Chief of Sinners

I am an inerrantist. I believe that the Bible is truthful and without error in every part. But there are two verses that challenge my inerrantist views. No, I’m not quibbling with Metzger or Aland on a textual-critical issue. And I’m not falling prey to some sort of silly trajectory hermeneutic--a favorite tool of exegetes indulging in chronological snobbery. The passage I’m talking about occurs in Paul’s first letter to Timothy where he writes,

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Tim 1:15–16)

Before I quibble with Paul (as brash as that may sound) let me take a moment to unpack what the Apostle is saying here under two suppositions. First, Paul was a bad dude before he met Christ. In fact, when we look through the resumes of apostles, Paul’s stands out as most unique. Using jargon familiar to a modern audience we could easily make the case that Paul was a terrorist. He was pursuing Christians with the intent of placing them in jail or having them killed in the hopes of discouraging anyone from believing in Christ (Acts 7:58; 8:3.) He was deploying fear and threats in a war against Jesus Christ and his followers (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13). In this first sense, Paul was the foremost sinner when it came to the apostolic leadership in the New Testament. All of the apostles made mistakes, some colossal, but Paul alone was an active opponent of the Christian church before his conversion and apostleship.

But there is also a second sense to Paul’s claim of being the chief or foremost of sinners. Paul was not only a converted terrorist but he also was a theologian who helped the church come to grips with the doctrine of total depravity, a topic about which we will only be able to scratch the surface here. Paul used Judaism’s own imprecatory psalms against them to describe even the most religiously devout person who was yet without faith in Jesus Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul used an entire chapter’s worth of material to describe his ongoing battle with sin (Rom 7). By the time he was writing to the Philippians, he looked back on all his attempts at righteous living and called them rubbish (the G-rated translation). Paul publicly admitted in his letters that he consistently sinned, both before and after his conversion.

But the Apostle didn’t just say, “I am a sinner.” He said he was the chief or foremost of sinners. We should pause and note that during the days of Paul and Jesus, the world was not short on evil people. The Herodian dynasty is a myopic glimpse of outrageous human evil at the turn of the first millennium. Certainly Paul was not as bad as any one of the Herods or their despotic equals, ruling in the Middle East during that time. So why does Paul say that he was the worst? We could default to the offended eternal nature of God and deduce that all sins, to some degree, carry the same weight, at least as they are all against the same holy God. But I don’t think that is where Paul is going in his letter to Timothy. So we should just settle for the evidentialist argument.

The evidentialist argument simply says this, “Paul had the most dirt on himself.” Or to put it more generally, “The person who you know has sinned the most is you.” We live in a fallen world and are naturally self-righteous and self-protecting people. We keep lists of the sins of others to remind ourselves that we’re not that bad and to enforce our own justice counter-attacks whenever someone sins against us. But we rarely turn our self-righteous gaze inward. When we do we find skeletons in the closet. We know our sinful actions, some of which are known by other while possibly some of our sins are only know to ourselves. Going deeper, we know our own internal thoughts, motives, and desires. When we looked nice on the outside but inside were fomenting cores of deceit and rage, we still knew the truth of our sin even if nobody else did. If we have to operate from evidence, we are each the biggest sinner that we know. So when Paul called himself the biggest sinner and also the biggest recipient of grace that he knew, he was simply working from personal experience.

And now we can return to my original statement about my quibbles with Paul. I don’t think he was the chief of sinners. I think I am. I know who I am and I have ample evidence of my sin, failings, and rebellion against my holy and loving God. But when I disagree with Paul on who the biggest sinner is I also have to disagree with him about who has received most grace. Again, I must say, based on the evidence that I have. I have received the most grace from Jesus. I know what he’s forgiven me. And so each of us should have sin and grace quibbles with one another. Each Christian should follow Paul’s example and fight to retain the position of number-one-sinner and number-one-recepient-of-grace. And in this way, all of us will compete with one another to love one another and God. For he who has been forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47).

Joe Holland