“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).
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (NRSV).
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (NIV).
Wow! No wonder so many believe that Paul was the worst of all sinners! He even used present tense! Open-and-shut case, right? But was Paul really confessing to still being such a bad sinner? While there are lots of statements to the contrary in his other writings, for the sake of brevity and context, let’s look at only this letter.
In verses 5-10, Paul asserts that the Law was not for the righteous, but for sinners. His purpose is to contrast it to the Gospel, and in doing so, he implies that the goal of the Law (“charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned”) has been fulfilled in him. Else, how could he be a true messenger of the Gospel?
In verse 13, Paul claims that he no longer blasphemes, persecutes the church, or harms others. Since, historically, these were the evil deeds he was best known for and regretted the most, I would argue that he could no longer be the reigning King of Mean.
In verses 1 and 2, Paul exhorts us to pray for everyone, particularly rulers, so “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” Living in peace, godliness, and honesty is the exact opposite of living in sin.
Paul spends much of this chapter describing the qualifications of bishops and deacons. The extensive lists of good works leaves no room for sin.
In verse 12, Paul exhorts Timothy to be “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” Does that sound like the life of a sinner? Would Paul not be a hypocrite to tell this to Timothy, but yet not hold himself to the same standard?
Verse 20: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” Now, you would think that the “chief of sinners” would be getting rebuked quite frequently, but there is no record of Paul ever being rebuked by a fellow Christian.
In verses 11-14, Paul once again exhorts to live righteously and “without spot” of sin. How much weight would his advice have, if he was still mired in his own sins?
So, if at the time of this writing, Paul had abandoned his sinful past and was adamantly promoting a righteous lifestyle, why then did he use the present tense to call himself the foremost of sinners? One possible explanation is simply an artifact of translation. Ancient languages had far more verb tenses that modern English does. There are other places in the NT, where present tense is used, even though it is clear that the events described by the writer took place in the past.
Another theory I read a while back is that Paul was referring to himself as a record-holder of sorts. A retired athlete that still holds sports records continues to be referred to as a record-holder, even if he is no longer able to repeat the feat.
Regardless, it seems unfathomable to me that Paul would count himself among the very same crowd that he was cautioning Timothy against.