In I Timothy 1:15 Saint Paul describes himself as the foremost sinner. It is sometimes translated as “chief of sinners”. In another place he calls himself a “wretched man”. Paul seems to be down on himself. How could Paul, the 13th Apostle, the man handpicked by God to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles and pagan, be so negative when it came to his own standing before God.
Well, it happens because Paul was not able to fool himself. Paul was very aware of who he was, what he had done, and what he was doing at the moment. And he knew for certain that no amount of good deeds could erase the sinful past which he had lived. Nor had he ceased to be a sinner since that time.
Paul had persecuted the church. After the ascension of Jesus thousands of people came to believe in Him through the preaching and teaching of the Apostles, Peter, John, and others. As a Jew this greatly distressed Paul to the point where he went around arresting anyone who had professed faith in Jesus. He had them arrested and potentially killed for the sake of Christ.
Paul’s goal was to eradicate the church. The church is the body of Christ. Paul was trying to eradicate Jesus. He was attempting to eliminate the man who had suffered and died for him.
That is not, however, the only reason that Paul calls himself the foremost sinner. Paul does not say “I was” the foremost, but that “I am” the foremost. It was his current sin that bothered him too.
Can a man be both an apostle and a sinner? Yes. And Paul was. You would think that coming face-to-face with the resurrected and ascended Jesus on the road to Damascus would scare a person into perfect obedience. But it didn’t.
Paul remained the same wretched sinner after his conversion as before. He did not continue persecuting the Church, but he become more acutely aware of the evil desires of his heart. His knowledge of his sin became deeper because he hated his sin and wanted to stop, but lacked the strength to do so. That is why Paul can say with confidence that he is the foremost sinner, because he knows what evil lurks within his own heart.
Yet as the chief of sinners, Paul receives undeserved mercy from the hand of God. On account of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ he is forgiven, both of his past and present evil. By God’s grace his past is attributed to ignorance and his present failings are filled up by the overflow of Jesus’ righteousness.
You have to admit, if anyone was going to be a candidate for being rejected by the grace of God it would be Paul. He was persecuting Jesus! It does not get any worse than that. And yet he, even he, receives mercy. He is not only forgiven, but called to spread the very message he once tried to destroy.
This is no random accident. This was God’s plan, to save Paul from hell and at the very same time to hold him up as a prime example of the unsurpassed mercy and grace of God in Jesus Christ. The foremost of sinner receive the forgiveness of sins. The death of Jesus atones for this guy? Well, then there is nothing it can’t forgive. There is no one beyond the reach of Jesus.
Paul is held up for us as an example, both of the depth of human depravity and the even greater depth of God’s mercy.
Paul himself could claim ignorance for one reason behind his sin. He did not know Jesus Christ as Savior. He had no knowledge of this truth. This does not excuse his sin at all, but rather highlights the difference between his and ours.
Paul could claim ignorance as a cause for his sin. We cannot. Perhaps some of you can, you were once ignorant of Christ and so you sinned not knowing against whom your offense was given. But if you are here now, if you are listening to this message, you are in the same boat that I am. We are without excuse.
We have heard the good news. We have received the forgiveness purchased with the very blood of Jesus. Many of us, I dare say most of us, were raised in the walls of the church hearing this precious message of salvation day in and day out, week after week. We are not ignorant.
Yet we think, feel, and do evil. But perhaps even worse, we are so passive and lazy when it comes to doing good. We are not out on the streets selling drugs or hijacking cars. But we miss the ample opportunities that are laid before us to help others. We wait for someone else to jump in and help, someone else to write the check, someone else to do the good deed that we could very easily do.
All of this is simply to say that the term “foremost of sinners” does not belong exclusively to Paul. It belongs to us all. That is my title. It is yours. You, my brother or sister in Christ, are the chief of sinners.
You know why? Because only you know your own heart. All you can see of someone else is what they do on the outside. But you can look into your own heart. You can remember all of the good things that you have left undone. Each one of us can say, “I am the foremost”.
And that is precisely whom Jesus came to save. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” And so I have received mercy. You have received mercy.
Mercy is ours because the death and resurrection of Jesus is not simply some far off event that has no meaning today. It was done for you, with you in mind. Jesus died to save _______ (insert your name here)!
With His crucifixion and resurrection Jesus takes the chief of sinners, that’s me, and erases his sin. He erases sins and makes me and you into His servants. Not all are apostles, but all are servants, to God and to each other.
That mercy of the death and resurrection of Jesus is given to us time and time again, as we confess our sin and receive forgiveness full throttle. We acknowledge that we are the foremost of sinners and so we are first in line to receive the body and blood of Christ, filled to the brim with His mercy.
The mercy of God is shown again at the final judgment. As we stand before the throne of Christ, He is both our judge and our advocate, the jury and our defense attorney. He has promised by His blood to forgive even the chief of sinners.
Jesus Christ truly has put on display His perfect patience with us, calling us to repentance and pouring out forgiveness in abundance.