of Sinners
What does 1 Timothy 1:15 mean?
The apostle of grace called himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15), and ever since then Christians have been confused about their identity. They say things like “I’m a sinner saved by grace” even though the Bible declares they are a saint (Eph 1:1, Php 1:1).
So what are you? A saint, a sinner, or a bit of both?
“Look at my messed up behavior. I’m not perfect. I’m obviously still a sinner.”
That’s not true. The Bible declares that in Christ you are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Not an improved person, but a totally new kind of person.
“But if I call myself a saint, it will fill me with pride denying me access to the very grace I need.”
God gives grace to the humble, not the dishonest. True humility comes from agreeing with God and what he says about you, and he calls you his beloved child. In Christ, you are a sinner no more.
Why did Paul call himself the chief of sinners?
He did it to magnify the grace of God.
Here is the passage in context:
v12 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry,
v13 although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
v14 And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.
v15 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
v16 However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on him for everlasting life. (1 Tim 1:12-16, NKJV)
Was the apostle Paul a confused saint? Did he see himself as a sinner? Not at all. Indeed, he draws a sharp line between his present and past identities.
- I was a blasphemer (v13)
- I was a persecutor (v13)
- I was an insolent or violent man (v13)
- Jesus enabled (or empowered) me (v12)
- Jesus counted me faithful (v12)
- Jesus put me into ministry (v12)
Paul had been a terrible sinner but something amazing happened:
- I found mercy (v13)
- the grace of our Lord was poured out on me exceedingly abundant (v13)
- it was accompanied by the faith and love that is in Christ Jesus (v14)
Clearly there was a dramatic change in Paul’s life. So why does he refer to himself as the chief or foremost sinner? He does it so that you might be encouraged.
Why was I shown mercy and grace? Because Christ wanted to make an example of me, the worst of the worst, so that you would know his patience and kindness is greater than your worst. (My paraphrase of verses 15-16)
Paul is saying the same thing here that he says in Romans 5:20. Where sin abounds, God’s grace superabounds. His grace is greater than your sin. His best is better than your worst.
Grace > sin
Someone wearing sin lenses will read v.15 in isolation and conclude that Paul was sin-conscious. But someone wearing grace lenses will read the whole passage and understand that Paul is not boasting about his former badness but God’s great goodness.
Do you see? If God can pour out his abundant grace on this man who was the foremost of sinners, then he can pour out his grace on you. Believe it!
You may say, “I’m not convinced. Paul said ‘I am the chief of sinners,’ not I used to be.”
Once Paul was born again he was no longer the worst sinner in the Roman Empire. After he met Jesus he stopped blaspheming and persecuting Christians. His was a most dramatic transformation!
“So why does he say ‘I am the chief sinner’?”
For the same reason Muhammad Ali says “I am the greatest!” The fact is, Muhammad Ali isn’t the greatest boxer, but he once was and he has kept the title. If you were to ask him, “Who is the greatest boxer of all time,” he would not say, “I was” but “I am!”
It’s the same with Paul.
When he says, “I am the chief of sinners,” he’s alluding to an evil title he earned as a blasphemer and persecutor of Christians. He is not saying “I still blaspheme and persecute Christians.”
But God was merciful to me in order that Christ Jesus might show his full patience in dealing with me, the worst of sinners, as an example for all those who would later believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:16, GNB)
Paul writes to encourage you. If you are discouraged after reading this – if you believe you are still a sinner despite God’s great grace towards you – you’ve missed his heart. You’re more focused on what you’ve done than the greater thing God has done. You need to repent and receive his abundant life.
The moment Paul became a Christian, he stopped being the chief of sinners. Ditto for you. No matter what you’ve done, the moment you were placed into Christ you became just as righteous and holy as he is (1 John 4:17).
All this is to the glory of his grace and love!
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Praise the Lord! hallelujah.
“do not be afraid to use your brain”
That’s a clear line between past and present identity indeed.
