What does it mean that Paul was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15)?

In 1 Timothy 1:15, the apostle Paul summed up the gospel of God’s grace: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (NKJV). The magnitude of the gift he had gained in Christ was best understood by Paul when set before the dismal backdrop of his own deep depravity. And so, with humble gratitude, Paul accepted the title “chief of sinners.”

One Bible commentator describes the grace of salvation as “the gift of God. He gives it ‘without money and without price.’ It is His munificent, magnificent gift in Christ Jesus, to the very chiefest of sinners” (Exell, J., ed., Biblical Illustrator, Vol. 5, entry for Acts 28:28, Baker Book House, 1975).

The word “chief” in 1 Timothy 1:15 (NKJV, KJV) is a translation of the Greek term protos, meaning “first, leading, or ranking above all others.” It is also rendered “foremost” (ESV), “worst” (NIV), “worst of them” (CSB), and “worst of them all” (NLT). Paul saw himself as the chiefest, highest-ranking, worst of all sinners. A sinner is someone whose life and actions are contrary or in rebellion to the will and laws of God. Just before his conversion, “Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers” (Acts 9:1, NLT).

Paul said, “I am chief,” not “I was chief of sinners.” As an apostle, he never strayed from the heart of the gospel—that “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8, NLT). God’s salvation was always intended for sinners (Matthew 1:21Mark 2:17). Paul kept his past depravity and ongoing corruption at the forefront of his mind because he saw it as an essential companion to the full apprehension of grace.

Paul testified to the church in Corinth, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:9–10). To the Ephesians, he said, “Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). The more we comprehend the weight and extent of our sinfulness, the better we can grasp the magnitude and scope of God’s forgiveness and grace at work in our lives.

When we recognize and remember the truth about ourselves—our old way of life with our weaknesses and failures, our lack of hope and purpose, and our utter helplessness apart from God—we remain exceedingly humble and grateful for what Christ has done for us. Like Paul, we rejoice and “thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. . . . But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:12–14, NLT).

We don’t beat ourselves up in self-defeating condemnation (Romans 8:1); rather, we give praise, glory, and honor to God for His generous gifts of mercy (1 Timothy 1:16), grace (Ephesians 3:74:7), peace with God (Romans 5:1), membership in the family of God (Ephesians 2:19), and eternal life in His presence (1 John 2:25).

Some of us may have started out like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, so profoundly unaware of our sinfulness and need of salvation that we prayed, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers” (Luke 18:11, NLT). But, eventually, we ended up like the humble tax collector who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13, ESV).

Paul called himself “chief of sinners” because he, like the tax collector, was acutely aware of his sinfulness and understood how much that sinfulness had cost his Savior. This self-identification is the discovery of every person whose eyes have been opened, whose conscience has been awakened, and whose heart has been pricked by the Holy Spirit. It is the humble posture of every believer who acknowledges he is utterly helpless and dependent on God for salvation (Romans 5:6). It is the admission we all must make: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the chief.”

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