“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of who I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15, KJV)
Here we have such a statement by Paul. After giving some practical pastoral exhortations to his fellow apostle Timothy, Paul recalls his life before he met the Lord. Specifically, he recalls how he acted out of ignorance and unbelief, and persecuted the Church of the living God. Paul then recalls how the Lord touched him and showed him mercy. Paul then goes onto say that the Lord came into this world to save sinners, of who he is chief.
Such a statement offends many. So much so that some preachers and commentators attempt to explain such a statement away as something Paul was simply saying about his past. And, contextually speaking, I can see how one might arrive at such a conclusion. But his statement about being the chief of sinners is not in the past tense. It is present. And this truth, unfortunately, has caused many preachers and commentators to draw unfortunate conclusions. Paul here, in his present tense confession, is not confessing to continually struggling with besetting sins in his life, or knowingly living with some skeletons in his closet.
Rather, I see it different. Paul’s confession to being the chief of sinners is not simply a statement about his past, nor is he admitting to regularly sinning in his life. Rather, his confession to being the chief of sinners is made by a man whose eyes have seen the Lord, and based on this revelation, has come to understand that he is the greatest sinner he knows. Indeed, for anybody who has truly had a revelation of the holiness of God, one cannot help but see the monster they actually are.
They in fact, become the greatest sinner they know. This knowledge is not based on comparing one’s personal sin record with the sin record of any other person. Rather, this knowledge comes from a personal and experiential knowledge of God, whereby when one gazes upon Him in his holiness, they cannot but help have an Isaiah 6 vision of God and cry out “Woe is me! I am undone!” When one truly sees the Lord high and lifted up, sitting upon His throne, one is not overly aware of who other men are in relation to God. One only sees God, and as a result of seeing God, they see themselves, and the ugly monster they really are.
Once I stood in Church to testify, “I am the greatest sinner I know.” Have I ever, or am I presently living in gross immorality? No, not at all. Even when I was unsaved, I still lived a relatively good and moral life. I have never killed anybody, done drugs, or slept around. Comparatively speaking, I can think of a lot of other people who have done far worse things than I have ever done. Yet even armed with this knowledge, when I stand before God, I see who the Lord is, and I see who I am and what I am capable of doing.
What I believe Paul ultimately wanted us to see in his statement, is what I have come to see of myself. I am utterly and entirely dependent upon the grace and mercy of God for my salvation. For apart from that precious grace and mercy, in and of myself, I have come to see the depths of my own personal depravity. I have come to see, like the apostle Paul, that I am the greatest sinner I know. Indeed, in me there is no good thing. Only rot and filth. But thank God, the Lord did come to save me, and as a result of His saving me, I can now be a demonstration of His perfect patience, and an example for others to see of God and His saving work. After all, if the Lord could save me, the greatest sinner I know, then He can surely save others. Indeed, the Lord can do nothing but save sinners. He can never save saints.