The Chief of Sinners

Picture 322A version of this post appeared last January. In light of the recent posts on prayer and communion it seemed timely to rerun this post. Though not on prayer, it carries some of the same thoughts to the commonality of our life as Christians and of our life as human beings. I believe that we will make little progress as Christians nor as human beings (as measured in the Kingdom of God) unless and until we begin to understand the commonality of our life and the significance of Christ’s participation within that life (and our participation in His).

In the Divine Liturgy, it is customary for this prayer to be offered by all who are coming to receive communion. I quote a portion:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

Of course the prayer is a reference to St. Paul’s self-definition as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is a confession made by all the faithful, gathered before the Holy Cup, everyone confessing to be the first among sinners. It would be easy to take such a statement as an example of pious excess – overstating the case of our sinfulness. Were that so it would be a travesty within the Liturgy – which exists to lead us into all Truth and to give us the gift of True Life. Such life is not grasped by uttering pious nonsense. Thus, we must accept the confession as actually what it says. How is it that I am the first of sinners?  We could assume that the language is a claim to be worse than all other sinners. But how is a comparison to be made between sin and sin? Some will say that murder is by far worse than stealing or lying – and perhaps take comfort by saying, “At least I’m not a murderer.” But this is only an echo of the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was “not like other men” particularly the Publican standing nearby (Luke 18:11).

The confession is not an exercise in comparative morality – but an exercise in humility and true contrition before God. Dostoevsky’s famous character, the Elder Zossima, speaks of “each man being guilty of everything and for all.” The mystery of inquity, spoken of in Scripture, is just that – a mystery. Our involvement in sin is itself mysterious. Our culture has made of sin either a moral failing, and thus a legal category, or a psychological problem to be treated as guilt. Both are sad caricatures of the reality and neither image allows us to say, “Of sinners I am first.” Morality would reassure us that we have not done as much as others and would leave us as unjustified Pharisees. Psychology would assuage our guilt by warning us that such feelings are bad for us.

But the Church insists that we stand together with St. Paul and join in his unique confession.

I prefer to understand the prayer in the terms used by the Elder Zossima, whose thoughts are largely derived from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. My solidarity with every sinner is such that I cannot separate myself as better or in no way responsible for the sins of another. Again words of Elder Zossima:

Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to be a judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.

Of course, we live in societies where we frequently make distinctions between the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. And there are truly people who behave in an evil manner that stuns our ability to understand. And yet we share a common life as human beings and every effort to deny its reality pushes us ever further down the road of pride, envy, blame, and every form of hatred.

Thus there is no way forward other than that of forgiveness – and a forgiveness which is in the image of Christ. Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world – indeed, in the raw language of St. Paul:

[God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

If we refuse our commonality with the Christ who Himself was “made sin,” then how can we claim our commonality with Him in the righteousness of God? And if we accept that commonality – then with St. Paul we can also confess ourselves “of sinners to be the first.” The forgiveness of God that is given to us is not a forgiveness which made itself aloof or estranged from us, even though He was without sin. How can we who are sinners then set ourselves above other sinners? The way of forgiveness is inherently a way of solidarity.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is certainly the word of a gracious God. It is also the cry of a Man who yielded Himself to utter solidarity with us all.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





10 responses to “The Chief of Sinners”

  1. Stephen Avatar

    I have often thought that with what has been given to me from God, I am the chief of all sinners. If I had been born under a different set of circumstances- and there are some pretty awful situations to be born into- I would be capable of many horrible evils in the eyes of the world. But it seems that we are responsible for what we have been given and only God knows the circumstances of others, which is why it is also not given to us to judge. How often do we meet someone who seems arrogant, mean, self centered and a list of other adjectives only to find out later the tragedies that they have dealt with and deal with everyday. Suddenly we see them in a different light as if scales fall from our eyes. Pray for me a sinner as I attempt to pray for others, while I try to refrain from judging them.


  2. […] Of whom I am first, not hyperbole. […]

  3. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Fr. Arseny helped me understand the magnitude of what it takes to forgive and not judge when he sat beside the thousands of half buried dead in the fields at his Siberian labor camp to pray for them, their murderers, and all mankind. He helped me understand more on how I must approach the Holy Mysteries as well as others in the days in between. However, I fall down in failure and then get up again seemingly over and over. Thanks be to God for His mercy!

  4. davidperi Avatar

    The vision that Isaiah had in chap 6, and the cry of “Holy, holy, holy” put a zipper to my mouth.

  5. Justin Richter Avatar
    Justin Richter

    Father Stephen, I haven’t commented on your website in awhile, although I am thoroughly edified by it. I just read a article by a fellow orthodox brother who describes how closely the eastern and western traditions are actually linked, contrary to the arguments that Alexander Kalomiros has made. Would you read it because I am not sure if it is correct.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    I read it through – I think, interestingly, that he overstates the case against Fr. Athony’s article and (if I might suggest this observation) is unfair to those whom he describes as “Marcionites” i.e. attempting to “rescue the OT God” from charges of cruelty, etc. My first observation is that his defense of Western Christianity is interesting, but frequently incorrect. As someone who grew up as a Western Christian, he is simply wrong when he says that the “God as the enemy of mankind” (an idea presented in Kalomiros) is not true. It is true – been there – heard it – lived with it and rejected it. The writings of Kalomiros would not find the echo that they do were there no experiential basis in Western Christians. Incidentally, I have known Orthodox Christians whose experience of the Church’s teachings were equally angry and judgmental.

