Chief of Sinners? Absolutely.

Sound Words graphicThe human heart is ridiculous and rebellious in its pride. I call our pride ridiculous because it is groundless—we have no reason to be arrogant. I call our pride rebellious because it is an attempt to steal glory from God, the very sin which caused Lucifer to be banished from heaven.

Because pride is a besetting sin of my own heart, I have endeavored to battle it in various and sometimes humorous ways. I remember walking around the campus of my Christian college reminding myself to “Be meek, be meek, be meek”—as though the key to humility were the way I walked, stood, or spoke. Ironically, this was actually motivated by pride. What I didn’t know is that the greatest enemy of human pride is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing is more humbling than considering the death our Savior suffered for our sins.

The Apostle Paul demonstrates the humbling effect of the gospel in 1 Timothy 1:15. He proclaims with certainty that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” While his description of Christ’s mission is glorious, his indictment of himself as the worst of sinners is surprising, especially in light of the many “depravity lists” he penned in the Scriptures (Rom 1:28–32; Gal 5:24–25; 2 Tim 3:1–9; et al). Did he really consider himself to be a more grievous sinner than idolaters, murderers, and the sexually perverse? It seems from his own testimony that he did. There’s no indication that he is speaking hyperbolically. Two aspects of his salvation humbled Paul:

Paul was humbled by his own sin.
In 1 Timothy 1:13, Paul remembered that he was a blasphemer of God, a persecutor of Christ’s church, and a violent opponent of God’s work. Paul perpetually remembered his sinful opposition to the gospel (see Acts 22:4; 26:9–11; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Eph 3:8; Phil 3:6). In addition to remembering his past offences, Paul used a present tense verb (“I am chief”) to claim that he was still the chief of sinners.

Paul was humbled by God’s grace.
Paul often rehearsed the fact that Christ endured the wrath of God which his sin earned (Rom. 3:25; 5:8; 1 Cor 15:3). He knew that he was saved in spite of himself, and that his salvation was entirely due to God’s great grace. In the immediate context around 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul expressed gratitude that God would not only save a wretch like him, but would actually entrust him with the ministry (vv. 12–13). What was the reason for God’s working in Paul’s life? Only the super-abundant grace of God extended through Christ and accompanied by faith and love (v. 14). And what was the result of God’s working in Paul’s life? Paul became a trophy of God’s grace. A Savior who can forgive a blasphemer and persecutor can save anyone (v. 16), earning Him eternal glory (v. 17)!

Like Paul, our wonder at the gospel must never diminish, for the work of Christ is the only remedy for sin, including pride. When you meditate on your sinfulness, what it cost your Savior, and the grace God extended in saving you, you will agree with Paul that “I am the worst sinner I know.” It’s impossible to think on the cross and come to any other conclusion. At the foot of Christ’s cross, boasting is indeed excluded (Rom. 3:27). Look to Christ on the cross and you will inevitably confess with the hymn writer two great wonders: “the wonders of redeeming love, and my unworthiness.”

September 2007

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