Was the Apostle Paul the Chief of Sinners?
The short answer to this question is, yes. Paul was the chief of sinners, or at least thought himself to be, before he obtained mercy.
In 1Timothy 1:15, Paul 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.”
Some use this statement by Paul to try to prove that all are sinners, and to try to support their “sinning Christian” doctrine. “After all,” they say, “if such a great Apostle like Paul called himself the chief of sinners, then where does that leave me and you?”
In this message, as we always strive to do, we will go to the authority of the Scriptures to prove what Paul really was. We will “rightly divide the word of truth,” and take the statement that Paul made in context. We will then look into a number of Scriptures that contradict the normal interpretation of 1Timothy 1:15 by hearing from Paul’s own words how he lived his life, how he walked with the Lord, and how he fulfilled his ministry.
Firstly, let us look at the context of the Scripture in question:
“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry;
Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly and in unbelief.
And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.
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.
Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.”
said in I Corinthians 15:9-10:
”For I am least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
And in Ephesians 3:8,9:
”Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentile the unsearchable riches of Christ.
to make men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning
of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ.”
As one can see from these Scriptures, Paul was not referring to himself as presently being a sinner, but he was referring to his persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ that made him at that time the “chief of sinners,” and because of this he felt that he was “the least of the apostles,” “not meet to be called an apostle,” and “the least of all the saints.”
The word translated “chief” in 1 Timothy 1:15 means, “the first.” Paul thought himself to have been at the top of the list, as far as sinners are concerned, and felt unworthy to even be called an apostle, because of his persecution of the church of Jesus Christ before his conversion. He said that he ”was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy.” Acts 8 records how that Saul consented unto the death of Stephen, the church’s first martyr. It also records how that “Saul made havoc of the church, and entering into every house, and hailing men and women committed them to prison.”
Hear what Paul confesses about his persecution of the church before Agrippa in Acts 26:10-11:
“…and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death I gave my voice against them.
And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities.”
The then Saul, persecuted, scattered and displaced families, threw many into prisons, caused many to blaspheme under the threat of death, and even consented unto the death of some, and he did this against the people of God and the church of Jesus Christ. Paul considered these things to be the worst amongst all sins, and thus considered himself to have been the chief of sinners.
However, notice in the very next verse he says:
“Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting.” (1Timothy 1:16)
Also in the verse previous to his “chief of sinners” statement, he says that “the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.”
So, sandwiched between his “chief of sinner” comment, are two verses of Scripture referring to his salvation by him receiving mercy and grace!
The Apostle Paul was an example and a “pattern” of the mercy and the grace of God. If Jesus Christ, whom Paul persecuted, was able to show “all longsuffering” towards him, and bring him to a place of repentance and faith in Christ, then He can do it to and for anyone.
How did Paul live after he obtained mercy and grace?
Now, let us look at some Scriptures describing the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul after he obtained mercy and grace.
“And have hope toward God, which they themselves allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.
And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward man.” (Acts 24:16)
“Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.
For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every place.” (1 Corinthians 4:16,17)
“Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” (Philippians 4:9)
“For our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile.
But we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.
For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness.
Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ.
But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children.
So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not only the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us.
For ye remember, brethren, our labor and travail: for laboring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached the gospel of God.
Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe. (1Thessalonians 2:3-10)
“Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not.
But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:1,2)
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
But we are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;
Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
“But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses,
In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings;
By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned.
By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left,
By honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true;
As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed;
As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)
“Conscience void of offense towards God, and towards man…
Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do…
Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe…
By manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God…
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels…
But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God…
By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned….”
This does not sound like the chief of sinners or even a sinner. In fact, it sounds like…
The chief of Apostles?
“For I suppose I was not a wit behind the very chiefest apostles.” (2 Corinthians 11:5)
“And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and His grace was not bestowed on me in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:8-10)
Note: “But by the grace of God I am what I am…” - God’s grace did not leave Paul in a sinful state as a persecutor of the church of God, and as a murderer and a sinner. God’s grace changed Paul from a sinner into a saint, and then to the very chief of Apostles.
“I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing.
Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.” (2 Corinthians 12:11,12)
“I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me: and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20)
“For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2)
“Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:11)
“Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” (Romans 6:18)
“But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.” (Romans 6:22)
“But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found to be sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.” (Galatians 2: 17)
Paul would have never made these statements if he considered himself to presently be the chief of sinners.
How could Paul have presently been the chief of sinners, and then say that he was free from the law of sin and death, and that a child of God is free from sin and dead to sin but alive unto God? How can one be free from sin and dead to sin, and still be a sinner? Impossible. How can Paul be the chief of sinners and confess that he had a “conscience void of offense towards God and man”?
The Apostle Paul was not a sinner, and he was not a schizophrenic with two personalities. He was what he was - The greatest of the Apostles, yet he admitted his labor for the Lord was through, of, and by the grace of God.
When Paul “saw” Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was born again of the Spirit of God and was forever changed from a manslayer of God’s people, to a saint of God and to an apostle of Jesus Christ. It was God himself who revealed to Paul the mystery of Christ, the revelation of Jesus Christ, and the purpose of Calvary. No man taught him, for he was taught of God. (Galatians 1:12) He then became the apostle to the Gentiles. (Romans 11:13) Submitting himself to the grace of God and growing in that grace and in the knowledge of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he labored more abundantly than all the other apostles, and out-loved, out-prayed, out-suffered, and out-worked them and us all.
I believe that it is safe to conclude and to say that…
It was the grace of God that changed the chief of sinners into the chief of Apostles.