Just as Satan used the handwriting of God (10 commandments) against us in a way God never intented. So this crafty rascal needs us to misunderstand our identity in Christ. He wants us to forget our regenerated identity in Christ. Some church leaders want this as well to have power over us. None of this is so, we are children of the One True God!
Thanks Paul. Found your blog by accident the other night while trying to explain the amazing revelation that God has recently smacked me over the head with, (that I am actually Righteous in his sight) to a Christian sister-in-law. Have been reading (and ignoring husband and kids) ever since. Finding the truth feels like I’ve been a dry sponge my entire life and now I cannot stop drinking.
It’s so great to know that not only our past sins are gone but amazingly our current one’s and even our future one’s, (as yet still not committed) have been wiped out also!! Seems too good to be true but very glad it is!! No wonder we are so thankful to Jesus for the sacrifice he has made for our eternal salvation!! We were ‘a sinner saved by Grace’ now we are ‘the righteousness of God in Christ’ – The old has gone, the new has come!! What a deal!!
another good one Paul,it is a very hard thing for people to grasp, that Gods grace is greater then sin,I think sin is so obvious and overwhelming in this world it took me a long time to see and grasp grace.
Thank you Brother of Grace! I was reading 1 Tim 1 and v. 13 really lit up in my heart, I sent it out as a prayer to my prayer partners, I wanted more understanding on shipwrecked faith, Holy Spirit led me to your blog, thank you. Thank You Holy Spirit.
Good one, thanks! I have noticed that when I point out to them they are a saint they get very uncomfortable. Thank God that in Christ I am a saint, qualified for ALL the promises.
Warren (South Carolina)
I had a pastor years ago ask me if I was a sinner, of course I said, yes, because I still sin. I understood grace, but in the natural I was still commenting sins.. He rolled his eyes, like you just don’t understand, or maybe he was thinking, “she is not saved”, which I most definitely was. In God’s eyes I am righteous, if you understand Grace, you know that. I am not sure that calling yourself a person that still sins is such a grievous mistake, if you understand who you are in Christ.
So does that mean when we are confessing our sins in a worship service or in private prayer at home we should not be doing that? Should we instead confess that we are saints because of Christ Jesus and not be acknowledging our sin day to day?
It’s perfectly fine to talk to your Father about anything, including your struggles with sin. I have written a dozen or articles on confession. You can find them in the Archives > Subject Index. Thanks.
To confess is the Greek word homologeo: to say the same thing about it. Ok, so the question is what did God do about them? They have been forgiven because of His name… He made Jesus to be a sin sacrifice so that we might be MADE God’s righteousness by being in Christ.
So as you can see, as you agree with what He’s done and proclaim these Truths over your life, this will simply push you to further intimacy with the Father, because you ARE a new creation, you are His beloved daughter. This is what Paul E. shared with you.
Confess righteousness, holiness and innocence by the blood of Jesus and in thanksgiving. All honour to Him.
Praise His name forever!!
Where and What I would be without His Grace. It’s truly Amazing Grace . Nothing of me but All of Him. Lord help me receive this full revelation. it’s life changing.
Thanks Paul, am really blessed by this. In summary I would say the meat of the matter is to know one’s identity as a son and let nothing make you doubt it. That’s the core of Grace changing our livrs.
Thanks for proclaiming this dynamic truth – that everyone’s sins were taken away at the cross and all we have to do is accept Christ’s acceptance; that Christians are now totally forgiven and no longer are we sinners. All those who are seeking Christ will truly find this truth comforting.
Great article. Once again I’m reminded that we need to place our faith in the word not our feelings. Not in what we’ve done, but in what Christ had done for us.
That explanation was inspired, I agree;
How could Paul possibly believe he IS still the chief sinner? Patently he is referring to a time when he persecuted Jesus’ followers and thought he was achieving righteousness himself.
Sin never has never been anyone’s true identity anyway -we had been believing a lie.
