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.
So why did Paul call himself the chief of sinners?
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.”
Don’t be afraid to use your brain. 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 Tim 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, believe in him, 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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