Was Paul the Worst Sinner Ever?

Posted on October 26, 2015
Filed Under For Further Thought..., Moral Issues | 5 Comments

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. (1 Timothy 1:15)

Much has been made of Paul’s statement in this verse, identifying himself as chief among sinners. Many use the fact that Paul used the present tense, even though this was long after he obeyed the gospel, to make the argument that he was still identifying himself as a “sinner.” The implication is that all sin (Romans 3:23) and therefore continue to be “sinners.”  After all, if Paul (perceived to be the greatest of the apostles) was identifying himself as a “sinner,” then surely every other Christian should do the same. This line of thinking has led many to become almost boastful in their declaration, “I am a sinner!”

It is important to look more closely at this passage and decipher what Paul was saying as he wrote to Timothy. Was he declaring that he was, at that point in time, a “sinner”?  Or does an examination of his writings here, as well as in other epistles, reveal a different idea?  It is easy, with a mere cursory reading of this verse, to think that Paul was identifying himself as a sinner, but is that the message he really wanted the reader to take away from his writing?

What is a Sinner?

First, we must consider the use of the term “sinner”  by the inspired writers. What does this word typically denote? Paul used this same term earlier in this context:

…knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, (1 Timothy 1:9)

Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon defines this word as:

268 ἁμαρτωλός [hamartolos /ham•ar•to•los/] adj. From 264; TDNT 1:317; TDNTA 51; GK 283; 47 occurrences; AV translates as “sinner” 43 times, and “sinful” four times. 1 devoted to sin, a sinner. 1A not free from sin. 1B pre-eminently sinful, especially wicked. 1B1 all wicked men. 1B2 specifically of men stained with certain definite vices or crimes. 1B2A tax collectors, heathen.

Strong’s makes it clear that this is a word that is identifying those who are continuing in sin, those who have not been freed from sin. Merely being guilty of sin does not make one a “sinner” as used in New Testament scripture. Those who obey the gospel and choose to walk in the light (1 John 1:5-8) are not identified as “sinners.” That is a term used in the New Testament to identify those who are wicked, those who walk in darkness, and those who refuse to repent and continue in their sins (see Romans 5:8, Hebrews 12:3, James 5:20, 1 Peter 4:18). This certainly does not describe the Paul that was writing to Timothy at the time that he penned that epistle. It does, however, describe his previous life in fighting against the gospel message! We must, therefore, examine the context of Paul’s statement to Timothy and determine what aspect of his life Paul was discussing.

From the context…

When we consider the context of 1 Timothy 1:12-16, it becomes clear that Paul was not discussing his current life as a Christian, but rather his previous life as a persecutor of Christians. He was discussing the grace and mercy of God, which allowed him to enter the ministry of Jesus Christ even after he had been guilty of tremendous sin. Verse 13 of this context drives this point home:

…although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. (1 Timothy 1:13)

This was the life that Paul lived prior to obeying the gospel of Christ. It was during that period of time that he received the grace of Christ of which he wrote, and was released from his life as a sinner! Notice, continuing into verse 14, that Paul said that “the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” Paul was not saying that grace was no longer needed after he became a Christian. He was not addressing that point at all. He was addressing the fact that he received the grace of Jesus that allowed him to be forgiven of the sins he listed previously in the context.

Verse 15, with which we are specifically concerned in this study, appears to be a statement made by Paul as an emphasis of the main point that he has been making:  Jesus came to save sinners. This is a point that was clearly made by Jesus himself:

And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Mark 2:16–17)

Of course, the Jews did not realize that they were sinners in need of the great physician, just as the tax collectors and notorious sinners that they thought they were better than. Paul, on the other hand, came to know that he was among those sinners and was in need of God’s grace. Now, as he wrote to Timothy, he was emphasizing the universal nature of the sacrifice of Christ. Jesus came into the world for a particular purpose:  to save sinners. Before Jesus came into the world, all men were consumed by sin!  There was no sacrifice that would take away sin before Christ:

For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1–4)

Jesus was the sacrifice, sent by God to be offered for sin. When He came into the world, it was to save all mankind. Any who would be saved would be saved through Him. All that would be saved were among those identified as “sinners,” desperately in need of this sacrifice. Paul, as he cited the purpose of Christ to come into the world (i.e. , to save sinners) declared that he was indeed chief among that group of people who was in need of that sacrifice.  There are two issues that must be addressed with Paul’s statement.

