When CJ Mahaney began proclaiming “I’m the worst sinner I know” somewhere around the late 1990s, it certainly wasn’t the first time this teaching had been promoted. But from what I could find, this was when it began to go mainstream.
Mahaney himself claimed it regularly, often even as a way of introducing himself when he would stand up to speak. “I’m CJ Mahaney, and I’m the worst sinner I know.”
But it isn’t only Mahaney who is supposed to be the worst sinner he knows. Each one of us is supposed to be the worst sinner each one of us knows. In 2002 Mahaney wrote in The Cross-Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing:
“Every one of us can honestly claim that ‘worst of sinners’ title. No, it isn’t specially reserved for the Adolf Hitlers, Timothy McVeighs, and Osama bin Ladens of the world. William Law [a 17th-century writer] writes, ‘We may justly condemn ourselves as the greatest sinners we know because we know more of the folly of our own heart than we do of other people’s.’ . . . So admit you’re the worst sinner you know.”
This appears to be when the teaching caught hold and spread way beyond Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries circles. Many people who truly want to follow Christ have sought to take it to heart.
Mahaney’s own explanation of the teaching
Here is a small part of an interview with CJ Mahaney in 2008 talking about being the worst sinner he knows, beginning at about minute 15:00.
Mahaney: Oh, I do indeed [believe I’m really the worst sinner I know]. Yeah. And here’s why I believe that. Because I’m more familiar with my sins than I am with anyone else’s sins. When I stay close to the doctrine of sin and apply the doctrine of sin, in the shadow of the cross, to my soul, I am indeed the worst sinner I know, in light of God’s holiness, my sinfulness as I consider my heart, yes, I am convinced. Now, when I drift from that, and when I evaluate other people and compare myself favorably with someone then no, I become arrogant, I become self-righteous. . . .
Interviewer: So you really mean positionally and potentially and by terms of the darkness of which I am capable, I am the worst sinner I know. You don’t mean practically, as I’m living my life today, if we could bring forward a sampling of twenty people in the church and read off our failures of the last thirty days, I would be the most sinful person on that list.
Mahaney: No, I would say I would, but here’s why. Because I’m familiar with my sin.
Interviewer: But in a moment we’re going to be familiar with everyone’s, cause we’re all going to read our list.
Mahaney: Uh, yeah, even, even when the list was read, I would, I would, I think I would still argue that, uh, your list, though serious, uh, is, is different from what I’m familiar with in my own soul as I contemplate manifestations of pride and lust and anger and complaining , uh, desire to impress, just all the forces that war against my soul on a daily basis, uh, some of which I commit on a daily basis. I’m intimately familiar with them in a way I’m not with yours, regardless of what you confess.
Interviewer: You don’t feel the horror about my sin that you feel about your own.
Mahaney: I don’t. I don’t.
Interviewer: That’s clear. I think you’ve given us a lot to think about.
Mahaney: Yeah. In terms of familiarity, I’m more familiar with mine than yours. I know mine up close and personal.
Interviewer: I think that’s very helpful. It gives us . . . I gotta think about that. That’s fantastically clear, and I really appreciate it.
Even while he was saying it was “fantastically clear,” the interviewer sounded puzzled. I was puzzled too. I got the impression that the interviewer (being a friend of Mahaney’s and all), saw that he was causing Mahaney to stutter and stammer in his reply, and needed to back off to keep everything comfortable.
But there are problems. Big problems.
First and foremost: I believe this teaching undervalues the life of victory preached and lived by the apostle Paul
In the interview linked to above, Manahey also said,
But in Paul’s ability to say he was the worst sinner, the worst of sinners—yet who could be more corrective than Paul?—I think that’s a combination that I want to aspire to.
Manahey is referring to I Timothy 1:15, which he quoted from the New International Version in The Cross-Centered Life, admonishing us to “confess with Paul, ‘I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.’”
But in this verse the NIV is actually interpreting rather than translating, the way they do sometimes. The Greek word protos, which they translated “worst of sinners,” is translated more faithfully in both the KJV and the ESV:
“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (KJV)
“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.” (ESV)
So what does it mean? Does “chief” or “foremost” mean “worst of sinners”?
This Greek adjective protos sometimes means “first in time or space.” That’s obviously not the meaning here, because God showed mercy to other people before He showed mercy to Paul. The only other meaning for the word is “of primary significance.” Some examples of that meaning for protos are found in Matthew 6:33, Matthew 22:36-40, Luke 15:22, and Revelation 2:4.
So here is what Paul was saying in I Timothy 1:15:
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am of primary significance.”