    As for the scholarly questions – it’s easy to take on Hughes (though his scholarship is good) or Kalomiros (because he is indeed very harsh in his statements concerning the West) but these scholarly matters are shared by Fr. Thomas Hopko, and even Met. Kallistos Ware (both in a more nuanced form). Neither of these men are slipshod or “liberal” in their scholarship. I know both of them personally and hold them in the highest regard.

    What I think is problematic to a degree is the “smoking gun” approach to the question at hand. There is a tendency to say, “We can observe this generalized difference between Eastern and Western theological understandings,” and then go looking for the smoking gun – the “one thing” which separated the two and from which everything has flowed. This is just poor historical understanding. Life and thought and experience are far more complex. There are many temptations to write a “reductionist” account of theology. It is certainly a much easier teaching tool.

    I will say, instead, that the most common teaching tool, the words and experience of the Divine Services have a clear and distinct difference, East and West. These services are an accumulation of the teachings and experience of the Church (East or West). Original Sin (or ancestral sin for that matter) is simply not a strong or dominant idea within the Eastern Church. It does not need to be drawn in such a black and white manner as Kalormiros (thus it is not necessary to blame everything on Augustine or to say that the word or phrase is never found in the East). But the concept and the theological consequences of the concept do not find a particular home within Orthodoxy, much like the concept of Divinization does not find any particular expression in the West apart from certain strands of the Holiness Movement (to use just one example).

    It is easy to argue against a reductionist approach to this question – for you only need prove that it is reductionist. Reductionism draws to fine a point on the matter, and its refutation only refutes the fine point. But it is the larger point that we experience and with which we live. The proclamation that God is a “good God who loves mankind” is not Marcionism. Rather the failure to preach and teach this consistently is the seedbed of Marcionism breeding a reactionary heresy because it fails to preach the Gospel. The radical re-reading of the Old Testament that is evidenced in the New (“You know not what manner of Spirit you are of” Luke 9:55) is not “Marcionite,” but attributable to Christ who taught that He Himself was the meaning of the Old Testament (“these are they which testify of me”).

    I offer this quote from Hopko (from Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction pg. 76 n.1)

    “I believe that the Christian faith according to Orthodoxy does not hold that God punishes anyone for anything, though the Lord certainly does chastise sinners in their earthly lives so that they might repent of their sins before they stand judgment before Christ at His coming. At the Lord’s parousia, we may also note, every person is judged by God’s divine mercy, which is given to all people in Jesus. The “punishment” of Gehenna, therefore, is a punishment that unrepentant sinners inflict upon themselves when they suffer torment “from the face [or presence] of the Lord,” who loves and forgives them. We note here as well that the words “exclusion from” in the English RSV translation of 2 Thess. 1:9 do not exist in the orginal Greek text.”

    I just happened to be reading this work tonight (should be sleeping instead). I’ve heard Fr. Hopko state this idea in numerous settings – and seen it confirmed in the prayers of the Church and in the writings of the Fathers. It is the general point on which the larger matter (drawn so finely in Hughes and Kalomiros) depends. And it is this larger matter that is of concern.
    I taught this very gospel when I was an Anglican (for I found it in the Fathers). And I would that all Christians everywhere would preach it for it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. But I cannot speak for all Christians everywhere. However, I, like Fr. Hopko, believe this to be the Orthodox faith, as do the Bishops under whom I serve. And it is this faith I teach and will not abandon – though I’ll gladly grant anyone room who wants to draw fine points and argue over these things.

    I know that as a priest and teacher of the faith, men and women have wept when they heard this unvarnished account of the gospel because it was the first time they had clearly heard the love of God in Christ Jesus proclaimed. Let others quibble over from where and why their previous Christian experience had denied them this Orthodox account of the good news. Whatever is the case – let the gospel be preached.

    I might note that the author of the article drew very largely on writers from Orthodox cultural backgrounds (mostly Greeks). There is nothing lacking in their Orthodoxy – but they are frequently lacking in the experience of the crucible of the West – the place where at present Orthodox and non-Orthodox theology are encountering one another. The criticism of the West is occurring here, in the West. Of course, criticism of the West is an age-old tradition in the West. What reformer could find fault with it? That Western converts to Orthodoxy would take up the cause, using the riches of the East is no surprise. I might note that Florovsky taught that it was the vocation of the Orthodox Church to take up the burden of the crisis in the West and participating in that burden bring resolution. I think this is part of what is taking place in the dialog around this matter (particularly around atonement doctrine).

    Hope that helps.

    The Florovsky quote:

    Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

  7. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless (again)! Thanks so much.

    Stephen, I can second your comment. May the Lord have mercy on us all and give us His eyes to see ourselves and our neighbor aright.

  8. Raphael Shelton Avatar
    Raphael Shelton

    Father Bless, I know this is an oldie, but I just listened to the Podcast on the same topic and the quote “For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.” was a spear in my heart.

    I am reminded of my favorite St. John Chrysostom quote (actually it may be my only St. John Chrysostom quote ;-))
    There would be no need for sermons, if our lives were shining; there would be no need for words, if we bore witness with our deeds. There would be no pagans, if we were true Christians.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

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