The Chief of Sinners: Sin, Judgement, and Responsibility


“And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. 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 long-suffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.” 1 Timothy 1:12-16, NKJV (emphasis added)

“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”- Orthodox Christian prayer, recited before receiving Holy Communion (emphasis added) 

***

Who’s to blame?

Many assume when reading the oft-quoted verse from 1 Timothy (1:15) that the Apostle Paul was making a unique assertion that he is the chief of sinners, since he says so after describing his former life as a blasphemer, murderer and persecutor of Christians. Oh, look how humble he is. Isn’t it amazing? However, a closer look reveals it was already a trustworthy saying, likely being used in the liturgical life of the Church in light of our unworthiness to receive communion (as it still is now).

So in light of the prayers of the early church and the teachings of the saints who established and nurtured it, each Christian is the “chief of sinners”. He was not holding himself up as an exception, but an example of the outlook he expected his entire flock to have. If I am claiming to be a Christian, my apostolic instructions are to fully accept the truth of this in my life. Of course, this is not to suggest that it is godly or otherwise healthy to self-loathe [in the same passage, he also refers to God’s “exceedingly abundant” grace and mercy multiple times, and we should remember that same love and mercy is given to us].

To be the chief of sinners merely means that the only comparison I should be making to determine sinfulness is one: between myself and Christ. And finding the worst sinner between me and Jesus is kind of a no-brainer.

One of my recent posts was about influence vs. concern. The circle of influence is my own life and the things I can change, while the circle of concern is everything outside of what I can influence. To think of sin in those terms, the only thing I can really change is my own sin, so that is my primary responsibility. And its effects in my life are worse, more prominent, and more damaging than the sins of others.

But look what he’s doing- and we go to Church together!

Of course, if I am already comparing myself to Jesus, it will inform the way I see the sins of other Christians.  Jesus says in the Gospels that my focus should be on removing the plank from my own eye before helping my brother with the speck in his (Matt 7:1-5). Is he saying others in the Church don’t sin, or that I shouldn’t help my fellow Christians who are struggling? Of course not. But I should be making active efforts to repent and be healed of my own sins first. I shouldn’t proclaim disgust with sin only when I see it in someone else. If I do help someone I have to make sure I am mature enough to help, be careful of my motives and be willing to share in the burden of responsibility on my part (Gal 6:1-4). Long story short, no one is immune from the tendency to judge.

Okay. But really, whose fault is it? Theirs, right?

It only takes about 5 seconds logged into Facebook or in front of the TV to see the evil in the world. Every story seems to be worse than the last. It’s easy to blame the world for the condition it’s in; we chalk up the state of things to their violence, their hatred, their evil, their moral bankruptcy. If there is backlash for their choices it serves them right. If they are treated with lenience then there is no justice.

How I feel about the moral failings of others [and how I respond when sin is put on display for public comment] says a lot about the condition of my own heart and soul.

“The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”- CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

Does every article about the despicable dealings of the world make me happier not to be a participant? Am I eager to share the terrible story without bothering to fact-check it? If it turns out to be false, am I grateful, or angry?

If I am self-satisfied when I see the failings of someone whose values are opposed to mine, there is something wrong with my values. If I am first in line to shame their behavior, I cannot love them. Do I get a sick sense of pleasure from how right I am or how wrong they are? If so, I am just as devilish.

In the same way I am able to make the right choices, it is very easy for me to sin. And while I may sin in different ways from someone else, it is no less bad when I do it. Furthermore, although I can help others to change, I cannot truly judge them. Not because I can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, but because I cannot be sure that my judgement would be the same one Jesus would make. Thus as his follower who is meant to reflect him to the world, my goal should be love, prayer and repentance on behalf of all. Only when I have drawn others to him through love and prayer is it possible for change and healing to take place. Without focusing on my own sin first and foremost, I cannot love. And without love, I am nothing.

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