PAUL: CHIEF OF SINNERS?

The apostle Paul writing - no longer the chief of sinners

As the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are partners in our sufferings, so also you are in our comfort… …12 Our exalting is in the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you. (2Cor1:5-7;12)

Many Christians understand Paul to have regarded himself as “the chief of sinners”, but that statement should be understood in context. For every account of Paul’s post-conversion life and ministry shows him to be a thoroughly spiritual man who had “lived in all good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts23:1). He was someone whose behavior set a pattern for his converts to follow (1Cor11:1). Speaking of himself and his fellow workers in this passage he writes “our exalting is in the testimony of our conscience that in godly sincerity and purity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God we have conducted ourselves in the world” (v12). That is hardly the testimony of one who still regarded himself as the “chief of sinners”(1Tim1:15). That description had been in the context of what he had referred to just two verses earlier concerning his pre-conversion attempt to tear apart the infant Church of Jesus Christ.

“Chief of sinners” pertained to the past, but the conversion and subsequent apostleship of the fanatical Christ-hating Saul of Tarsus reminds us again that God’s elective choice is entirely a matter of grace. As for those who are chosen, it is not so that they might join “an assembly of justified sinners”. As Paul would tell Titus: “Christ gave Himself for us to redeem us from all sinful activity and purify unto Himself a peculiar people filled with zeal to do good works” (Tit2:14). And in terms of the Corinthian Church to whom he was writing, he regarded them as “partners in the apostles’ sufferings” (v7). Such they needed to be if they (or indeed we) are to become “the heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ; providing we suffer with Him so that we may also be also glorified with Him” (Rom8:17). The Protestant Reformers had insisted on emphasizing “the theology of the Cross” and it is certainly the case that apart from Christ’s Passion there would be no salvation for anybody. But Christ’s suffering and ours (if we are truly His disciples) are not ends in themselves but the means to an end, and that end is glory: “because it was fitting for (Christ) for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory to perfect the Originator of their salvation through suffering” (Heb2:10).

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