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Chief Sinner

Posted on May 1, 2021 at 1:45 PM

Doesn’t Paul say he was the number one sinner and therefore imply we are all sinners?

Paul, told Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 NIV). Interestingly, Paul never used the word “worst.” The English word “worst”, as used by the NIV twice in this passage, is not in the Greek. The Greek word Paul used was “protos” which means first. From the word “protos” we get words such as “prototype” which is an original or first design. In English as in Greek, first can mean first in time, but it can also mean first in rank.


In the New Testament, sometimes “protos” can be used in the sense of “most important” or “most prominent” as we might think of someone who is in first place. For example, when Jesus said, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord’” (Mark 12:29 NLT), he was using “protos.” Note, however, “protos” never means worst as translated by the NIV.  I suppose the NIV translators were thinking “best sinner” would not do justice to what they were thinking! Why would Paul want to make a point that he was the “most important” or “most prominent” sinner? Did he or the readers really think Paul was somehow in worse shape than anyone else? Hardly. As we have repeatedly shown, being a sinner has nothing to do with degrees of sin but rather has to do with the state a person is in. There is nothing here in the 1 Timothy passage that suggests Paul’s degree of sinfulness served as a point to be made. Perhaps people like to think that if God could forgive Paul’s awful sins, he should be able to forgive our less obnoxious ones!


Most always, “protos” is used by Paul and other New Testament writers to mean first in time. For example, in chapter 2, Paul said, “For God made Adam first [“protos”], and afterward he made Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13 NLT Brackets mine). Is it possible in chapter 1 Paul also used “protos” as first in time instead of first in rank? Let’s start with his second use of the word (albeit in a different grammar case, namely, “proto”  in our passage. The literal Greek phrase in verse 16 would be rendered “in me first.” “In me first” what? “In me first”, Paul said, “I was shown mercy.” Paul was not so much interested in making a point about sin as he was in making a point about salvation and the transition from sin. He goes on to explain why that was important to the readers. I was first shown mercy to serve as a pattern or example to those of you who are coming to believe in Christ Jesus and who want to receive eternal life. Could we then say Paul is the redemption protype for his readers? I believe so, which makes more sense than trying to translate “in me first” as “in me, the worst of sinners.” The NIV should get kudos for trying to be consistent, but it forces them, in verse 16, to employ a dubious translation.


Some other versions, recognizing that it makes more sense for verse 16 to mean first in time rather than first in rank, translate that verse accordingly. However, those same translators inexplicably still want to keep verse 15 as first in rank. They force themselves into a consistency problem. Their attempts look like this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief [“protos”]. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first [“proto”] Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 NKJV Brackets mine). Granted, while Biblical writers did engage in wordplay at times, it seems to me verses 15 and 16 are very interlocked in meaning and that there is no reason to suppose Paul is trying to convey two different thoughts. The most reasonable conclusion then is Paul uses “protos” in both verses in the same way-that of first in time.


Thus, a reading that makes the most sense, is consistent in treatment, and happens to square well with our general assertion that Christians are not sinners would be something like: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of acceptation by all, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first [“protos”]. But for this cause I was received unto mercy that in me first [“proto”], Jesus Christ might show forth all clemency, for an example to those who should hereafter believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16 JUB Brackets mine). These verses are not mainly about sin and certainly are not discussing at all how bad Paul’s sins were. Rather, they are focused on salvation and mercy. He is not comparing his sin with the readers but, instead, is focused on their common salvation. The example to be followed was Paul’s salvation and was not Paul’s sin. In verse 16 Paul is obviously using “protos” to say he was first shown mercy in order to be a pattern for those who followed.


This idea that Paul has changed although he was formerly a sinner becomes a strong incentive for others It also fits well with the greater context. Go up to verse 13 where Paul says, “Even though I was once [Greek “proteron”] a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy” (1Timothy 1:13 NIV Brackets mine). “Proteron” is similar to “protos” as it can refer to first in time or first in rank. Here in verse 13, it is obviously referring to first in time. If verses 13 and 16 use “proteron” and “proto” to refer to his earlier pre-Christian life of sin, it follows then that “protos” in verse 15 also refers to first in time. Why would Paul use “protos” two different ways in the same passage as a few translations try to do?


In verse thirteen Paul is talking about two different states. One is the state of blasphemy, persecution, and violence. The other state is the state of mercy. These two different states were separated in time. One was the former life, and one is the present life. Notice how Paul separates in time by saying "I once was in" the first state when "I acted in ignorance and unbelief." (past tenses).


The present life is one of mercy. This present life of mercy is the point of the whole passage. He is making a contrast, as does the rest of the Bible, between the old life and the new life. Notice how well this fits with vss. 15-16, when he continues the present mercy theme. Paul does talk about first being a sinner or, as some prefer, the foremost sinner. Either way, this being a sinner is referencing which state? The state of blasphemy, persecution, and violence, or the state of mercy? We don't have to guess, because in v. 16 Paul clearly said, "I was shown mercy." That demonstrates well that the state of being a sinner was a past state or former state, now changed because he WAS SHOWN mercy. It is not he "will be shown mercy," and not he "was shown mercy but he is still in the state of being a sinner."  Paul moved from being a sinner (blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man) to being in the state of having received mercy, i.e., saved.


In some translations it does appear that Paul, a baptized Christian, claimed to be a sinner, and the worse sinner to boot. As we have shown, that does not make sense. What he said was my former sin and present salvation from that sin came before yours (the readers) and is indicative of the same thing that can happen for you. Like Paul, we once were sinners (blasphemers, persecutors, or whatever), but now we have received mercy and have been transformed. We have moved out of our former state of sin and are no longer classed as sinners who remain in that state. 

Categories: Erased: God's Complete Forgiveness of Sins