The Purpose of Grace
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience, as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1:15–16)
The phrase it is a trustworthy statement is unique to the Pastoral Epistles, appearing five times (cf. 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8). These statements were familiar, recognized summaries of key doctrines. That they were common in the church by the time of the writing of the Pastoral Epistles indicates that a well-articulated theology had developed. Paul indeed quotes them as if they were common knowledge. This one and the one in 1 Timothy 4:9 have the phrase deserving full acceptance appended for added emphasis.
The trustworthy statement in 1:15 acts as a condensed articulation of the gospel. In only eight Greek words is found a marvelous summation of the gospel message. Each word is chosen carefully. Christ Jesus is the word order preferred by Paul in the Pastoral Epistles. He uses it twenty-five times compared to six uses of “Jesus Christ.” Bound up in those two words is all that He is. Christ is the anointed King who came to redeem, and became the earthly Jesus at the Incarnation. That He came into the world implies not only His incarnation but His preexistence. Note carefully that it does not say that He came into existence, or that He was created. He existed somewhere else before coming into the world. This phraseology is used frequently by John, who often speaks of Christ’s coming into the world (cf. John 1:9; 3:19; 6:14; 11:27; 12:46; 16:28; 18:37).
The world refers to the world of humanity, blind, lost, and condemned to hell because of its hostility to God (cf. 1 John 5:19). It is into that world of sinners, of darkness and unbelief, that Jesus came. John 3:17 says, “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (cf. John 12:46–47).
Christ’s purpose in coming into this fallen world was to save sinners. Before his birth the angel told Joseph “it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). In Luke 19:10 our Lord stated the purpose of His coming into the world: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” To save is to deliver from death and darkness, from sin, hell, and judgment. Sinners was a term used by the Jews to describe Gentiles (cf. Gal. 2:15), but our Lord used it to refer to all of fallen mankind (cf. Matt. 9:13). It denotes man’s constant violation of God’s law; men are sinners by nature.
In the realm of sinners, Paul saw himself as foremost of all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:9; Eph. 3:8). Many in our day would hasten to correct Paul’s self-image and restore his self-esteem. But that was a healthy self-view for Paul because it was accurate. It’s hard to imagine anyone worse than a blasphemer of God and persecutor of His church. Such a view of himself also served to keep Paul humble and grateful.
It was for this reason that Paul found mercy. God didn’t save him merely to get him out of hell or into heaven. Nor did He save him to preach the gospel or write the epistles; God could have had others do that. The purpose of salvation, whether Paul’s or ours, is to display God’s grace, power, and patience and produce a true worshiper of God (John 4:21–24). It is for His glory primarily, our benefit is secondary.
It was through saving Paul that Jesus Christ could most clearly demonstrate His perfect patience. Makrothumia (patience) means to be patient with people. Paul’s point is that if the Lord was patient with the worst of sinners, no one is beyond the reach of His grace. As an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life, Paul was living proof that God can save any sinner. He was the hupotupōsis, the model, type, or pattern. Those who fear that God cannot save them would do well to consider the case of Paul.
15. It is a faithful saying. After having defended his ministry from slander and unjust accusations, not satisfied with this, he turns to his own advantage what might have been brought against him by his adversaries as a reproach. He shews that it was profitable to the Church that he had been such a person as he actually was before he was called to the apostleship, because Christ, by giving him as a pledge, invited all sinners to the sure hope of obtaining pardon. For when he, who had been a fierce and savage beast, was changed into a Pastor, Christ gave a remarkable display of his grace, from which all might be led to entertain a firm belief that no sinner, how heinous and aggravated soever might have been his transgressions, had the gate of salvation shut against him.
That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He first brings forward this general statement, and adorns it with a preface, as he is wont to do in matters of vast importance. In the doctrine of religion, indeed, the main point is, to come to Christ, that, being lost in ourselves, we may obtain salvation from him. Let this preface be to our ears like the sound of a trumpet to proclaim the praises of the grace of Christ, in order that we may believe it with a stronger faith. Let it be to us as a seal to impress on our hearts a firm belief of the forgiveness of sins, which otherwise with difficulty finds entrance into the hearts of men.
