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)
In this letter to his protégé, Timothy, Paul refers to himself as the “chief” of sinners. He even uses the present tense — he does not say, “of whom I was chief,” but “of whom I am chief.” But does he mean that he was still sinning in the worst way? Was “chief of sinners” still his condition, even though he was now redeemed and in Christ? Let’s look at this verse in context:
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. 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 1:12-15)Notice that Paul speaks of what he was formerly. A blasphemer, a persecutor and an insolent opponent of Christ is what he used to be before he came to Christ. But is that what he still was now as he wrote this letter to Timothy? Was he still blaspheming God? Still persecuting Christians? Still insolently opposing Christ? Of course not!
Or was he still tempted to blaspheme? Still struggling to refrain from persecuting Christians? Still desiring to oppose Christ? Again, of course not! He is speaking about his old ways, his old behaviors, what he was before he came to faith in Christ.
So when Paul identifies himself in verse 15 as the chief of sinners, he is not talking about his current state in Christ — that would mean that Christ had made no difference in his life, in his behavior or in his desires. What an ineffectual salvation that would be. It would also be contradictory to his teaching elsewhere about the transforming power of God in the life of believers. For example:
- In Romans 12:2, Paul speaks of being not conformed to this present age but being transformed by the renewing of the mind. Shall we suppose that God utterly failed in transforming Paul and renewing his mind?
- In Galatians 5:16, Paul speaks of “walking in the Spirit,” which results in not fulfilling the “lusts of the flesh.” Did Paul miserably fail in that?
- In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul speaks of the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Was the Holy Spirit completely unable to bring forth any of that divine fruit in Paul? Was Paul completely barren of it?
- In Philippians 2:13, Paul reminds the Jesus believers at Philippi, “It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). In other words, God is at work in us enabling us to do what pleases Him. Not only that, but God’s work in us also creates in us the desire to do what pleases Him. Was God thoroughly ineffectual in creating such desire in Paul’s heart, or in giving Paul the power for fulfill it?
So when Paul speaks of himself as chief of sinners, he is speaking of what he was in his former life. He is not describing his present condition — even though he uses the present tense verb, “am.” But when he identifies himself as chief of sinners, he is saying that nobody is worse than he had been. It is as if he was saying, “I am the record-holder for sinfulness.”
During the recent Olympics, there were a number of records set. Each of the athletes who set them can rightfully boast, “I am the best at ...” But that does not mean that they are each still out on the field performing those record-setting feats. It simply means that no one has surpassed what they have done and broken those records. Likewise, Paul is not saying that he is still sinful in the worst of ways but, rather, that he still holds the record — that nobody is worse than he had been.
Was Paul still capable of sinning? Of course he was, just as all Christians are. But he was not still sinning in the worst of ways, the ways in which he formerly did as a blasphemer, a persecutor of Christians and insolent opponent of Christ. Nor did he struggle with a desire to return to those things. God had done a wonderful work in him, so that as he neared the end of his life he could say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).