Paul’s Downward Trajectory
Paul refers to himself numerous times as worth “imitating” when it comes to spiritual growth and maturity (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Phil. 3:17, 4:19; 1 Thess. 1:6; and 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). What do we see when we look to Paul as an example? He makes three significant statements about himself throughout his years in ministry that are helpful insights into his view of spiritual growth.
The least of the Apostles
Early in Paul’s ministry, during his three missionary journeys, he wrote six major epistles: Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. In one of them, Paul makes a very humble statement about himself—”I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9). Paul does not put himself on par with the other apostles, as if he were equal to them. Rather, he calls himself “the least of the apostles.” That’s a decent dose of humility worth noticing.
The least of all the saints
Toward the middle of his ministry, during his first Roman imprisonment, Paul wrote Philippians, Colossian, Philemon, and Ephesians. In Ephesians 3:8, his humility deepens—”I am the very least of all the saints.” Paul goes from “least of the apostles” to “least of all the saints.” What’s happening here?
The foremost sinner
At the end of his ministry and during his second Roman imprisonment, Paul writes Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy. Early in his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim 1:15). Some translations say “chief of sinners.” Paul sounds like a spiritual failure, like he is regressing spiritually, not making spiritual progress.
Do you see the trajectory as Paul matures in faith? This is what happens when you boast in Christ alone. Your weakness becomes more evident. You can’t help but make much of Christ and little of self. That is maturity according to Paul—boasting in nothing but Christ’s grace and our weakness.
True Spiritual Growth
Paul isn’t just using self-deprecating hyperbole as a teaching device. Each of the three statements about himself is surrounded by references to the cross (1 Cor. 15:3-4; Eph. 3:7-8; and 1 Tim. 1:15) and grace or mercy (1 Cor. 15:10; Eph. 3:2, 7; and 1 Tim. 1:13-14, 16). For him, spiritual growth is realizing how utterly dependent he is on Jesus’ cross and mercy, not arriving at some point where he somehow needs the cross and mercy less. Paul’s view of himself diminishes and his dependence on Jesus’ cross and grace increases. How do you talk about spiritual maturity? Imitating Paul’s example, there should be more talk of the depth and scope of God’s mercy, less talk of self-reliance, and an abiding fixation on Jesus’ cross that secured God’s grace for you.