A faithful saying. What was the reason why Paul aroused attention by these words, but because men are always disputing with themselves about their salvation? For, although God the Father a thousand times offer to us salvation, and although Christ himself preach about his own office, yet we do not on that account cease to tremble, or at least to debate with ourselves if it be actually so. Wherefore, whenever any doubt shall arise in our mind about the forgiveness of sins, let us learn to repel it courageously with this shield, that it is an undoubted truth, and deserves to be received without controversy.
To save sinners. The word sinners is emphatic; for they who acknowledge that it is the office of Christ to save, have difficulty in admitting this thought, that such a salvation belongs to “sinners.” Our mind is always impelled to look at our worthiness; and as soon as our unworthiness is seen, our confidence sinks. Accordingly, the more any one is oppressed by his sins, let him the more courageously betake himself to Christ, relying on this doctrine, that he came to bring salvation not to the righteous, but to “sinners.” It deserves attention, also, that Paul draws an argument from the general office of Christ, in order that what he had lately testified about his own person might not appear to be absurd on account of its novelty.
Of whom I am the first. Beware of thinking that the Apostle, under a pretence of modesty, spoke falsely, for he intended to make a confession not less true than humble, and drawn from the very bottom of his heart.
But some will ask, “Why does he, who only erred through ignorance of sound doctrine, and whose whole life, in every other respect, was blameless before men, pronounce himself to be the chief of sinners? I reply, these words inform us how heinous and dreadful a crime unbelief is before God, especially when it is attended by obstinacy and a rage for persecution. (Philip. 3:6.) With men, indeed, it is easy to extenuate, under the pretence of heedless zeal, all that Paul has acknowledged about himself; but God values more highly the obedience of faith than to reckon unbelief, accompanied by obstinacy, to be a small crime.
We ought carefully to observe this passage, which teaches us, that a man who, before the world, is not only innocent, but eminent for distinguished virtues, and most praiseworthy for his life, yet because he is opposed to the doctrine of the gospel, and on account of the obstinacy of his unbelief, is reckoned one of the most heinous sinners; for hence we may easily conclude of what value before God are all the pompous displays of hypocrites, while they obstinately resist Christ.
15 The first of five “trustworthy sayings” (pistos ho logos, GK 3412, 3364) quoted in the PE is this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The added phrase “that deserves full acceptance” (also in 4:9) is also attested in Hellenistic literature (e.g., Philo, Flight 129; Rewards, 13). The present saying is reminiscent of Jesus’ statement in Luke 19:10. While “sinner” in Pharisaic Judaism (Paul’s tradition) referred to those who did not stringently keep the law, particularly Gentiles (cf. Gal 2:15), here—as regularly in Paul—“sinner” is a universal term encompassing Paul and the rest of humanity.
What is more, Paul calls himself “the foremost” (NASB) of sinners. (Note the present tense “I am” and the emphasis on “foremost” in the original.) While some consider the statement a hyperbole exaggerating the apostle’s consciousness of guilt, Paul’s conscience was deeply seared by his past persecution of the church, so that in the manner of true saints he may honestly have believed himself to be quite literally the foremost of sinners (cf. Augustine, Sermons 175. 6–7; Calvin, 29). If so, Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the church to fervent propagator constitutes a paradigm of God’s merciful dealings with human beings (see A. D. Clarke, “ ‘Be Imitators of Me’: Paul’s Model of Leadership,” TynBul 49 : 354–55). The church father Ignatius may copy the apostle’s self-effacing attitude when he calls himself “the least of the faithful” (Eph. 21.2) and says that he is “not worthy to be called a member” of the Syrian church (Magn. 14).