First, Paul wrote in the present tense, so does that indicate he was identifying himself (despite the evidence to the contrary from other passages) as the chief of sinners even after his conversion?  Marshall Patton, in his commentary on 1 Timothy provides some valuable insight into the Paul’s statement here:

The word chief (prōtos) identifies Paul’s relation to a group of which he was a part or to which he belonged. Wuest says, “The words, ‘of whom I am chief,’ are literally, ‘of whom, I, in contradistinction to others, am foremost.’” The whom of which Paul was a a part has for its antecedent the sinners Jesus came to save. This includes everybody, not just an elect number, according to Calvinian theology (cf. Matt. 11:28; Heb. 2:9; Rev. 22; 3:17).  I am, you are, and everybody is of that number whom Jesus came to save. Of this number Paul said, I am chief. This expression denotes Paul’s deep sense of unworthiness, not because of his present life, but because of his past. Paul could not forget how serious and how awful was his sinful conduct. He had been a blasphemer, persecutor, and injurious. While Paul sinned after his conversion, as all Christians do (now and then), at no time after his conversion can the expression “I am chief of sinners” be applied to his life in Christ.

As a Christian Paul said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Again, “What shall we say then?  Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? (Rom. 6: 1-2). John says, “My little children these things write I unto you that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous… If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 2: 1; 1:9). Christians are not “chief of sinners,” unless they have become an apostate.

According to what some brethren say, in their prayers and in their teaching, one might think that Christians are “chief of sinners.” They say, “Father, forgive us our many, many sins.” Again, they speak so as to imply that Christians sin every hour of the day, more or less. This, of course, is not so. Christians are different from the world. In becoming a Christian, through repentance, one makes the decision to quit sinning. While now and then, in spite of his desire to do otherwise, he fails of this objective, he is not a sinner above all others. While we need to maintain a sense of unworthiness at all times, we at the same time need to guard against saying anything that would leave a false impression.

Paul was not making any kind of declaration about his current life as a Christian!  He was declaring himself to be among the number that Jesus came into the world to save. Of course, we are all among that number!

This brings us to the second point that needs to be considered.  What did Paul mean when he identified himself as “chief” among this number? Many conclude that Paul was identifying himself as  the worst of the sinners. Reaching this conclusion, one would have to believe that Paul literally thought that there had never been any sinner worse than he, or else one would have to conclude that Paul was speaking in hyperbole, with a strong sense of self deprecation. However, neither of these are the case! Paul, in using the word “chief” was not trying to declare that he was the worst possible sinner, but rather that he was a predominant sinner. The word chief, according to Strong’s Enhanced Lexicon, means:

4413 πρῶτος [protos /pro·tos/] adj. Contracted superlative of 4253; TDNT 6:865; TDNTA 965; GK 4755; 105 occurrences; AV translates as “first” 85 times, “chief” nine times, “first day” twice, “former” twice, and translated miscellaneously seven times. 1 first in time or place. 1A in any succession of things or persons. 2 first in rank. 2A influence, honour. 2B chief. 2C principal. 3 first, at the first

This is the same word that is used in verse 16 of this context, where Paul said:

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 Timothy 1:16)

Paul was obviously not declaring that he was the first person to receive the mercy of Christ!  His point is that he was in a prominent position, one that others would look at and realize that if he received mercy and grace, then they could as well. In the preceding verse, the word “chief,” as translated in our English translations, denotes the same concept. Paul was not the worst sinner who ever lived, but he was in a prominent position before both the Jews and the Christians. Everyone knew where he came from and what he had done in his past life. As such, he was in a unique position, in which he was at the forefront of both groups. His use of the word “chief” was not to identify severity, but rather prominence and influence.

Concluding thoughts…

Paul’s identification of himself as chief among sinners was not an attempt at self deprecation. It was not intended to be a declaration of some sinful nature. It certainly was not identifying that he was continuing in sinful practices as a way or manner of life. There are too many contrary passages to accept such a premise (only some of which have been cited in this study). If Paul was not using the phrase in such a way, we should not use it in that manner today. If we are baptized believers, truly converted to Christ, we should never try to identify ourselves as “chief among sinners.” If this phrase truly describes who we are, then we are not being the kind of Christians that God intends us to be! We may stumble, but living in sin is a thing of the past! (See Romans 6, 1 John 1.)