I have lived most of my life as a Christian thinking of myself not as a sinner but as a son. I have understood that my identity is not in Adam but in Christ and that I am to live that out by putting to death the sinful nature. What is that? I think of it as the zombie like part of me that is dead but alive. It has been put to death in that I was crucified with Christ. My nature that was opposed to God has been killed. But from another perspective it lives on like one of the “living dead” in horror movies or computer games like “resident evil”. These creatures are dead but somehow animate. They have no life yet can prove a deadly foe.
I was happy with all that but then one day a friend pointed out Paul’s comment about himself in 1 Tim 1:15.
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. (1 Tim 1:15)
For some reason I could not bring myself to believe that Paul meant he thought of himself now as a sinner, either in terms of his identify or his current conduct. I rushed to the commentaries but they didn’t help much.
Paul regards this classification of himself as “foremost of sinners” as still valid (εἰμι, present tense); though he is fully forgiven, regarded as faithful, and put into service, he is still the notorious opponent who is so received. Elsewhere he writes (1 Cor. 15:9, 10): “I am [ἐγὼ … εἰμι] the least of the apostles, who am [εἰμί] not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am” (cf. Eph. 3:8)
(bold added by me) (The New iNterntuialsl new testiment commentaires on the pasteral epistles)
Oh dear. Maybe I am wrong. But the bible seems to draw such a sharp distinction between being a sinner and being righteous.
I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:19)
We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him. (John 9:31)
Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?“ (Rom 3:7)
I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)
If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? 1 Peter 4:18
Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. (ESV) Rev 22:11
It’s always good to have some raw data in front of you when thinking about this sort of stuff. It also good to be aware of the nuances of how a word is used. For example a person is righteous in his actions, or has righteous imputed to him from Christ, or is called righteous because they think they are but are not.
So was Paul, after his conversion, a sinner? Which category was he in? Sinner or righteous? I think he was righteous, both in his identify and increasingly in his actions. Of course he was not perfect and must have sinned in various ways but he is not talking about his current “sin”. He is certainly not saying “I am sinning now more than anyone so there is hope for others!”
The context is his former sins and his argument is that if God saved him, the worst of sinners, then anyone could be forgiven.
“I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. 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. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so 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 Tim. 1:12-16).
Perhaps we could say that he is a current key example of someone who was a sinner but who had been forgiven. He was not an example in the past, he stands as one now. That he is not here putting emphasis on his current sinful nature but his current example of someone who was forgiven though they were worse than anyone else. But maybe I’m clutching at straws and doing an injustice to the grammar. That line of thinking feels a bit week. He could have said he was “formerly” a sinner and currently an example if he had meant that. Does anyone know if there is any nuance of Greek grammar that softens the present verb “I am”. I know they were less hot on time than we were and put more emphasis on aspect (completed, continuing, etc).
Ἰησοῦς (Jesus) ἦλθεν (came) εἰς (into) τὸν (the) κόσμον (world) ἁμαρτωλοὺς (sinners) σῶσαι (to save), ὧν (which) πρῶτός (foremost) εἰμι (I am) ἐγώ (I)
The other option is that he does still think of himself as a sinner but I’m not sure how. Perhaps in the sense of his sinful nature which is to be put to death rather than his new self out of which he is to live. The bible talks of an old self and a new self. When I sin it is of course in some sense me doing it. To say otherwise would be to deny responsibility for it. However I am to “put off” the old self and “put on” the new. It’s like my job has changed and I am changing uniforms.
No letter starts “to the sinners in Rome”. I “died to sin” and so my previous sinful activity and identity as a sinner has somehow been radically changed. Either Paul was referring to his previous standing as a sinner or his current standing as a sinner saved by grace. Anyway, I remain confident and secure in my current identity as a son while humbled and dependent knowing my past identity as a sinner.
 Knight, G. W. (1992). The Pastoral Epistles : A commentary on the Greek text (102). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.