The real problem is people don’t KNOW God’s HEART – they are wary of Him. They just don’t see the hyper loving dad He is. So they construct a religious false modesty (I’m a sinner!) that keeps them at an (un)safe distance from Him- bonkers!😇
This was an excellent and outstanding study of this passage. Paul was obviously contrasting his old identity with his new one. So many religious minded still see themselves as a sinner. Thank God for great teachers and preachers proclaiming and explaining the good, glad gospel truth that we are new in Him. Grace super abounds!
Totally blessed! God bless!
But I have heard it preach that when a believer sins that they are open to attack from satan and sickness and that satan has a legal right to bring destruction and sickness into the believer and their family. Also, when I had come down with high fever for 3 days, a brother from the church that I attended visited me at my home and said that the reason for my sick is sin in my life and that the “wrath of God” is upon my life.
Can you please tell me if this is true or not?
Totally appreciate it.
Thanks and Regards,
It’s 100% NOT true. Jesus called Satan a thief. If he had a legal right to steal from you and rob your health, he wouldn’t be a thief, would he? Sin is destructive, but what you were told is nonsense. And useless. If God were pouring his wrath on you on account of sin, then Christ’s work is insufficient and unfinished. Romans 8:3 tells us that God poured out all his wrath on sin at the cross. Because of Jesus, sin is no longer part of the equation (Heb 9:26). I encourage you to proclaim the Lord’s death over your sickness and receive, by faith, the healing that Jesus paid for.
Amen!!! (it’s 100% NOT true). It’s a lie. Guess who from?
Warren (South Carolina)
Thank you so much for taking time out and for the reply. 🙂 I feel so relieved and not condemned. God bless.
Here are key things on how one can roast those sacred cows: 1) Think about this, it’s summer in your house… and you leave the front door open so fresh air comes in. Ok, how much ‘right’ does that give a thief to come in and rob you? NONE! Because it is YOUR house and haven’t given him permission to come in…. It might be easier -true- but he does that by nature of being a thief to steal, kill, destroy, and even if you don’t have a door open, he’ll try to break a window and come through there or any other place. Now, in the case of a believer, that body was bought with price and their body and spirit are God’s (1 Co 6:20) so the LEGAL owner of that body is God therefore the only One that can ‘give a legal right’ to Satan is Him, and I can assure you He does not do that because I never see Jesus doing that. Now, in the case of an unbeliever, a sickness on their body it is still an affront to what God has paid for (by His stripes there is healing available). In any of those cases, the sick person can believe God OR a believer (that understands their identity and position in Christ) can simply go an set the afflicted free – it’s that simple. Anything else is simply putting a ceiling where God has not done so, but rather said that a believer will do the same and greater works than Jesus.
2) When do we ever see Jesus telling any sick person ‘this is God’s wrath over you’? Much rather, we see that He went around doing good and healing all that were oppressed BY/OF THE DEVIL (not by/of God). Here is even something stronger… there was no born again believer at the time of when the events of the Gospels were taking place (John 7:38-39)! but and INSPITE of them still being under the power and authority of darkness, we read over and over again that Jesus healed them all, healed all that had need of healing, etc…
If you need help, getting that thing off of you, just reach out to me privately and we’ll coordinate over Skype.
You are blessed in Him!
Thanks so much Sir for the answer. 🙂 I would surely contact you on skype for any further help. God bless
Read John 20:23. As you know, Jesus took all your sin on Him, but people can keep you for reasons of their own under sin. You will always have the choice of who to believe, Jesus or an accuser. Love you.
The one time it is good to think of ourselves as sinners saved by grace is when we look at the unsaved sinners around us. It should drive us to win them to Christ. Bring them to the fountain of living water. So they too can become saints with us.
waaow… Praise the Lord am not a sinner but a saint… Paul plis could u also write something on the Body of Christ.. I really desire to learn more on the topic..
