Various Christian denominations, cults, and legalists in general will argue that Paul was not a sinner. Generally their teaching is that Paul was only a sinner before he obtained mercy, And then afterwards a he was perfect. Those who argue this have varied reasons for doing so, but ultimately the implication is that you and I must also expect to become wholly perfect in word thought and deed.
I used to study Pentacostal theology, and the reason they make this argument is that for the gifts of the Spirit to manifest in your life that means you must have “enough” faith and be wholly sanctified. Keep in mind, when they say sanctified, they don’t mean water baptism in the death burial and resurrection of Christ, they mean actually sinless in one’s day to day activities. I am not going to delve into those teachings in this post. Instead of that I am going to address the matter of Paul being a sinner. Does Paul teach he was only a sinner before becoming an Apostle?
The prooftext that stands out the most and is easiest to just quote is found in Timothy.
“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 ESV
Notice above that Paul speaks of being a sinner in the present tense “I am”. He could have said I “was” the foremost, but he did not. Jesus stood on the tense of a verb to teach that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were currently alive in heaven so I think I am in good company (Matt 22:29-33).
“13 Did that which is good [ The Law ], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. ; 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. ; 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. ; 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. ; 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. ; 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. ; 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. ; 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. ; 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. ; 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, ; 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. ; 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? ; 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Rom 7:13-25 ESV
There is a great deal that can be said about the text above. But I am going to pull out a few key points that Paul makes.
“For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”
“For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out”
“Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me”
“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being”
“but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members”
“I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin”
The reason I pulled out the specific statements above is that they demonstrate a tug of war going on inside of Paul. We see his sinful nature of the flesh and his saint nature of the new man pushing and pulling against each other. To argue that he is speaking of himself before being called by Christ would be semi-pelagian at best. You would have to in a sense argue that all are regenerate from birth for a tug of war between the new man and the old to even be a thing.
In Paul’s case though he speaks of a part of himself that “delight[s] in the law of God”. We see one part of himself “waging war” against another. We see that he “serve[s] the law of God” but also the “law of sin” with his flesh.
This is a fascinating piece of scripture, the old man and new at war inside of Paul. It would be fair to argue that this is the life of the Christian. We are born again in the waters of our baptism, given Grace (Gratia Infusa & Favor Dei) by Word and Sacrament while the old man is killed with the preaching of the law. Every Sunday we are made new and justified in the sight of God. Yet, even still the old man rages on in our flesh dying a little more each time.
Should you expect to see a visible change in yourself? I don’t think so, in fact I would argue that as God’s work is performed you will only become more aware of your sin. The changes you do notice will only depress you because you will see your sin with greater clarity than you did before. And this is why along with the law we also must hear the gospel to restore us and comfort us, so that we cling to Christ all the more.
“7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. ; 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. ; 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12:7-10 ESV
Paul certainly was a sinner. Notice above that he wrestles with this “thorn” in his flesh. Some argue it is a sickness or malady rather than sin. I don’t think so, Paul asks for the Grace to have it removed but is denied. Also, Paul likens it to the flesh which in other passages he uses as synonymous with sin.
Like Paul it is this tug of war between new man and old that crushes us in repentance so that we rely on Christ as the object of our faith all the more.