Chief of Sinners

How might we describe the psychology of Christian experience? Is it characterized by joy, peace, and contentment? Or is it characterized by lament, struggle, and holy discontent? Should I feel good about myself or bad about myself? Should I forget past failure and delight in present grace or continue to remind myself of the evidence of the depths of my depravity in my past record and present reality?

What I hope you’ll say is: “Both!” But what I suspect most will say is the former and heaven forbid the latter. Look at any recent Christian advertising, whether for books, CDs, conferences, or radio stations, and you find that everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy. All the time. Nowhere is the dark side of the Christian life realistically depicted. Chalk it up to the requirements of advertising, but still, one would hope for greater accuracy and honesty. Is the Christian life all smiles? And specifically, is the counsel accurate that urges us in the name of forgiveness to forget the past and all its failure, foibles, and flops?

The psychology of Christian experience, as described by the first generation of Christians, includes a massive dose of what some have disparagingly called “worm” theology (as in “such a worm as I”). Listen to the apostle: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).

The apostle Paul considers himself the “foremost” of sinners, the “chief” of sinners in the King James Version. Is this a self-image problem? Poor apostles. Unlucky them, to have lived before the self-esteem revolution. He wallows in guilt, doesn’t he? “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (vv. 12–13).

Why does he feel the necessity to rehearse his past as a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent”? Why hasn’t the apostle Paul learned to see himself as God sees him — “in Christ” — and not as a sinner, as forgiven, cleansed, adopted, a child of the Father, clothed in the righteousness of Christ? Answer: he does. But he is also careful not to forget the depths out of which he has been saved.
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