15 Now Paul lays the capstone of his argument for the authority and relevance of his gospel for this world. He begins with a formulaic appeal to the gospel that urges the hearers to accept his articulation of the gospel as authoritative. The formula, “here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance,” continues the theme of faith/faithfulness in the term translated “trustworthy.” Now the gospel itself comes to be seen as the source of the theme. In the NT it is only in these letters to coworkers that this formula is found. Its stable form (expanded here and in 4:9 by the addition of “and deserving full acceptance”), however, suggests it is either widely known or will be perfectly understood. Its purpose is to authenticate Paul’s immediate expression of the gospel as apostolic and to be accepted as true. Although implicit in each occurrence of the formula, the expansion “and deserving of full acceptance” emphasizes the need for hearers to make an appropriate rational response to embrace and esteem what is said and act accordingly.41
1:15–16 / Having given this personal word about how the grace of Christ overflowed to a former persecutor, Paul is reminded that what happened to him is in full accord with a (probably) well-known saying, which apparently has roots in Jesus himself (Luke 19:10; cf. John 12:46; 18:37). He begins with the formula here is a trustworthy saying (lit., “faithful is the saying”), which will recur four more times in these letters (3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8) and which has been the subject of considerable discussion. In this instance, the formula precedes the saying, and the extent of the saying itself is clear. Such is not always the case (e.g., 3:1 and 4:9). Furthermore, nothing quite like it occurs elsewhere in the nt. However, the similar formula, “faithful is God,” is common in Paul (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:9; 10:13; 2 Cor. 1:18) and probably is the source of this present formulation.
The emphasis in Greek, as in niv, lies on the trustworthiness of the saying. This is emphasized further by the addition that deserves full acceptance. There is some ambiguity here about whether there is an intensive (niv, full; cf. rsv, neb, gnb), or extensive (“accepted by all,” Weymouth, Book of Common Prayer), sense to the adjective pasēs. A similar formula in 6:1 that can only be intensive (“worthy of full respect”) lends support to the niv translation; however, a good case can also be made from the context for an emphasis on its being worthy of universal acceptance.
In the saying itself, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, two points are made: Incarnation and Redemption, with the emphasis on the latter. To say that he came into the world, of course, does not in itself necessarily imply pre-existence, but such an understanding would almost certainly have been intended. Here the reason for his coming, and Paul’s reason for including it, is emphasized—to save sinners. Sinners! That was a term common enough in Pharisaic Judaism (Paul’s own tradition). It referred to all those who did not stringently keep the Law, especially Gentiles (even Paul can so use it in Gal. 2:15). But here, and elsewhere in Paul, sinners is a universalizing term. All humanity, both Jew and Gentile, belong together at this one point (Rom. 3:19–20, 23). But Christ came to save such.
Salvation for Paul is primarily an eschatological term; that is, it has to do with human destiny, what happens to people at the end (Gk., eschaton). But such eschatological salvation has already begun in the present in the work of Christ, hence “saving sinners” also means to save them from their present sinfulness. Both the present and future aspects seem to be in view here (cf. v. 16, “believe unto eternal life”).
To personalize the saying, Paul adds of whom I am the worst, not as a form of hyperbole, as some would have it, or because he was morbid about his sinful past, but precisely because of his own experience of God’s mercy and grace. Such statements are to be understood in light of the intersection in Paul’s life of the simultaneous overwhelming sense of his own sinfulness and utter helplessness before God and the fact of God’s grace lavished freely on him and God’s unconditionally accepting him despite his sin. It should also be noted that he says I am, not “I was.” Even one like Hanson who believes the letter to be a forgery admits that this is a “truly Pauline touch.” But it is so, not because of Paul’s abiding sense of sinfulness (as Bernard and others), but because he recognized himself as always having the status of “sinner redeemed.”
With the addition of that last word, of whom I am the worst, Paul is now in position to make his final point in this testimony to God’s grace. The reason for Christ’s saving Paul, the worst of sinners, was that he could thereby set Paul forth as a primary exhibit for all other sinners who would believe on him for salvation. Paul’s point is simple: “If God would—and could—do it to me, given who I was and what I did, then there is hope for all” (cf. 2:3–7). And so he repeats, I was shown mercy, but now adds this new reason.
