Paul: chief of sinners- What does that mean?

W.E. Shepard  states:

„This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief .“—I Tim. 1:15.

This verse is quoted to prove that no matter how much grace one has received from the Lord1 yet he can never get beyond the place where he is reckoned a sinner. “If Paul said he was the chief of sinners, then how dare we, with so much less grace and salvation, lay claim to anything higher?

Let us examine Paul a little. If he meant here that he, at this time, was the chief of sinners, let us see how this statement harmonizes with the rest of his teaching.

1. Paul was an apostle. He wrote upon one occasion that he supposed he “was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles.”—2 Cor. 11 :5. It is true that in his humility he said he was “less than the least of all saints,” when he considered what a sinner he had been, and how the Lord had saved him and exalted him to preach “the unreachable riches of Christ ;“ but even in this humble statement he confessed that he is a saint, which means a holy person, and, to say the least, it is above being the chief of sinners.

He said that he was “allowed of God to be put in trust with the Gospel.” We cannot understand how God could choose a man to be an apostle and commit unto him the Gospel to preach, knowing that he was the chief of sinners.

2. He wrote on another occasion that the mystery was “revealed unto the holy apostles.”—Eph. 3:5. This, of course, included himself, as he was an apostle. Here is a profession of holiness from Paul. It sounds somewhat different from being the chief of sinners.

3. Paul told the Thessalonian church, “Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe.”—I Thes. 2:10. Suppose that he had added in the next verse, that he was the chief of sinners, how would they have reconciled the statement?

4. In another place Paul made a profession of Christian perfection: “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded.”—Phil. 3:15. Paul thus classes himself with those who had obtained this perfection. The chief of sinners would hardly harmonize in this piece.

5. He wrote to the Romans and said: “I am sure, that when I come unto you, I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ.”—Rom. 15:29. How can one be in the fullness of the blessing of Christ, and at the same time be the chief of sinners?

6. In another place he writes that he is crucified with Christ, and that Christ is living in him. —Gal. 2:20.

One of the strongest expressions of full salvation. Is the chief of sinners crucified with Christ, and possessed with the Christ life?

7. He won hundreds to Christ and led many into the baptism with the Holy Ghost. How could one continually succeed in raising men to a higher level than himself? How could one, the chief of sinners, succeed in getting other sinners to God, and then in getting them filled with the Holy Ghost?

8. God trusted Paul to write a portion of the inspired Word; committed unto him a “dispensation of the Gospel “ through him wrought miracles of different kinds. Can we imagine a Holy God committing such sacred works to the chief of sinners?

9. The very next year after Paul wrote this text about the chief of sinners, he wrote: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; end not to me only, but unto them also that love His appearing.”—2 Tim. 4:6-8. How could the chief of sinners say, as he was facing death, that he had fought a good fight, and kept the faith, end was expecting a crown of righteousness? Is a crown of righteousness laid up for sinners?

10. Paul wrote, “Awake to righteousness, and sin not.”—I Cor. 15:34. And again he asks the question, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein ?“—Rom. 6:1-2. Strange that Paul should exhort others to quit sinning and keep right on himself. Where would be the consistency?

11. We read in the Word that “Sin is the transgression of the law.” Also, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Now, if Paul was the chief of sinners, then he was a transgressor of the law. This would prove hypocrisy in him—teaching others what he himself did not live up to. If he knew to do good and did it not, which he did if he were the chief of sinners, then how could he be holy, and just, end unblameable, as he declared he was? This would certainly brand him as false, if he were then the chief of sinners.

12. Long years before Paul wrote the text in question he repented of his sins. Christ met him on the road to Damascus, struck him down under a mighty load of conviction, and shortly he was a gloriously saved man. Every sin he ever committed was  blotted out to be remembered against him no more forever. Now, the question arises, If he were the chief of sinners at the time he wrote this text, did God give him a license to go back into the heinous business again, or did he deliberately take things into his own hands and go to sinning? If he were the chief of sinners, then we demand a solution.

13. Notice carefully the apostle John on sin:

 “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not; whosoever sinnneth hath not seen him, neither known him.”—I John 3 :6.                 

