Paul: The Chief of Sinners? (Pt 4)

Daily Devotional | Day 348

“Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me . . . O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:20, 24-25, NKJV).

In Romans 7:13-25 Paul paints a rather depressing picture of the struggle against sin, a struggle in which sin appears to have the upper hand. But who would blame him? He is giving an accurate account of what happens to a person enslaved by sin. Being in such a condition is no fun, especially if one has a conscience. Sin is a ruthless master. Once it has a soul in its grip, it is determined to deprive him of life, peace and joy. In today’s presentation, we will sum up Paul’s description of the struggle against sin by reflecting on two key points he raised. The question we are addressing remains the same: Is Paul describing what happened before he was saved or what happened after he was saved?

The first point is about sin dwelling in a person. Because he is captive to sin, Paul says he finds himself doing the evil he hates, while failing to do the good he desires. He tells us the consequence of being in this condition: “Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (v. 21; he makes the same point in v. 17-18). Paul just dropped a bombshell. Many have relied on this statement to create a popular doctrine that says sin (“sin nature”) dwells in all people, Christians and non-Christians alike. As we continue our study, we will find out if that is accurate or not.

When Paul says, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me,” this means sin has taken over his life. Sin is now in the driving seat. It has deprived him of self-mastery. A greater power than he is at work in him, prompting him to make sinful choices. Regardless of his best intentions, he invariably ends up doing not what he wants to do, but what sin wants him to do. At this point, he is addicted to sin and cannot break free. We will not discuss it yet, but look at what Paul said in Galatians 2:20 and compare it with what he says about indwelling sin: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. . .” In the meantime, a critical question which emerges is: How does sin come to dwell in a person? We will talk about this in tomorrow’s presentation.

The second point we want to address today involves the following statement by Paul: “with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25). As we noted earlier, Paul is describing the inner conflict of a Jew who knows the law yet fails to keep it. Paul says he is not ignorant about the requirements of the law. He has been instructed and enlightened by the law. In his mind, he knows the law is good and holy. He even delights in the law (v. 22). With his mind he serves the law of God, i.e. he esteems the law highly. But with his flesh, he serves the law of sin (Notice there is a law called the law of sin. This is what binds people and keeps them in bondage to sin). This means the law is only in Paul’s mind. In practice he fails to keep it. Instead, he obeys his real master, sin.

Paul explains his dilemma thus, “for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find” (v. 18). He has come to the end of himself. In his desperation he cries out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24). We will save the first part of the next verse (“I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”) for later. Notice that at the end of the passage, Paul is crying out for someone to deliver him. Who will that deliverer be? Is it possible to be delivered from sin’s bondage and be free to do only what is good? Was Paul crying for deliverance from sin’s bondage before he met the Savior or after he met the Savior? The answers will soon surface as our study progresses. 

We will continue next time, God willing. May the Lord keep you free from the enemy’s shackles. Amen.

For further studyGalatians 5:1-26

Paul: The Chief of Sinners? (Pt 2)

Daily Devotional | Day 346

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15, NKJV).

At what point was Paul the chief of sinners? Before he met Jesus, after he met Jesus or both? These are the questions before us in this series. They are not trivial questions. As we pointed out yesterday, a lot has been said and done in the name of Paul, for good or for harm. Because of his influential status in the Bible, it is natural for people to appeal to Paul’s authority to justify their teachings or practices. In view of this, it is important that we find out what Paul said and did not say. What is at stake is the integrity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today we will look closely at Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 1:15.

Paul says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” No Christian would dispute that. In the Gospels, we are often reminded about Jesus’ mission to save sinners. Even before His birth, an angel spoke to Joseph about it, “And she [Mary] shall bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Paul did not end with the affirmation that Jesus came to save sinners. He added, “of whom I am chief.” When people read the present tense, “I am chief,” they hastily conclude that Paul was admitting he was a chief sinner at the time he was writing to Timothy. But this is most unfortunate. Neither the grammar nor the context supports such a conclusion.

Let us look at the grammar. Paul starts by saying, “Christ Jesus came to save . . .” Obviously, he is describing a past action of how Jesus saved him. He could have used the past tense, “of whom I was chief;” but he did not. Instead, he chose another grammatical alternative, the historical present tense. This tense is used in situations where one wishes to produce a rhetorical or dramatic effect while describing a past event. When Paul said, “of whom I am chief,” he wanted to highlight the uniqueness of his status as the worst of the sinners Jesus came to save. What he said is grammatically equivalent to: “Jesus came to save sinners. Of the sinners Jesus saved, I was the chief.” As we will later find out, this is not the first time Paul makes use of the historical present. Many people use this tense to describe past events, but some are not aware that they use it.

Now let us look at the context within which Paul spoke. He was aware that his past record disqualified him from being an ambassador for Christ. Therefore, writing to Timothy, he gave thanks to Christ for counting him worthy of the apostolic ministry (1 Timothy 1:12). He explained why he was thankful, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (v. 13). Notice that Paul is describing his former life as a sinner. The key word in v. 13 is “formerly.” It is within this context (of his former life) that he made the statement in v. 15 (“Christ Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am chief).

Formerly Paul persecuted Christians, but he no longer did that. He was formerly a blasphemer, but he no longer blasphemed. He was formerly an insolent man, but he no longer continued to be insolent. Jesus had saved him from these and other sins, for which he was grateful. This is his testimony. If Paul continued to be a sinner or the chief of sinners, he would be on his way to the lake of fire. But we know from the Scriptures that this was not the case. When Paul said, “Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief,” he was giving glory to God for the change that had occurred in his life. He was describing the difference between his former life and his current life.