By saving Paul, Christ Jesus has demonstrated his unlimited patience (or, “the full extent of his forbearance”) in dealing with sinners. Forbearance as a characteristic of the deity in dealing with human rebellion is a thoroughly Pauline idea (Rom. 2:4; 3:25–26; 9:22–23; cf. 2 Pet. 3:9, 15). Such patience is seen in his dealing with me, the worst of sinners, precisely so that Christ might have an example, a prototype, for those who would believe on him and thus also receive eternal life. The Greek for eternal life means not so much life with endless longevity as it does the “life of the coming age,” life that is ours now in Christ to be fully realized at his “appearing” (see 6:12–15; 2 Tim. 4:6–8; Titus 2:11–14).
15. faithful—worthy of credit, because “God” who says it “is faithful” to His word (1 Co 1:9; 1 Th 5:24; 2 Th 3:3; Rev 21:5; 22:6). This seems to have become an axiomatic saying among Christians the phrase, “faithful saying,” is peculiar to the Pastoral Epistles (1 Ti 2:11; 4:9; Tit 3:8). Translate as Greek, “Faithful is the saying.”
all—all possible; full; to be received by all, and with all the faculties of the soul, mind, and heart. Paul, unlike the false teachers (1 Ti 1:7), understands what he is saying, and whereof he affirms; and by his simplicity of style and subject, setting forth the grand fundamental truth of salvation through Christ, confutes the false teachers’ abstruse and unpractical speculations (1 Co 1:18–28; Tit 2:1).
acceptation—reception (as of a boon) into the heart, as well as the understanding, with all gladness; this is faith acting on the Gospel offer, and welcoming and appropriating it (Ac 2:41).
Jesus—as manifested [Bengel].
came into the world—which was full of sin (Jn 1:29; Ro 5:12; 1 Jn 2:2). This implies His pre-existence. Jn 1:9, Greek, “the true Light that, coming into the world, lighteth every man.”
to save sinners—even notable sinners like Saul of Tarsus. His instance was without a rival since the ascension, in point of the greatness of the sin and the greatness of the mercy: that the consenter to Stephen, the proto-martyr’s death, should be the successor of the same!
I am—not merely, “I was chief” (1 Co 15:9; Eph 3:8; compare Lu 18:13). To each believer his own sins must always appear, as long as he lives, greater than those of others, which he never can know as he can know his own.
chief—the same Greek as in 1 Ti 1:16, “first,” which alludes to this fifteenth verse, Translate in both verses, “foremost.” Well might he infer where there was mercy for him, there is mercy for all who will come to Christ (Mt 18:11; Lu 19:10).
Ver. 15.—Faithful is the saying for this is a faithful saying, A.V. Faithful is the saying (πιστὸς ὁ λόγος). This formula is peculiar to the pastoral Epistles (ch. 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8), and seems to indicate that there were a number of pithy sayings, maxims, portions of hymns or of catechetical teaching, current in the Church, and possibly originating in the inspired sayings of the Church prophets, to which the apostle appeals, and to which he gives his sanction. The one appealed to here would be simply, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” This, St. Paul adds, is worthy of all acceptation—by all, and without any reserve. Acceptation (ἀποδοξῆς); only here and ch. 4:9, in connection with the same formula. The verb ἀποδέχομαι occurs in Luke 8:40; Acts 2:41; 15:4; 18:27; 24:3; 28:30. It contains the idea of a glad, willing acceptance (see note on Acts 2:41). So doubtless ἀποδοχή also means “hearty reception.” I am chief; in respect of his having been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and injurious.” That great sin was indeed freely forgiven by God’s grace, but it could never be forgotten by him who had been guilty of it. “Manet alth mente repostum” (comp. Eph. 3:8).
