Was Paul, the apostle, trying to identify himself as the “worst” of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:15? Did he consider himself just a “sinner saved by grace” like many evangelical Christians do today. I know I thought that for most of my Christian life.
This post is in response to comments from my last post, where I mentioned that, in Christ, we’re no longer to consider ourselves as sinners (even though we may still sin.) This is an important topic that deserves attention because it cuts to the heart of how we see ourselves in Christ.
Many who hold this popular “sinner saved by grace” view of themselves point to 1 Timothy 1:15-16 as their proof-text. Hopefully, I can convince you that this is a faulty understanding of the text. I will give three reasons as follows:
Let’s look at them one at a time.
Most English translations render verse 15 with one of these three variations (bold-type added):
“…that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (KJV)
“…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (NIV)
“that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (NASB)
It looks pretty straightforward on the surface, but we have some translation problems here. The Greek word translated “worst” or “chief” or “foremost” is πρῶτος (prōtos, where we get the word, “prototype”). It was never used by Paul to mean “worst” or “chief” anywhere else in his writings. Paul always used this word in its primary meaning, as “first” (first in time, place, in any succession of things or of persons” – see Rom.1:8. 16; 2:9-10; 3:2; 10:9; 1 Cor.14:30; 15:45.47; Phil.1:5; 1 Tim.2:13; 5:12; 2 Tim.4:16).
For instance, just one chapter later, Paul uses the same word to say that “Adam was created first” (1 Tim.2:13).
Why say “worst” or “chief” here? The translators possibly translated it “worst” or “chief” because literally rendering it as “first of sinners” didn’t make sense and “worst” fit their doctrinal paradigm. The NASB says “foremost,” which is slightly closer to what I think Paul was trying to say, but it still isn’t clear.
Regardless of the reason, was Paul saying he was currently the worst sinner in the Roman Empire? Worse than Nero? I hardly think so.
The next thing we need to look at is the context. Let’s see what Paul says in verses 12-14. I put the key words in bold type.
“ 12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; 14 and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus.” (NASB)
Was Paul saying, “I’m still a blasphemer, persecutor and “violent aggressor?” No, that would inconsistent with all his other teachings. Paul was clearly reviewing his former life and contrasting that with his current ministry as an apostle, proving just how deep God’s mercy and grace will go to save someone acting so heinously as himself.
Paul is basically saying, if God can save me, His poster child for amazing grace, He can save anybody!
This is why I think that the Message paraphrase of 1 Tim.1:15-16 actually gets it right, giving us the meaning of Paul’s statement, using the word πρῶτος (prōtos) consistently, and staying in context here (bold-type added).
“Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.”
We have the proper context for verses 12-16 now. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles—who also said he was “dead to sin” (Rom.6:6), “crucified with Christ” (Gal.2:20), and a “new creation in Christ” (2 Cor.5:17)—is not making a case for still being the worst sinner in the Roman Empire. Rather, he’s contrasting his present life as a saint, to whom God faithfully “put into service” (vs.12), with his former life (vs.13-16).
Paul is essentially saying, “I am (currently) God’s “Exhibit A,” proving His scandalous grace that transforms (into saints) even former blasphemers, persecutors and violent men like me!”
This is the most important reason we need to see this rightly, because calling ourselves “sinners” creates a huge identity conflict. We’re looking in the wrong direction, identifying with our old nature that’s dead and buried with Christ, not with our new nature in Him. We’re actually arguing with what God says about us. And behavior always follows how we see ourselves.
I’m not saying that I don’t sin anymore; I’m saying that’s not who I am anymore.
Thinking I’m a still a sinner creates the wrong expectation in my mind, that sinning is inevitable. It’s living on the wrong side of the cross, it sets up a contradiction that actually denies what Christ did on the cross. I’m telling myself that my only freedom from sin is when I die and go to heaven.
But as Georgian Banov astutely observed, “If we’re not set free from sin until we die then Jesus isn’t our savior, death is.”
Praise God, that isn’t what God says! (bold-type added)
“knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.(Rom.6:6-7 NASB)
Beloved, do you “know this“? If so, who are you going to believe? The popular preachers or God?
On the other hand, seeing myself “dead to sin and alive in Christ” transports me toward my true identity. Again, I’m not in denial about my current experience, but I’m “no longer regarding myself that way (2 Cor.5:16-17). I “know” now that sin only has power in my life by my permission. This is how we begin to walk in the Spirit, by walking in truth, not by parroting man-invented doctrines based on failure.
Again, I parroted this evangelical myth myself for most of my Christian life. But I no longer empower what Jesus disempowered on the cross by denying what He did for me and to me.
Beloved saint, called out of darkness by God’s mercy and grace, it doesn’t make you more humble to call yourself the “worst of sinners.” It’s confessing something no longer true about you, and I don’t think that’s what Paul meant either.
What makes us more Christ-like is identifying ourselves, by faith, with who we are, and where we are, in Christ. And that is truly glorious!
“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” (Col.3:1-4 NASB)