I have often heard people speak of how deeply they wallowed in sin before they were brought into Christ. They then go on to identify with the apostle Paul’s statement that he is “the chief of sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15.) As sincerely as many people might believe this about themselves, I do not think this was the point Paul was trying to get across.
Paul is a colossal figure in the Christian faith. There is no denying this. Unlike many of the well-known apostles and Christian leaders of his time, his background was not at all too flattering.
Paul begins his every letter to the Church introducing himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In one such letter, the first epistle to the Corinthians, in arguably the most important passage regarding our faith, he freely admits that he doesn’t deserve to be an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:9.) This might seem to undermine the authority he believed he had. On the contrary, it strongly affirms it. Since his apostleship was by the grace of the Lord, it meant the ministry he was entrusted with was a sovereign choice of God (1 Corinthians 15:10.) No human element was involved including Paul himself. His story is embedded in the history of the Church. It is from this vantage point that we can understand his honest admission to Timothy of being the worst sinner.
The best stories are that of heroes, people who seem larger than life, and always save the day. Paul’s is different. At first he was a champion of a different cause and then the enemy of the greatest proclamation in the world.
Saul, who is also called Paul, was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He was an example of a quintessential Jew of his time. He was a disciple of the great Gamaliel. This Gamaliel was the grandson of the founder of one of the two main schools of pharisaic thought in the first century. Gamaliel is to this day highly venerated in Judaism and according to the scriptures Saul was his star pupil. It is easy to imagine that he could have gone down that route and be celebrated among his people. When Paul gave his pedigree and training it was no joke (Galatians 1:13, 14; Philippians 3:4-6; Acts 22:3.) He said according to the Law he was blameless. Considering Jesus’ comments that your righteousness must exceed that of Pharisees to enter the kingdom of heaven, this is not hard to believe (Matthew 5:20.) If it is truly the case that he was an exemplary God-fearing Jew of his time, why then in reference to his former life he calls himself the worst sinner?
We can safely gather from the record of St. Luke in the Book of Acts that Saul was the first great persecutor of the Church. The Church was birthed into a world of hostility and of course there were other persecutors before him. For the purposes of this study I am considering his individual record. He first of all had a hand in the death of the first martyr for Christ, Stephen. This martyrdom sparked the first wave of persecution to ever hit the Church. Saul didn’t stop there and was at the helm of this new wave of anti-Christian sentiment, hunting down believers as far as Gentile cities. Paul was trying to single-handedly decimate the nascent Church. When Jesus appeared to him on that famous road to Damascus his only question was “Why do you persecute me?” If he was not such an ardent and terrible opponent to the Faith, why did the Lord appear in such a dramatic fashion to ask him that question? (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-31.)
It is precisely because he was an early and prominent opponent of Christ that he called himself the worst sinner. It was not in relation to the Law per se but rather in relation to the Lord Jesus that he was a sinner. Paul, who espoused that we are the body of Christ, was the one primarily causing pain to the Lord’s members. In the ignorance of unbelief he was a blasphemous, insolent, persecutor of Christ. His conversion was so dramatic and pivotal that it brought peace to the churches of Christ.
Why did Saul, such an unlikely candidate, become a Christian and moreover an apostle? He explains that he was chosen to demonstrate the Lord’s extraordinary patience to those who will one day become believers. In spite of all that he did against him, the Lord showed him mercy and entrusted him with the ministry. What a commitment to give your former enemy one of the most crucial roles in your work! The faith and love Paul found in Christ was real. Paul was the Lord’s first exhibit of his longsuffering to would be believers. It was not merely a religious emotion but an unshakeable truth of who Christ is (1 Timothy 1:12-16.) This aspect of Paul’s life was so evident and well known that even the apostle Peter refers to it (2 Peter 3:15, 16.) Being aware of these things we can appreciate Paul’s emphasis on grace in his writings.
Being called the worst sinner is more a fact than sentiment. That title belonged to the saint to whom we owe much of the Scriptures. The patience, kindness and mercy of our Saviour is truly incredible. In the words of the songwriter Paul’s story is a true scandal of grace.