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.
— 1 Timothy 1:15
Many Christians having marveled at the depth of grace seen in their own lives, and have from a place of humility and contrition, with thanksgiving, have claimed this as true of themselves. From a classic hymn from one of the great hymn writers:
Depth of mercy! Can there be
mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God His wrath forbear?
Me, the chief of sinners, spare?
From a simple internet search on the phrase “chief of sinners”, one return is this:
“And now we can return to my original statement about my quibbles with Paul. I don’t think he was the chief of sinners. I think I am. I know who I am and I have ample evidence of my sin, failings, and rebellion against my holy and loving God. But when I disagree with Paul on who the biggest sinner is I also have to disagree with him about who has received most grace. Again, I must say, based on the evidence that I have. I have received the most grace from Jesus. I know what he’s forgiven me. And so each of us should have sin and grace quibbles with one another. Each Christian should follow Paul’s example and fight to retain the position of number-one-sinner and number-one-recepient-of-grace. And in this way, all of us will compete with one another to love one another and God. For he who has been forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47).” ( https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/chief-of-sinners )
One great writer from former days, wrote this book:
GRACE ABOUNDING TO THE CHIEF OF SINNERS
Puritan writings like “The Valley of Vision” collection of prayers are full of self loathing, often rightly so, but also in this place of vying for the position of chief of sinners.
Here is a question that should be asked, and answered when we read things like this above: Who is it that the Word of God says is the chief?
Another: Who is this person chief of?
And last, can there be more than one chief?
To answer the last question first, let me just say this: if everyone is the chief, then no one is the chief. Going back to the first question, when the Apostle Paul says plainly that he is the chief, this is God’s word on the issue, no matter how reverent or humble a person may be attempting to be in claiming for himself that position.
We often say, and I probably have said this as well, that Paul says of himself that he is the chief of sinners. But that is not exactly what he said. He said that he is the chief of sinners that Christ Jesus came into the world to save.
Now before anyone thinks that I am going “5-point” on this, I am not saying that there are sinners that are excluded from Christ’s provision at Calvary. In 1 Timothy 1:16, the very next verse, the Apostle says this:
“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.”
In this statement Paul is saying what it is that makes him the chief. Saul, who became known as Paul, was saved while in his sins. He was saved while actively persecuting Christ’s people, and thereby persecuting the Lord Himself. I cannot think of any place in the Scriptures up to this point where one in active defiance against God is saved right then and there while actively carrying on as God’s enemy. Paul says that much here as well. “That in me first” does not mean that he is the very worst person to be saved, but here it is clarified that he is a pattern, the one that shows how all others afterward would be saved: they would believe on Him, Jesus Christ, unto life everlasting.
Was no one saved before Paul (Saul)?
No, many before him were saved, numbered as God’s people.
Was no one considered to be in Christ before Paul?
No, that is a contradiction of Romans 16:7 and John 14:20.
Paul was, however, saved as Christ’s enemy in active defiance and enmity against Him, and this is the pattern of the dispensation of grace.
“Enemies reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10) are those of whom Paul is the chief.
By way of example, I would like to point you to a character during the Lord’s earthly ministry, a man named Zacchaeus. The text says that “they”, the people present at this encounter, murmured because the Lord went to be a guest at a sinner’s house. Zacchaeus responded to this with this plea, some might say of repentance and restitution, but could also be a plea of how he has been conducting his life and business:
“And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” — Luke 19:8
Now, note the Lord’s response:
“And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” — Luke 19:9–10
While some would have liked to exclude certain sons of Abraham, the Lord would not. Even the publicans and sinners among the sons of Abraham He welcomed, yet it is clear from His own words that salvation came “forsomuch as [Zacchaeus] also is a son of Abraham”, albeit from the next verse, he was a lost son of Abraham.
This is consistent with the Lord’s entire ministry. He proclaimed God’s Kingdom at hand and called sinners (like Zacchaeus) to repentance. He was a messenger of the covenant, and was calling the children of the covenant back to the covenant that they had forsaken and would make a new covenant with them.
But if we return to the first chapter of 1 Timothy, we see the Apostle Paul speaking of his life before he met the Lord:
“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 in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” — 1 Timothy 1:12–14
The Apostle in his former days was among those that heard this proclamation:
“Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.” — Acts 7:51–53
To make matters worse, after hearing this indictment he was a leading voice to put the man who said this to death on the spot. As Saul (later to become known as Paul) met the Lord, he met Him as he was “yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), and by doing so was persecuting the Lord Himself (Acts 9:4).
And it was for this very reason that he obtained mercy! Returning again to 1 Timothy 1, the entire paragraph:
“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 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. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” — 1 Timothy 1:12–17
There is not a word here about being a lost son of Abraham. His position as a son of Abraham only would make his being an injurious blasphemer and persecutor that much worse.
But “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom [Paul is] chief”!
He is the first in line as a pattern of how Christ Jesus would hereafter save all sinners to life everlasting. The apostle makes that message known throughout his epistles that the gospel of Christ is God’s power unto salvation (Romans 1:16). He teaches that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day, and that this is the gospel by which we are saved (1 Corinthians 15:1–4). He teaches that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). He teaches that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19), and that we are reconciled to God by the death of His Son (Romans 5:10). He teaches that Christ was raised from the dead for our justification (Romans 4:25), and that through this Man Christ Jesus all who believe are justified from all things by which even the sons of Abraham could not be justified by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38–39).
Are you saved? Are you justified from your sins? If you have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and put your faith in His blood to saved you, then you are saved. While the position of chief is taken, have no doubt, that even the worst of sinners can be saved. Another servant of the Lord from days past has this to say:
“Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
To this we can surely say a hearty “Amen”, for we are all the very sinners that Christ Jesus came into the world to save. For God our Savior “will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Your sins are not keeping you from this great salvation, for God is ready, willing, and able to save all who call upon Him by grace, through faith, in the crucified and risen Son of God, Who died for your sins and mine.
Take Him at His word and believe the gospel of your salvation!
“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men…” — Titus 2:11
Husband, father, engineer...Enjoys fishing, archery, guitar, running, and lifting, but most of all reading and studying God's Word.