Thnx paul, for such liberating message. This is the message people need to hear.
what about martin luther simul iustus et peccator. Luthern base this doctrine on romans 7 thats how feel everyday i sin but im a saint at the same time.
Don’t confuse behavior with identity. The Corinthian Christians sinned too, yet Paul called them saints. He never confused them by saying they were simultaneously saints and sinners. To do so would be to insult Jesus. In Christ, you are not a sinner. You are just as righteous and holy as he is. Even in Romans 7 Paul never says he is a sinner. He is describing a time when he lived under law and was a slave to sin (Rom 7:14). More here.
The true grace of God is that even though salvation belongs to the Jews, as Jesus told the woman at the well, He has broken down the dividing wall, whereas Israel had all the promises and the law and worshipped the one true God, and were and still are, the chosen people, by the grace of God, by grace, He has declared that both the Jews and the Gentiles are saved by faith. The law Paul spoke of was that Jewish believers said that in order to be saved, you had to live like a Jew and follow all the rules and customs of Moses. (Acts15 etc)
You have taken grace way out of context and led many astray. My advice to you is to repent and return to the truth and stop deceiving people.
You have much to say about the woman at the well, what do you have to say about this life giving water that was offered to her, available only by asking, and what are the results of drinking this water.Jesus washed peoples feet but you throw filth around.
What has that got to do with what I said, I think you should get rid of that bitterness in your heart.
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
and you said it yourself: by grace, He has declared that both the Jews and the Gentiles are saved by faith.
saved by what? saved through what? by following rules and customs? or having faith to the law?
I believe saved by grace through faith.
saying that people are saved by grace through faith led many people astray?
We were never under the law that Paul talks about, this was the rules and customs of the Law of Moses. This had to be followed by the Jews, not us, never was, never will be.
By faith, which works by love, we fulfil the law, we put sin to death in our lives by the the obedience of faith. If we continue to sin, this is not love and not faith.
If I said I love my wife and commit adultery, is that love, am I walking in God’s will, am I keeping the Commandments?
Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my Commandments”
The one who says he knows Him and doesn’t keep His Commandments,is a liar and the truth is not in him.
You believe whatever tickles your fancy, that’s your choice, I’ll believe the truth.
This message is awesome. Thank God for Grace. I’m blessed to be a recipient of grace
Love love love this!!! Thank you Paul!
I’m thrilled that the Lord is restoring the Gospel that Paul preached. Its not surprising that the ministry of righteousness will abound in greater glory in the ‘last days.’ This is an exciting time for all Christians. For too long many Christians have been made sin and condemnation conscious. Its time Christians start walking in their forgiven and righteousness consciousness. The Apostle Paul had to have an incredible righteousness consciousness, considering his sordid past. We need more preacher of righteousness in the church today and I believe the Lord is raising up quite an army of these type of preachers.
You might be interested in getting hold of Chad Mainbridge’s (He Qualifues You author. ) teaching on this. Another very interesting interpretation. He would be interested in yours.
Chad and I shared notes on this passage before he came to NZ last month.
Paul – your website is a real gift and it is greatly impacting my thinking. Thanks to God for introducing me to your site! I fully agree with your message but I am a bit frustrated with the tense of verse 15 – “am”. Why did the writers not just use “was”. Another frustrating example for me is Matt 6:12 – if the writer translated it something like: “Father, because you have forgiven me (past tense), I can now forgive others…” BUT this is not how it was written. I meet so many Christians that don’t understand their new-creation status and think of themselves as “old sinners saved by grace”. I want to help them see the truth that it is already done vs will still happen but the tense of these verses make it very difficult for me to explain this to others and I need deeper detail. I think I understand your Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest” but I was hoping there is another way to explain it.