“He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.”

—I John 3:8.

“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”—I John 3:9.

If the apostle Paul was, at the time of that writing, the chief of sinners, then, according to the apostle John, he was not abiding in Christ, had not seen Him, nor known Him. But Paul declares to the contrary in all three of these things. Hear him:

“I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago,” etc. 2 Cor. 12:2. This man that Paul refers to is himself. See the context.

“Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord ?“— I Cor. 9:1.

“I know whom I have believed.”—2 Tim. 1:12. Thus, we see that Paul was in Christ; he had seen Him, and also knew Him.

Again, if the apostle John was correct, and Paul was the chief of sinners, then he was of the devil, and had not had the works of the devil destroyed out of him. But to say this of such a man would be hard indeed.

Again, in the next place, according to John, Paul could not have been born of God, for such, John informs us, are not the chief of sinners.

He that would make out Paul as saying that he was at this time the chief of sinners, flies in the face of reason, of the Word of God, of Paul’s own testimony and experience. He would make him to be not only false and hypocritical, but a deceiver.

But we know that it means something, for it is there. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of who I am chief.” That Christ came to save sinners there is no dispute in orthodoxy. That he saved Paul is not a mooted question. That he was at one time the chief of sinners, all are willing to admit that in his humility he felt. That he was at the time of that writing such a character, either in thought or reality, is the “bone of contention.” One may say that it was simply an expression of humility on the part of Paul in using the phrase, but there is too much at stake for one to make use of such an expression, so far out of the bounds of all truth, for humility’s sake. What, then, does he mean? He means just what he says. He is speaking of two things that came into his life—one was sin, and the other was salvation. He calls attention to the fact of his being the chief of sinners, and as the chief of sinners Christ saved him, thus giving hope for others. If Christ could save the chief of sinners, then might all have hope. The word chief is mentioned simply to show the power of Christ’s salvation. Notice the verse below: “For this cause I (the chief of sinners) obtained mercy.” This power was brought to bear upon one who was the chief of sinners. But that power acted long years in the past at his conversion. Then the word “chief of sinners” must apply to the time when the power of salvation was exerted. Hence, we see that it was not at the time of that writing, but at the time of his conversion—not the chief sinner now, but the chief sinner saved then. It makes a great deal of difference when we wake up to the fact that he is writing of the chief sinner saved instead of the chief sinner still in his sins. It would be a poor salvation that left him still the chief of sinners. Adding a word or two to the text by way of explanation may throw light upon it: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief’ (or, the chief one saved). Not now a chief sinner, but a chief saved one who was a sinner.

So that Paul, instead of lowering the standard, and confessing himself to be the chief of sinners, is doing the very opposite; confessing his great salvation, and showing that he is the chief saved one, by formerly being such a sinner, and now by having such a wonderful salvation.

One of the great delusions of the day is, that one may be a Christian, and at the same time be a sinner. Never did the devil hatch up a greater soul-deceiving lie. Even the expression, “I am a sinner, saved by grace,” is not only misleading, but unscriptural. As scene one has said, “They will emphasize the word sinner and whisper saved.” If one is a sinner, he is not saved. Of course, the majority may understand what one means by it, but the fact is, salvation and sin do not mix. To say, that I was a sinner, but am now saved by grace, would be the truth. If we stick to the Word of God there is no possible way to harmonize the two states—sin and salvation. There is as much propriety in saying, I am a liar, though truthful by grace; or, I am a corpse, alive by the power of God; or, I am a drunkard, made temperate by the gold cure; as to say, I am a sinner, saved by grace. The fact is, the expression a put in the present tense, when it should be in he past, showing when the work was done. If a man is a corpse, he is not alive; if one is a liarhe is not truthful; if he is a drunkard, he is not temperate.

The word of God does not mix things. It puts them where they belong. If one is a sinner, he is not saved; he is of the devil, out of Christ and not born again. All of this John makes plain.

Why people want to hide behind some wrested Scripture to their soul’s destruction, when there is so much light shed on the pathway, is a mystery indeed. May the Lord save the people from being sinners.

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