The Chief of Sinners

The phrase ‘the chief of sinners’ seems to have moved from 1 Timothy 1v 15 via the hymns of Lucy Ann Bennett and Charles Wesley into the self-understanding of many Christians. Over the years I have heard many Christians refer to themselves, both in their conversations and public prayers, as ‘the chief of sinners’. Is it right to do so? I would argue that it is not. To do so not only misses the point of Paul’s argument to Timothy but also undermines the Christians’ experience of grace.

In verse 16 of Chapter 1 Paul uses the word ‘pattern’ to describe himself. He is a pattern both of the longsuffering of Christ and for ‘those who are going to believe’. Paul is ‘first’ a pattern or ‘above all’ a pattern or even ‘the ultimate, prototype’ pattern. Paul identifies himself as a blasphemer, persecutor and a man full of hubris in verse 13. He is therefore the ‘chief’ of sinners, the ‘first’, ‘above all others’ or ‘prototype’ of sinners. It was as such that he experienced the mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. What Paul wants both Timothy and us to understand is that if Christ can show mercy to him, then we need never doubt that he can show mercy to us. It is an example of the ‘greater to the lesser’, a type of argument that Paul is fond of (see Romans 8 v 32).

Paul tells Timothy (verses 12-14) that he acted against knowledge and in unbelief and it was in this condition that he experienced the grace and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. How wonderful then that mercy and grace can be shown to such an individual and how wonderful that grace and mercy can be shown to us. Remember the force of his argument: ‘if Christ can show grace and mercy to such a one as Paul then why would I ever doubt that He can show mercy to me’. This way of understanding Paul’s argument exalts the grace and mercy of Christ and does us good as His people.

So why do some Christians insist on referring to themselves as ‘the chief of sinners’? Perhaps they think it is a way of demonstrating humility or spirituality. Perhaps they think it is the truth of who they are in the sight of God. I wonder if it is another example of the willingness of us all to think the worst about ourselves.