Here’s a question: Who is the worst sinner you can think of throughout history? Or who is just the worst sinner you know? Think before you answer this one…
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: 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)
We all think of the Apostle Paul as a holy man. He was an amazing convert, a dedicated missionary, and an amazing theologian. But that’s not how Paul thought of himself. Based on what he wrote, I’m pretty sure Paul believed himself to be the worst of all sinners. And since he had been not only a self-righteous “Pharisee of the Pharisees”, but also a persecutor of the early church, I’m sure he had a lot to answer for. But what I have been learning over the last few years is that every one of us has a lot to answer for—and that what YOU have to answer for should matter to YOU, and what I have to answer for should matter to ME. I’m not sure the Holy Spirit convicts us about OTHER peoples’ sins, and I have observed that often the people who think they are close to God are righteous and indignant over the wrong person’s sin.
You may think you have been relatively good, but the more I read Scripture, the more concerned I am about all the things I have done. I’m concerned even more about all the things I haven’t done. I see things in Scripture that hold me accountable not just for what I have done, but for what I have thought. (And I hate to admit this, but I have committed far more despicable sins in my mind than I have even had time to physically commit.) Based on my rough assessment of my own personal inventory of sin, I’d have to say that Paul might need to move over and accept his place as the SECOND worst of sinners; he may have over-staked his claim to being worst.
In the real world, my ACTUAL sinfulness has cost me opportunities and relationships, and it has caused immeasurable harm to any number of people, including those I love the most. It has also diminished my own usefulness: how much time have I wasted on sin that could have been spent serving others, or spending time with my Father. How do I account for that? Paul says that it took the “immense patience” of Jesus Christ. His brutal, painful death paid the penalty for sin, and made it possible for a Righteous Judge to offer mercy to all sinners.
So here’s the thing: even if I were the ONLY sinner to ever live, Jesus would still have had to go to the cross for my redemption. It’s nice that Jesus died for the sins of the world, but the main thing to me is that he had to die because of ME. MY sin was incredibly costly. Salvation is free but it’s not cheap: It cost God his Son. It cost his Son his life.
It has become clearer to me that the closer we get to God, the more our own sins matter, and the more convicted we become—and not in a morbid, negative way (oh I feel so guilty! Whatever am I to do?), but more in an ‘awareness of the majesty and mystery of Grace’ way (oh I feel so grateful! What, Lord, should I do?). I hope you are aware enough of what Christ did to be grateful. I hope that we sinners can be aware enough to be deeply convicted as well… If you feel like you’ve been pretty good overall, and you are not somehow devastated by the price that has to be paid for your sins, then you probably ought to do a quick position check. You may not be as close to God as you think.
Of all the righteous Pharisees, Paul said he was the first;
But out of all the sinners he proclaimed himself the worst.
Now, Paul preached Christ in every town and prison he was in,
But he still felt inadequate because of all his sin.
We all judge sin from time to time–it’s what we see in others;
We even notice faults among our Christian friends and brothers.
Surely Paul’s assessment of his sins was overrated,
And when He called himself the worst, perhaps he over-stated…
Perhaps we’d see Paul differently and understand him clearer
If we felt worst about the sin reflected in our mirror.
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