These words of Paul are often quoted from the pulpit to convince Christians that they are the most evil sinners ever. I have personally heard it used by a pastor describing himself and it was truly tragic. They then directed that verse toward the congregation and suggested that we should all believe this about ourselves!
Yet, we are told that we are already New Creatures and the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus! (2 Cor.5:16-21)
Unfortunately religious Christianity still tries to guilt and shame people into the arms of Father God instead of declaring the glory of the Gospel, which is incredibly Good News! The only possible explanation is that their intentions are great, but their theology…not so much.
One of the aspects of this wonderful Gospel that Paul preached was that Jesus made us saints by faith. We don’t make ourself saints (literally holy ones) because no one can make themselves as holy as Father God. Only Jesus was able to consecrate us to God and that’s exactly what he did! Hebrews 10:1-14 describes this in OT language that conveys how our High Priest, Jesus took us into the Father’s Presence in his own body and sanctified us forever! (Sanctified literally means “to make holy”.)
WHO WAS THE CHIEF OF SINNERS?
Let’s first consider the verse as translated by some versions. 1 Timothy 1:15 ~
Does it say that Paul considered himself the “worst of sinners”? True, this is how many versions interpret the Greek word “protos”. But out of the 32 times that exact word and tense were used in the NT, not one other time was it translated “worst”. Why this time? Probably because of a sin-conscious bias, but that’s none of my business…
The Truth is that this word “protos” is always translated “chief” or “first” elsewhere. First is not about quantity or quality but chronology. Paul was merely stating, that he was the first of sinners to get completely wrecked by the mercy of God.
Perhaps the most accurate word for word Bible in print; the Young’s Literal Translation ~ “stedfast is the word, and of all acceptation worthy, that Christ Jesus came to the world to save sinners — first of whom I am;”
That’s pretty hard to understand so let’s go with a happy middle-ground in the ESV. We need to also start a few verses earlier to understand the context of what exactly Paul was describing. So many times, people simply throw out one bizarre sounding verse without respect to the intent of the writer. I have heard it said “whenever you take the text out of context, all you are left with is a con.”
1 Timothy 1:12-16 ~ “12I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16But 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.”
Paul was admitting his wicked past in v.13a, because he had previously dedicated his life to persecuting God’s children! But, he did so in unbelief and ignorance. That was the reason he received mercy (v.13b) and then in v.16 he restated why he received mercy.
The reason he received mercy was because of 1 Timothy 1:15. He received mercy because he was the first of sinners that Jesus was displaying his perfect patience (via Paul) as an example. You were not the first of sinners that Jesus was using as an example to those who believe. Paul was. Neither you nor I persecuted the saints from house to house. Paul did.
Yes, we were all sinners. Yes, Jesus came in to the world to save sinners (plural) but there was only one first of sinners that God was revealing his patient mercy through and that was the man whom he changed to a saint. This “first of sinners” was Saul who became the saint Paul; who eventually wrote almost half the NT. Scriptures.
PAUL’S TRUE OPINION OF BELIEVERS ~
So we see that Paul did not call everyone “the first of sinners”, but he did call them sinners that Jesus came to save. This begs the question ~ “are believers still sinners?”
Consider that Paul never once called any believer a sinner. Not one time did Paul call even the carnal church of Corinth sinners. He actually started both letters to Corinth by addressing them as “saints’. In 6 of Paul’s epistles, he called them saints within the introduction of the the first chapter (*see below*). In total, Paul called them “Saints” (which literally means “holy ones”) almost 40 times. Never once did he call them sinners. Yes there were many verses in the NT where Paul can be quoted saying they “were” sinners. But every single instance was where Paul was clearly speaking of their existence before the Cross. The Cross made all the difference in the world!
*Paul’s 6 introductions addressing believers as “saints”*
Some of these need to be read from a literal translation and not a watered-down version or paraphrase like the NLT.
WHAT’S THE POINT?
The point is that God has made us and declares us holy saints. Remember that Peter said ~ “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” The Gospel does not merely call us to live holy. First the Gospel reveals that God has made us holy so that we may live holy! An unholy creature cannot live holy. A sinner can’t live like a saint. Jesus first made us good by his accomplishment initiated upon the Cross and that’s why we can live holy and righteous!
These holy and righteous actions must be founded upon a holy and righteous foundation. Jesus laid the foundation of our identity in him. Now we renew our minds in the truth of who we are in Christ (Eph.4:23,24) and identify with the holy, righteous person that we are in him so that we can bear good fruit!
Anything less is not the Gospel.