June 20, 2024

Was Paul Really the Foremost Sinner?

Paul called himself the chief or foremost sinner (1 Timothy 1:15).  Is this a hyperbolic statement, or is there some truth to this?

Many people point to Paul’s past as a person who persecuted Christians before his conversion as to why he calls himself the chief sinner.  The Bible says that Paul, then Saul, looked on during Stephen’s execution and approved (Acts 8:1).  Acts 7:58 suggests people honored Saul while stoning Stephen.  The problem with looking at any particular act to determine whether or not Paul was the chief of sinners is that someone can always come along with a legitimately worse sin story.  For instance, how about the people who executed Jesus?  There was never a more heinous act.  Objectively speaking, the value of the object destroyed determines the seriousness of the act.  No one minds much if you step on an ant, even on purpose.  But run over a person in the crosswalk, even by mistake, and your guilt is tremendous.  Stephen was a righteous man killed unjustly, but Jesus was God, the most valuable thing in the universe, and being sinless was killed in the most unjust way imaginable.  Those who killed Jesus did a greater sin than Saul, who killed Christians. 

Looking to past sins, or even imagining sins Paul may have committed after he claimed to be the chief sinner, is not a good way to test the integrity of Paul’s claim in 1 Timothy 1:15.  But, then, what else could he mean?

I also reject hyperbole as an explanation for Paul’s claim.  First, the Bible is the inspired word of God and not given to hyperbole.  Second, the only other reason Paul would make such a claim if it were not true is to portray a false sense of humility to elevating himself.  Paul directly counsels against such an act 2 Corinthians 10:17 (boast in the Lord).  There is no place for such a bold contradiction in the Bible for one to say boast only in the Lord and then exalt himself through false humility.

What is left is the notion that Paul believed himself to be the chief sinner.  How did he do this?  In at least two places, John Piper discussed the topic of the “sediment of sin.”  He talked about this in the context of the Great Recession in the early 2000s, and again in 2020 in his book about the Coronavirus.  One of his primary passages is Job.  Piper notes at the beginning of the book that Job was described as “blameless and upright” (Job 1:1).  Yet, at the end of the book, Job says to God, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  How does a blameless man come to the state of repentance, self-loathing, and humiliation?

Piper says that people’s lives are like water in a beaker with a small amount of sediment at the bottom.  In peaceful times the water is clear, but with jostling, the sediment clouds the beaker turning the water opaque or even dark.  So it is with all people.  When times are good, we feel light and breezy.  Many think that the absence of things to repent of is a sign of sanctification and holiness.  However, with stress, the sin sitting quietly at the bottom of our hearts enters our thoughts and influences our actions.  All people are familiar with this pattern.  It is suffering and stress that brings out the worst in us.  Sin is always there, and stress stirs it up.

Consider what Paul has said about his life.  In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul catalogs some of his sufferings, which are extensive.  They include being lost and shipwrecked, tortured, beaten, and stoned.  We know Paul traveled extensively and spent much time in prison.  Even in prison, he felt a father’s worry for the Church and specific individuals.  Ultimately Paul was beheaded after a stint in prison.  Paul’s life was objectively stressful, especially after his conversion.  He stated in 2 Corinthians 1:8 that he “despaired of life itself” as a result of afflictions and burdens (quite possibly emotional burdens for the Church).  Stress constantly jostled Paul’s heart, stirring up sin.  Even when he was not in prison, shipwrecked or stoned, Paul had a burden for the Church that caused him stress.  Paul likely got a thorough and constant look at his sin.  He may have had very little time in his life from conversion to beheading where he was not looking at his sin. 

I have heard people say they were the chief of sinners, ostensibly contradicting Paul.  Indeed, I have considered that I could have done more sin than Paul.  After all, I may even live longer than Paul and have even more temptations to sin in this Modern Age than Paul had.  What Paul was likely talking about, however, was his actual data on his sin.  To his death, suffering stirred up deeper layers of corruption to examine.  In Job, we read about a time in Job’s life when loss and disease stirred up harsh words in Job that caused him to repent.  The sin was always there, despite being described as “blameless” early in the book.  Consider decades of constant loss and physical and emotional stress and the sinful thoughts, urges, and behaviors that such stress brings up?  We are all equally sinful and dependent on Jesus to save us, but Paul likely has a fuller catalog and understanding of those sins due to his suffering.  This understanding allows him to call himself the chief of sinners legitimately.

AJ Switzer

This name is a moniker so that the text can speak for itself. I am developing what I can write about more than how I write. I use AI to edit my stuff.

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