15. Moreover, what holds for Paul holds for all saved sinners. Hence, there is first the statement of a truth applicable to all sinners whom Christ came to save. This is followed immediately by a clause of personal appropriation. Reliable (is) the saying, and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save, foremost of whom am I.
Paul’s saying with respect to the glorious purpose of Christ’s first coming, this is the theme of the marvelous declaration which may be regarded as the very core of the gospel, its sum and substance. (It is comparable to John 3:16, on which see N.T.C.).
The saying is viewed from three aspects: 1. its reliability, 2. its contents, and 3. its personal appropriation.
- Its reliability
Simple and great, like a granite rock, stands the word reliable, at the head of the sentence, without any connecting particle. It indicates that the proposition which it introduces has sustained the very crucial, fiery test of experience. It is not a mere formula but a considered judgment. It has been passed from mouth to mouth, as such sayings have the habit of doing, and, having embedded itself in the heart of the Christian community, where all the fears, hopes, struggles, and joys of these early Christians played around it, has survived gloriously. It has, in fact, become a sparkling epigram, a pithy, current commonplace, demanding and receiving the immediate, spontaneous, and enthusiastic assent and endorsement of all believers who hear it. The saying is the testimony of Christian experience, and is now also the utterance of the Holy Spirit.
The Pastorals contain five of these reliable sayings: 1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:8, 9; 2 Tim. 2:11–13; Titus 3:4–8. Although the clause, “Reliable is the saying,” occurs only in these five passages of the Pastorals, and exactly in that form nowhere in the other ten epistles, this does not give anyone the right to conclude that Paul cannot have written the Pastorals. Surely no reason can be shown why the one who wrote, “Reliable (is) God,” (1 Cor. 1:9) and “Reliable (is) the One who calls you,” (1 Thess. 5:24) could not have written the grammatically exactly similar statement, “Reliable (is) the saying.”
The famous saying, having been subjected to the flames of persecution and ridicule of Satan, had emerged from this crucible more sparkling and glorious than ever. Though not even four decades had elapsed since the death of the Savior, it had become even at this early date an unshakable conviction, “worthy of full acceptance,” that is, entitled to wholehearted and universal personal appropriation with no reservations of any kind (or as we say colloquially “with no strings attached”).
- Its contents
The saying is, “That Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save.” Something should be said, first, about the form of this statement; then, about its meaning.
As to the form, it is asserted by several commentators that the saying is distinctly Johannine, since only John speaks of the Savior as “coming into the world.” Some, even among those who regard Paul as the author of the Pastorals, proceed farther, and do not hesitate to connect this Johannine character of the language with the fact that the destination of 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy was Ephesus (where Timothy was carrying on his work as Paul’s special envoy), the very headquarters of John! Accordingly, it is maintained that Timothy and the membership of the Ephesian church (on the assumption that the epistle was also read to the church), having become used to John’s style, through his labors in their city, would appreciate such phraseology more than would believers who lived elsewhere.
However, this representation is open to the following objections:
- The name “Christ Jesus” is Pauline rather than Johannine (it is never found in John’s writings, often in Paul’s).
- It would seem altogether probable that the apostle John did not reach Ephesus until after Paul’s death, hence also after the date of composition of 1 Timothy. The fact that Peter had received his “inheritance” in the heavens, and Paul his “crown” may have induced John to take charge of the orphan churches of Asia Minor. When we surmise that John reached Ephesus in the year 67 or 68, we cannot be far amiss (see also N.T.C. on John, vol. I, p. 29). But Paul wrote 1 Timothy in the year 63 or 64!
- To a considerable extent the phraseology is, indeed, Johannine, but only in this sense that John has preserved and transmitted it. He did not coin it! It was Jesus himself who, according to the Fourth Gospel, again and again referred to himself as having “come into the world” (John 3:19; 9:39; 12:46; 16:28; 18:37). His earliest disciples learned it from him and copied it. Hence, it is not surprising that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” began to use it (John 1:11); and so did others, for example, Martha (John 11:27). Accordingly, here in 1 Tim. 1:15 Paul is simply making use of the Savior’s own way of speaking about himself, and is employing language which, having been adopted from his lips by the earliest disciples, had been spread far and wide. It is only natural—in view, for example, of the close contact between Jerusalem and Ephesus, and of the “scattering” of the disciples due to persecution—that the saying had also reached Ephesus. And in this connection it is not at all improbable that the great apostle John, before leaving Palestine, had contributed his share toward perpetuating it.
