Why Did Paul Call Himself the Chief of Sinners?

Peter Ditzel

Painting of the apostle Paul sitting and holding his head in his left hand, with a pensive look. The Apostle Paul, c. 1657, by Rembrandt van Rijn. Why Did Paul Call Himself the Chief of Sinners?
Why did Paul say that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief”? Was he fretting that he was still a sinner?
The Apostle Paul, c. 1657, by Rembrandt van Rijn.

In “Did Paul Teach That Believers Still Sin?” I show from Paul’s own writing that he taught that believers don’t still sin. Yet, in referring to himself, Paul called himself the chief of sinners. Did Paul consider himself an exception to the rule? Did he have a psychological problem with self-esteem? Why did Paul call himself the chief of sinners?

In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul writes, “The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Paul appears to be saying that he IS (present tense) the chief of sinners. This is then used as a basis for Christians to repeatedly refer to themselves as sinners.

Certainly, the Greek word for “am” in the verse is in the present tense. But do we really believe that Paul, so many years after his conversion, is telling Timothy that he IS the chief of sinners? Was Paul leading such a scandalous life that he was the chief of sinners? Of course not.

Paul’s Past Persecution

If we look at the context, we see, “And I thank him who enabled me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me faithful, appointing me to service; although I was before a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent. However, I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. The grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:12-14). Paul has his past persecution of the brethren in mind. This made him a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent. Yet, he did it ignorantly, and he obtained mercy. Paul uses mercy here because, although he certainly received grace, the Lord didn’t just graciously save him. He also mercifully appointed him to service or ministry (diakonia).

And, immediately after calling himself the chief of sinners, Paul says, “However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). In other words, Paul is saying in these verses that for the very reason that he was the persecutor of Christ’s assembly, the Lord mercifully made him a minister of the Gospel. This was to display Jesus’ patience as an example to others.

Paul Wanted to Display God’s Grace and Mercy

The context, then, shows that Paul was referring to his past sins as a persecutor of God’s people as the reason he is the chief of sinners. He had given himself that rank because of his past sins and to emphasize the mercy the Lord had then shown him. He used the present tense because he considered himself to be the record holder, but he didn’t mean that he was still a sinner.

Paul knew and taught that when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, God changes our position from being sinners under law, to being righteous in Jesus Christ, from being dead in sin to being dead to the law and alive to God. He called himself the chief of sinners because he felt he held that record for persecuting God’s people. He spoke of it merely to show God’s grace and mercy in saving him and even giving him a ministry as an apostle.

Remember, to the believers to whom he wrote, Paul taught that “sin is not charged when there is no law,” “you are not under law, but under grace,” and, “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” I’m not advocating that we live dissolute lives. I’m saying that if we turn from looking at ourselves—where we will see weakness—and turn to look at Jesus Christ alone, we will see His sinlessness and righteousness that are imputed to us. We will see that He, who has all power in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), has sanctified us (Hebrews 10:10) and made us His brethren and sons of God (Hebrews 2:11; Romans 8:29; Galatians 4:7). We will see that we are saints and not sinners.

He who was dead came out, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Free him, and let him go.”

John 11:44

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