1 Timothy 1:12-15. 12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
How is a Christian to see themselves? What exactly is our position in Christ? Are we sinners? Not sinners? Do we still sin? Do we not sin? Even Paul’s words to Timothy above can be a bit confusing. Paul says formerly he was a sinner, and then turns right around and calls himself the foremost sinner.
Which is true?
You were born into Adam. By being IN Adam, you were born into humanity’s sin, judgment, and condemnation. We all were born dead to God and alive to sin (Eph. 2:1-4).
You had the sin nature. The sin nature is totally selfish and totally against God. The sin nature produces all the personal sins in our lives. There is no hope for the sin nature, it can never be improved. It can only die.
Your sins were forgiven at the cross. Your personal sins, past, present, and future were all forgiven in the shed blood of Jesus.
You died with Christ. Your sin nature wasn’t forgiven on the cross, as if it could then “turn over a new leaf.” It was condemned and put to death on the cross in Christ Jesus. “Our old self was crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6).
You were buried with Christ. The old sin nature is now left behind in the grave. The “old self” is not a zombie chasing you around. It’s a buried, rotting corpse.
You were raised with Christ. Jesus brought us with him as he burst through the bonds of death, left the tomb, and entered into glorious eternal life.
You have been born again into Christ. You now have a new nature that can produce righteousness. The old nature has not been changed. It has been exchanged for a whole new nature (2 Cor. 5:17). A new controlling power and principle – the Spirit of Christ.
You are alive in the Spirit. You have a new nature and yet God has kept you as the same you. Only now you live by faith as you are being conformed to Christ’s likeness.
OK, so far everything we’ve reviewed is wrapped up in Paul’s use of the word FORMERLY. Just like Paul, we too were formerly sinners, but now we have received mercy and the overflowing grace of the Lord with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
So then why does Paul then say that he is the foremost of sinners? Still? In the present?
Let’s keep reviewing:
You are indwelt by the flesh. The old sin nature is dead, and buried with it are the control of sin and the condemnation of sin in our lives. But not the presence of sin. Sin still indwells us in the form of our “flesh” – the sinful desires that flow in and out of us by our yet unredeemed bodies (“the law of sin within my members” Rom. 7:23). The Christian is to be keenly aware of the presence of the flesh inside of them, experiencing the strength of sin in their lives and alert to how it seeks to defeat them.
And you are indwelt by the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit in us battles the indwelling sin in us by constantly reminding us to live, not by strength, but by faith. Faith in the death of the old Adam nature. And faith in the resurrected new Christ nature. The Spirit isn’t putting to death the old nature. That already happened on the cross. But he is causing you to put to death the deeds of the flesh (selfishness), and to put on the deeds of the Spirit (love).
You are passing from death into life. All spiritual growth now occurs within the principle of “life out of death.” Only the Christian who repeatedly experiences the wretched state of being defeated by the flesh (indwelling sin) will be able to then experience the glorious grace of dependence on Christ alone as they live by faith alone.
This is why the growing and progressing Christian will always be able to say with Paul, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. The growing and progressing Christian knows that they are living a dual reality – formerly a sinner and the foremost of sinners at the same time. And the growing and progressing Christian knows that life only comes out of death and defeat. Trusting the Spirit to minister the death of the old and the life of the new in us as we choose more and more to trust in “to live is Christ.”
Do you see yourself as both formerly a sinner and the foremost of sinners?
You in Christ
How does your union with Christ free you from sin’s control and condemnation?
Christ in you
Where do you need to cease from your self-efforts today and simply trust the life of Jesus in you?
Playlist: Chief of Sinners.