As to the meaning of the expression, the combination “Christ Jesus” has already been explained (see N.T.C. on 1 Thess. 1:1, and footnote in the present Commentary). The fact that this divinely anointed Savior “came into the world” indicates not merely a change of location, a “descent” from one place to another (from heaven to earth), but a change of state and of moral and spiritual environment. Hence, it implies the supreme sacrifice, the climax of condescending grace. From the infinite sweep of eternal delight in the very presence of his Father, Christ was willing to descend deeper and deeper into the realm of sin and misery. (The “coming into the world” includes incarnation, suffering, death.) In the original the word sinners immediately follows the word world; hence, not as most versions have it, “… came into the world to save sinners,” but “… came into the world sinners to save.” The juxtaposition of world and sinners shows that world is an ethical concept. For the meaning of world see also N.T.C. on John 1:10, 11, including footnote 26. The Lord of glory, so pure and holy that before his presence even the most consecrated men fall down as though dead (Rev. 1:17; cf. Is. 6:1–5), voluntarily entered the sphere to which he does not seem to belong, namely, the sphere in which the curse reigns. The reason for his entrance into this realm of sin is given in the words “sinners to save.” This shows that the paradoxical coming was, after all, fully justified and gloriously motivated.
It took a former Pharisee to pour full and terrible meaning into that word sinners. As Pharisees saw it, even to eat with sinners was scandalous (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; 15:1, 2). With a sinner a prophet was not supposed to have any dealings (Luke 7:39). When the Pharisees wanted to heap insults upon Jesus, they would call him “a glutton, a drinker, a friend of (tax-collectors and) sinners” (Luke 7:34). They divided mankind into two groups: “the righteous,” which was tantamount to saying, “ourselves,” and “sinners,” that is, “everybody else,” “the riffraff,” “the scum,” “the people of the soil,” “those who do not know the law.” The Holy Spirit through Paul takes this opprobrious epithet “sinners,” and applies it to all persons who are brought under conviction through the proper use of God’s law. For them, for them alone, Christ Jesus came (Matt. 9:13; Luke 15:7; 19:10):
“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and power;
He is able, He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more;
He is able, He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more.
“Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Bruised and mangled by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all;
Not the righteous, not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.
Not the righteous, not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call.”
If those in Ephesus who were using the law unlawfully were ever going to be saved, they would have to experience a fundamental change. These “righteous” persons would have to become “sinners” before God. Thus it is seen that verse 15 stands in close connection with everything that precedes (not only with verses 12–14 but also with verses 3–11).
It was to save sinners that Christ Jesus came into the world. He did not come to help them save themselves, nor to induce them to save themselves, nor even to enable them to save themselves. He came to save them!
In Paul’s writings the expression to save means:
|to rescue men from sin’s:
|to bring men into the state of:
|a guilt (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14)
b slavery (Rom. 7:24, 25; Gal. 5:1) and
|a righteousness (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:1)
b freedom (Gal. 5:1; 2 Cor. 3:17) and
|(1) alienation from God (Eph. 2:12)
(2) the wrath of God (Eph. 2:3)
(3) everlasting death (Eph. 2:5, 6)
|(1) fellowship with God (Eph. 2:13)
(2) the love of God “shed abroad” in the heart (Rom. 5:5)
(3) everlasting life (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 3:1–4).
Note that over against each evil stands a corresponding blessing. To be saved, then, means to be emancipated from the greatest evil, and to be placed in possession of the greatest good. The state of salvation is opposed to the state of “perishing” or being “lost.” Cf. Luke 19:10; John 3:16.