The Paul who wrote to Timothy was a former sinner, not an ongoing sinner. Like him, all Christians may testify that they are former sinners, not ongoing sinners. Heaven is for former sinners, not current sinners. If we wish to draw inspiration from Paul, the best way is for us to align with his life of holiness after he met Christ. Fishing for weaknesses in Paul’s former life to justify our own weaknesses is not the way to go.

To be continued tomorrow, God willing. May peace and grace abound for you, in the Name of Jesus. Amen.

For further studyActs 26:1-32

Paul: The Chief of Sinners? (Pt 1)

Daily Devotion | Day 345

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15, NKJV).

The writings of Paul have been a stumbling block to many since the early years of Christianity. Different churches have created different doctrines based on what Paul supposedly said (or did not say). In the name of Paul a lot of good has been done in the Church; but a lot of harm has been done as well. Some of the hotly contested issues which bear Paul’s name include (but are not limited to) original sin, grace and the law, the role of faith and works in salvation, justification, speaking in tongues, slavery, predestination and free will, once-saved-always-saved, celibacy and the role of women in the Church.

Even Peter acknowledged controversies surrounding Paul’s writings. The problem was not with Paul or what he wrote. The problem was with those who read and interpreted his writings. Let’s listen to what Peter said: “and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation – as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understandwhich untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Peter was familiar with Paul’s writings. He knew they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. That is why he had no problem comparing those writings with “the rest of the Scriptures.” Peter knew also that there were things in Paul’s writings that were hard to understand.

Peter didn’t say those things in Paul’s writings were impossible to understand, were not true or that they did not come from God. Paul is not the only one in the Bible (or for that matter the only writer in human civilization) whose writings contain things that are hard to understand. For example, there are people who find certain scientific concepts hard to understand, but this does not make those concepts insignificant or untrue. It does mean, however, that such things require extra diligence, patience, careful study and prayer to ascertain what is being communicated. Peter tells us that even in his time there were people who twisted Paul’s words to their own destruction. Not only that, they twisted the other Scriptures too. He describes these people as “untaught” and “unstable.” This reminds us that the phenomenon of twisting Scriptures is as old as the Scriptures themselves.

What we’re dealing with today is not new. As the Bible acknowledges, “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Through Scripture twisting people have found a justification for all manner of dangerous doctrines and evil practices within and outside our churches. Scripture twisting has ruined individuals, families, churches and societies.

In our current series, our goal is not to tackle every word of Paul that has generated misunderstanding. We will focus on only one example: Some believe that even after you become a Christian, you still are a sinner. Your ‘sin nature’ stays with you. People would quote Paul to justify this understanding. They use this to further explain why Christians continue to sin. One of the common passages cited in support of this view is where Paul stated, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). But did Paul say that at the time he was writing this, he was still a sinner, and the chief of sinners at that? We will address this and other related questions in the coming days, God willing.

Until then, renew yourself studying the Scriptures. Amen.

For further studyMark 12:18-27 and 2 Peter 3:1-18

Yield to Grace, See the Change

Daily Devotional: Day 177

“For I am the least of the Apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10, NKJV).

Writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul acknowledged that he didn’t deserve to be called an apostle of Jesus Christ because of his former life. He persecuted Christians, threw some in jail and had others executed, including Stephen, who was stoned to death (Cf. Acts 7:58-60; 8:1-3). Paul is not alone. Our calling, our election, our ministry and the favors we enjoy, it is all by the grace of God. Today’s message is about knowing what the grace of God can accomplish in your life if you yield to Christ.

Paul, like he does in some of his other writings, talks about who he was before knowing Christ, and who he became after being saved by grace. He says, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” It is as if he said, “See what grace has done with me now, compared to who I was before.” From being a fierce persecutor of Christianity, Paul became a fervent and holy follower of Christ. He explains that the grace of God toward him was not in vain. This is an important point, for it is possible to receive the grace of God in vain. Paul yielded to God’s grace, and the results were amazing.  He worked harder than all the apostles before him. That’s an impressive record, given the caliber of apostles like Peter, John, James and others who knew Christ long before Paul did.

What God’s grace accomplished for Paul, it can accomplish for you, too. All you need to do is yield to Jesus. You need to decrease; better still, you need to ‘disappear’ (figuratively speaking) and let Jesus fill the whole page of your life (cf. John 3:30). Herein lies the secret to bearing fruits of grace. Once you yield, Jesus will take it from there. And, you will be amazed at the transformation that will occur in your life. If you don’t see notable transformation in your Christian life, you most probably are still holding on to your life and not letting Jesus take over. Those who receive the grace of God in vain are those who resist Jesus. They love the free gifts Jesus brings to the table, but they won’t let Jesus rule over them.

But, if you want results, you need to yield and let Jesus be Jesus. When you do that, the full power of grace will  flow through you. Like Paul, you will walk in radical newness of life, and people will notice it. You will shine, and your light will be noticed. Loaded with grace energy, you will work hard in the Lord’s service, yet you will feel so refreshed. That is Isaiah 40:31 being fulfilled in your life: You shall renew your strengthyou shall mount up with wings like eaglesyou shall run and not be weary; you shall walk and not faint.” Just yield.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be your shield and strength today. Amen.

For further study: Acts 26:1-29