Chief of Sinners

by

How might we describe the psychology of Christian experience? Is it characterized by joy, peace, and contentment? Or is it characterized by lament, struggle, and holy discontent? Should I feel good about myself or bad about myself? Should I forget past failure and delight in present grace or continue to remind myself of the evidence of the depths of my depravity in my past record and present reality?

What I hope you’ll say is: “Both!” But what I suspect most will say is the former and heaven forbid the latter. Look at any recent Christian advertising, whether for books, CDs, conferences, or radio stations, and you find that everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy. All the time. Nowhere is the dark side of the Christian life realistically depicted. Chalk it up to the requirements of advertising, but still, one would hope for greater accuracy and honesty. Is the Christian life all smiles? And specifically, is the counsel accurate that urges us in the name of forgiveness to forget the past and all its failure, foibles, and flops?

The psychology of Christian experience, as described by the first generation of Christians, includes a massive dose of what some have disparagingly called “worm” theology (as in “such a worm as I”). Listen to the apostle: “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” (1 Tim. 1:15).

The apostle Paul considers himself the “foremost” of sinners, the “chief” of sinners in the King James Version. Is this a self-image problem? Poor apostles. Unlucky them, to have lived before the self-esteem revolution. He wallows in guilt, doesn’t he? “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (vv. 12–13).

Why does he feel the necessity to rehearse his past as a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent”? Why hasn’t the apostle Paul learned to see himself as God sees him — “in Christ” — and not as a sinner, as forgiven, cleansed, adopted, a child of the Father, clothed in the righteousness of Christ? Answer: he does. But he is also careful not to forget the depths out of which he has been saved.

The psychology of the Christian experience is wide-ranging, but essentially it is that of humble gratitude. We are humble because we know the truth about ourselves: our corruption, our weakness, our conflicts, our helplessness. We are also exceedingly grateful for what Christ has done and for what we have: peace with God, family membership, and eternal life. Indeed, I understand the magnitude of what I have in Christ because of this accompanying awareness of the depth of my depravity. A constant awareness of my past failure and continuing corruption is not only not contrary to a rich apprehension of grace but its necessary companion. The exceeding greatness of God’s grace in Christ is understood in its fullness only against the black backdrop of my unworthiness. This is why the apostle Paul gives thanks (v. 12) and bursts forth in praise even as he recalls his past crimes and present status as the chief of sinners: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (vv. 16–17).

Abraham understood that he was but “dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Jacob saw himself as “not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness” of God (32:10). John the Baptist said he was “not worthy to untie” the strap of Christ’s sandal (John 1:27). The centurion was not worthy to have Jesus under his roof (Matt. 8:8). The apostle Paul said that he was “nothing” (2 Cor. 12:11), “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:7–8), and “unworthy to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9). This is the voice of the godly throughout the ages. The voice of true piety says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21); it says, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). 

Forget past failures? Ignore present corruption? Better not. Embracing our depravity, past and present, is key to a proper Christian psychology. Humility develops depth only with an awareness of unworthiness and gratitude in the light of what Christ has done for me — even me, the foremost sinner of all.  

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