It is impossible for the Church to teach untruth. But, it is possible for truths to be misunderstood or misapplied even by followers of Christ. We might wonder, then, how truth is misconstrued or why it is believed in a distorted form within the Holy Church. Well, indeed, we are all sinners, and first among sinners — which is what the Church teaches but which seems often assumed in an impossibly literal translation. Let’s review what the Apostle Paul said about himself — yes, let us try to understand why this holy man viewed himself as first among sinners, as given in I Timothy 1: 15.
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. [KJV]
This is a faithful and trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance and approval, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost. [AMP]
How true it is, and how I long that everyone should know it, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — and I was the greatest of them all. [TLB]
Now, if Paul is to be believed, or if the New Testament is to be regarded as truth, then Paul is the first, chief, foremost and greatest sinner. Therefore, if I regard myself as first among sinners, then I have defied the truth of Scripture or I have put Paul in second place after myself. The only way I could put Paul in a different position would be to view sinners on a continuum. That is, Paul was the greatest sinner until I was born and then I lived a more sinful life and became first among sinners. Of course, this is absurd. It would be a futile exercise to compare and contrast all sinners throughout the ages.
Another problem with a literal application is that we cannot all be the first among sinners. It goes against the very definition of first. First means first, not second or third. Moreover, the score cannot be tied among sinners: with all of mankind in first place, or every human being as foremost, or each man and each woman as chief. Personally, I do not regard myself as worse than Hitler or tied with Hitler, and this is how we get distracted from true meaning — to be literally the first among sinners is irrational.
We either have to let Paul remain the first and let everyone else fall someplace behind him in terms of severity or quantity of sins, or we have to interpret a valid meaning. The quest would be not to diminish Paul’s repentance and evangelism, not to alter the truth of Scripture, but to discern what is beneath the surface so that we may take our place before God and accept responsibility for self among humankind.
It would seem that Paul put himself forth as an example and that he was called by God to show that even the most sinful can be saved — even someone who had persecuted Christians through unbelief and ignorance — even that kind of person, specifically and foremost Paul because of his horrendous actions, can receive the mercy of God and not only be forgiven but become an instrument of truth and love. In this sense, historically and spiritually, Paul is indeed the first among sinners — for to say otherwise would be to deny his calling — as well as a holy servant of Jesus Christ and the Church. To be first among sinners, therefore, is to glorify God.
If Paul’s words are faithful and worthy, then let us attempt to apply them to ourselves. If I am the first among sinners, then there must be a basis in reality for this conclusion, position, or condition. In other words, to regard myself as first is not a technique to acquire humility, not something I blindly accept despite the evidence of the atrocities of Hitler, and not something imposed upon me by an authority figure who does not know my mind and heart. It is only the reality and the facts of my life — my specific, particular, God-given life — that can show me that I have failed in ways that only I could have done because only I can live my own life and make my own choices whether for or against Jesus Christ.
These failures might be small or large, common or outrageous, few or many. The significance, however, is that I betrayed Christ and persecuted the Church within the dynamics of my life and my time and place. I did what nobody else could do, because nobody can live another person’s life for them. I am therefore first among sinners, and I therefore repent inasmuch as I have awareness of my own sins, and I likewise trust that God will mercifully accept me as His servant and use me in some way to contribute to the building up of the Church. And perhaps this is how the Apostle Paul serves as our example.
It is reality and self-knowledge that produces genuine humility, makes us publicans and not Pharisees, and renders us prodigal sons and daughters — each according to the variables in his or her own environment and through the “perfect patience” of Jesus Christ. To be first among sinners is not condemnation but salvation if we look to the Cross and begin to fathom the unfathomable love of Christ. Then, I can say, humbly and realistically, that I am the first among sinners. The Church, then, consists of firsts among sinners who are being transformed and deified at every point of their development individually and as a whole unit.