Dave Harvey, author of the acclaimed book, When Sinners Say “I DO,” gives this beautiful perspective on the sinfulness of our hearts, in a July 2007 interview with Discerning Reader.
I actually borrowed [this phrase] from the apostle Paul in his words to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15). But it applies to all of us. Yes, really.
Paul didn’t say ‘I was.’ He said ‘I am’—the ‘present-tense’ apostle Paul saw himself as the chief of sinners. […] And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he knew he was capable—given the right circumstances—of the worst of sins and the vilest of motives. Paul was a realist. He wanted to see God and himself truly. No hiding behind a facade of pleasantness or religiosity for him. It’s almost as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know my sin. And what I’ve seen in my own heart is darker and more awful; it’s more proud, selfish, and self-exalting; and it’s more consistently and regularly in rebellion against You than anything I have glimpsed in the heart of anyone else. As far as I can see, the biggest sinner I know is me.”
But in the very next verse Paul says, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
With the passing of each day, two things grew larger for Paul: his sinfulness in light of the holiness of God, and God’s mercy in the face of it. Knowing both God and himself accurately was not at all discouraging or depressing. Rather, it deepened his gratitude for the vastness of God’s mercy in redeeming him, and the patience of Christ in continuing to love and identify with him in his daily struggle against sin.
Paul’s confession to Timothy presents us with a stunning example of moral honesty and theological maturity: Paul’s acute, even painful awareness of his own sinfulness caused him to magnify the glory of the Savior!
As I’ve studied Paul’s example, I’ve found it to be true in my own life as well.
(ht: Pure Church)