It’s funny you should mention this now. Just the other day I did something stupid – I forget what it was – and I as I was praying about it later I said with much feeling, “I feel so dumb, I am the chief of sinners.” Now by any objective measure I am not the chief of sinners, but that’s how I felt at the time. Of course, it was a passing feeling. Most of the time I enjoy walking in God’s grace and forgiveness and I felt his grace wash over me straight away. I’m not beating myself up; I’m rejoicing in the Lord. But in the moment that I said those words, I definitely meant it.
Hi, Paul! I am from Bulgaria and can not speaking another language, but I’ll try through the translator of google to make contact. My wife and I serve in a village and the people who attend church are gypsies (difficult ethnicity). When we started the ministry faced a lot of sin and persevere in it by those who claim to be believers. How you would do to such people? They themselves recognize that some in the congregation are, but when they go out not live as God’s people. They talk about God, pray, but do not live worthy of the vocation in Christ. What can you share in terms of church discipline? Thanks!
Hi Stoyan. I would do what Paul did to the sinning Corinthians – remind them who they are in Christ. Saints who sin are confused about their identity. This may help.
Since the kingdom of God is within us and the kingdom is now and not yet. It is understandable why we live in the tension of being saint and sinner. Why do we have to resolve the tension? The biblical mindset calls us to live in the radical middle between the two. Another is example is the hypostatic union. Jesus is both fully God and fully Man. Not one or the either.
With respect, there is no tension and the idea that we are somehow saints and sinners leads to confusion and stunts growth. Nowhere in scripture – with the single exception of the verse above – do you find Christians being referred to sinners. We are called to be holy because we are holy; we are not stuck in the middle between holy and unholy, saved and unsaved, saint and sinner. The issue is whether we will renew our minds, walk after the spirit, and live in our true identity.
Was just talking with my wife about this very thing. We came to the very same conclusion about Paul’s “chief of sinners comment.” Because the law folks will use it to justify their identity as “sinners”, we knew that was not right. Even the wild Corinthians were spoken of as Saints. So we WERE sinners…now Saints. Identity and belief in Him are vital. Can’t be both. Have to identify with one or the other.
Wonderful profound truth about our new identity.The more I am comprehending sin does not define me, Jesus defines me, the easier it is to face all the difficulties I have going on in life. Knowing my true identity is my right relationship and standing with God, empowers me to stand boldly before unrighteousness and sin and not be tempted to fall again, to keep moving on in life knowing there is always hope for those I know who are lost, and for myself to continue to become more Christlike tp love them unconditionally , empowered in the Spirit to think, speak, act, and love in truth. Thank you for your encouraging words Paul, however thank you Jesus 💚 you have made a way for us to escape to reality😃
Not sure why but I’m stuck on verse 13 where it says he received mercy cause he did it out of ignorance.What is your thought on it I’ve wrestled with alot of scriptures but seem to get through it with the help of your post thank you.
1 Timothy 1:13 “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” There are two things to note from this verse. First, it would be incorrect to conclude that Paul was shown mercy because of his ignorance. As Paul says two verses later, Jesus came to save sinners meaning all sinners, not merely ignorant sinners. The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to ALL people (Tit. 2:11). It would be more accurate to say in verse 13 that Paul found or obtained mercy. (Where did he find it? In Christ Jesus – see verse 14.)
Second, why did Paul find mercy when others have not? I believe part of the answer was he was opposing the Lord in ignorance in contrast with others who saw Jesus and consciously rejected him. See my articles on the greater condemnation and degrees of judgment. God’s grace is for everyone, and as long as you don’t harden your heart to the good news of Jesus you will find it.
So here’s what I think happened. In opposing the church, Paul acted out of ignorance. He thought he was doing the Lord’s work. When the Lord revealed himself to Paul, he repented straightaway.
But then Paul says something radical. “I was no ordinary sinner, but the chief of sinners. The worst of the worst. God revealed his grace to me to demonstrate the pattern: his grace is greater than our worst for all who believe in him” (my paraphrase of v.16). Good news indeed!
Thanks Paul I’ve been praying for the holy spirit to help me with verses I seem to get stuck on God bless you brother