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Saul persecuted saints and committed crimes until his conversion to Christianity. These events occurred in the past. But why then Paul is using the present tense "I am" as if he was still a sinner at the time of the writing of his letter?

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; 14 and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. 15 It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 16 Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

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    All Christians are sinners... What significance are you reading in his statement, because it's not clear from your question.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 16, 2021 at 13:48
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    Paul says he is the foremost of sinners. But then says 'I found mercy'. His statement does not presume that he deliberately continued in known sin, only that he is the foremost of those who have sinned.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 16, 2021 at 14:29
  • @curiousdannii Please, provide scripture that supports your claim: "All Christians are sinners". Nov 17, 2021 at 2:35
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    @TruthSeeker The answers below have done a great job at showing that, better that I could do.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 17, 2021 at 2:43
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    I'm not sure if Paul was necessarily the worst sinner of all time. I'd to think this was a "figure of speech" on his part.
    – moron
    Nov 17, 2021 at 16:41

5 Answers 5

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Paul's language, throughout the whole passage cited, is a complicated mixture of past tense, present tense, and future tense. Let me detail that:

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, - present tense

because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, - past tense

13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. - past tense

Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; - past tense

14 and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, - past tense

with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. - present tense

15 It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, - present tense

that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, - past tense

among whom I am foremost of all. - present tense

16 Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, - past tense

Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. - past tense, present tense and future tense

17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. - present tense and future tense

There's a sense in which some matters dealing with the past can also relate to the present, and - further - even include the future! Paul is flipping back and forth in a way of speaking that engages his readers with reminders about what has been done in the past, how that affects the present, and also how the future is invoked.

When he spoke of being "the foremost of all" sinners, he meant his reputation in the past (as a wicked sinner against God, and God's people) still stood as historic fact, which he could never forget. But God had forgiven him. And such was Paul's remorse at his sin in the past, he continued to view it as the worst of all sins. Others might view murder, or rape, as the worst of all sins, so that if they had been guilty of that, yet God had forgiven them, then they might say that what they'd done in the past stood as "foremost of all" sins. But Paul viewed his hatred (demonstrated against God's innocent people) as the foremost of all sins. He used the present tense to show that he could never forget such awful sin on his part, and that even though God had forgiven him, Paul still spoke of those sins in the past as rendering him as "foremost of all sinners", in his view.

He would never try to minimise or water-down his sin in the past, but was out to stress just how hideous his sin had been, yet God had wonderfully pardoned him from all of it. No longer did he continue in any of that, for he had been transformed by grace. That is why he thanked Christ Jesus, his Lord, who can save sinners, even the worst of sinners.

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  • This is a great explanation! I was also considering Paul's use of the present tense perhaps a hyperbolic figure of speech too to stress his personal awareness of his terrible sins of the past. Any thoughts? Thank you. Nov 18, 2021 at 4:43
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    @TruthSeeker Paul certainly was aware of his terrible sins of the past, forgiven though he was. A hyperbole is an exaggerated statement, not meant to be taken literally; it's a use of rhetoric. I hesitate to say that Paul was exaggerating for effect because, to him and others, his sins had been horrendous. That was the effect of his Damascus Road conversion - he then saw it; that should be the effect on every convert to Christ. Paul needed to convey the evil of sin to his readers, and used his own sin as the darkest of examples, to show the shining mercy and grace of his Lord.
    – Anne
    Nov 18, 2021 at 10:10
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Why then Paul is using the present tense "I am" as if he was still a sinner at the time of the writing of his letter?

Other answers have given insight into the original Greek wording, I would like to offer insights into Paul's attitude.

As has been mentioned, Saul (now Paul) was a persecutor/murderer of Christians. (Acts 9:1, 2) But after his conversion, Paul is now seeing how the prophecies in the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) now apply to Jesus as the Christ. He also comes to recognize that it is through Jesus Christ that we have redemption and salvation. (Colossians 1:13, 14)

Paul expounds on how he has been born into sin and how he has a constant battle between his mind and spirit. (Romans 7:7-25) But foremost is Paul's humility in recognition of Jesus Christ's value towards himself:

the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and handed himself over for me.–Galations 2:20

So, Paul recognized that yes, he was a murderer of Christians and was born into sin, but humbly recognized the redemptive and saving power through Jesus Christ.

