Paul never lost the wonder of the gospel of God’s grace to him. Even after 30+ years of walking with Christ and serving as the lead apostle among the Gentiles, he remained blown away by the fact that God had saved him. In 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul recounts his testimony of how the grace of God transformed his life. Before Christ stopped him on the road to Damascus he “was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (1:13). But the grace of God was more than sufficient to save him, since “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1:15).
At this point Paul makes a surprising statement. We might expect Paul to continue his thought by saying “among whom I WAS the foremost.” Given his life before Christ, who could argue? He was a persecutor of the church and a blasphemer! But instead Paul says “among whom I AM the foremost” (1:15). In other words, Paul thinks of himself currently as the “foremost of sinners.” It is not merely a description of his former life, but a statement of his current experience.
So how could Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, think of himself as the foremost of sinners after 30+ years of walking with Christ? I believe the answer rests in his self-understanding and his God-understanding. Paul knew the mixture of his motives, the impurity of his desires, the extent of his failure to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. As he grew in his understanding of God he progressively saw the depths of his sin in ways he never appreciated. Combined with his growing understanding of the perfections of God in Christ his sin became increasingly odious to him.
Who came to mind when you saw the title of this post? Did you think of a mass murderer? A child molestor? Osama bin Laden? Hitler? I am becoming convinced that the biblical answer to that question for every single person is “me.” Sure, I haven’t committed the outward acts that would lead others to call me the worst sinner they know. But when we recall Jesus’ exposition of the Law in Matthew 5–6, I reach a different conclusion. I am guilty in my heart of the very sins that Jesus describes. Even my best actions are tainted by sinful motivations, many of which I do not even fully recognize or appreciate.
I am convinced that one of the marks of growth in holiness is paradoxically a growing awareness of the depth and extent of our sinfulness. As the Spirit continues his work in our lives, he exposes the idolatry in our lives in all its various forms. But he does this to cause us to abandon those idols and instead cling to Christ. And that is why we need to preach the gospel to ourselves daily.
So, who is the worst sinner you know?