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. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 1 Timothy 1:15-17 (NKJV)
The apostle Paul has an interesting back story. Here was the Pharisee Saul, a guy with a reputation for killing Christians- who by the transforming power of God became the apostle Paul, who was arguably the most powerful and influential Christian thinker and writer of all time.
Paul ended up having to endure much for the sake of his faith in Jesus. He endured prison, persecution and according to historical tradition, (though not recorded in Scripture,) died as a martyr by beheading.
How many of us could claim to be Chief of Sinners? It’s a good bet all of us have some pretty long lists. Some translations of the verse above from 1 Timothy say, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” (NIV) or “of whom I am foremost.” (NRSV) It is the same message, just a bit less poetic. If anyone is feeling sin-free (which is unlikely,) the apostle James reminds us that everyone who violates just one little teeny part of the Law violates all of it.
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. James 2:10 (NIV)
The title of Chief Sinner falls upon every one of us.
In the Lutheran tradition we tend not to be terribly overbearing on the sinner label, because we focus upon the grace of God in Christ, and that is a good thing. If being a sinner were the end of it, then we would all be nothing more than the Chief of Sinners, just like Saul / Paul was, but without any hope of being transformed into saints of God.
Confession is indeed good for the soul, and it is for our own benefit to stay in conversation with God in prayer and meditation. Confession is one of the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines, but it is well worth the initial discomfort and squirminess. It is a good idea for us to confess to God and to a trusted believer who can pray for and with us, but it is God alone who forgives us.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (NIV)
The interesting part of this is that God didn’t say, “I only forgive this, but not that.” He says we are both forgiven and purified. Our God is far bigger than our sins and failures. He can overcome anything.
Everyone who follows Jesus has the potential to transform the world around him or her. God can overcome our sorry back stories, our most tragic failures, and outright sins and work in and through us to encourage and inspire others.
Lent is coming soon. Lent is a season of penitence, but it isn’t about punishment. Lent should be seen as being cathartic- a time for getting rid of old garbage so we are free to take in what’s healthy and good and beneficial. Rather than seeing Lent just as a time of “giving up something,” why not see if the Holy Spirit would like us to take up something edifying for ourselves and others? When we Chief Sinners confess our sins, and surrender ourselves to Jesus, we are forgiven and purified, set free for God’s purpose- so what does that mean in practical application?