- Its personal appropriation
“… Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save, foremost of whom am I.” This final clause (beginning with the word “foremost”) has caused a wider variety of interpretation than almost any other in Paul’s writings. The difficulty is this: it does not seem right that one who himself declares that before his conversion to the Christian faith he had lived according to the strictest sect of his religion as a Pharisee (Acts 26:5), should now call himself “chief of sinners.” For various interpretations which I reject, and the reasons why I reject them, see the footnote.
Complete objectivity in exegesis demands that we state that the immediate context would seem to leave room for only one explanation, and that this explanation is the very one which the ordinary student of Scripture in reading his Bible, in quiet meditation, and also in song, generally gives to it. When the apostle, his heart troubled by the vivid recollection of the gruesome deeds of the past, gives written expression to the deeply rooted conviction and the poignant sorrow of his inner soul, and states, “Christ Jesus came into the world sinners to save, foremost of whom am I,” he must have meant, “Of all sinners whom Christ Jesus came into the world to save, I am the greatest.”
In fact, he not only states but emphasizes that no one else than he himself is “the chief of sinners.” In the original he reserves for the first personal pronoun singular a place at the very end of the clause. I can see no good reason for radically changing this word-order. The translation should be, “of whom foremost am I,” or “foremost of whom am I.” Paul fixes the attention upon himself as a clear illustration of the depth of human sin, in order that in verse 16 he may return to that wonderful theme on which he has just dwelt (see verses 12–14), namely, the exaltation of the power of divine grace, mercy and longsuffering.
This interpretation of the disputed clause not only suits the context but is also in line with what Paul says about himself elsewhere:
“For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9).
“To me, the very least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
In both these cases, just as here in 1 Tim. 1:15, the apostle is making a comparison between himself and other people whom Christ came to save (whether they were destined to become apostles or believers not clothed with any special office), and he makes the humble confession that he is the least of all saints, the foremost (or “chief”) of sinners whom Christ came to save.
Taken in that sense and as a description of what Paul felt, the words of the familiar hymn are entirely correct:
“Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed his blood for me;
Died that I might live on high;
Lives that I may never die.”
That the apostle, who certainly knew his own past, was able in all sincerity to describe himself as being “of sinners foremost” is less difficult to grasp if the following facts are borne in mind:
When, years before this, Paul for the first time heard the good tidings of salvation in Christ, he disbelieved. This disbelief he shared with many. Had his attitude to the Christian faith remained on this level, namely, one of unbelief, he would probably never have called himself, “of sinners foremost.” However, he became a persecutor, and not only “a” persecutor but the most bitter persecutor of all! His entire soul was wrapped up in the work of annihilating the church. He breathed threats and slaughter (Acts 9:1). Ruthlessly he bound and imprisoned both men and women. He did not confine his efforts to Jerusalem but was bent on uprooting the new religion wherever it was found, even if this would necessitate a trip all the way to Damascus. He was busy persecuting God’s people “unto death,” as he himself subsequently declared (Acts 22:4, 5). Had his plan succeeded, the church would have been smothered in its very birth; God’s eternal decree would have been annulled; and Satan would have triumphed. Indeed, so very great was his sin that, had it not been done in ignorance (see on verse 13), it would have been unpardonable. Accordingly, when the apostle now says, “… sinners to save, foremost of whom am I,” we must not begin to attenuate the meaning of “foremost.” We should permit this glorious confession to stand within its own context, without either adding to it or subtracting anything from it.
Paul writes “am I,” not “was I.” This indicates that even now, years after his conversion, he deeply regrets his past. Besides, even a fully pardoned sinner is a sinner.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (pp. 32–33). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (pp. 38–41). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Köstenberger, A. (2006). 1 Timothy. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 506–507). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Towner, P. H. (2006). The Letters to Timothy and Titus (p. 143). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Fee, G. D. (2011). 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (pp. 52–54). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 406). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). 1 Timothy (p. 5). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 4, pp. 75–82). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.