[All scripture quotations from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (Study Edition)]

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  • "Paul expounds on how he has been born into sin" Where do you read this in Romans? Thank you. Nov 18, 2021 at 4:31
  • @TruthSeeker In vss 7-9, Paul mentions how the Law was not bringing out the things that he did were sinful. Paul even states in vs 9 "sin revived" (BLB/KJV/NKJV/ASV/ERV/WEB) or "sin sprang to life again" (CSB); therefore sin already existed in him. This reiterates Paul point from Romans 5:12 that "all have sinned".
    – agarza
    Nov 18, 2021 at 20:30
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The answer to this question is found in several places in the NT such as:

1 John 1:8, 10 - If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. ... If we say we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar, and His word is not in us.

Thus, all are sinners. Paul emphasizes this point rather vehemently in Rom 3 - see appendix below. Paul then re-emphasizes the point in Rom 7: 14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I admit that the law is good. 17 In that case, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh; for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. 20 And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So this is the principle I have discovered: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law. 23 But I see another law at work in my body, warring against the law of my mind and holding me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me.b

24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Recall that this is Paul the apostle writing this!! He freely admits that he struggles with sin as well must admit. There no such thing as a sinless Christian - just forgiven Christians who want to be more like Jesus each day and who:

  • But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. 1 John 3:2, 3
  • But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall. 2 Peter 1:9, 10.
  • Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Phil 3:16.
  • But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 1 Tim 6:11, 12.
  • We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Rom 6:4.
  • Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. Rom 12:1, 2.
  • Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God. 2 Cor 7:1.
  • Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Eph 4:15, 16.
  • But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Phil 3:13, 14.
  • So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Col 2:6, 7.
  • His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 2 Peter 1:3, 4.
  • Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 3:17, 18

Paul was as human as the rest of us. He remained a man struggling with sin and was a sinner. He was never sinless - that is a state that we will enjoy only in the next life.

APPENDIX - Rom 3:9-18 - we have all sinned and are are all Sinners

9 What then? Are we any better? Not at all. For we have already made the charge that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin. 10 As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one.

11 There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.

12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The venom of vipers is on their lips.”

14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;

16 ruin and misery lie in their wake,

17 and the way of peace they have not known.”

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

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  • Where do you see anywhere in Scriptures holy ones/saints/brothers/Christian also called literally sinners? Thank you. Nov 18, 2021 at 4:36
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    @TruthSeeker - Rom 3:10-18 as quoted above (1st verse) and 1 John 1:8, 10. A person who sins is a sinner! See also Rom 3:23, 24.
    – Dottard
    Nov 18, 2021 at 8:14
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"But why then Paul is using the present tense "I am" as if he was still a sinner at the time of the writing of his letter?"

To help answer your question here is a literal translation of that verse.

The word [is] steadfast, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am first;

The word first means;

4413 prṓtos (an adjective, derived from 4253 /pró, "before, forward") – first (foremost). 4413 /prṓtos ("first, foremost") is the superlative form of 4253 /pró ("before") meaning "what comes first" (is "number one").

The main point of this passage is that Jesus Christ came in the world to save sinners. Since he came in the world to save sinners He wants to show forth or display His long suffering And as a pattern for those who are about to be believing on him for life of the ages.

12And I give thanks to him who enabled me — Christ Jesus our Lord — that he did reckon me stedfast, having put [me] to the ministration, 13who before was speaking evil, and persecuting, and insulting, but I found kindness, because, being ignorant, I did [it] in unbelief, 14and exceedingly abound did the grace of our Lord, with faith and love that [is] in Christ Jesus: 15stedfast [is] the word, and of all acceptation worthy, that Christ Jesus came to the world to save sinners — first of whom I am; 16but because of this I found kindness, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering, for a pattern of those about to believe on him to life age-during: 17and to the King of the ages, the incorruptible, invisible, only wise God, [is] honour and glory — to the ages of the ages! Amen. YLT 1 Tim: 1:12-17

This is something new that was being proclaimed from the glorified risen Christ.

Previously: in contrast;

('I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' Matthew 15:24)

Paul says he was the first, The number one example of this grace as being displayed in him first. This grace is being shown from a Glorified Christ outside the land of Israel.

4413 prṓtos (an adjective, derived from 4253 /pró, "before, forward") – first (foremost). 4413 /prṓtos ("first, foremost") is the superlative form of 4253 /pró ("before") meaning "what comes first"

Jesus Christ is going to show what it means to actually save someone who certainly hates him and wants no part of him. It is His life inside a person that totally transforms someone by his resurrected life inside them.

13For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how severely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by His grace, was pleased 16to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, Galatians 1:16

Paul is His first example of a new type of grace that is being proclaimed in the earth.

He goes after someone who is making havoc against His own brand new believers who doing horrible things to them. This man Saul is not at all in the state of repentance, He did not believe in Jesus Christ, And he certainly was not showing any good works at all.

He does not kill this man but instead overwhelms this man with his own grace and faith and love…

Paul is used as a backdrop to reveal the patience of Christ. He needed someone like Paul to show the incredible patience of Christ towards this man who was persecuting His believers, putting them in prison, much hatred was being expressed through his grievous acts.

Strong's Concordance makrothumia: patience, long-suffering

Definition: patience, long-suffering Usage: patience, forbearance, longsuffering. 3115 makrothymía (from 3117 /makrós, "long" and 2372 /thymós, "passion, anger") – properly, long-passion, i.e. waiting sufficient time before expressing anger. This avoids the premature use of force (retribution) that rises out of improper anger (a personal reaction)

It is the greatness of Christ that is revealed making this man into someone new by putting his own life inside a man that's just the opposite of him.

Paul is using himself as the first example of Christ patients towards him. He claimed that spot at that time so anyone who became a believer after him would know the incredible patience of Christ.

Christ indeed saved Saul and now see Christ life revealed through Paul. It was the love, grace and faith of Christ that saved someone to the common eye of someone unredeemable because of everything he was and did.

“It pleased God  .  .  .  to reveal His Son in me” (Gal. 1:15-16). Paul holds a unique place in the revelation of God to man, as the one who was chosen of God to reveal the mystery of Christ:

Paul could identify himself as the chief of sinners and was keenly aware of the grace that had been extended to him.

It is because of him being the foremost of sinners that makes him a witness to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24

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  • Not sure it answers the question about the use of the present tense but maybe I am missing something. Thank you. Nov 18, 2021 at 4:36
  • Thanks TruthSeeker, Paul's opinion of himself was that he is the worst sinner Christ ever saved. He is a pattern for those. who are about to believing on Christ. A Pattern: Is like diagram, or model to be followed in making things: b. A model or original used or as an archetype. Many will feel the same way about themselves that they are the worst and perhaps this is a pattern of how the Grace and love of Christ at times makes each of us feel this way. Paul also leads he way in teaching us to forget about the past and move on to the high calling in Christ Jesus.
    – Sherrie
    Nov 18, 2021 at 14:43
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Paul does not call himself the chief of sinners. Such an interpretation aims to take the opposite meaning of the text without the context and sense of the language.

The reason the present tense is used because Paul is still alive and present. He did not say I am the chief of sinners, but that the chief example of "sinner being saved". You cannot read it like "Christ came to save sinners". Or did Christ come to meet the sinners, of whom I am the greatest? No, but he came to save the sinners of whom I am the chief example, that others can be drawn to the same salvation. His example serves as a great motivation and truth that anyone can be changed and transformed.

Some commentators ignore the noun phrase "to save sinners" to wrongly condemn Paul as the foremost sinner, and then to begin their own depraved boasting of sin by with a false humility. The apostle says he is the foremost model for being a sinner-saved. The word foremost or chief is necessarily a positive quality, of a chief rank. Therefore, the paraphrase or interpretative translations NIV, NLT, NET are wrong to use "worst". If he was describing himself as the sinner, then he should have used the negative word "evil or worse" (like worse than an unbeliever 1Tim 5:8), rather than foremost, πρῶτος protos, from where we get prototype. He is proud of his example, and hopes that the sinners should receive life. It wouldn't make sense since he already described himself as a former sinner in the verse v13.

A holy apostle or saint cannot possibly call himself a sinner if he is not. It would be like calling light darkness, or God the father of sin if God makes believers sinners, or fail to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. It would be a lie to wrongly condemn himself as a present sinner, when all know he was formerly a sinner, and that no righteous man can be counted as a sinner. Paul extensively taught that sinners cannot inherit life, and the heresy that twisted Paul to turn the grace from the law into licentious & lawlessness, was destroyed by Peter and John in detail.

1John 1:9-10 NHEB

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Prov 28:13

He who conceals his sins doesn't prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

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