Why would Paul say that? He goes on to explain it in the next verse, I Timothy 1:16, here in the ESV:
“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [there’s protos again—the one of primary significance], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example [KJV “pattern”] to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
(But again the NIV translates verse 16 irresponsibly, using “worst of sinners” in place of the one Greek word meaning “of primary significance.”)
The English word prototype comes from the Greek word protos, with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it to mean, “The first or primary type of a person or thing; an original on which something is modelled or from which it is derived; an exemplar, an archetype.”
Though Paul wasn’t the first person chronologically to be pulled from the depths of sinfulness to be shown the abundant grace of God (consider Zaccheus, Matthew, the woman taken in adultery, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, and many others), he did regularly present himself as an archetype, an example, a “pattern” to the people to whom he wrote, throughout his epistles. In this, he was communicating the message: “God showed mercy on one who was completely opposed to His great salvation, then making me no less than an apostle. This gives an example (or pattern, or archetype) of the perfect patience of Jesus Christ for those who will believe on Him.” This is why he could say in I Corinthians 11:1, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
Paul spoke in the present tense not because he currently viewed himself as just as terrible a sinner as he was before his conversion (what Mahaney seems to be implying), but because he was, at the time he was speaking, a pattern-maker, an archetype.
Also, Paul spoke about himself alone—he wasn’t saying anything about how other Christians were or are supposed to view themselves. Paul wasn’t showing a kind of humility he expected us all to follow by saying, “I’m the worst sinner I know, and you are, by logical extension, the worst sinner you know.” That wasn’t his point at all. His point was to hold himself up as an example.
The implications of this are huge. Paul didn’t live in the second half of Romans 7. He lived in Romans 8, and in the life described in all the many other victorious Scriptures he wrote.
I believe that teaching Christians to embrace “I’m the worst sinner I know,” has grave potential to be a hindrance rather than a help in the body of Christ. These are three of the ways I believe this unBiblical teaching is misused:
- To keep Christians looking for their own sin, in a constant state of introspection.
- Ironically and unexpectedly, to exalt leaders.
- To keep Christians from pointing out certain sins in others.
Here is how I believe each one of those three can bear bad fruit:
Second: For some, “I’m the worst sinner I know” can lead to depression and despair rather than living in the victory and joy Christ promises
Elsewhere in the interview cited above, the interviewer asked,
But practically, if I’m the worst sinner I know, in what sense am I not unqualified to teach and minister to people? If I am in practice the worst sinner in my church?
Mahaney replied, Well, if you weren’t opposing your sin, if you weren’t, as Ryle said, quarreling with your sin, fighting your sin, by God’s grace subduing your sin, growing in godliness, then you wouldn’t be qualified.
The “worst sinner I know” teaching emphasizes seeking out your sin so you can, as Mahaney says, “oppose it,” “quarrel with it,” “fight it,” and “subdue it.” In the pew before communion, in small groups, and in the family home, Christians are taught to “be transparent,” to go on sin hunts, to seek out their sin and confess it and fight it.
None of which the Bible says to do. In fact, the Scriptures say we are free from sin.
In all the things the Scriptures tell us to seek, we’re never told to seek out our sin. We read in the Scriptures that we are to seek those things which are above (Colossians 3:1-2), the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33), honor from God (John 5:44), the building up of others (I Cor 10:24), and the Lord Himself (Hebrews 11:6). Though we should confess our sin when the Lord reveals it, the primary focus of our hearts and our eyes is to be upward to the Lord, not inward to our sin.
It’s hard to understand how a God-fearing Jesus-loving Christ-follower could live in a constant state of being as terrible a sinner as Mahaney describes unless his fight against sin is a complete failure, which thought of course leads to some serious implications about the lack of power of the Holy Spirit.
This mentality of “you’ll always be the worst sinner you know, but you need to keep fighting your sin anyway” will, if followed fully and wholeheartedly, lead to Despair. (Depending on one’s personality and position, it can also lead to Hypocrisy, Apathy, and Rebellion, detailed more here.) Like Sisyphus of ancient Greek mythology, the Christian is apparently to keep laboring away at a task he is told ahead of time will not be successful.
According to these teachers, when we present the gospel to Christians, what are we offering? Not release from sin. Rather, more guilt than they’ve ever experienced before, lasting guilt from which they can never escape—I’ve spoken with several people who have struggled under such a burden. Is this good news?
If we tell people they must believe they’re the worst sinner they know—and will never be able to escape this condemnation—then we’re negating the truth of Romans 8:1,
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”
On the other hand, the life that declares the same freedom from sin that that apostle Paul himself described—that life will become one of greater and greater victory, with ever increasing love, discernment, hope, wisdom, and good works.
Third: For some, “I’m the worst sinner I know” can be used as a tool for self-exaltation and manipulation
It seems counterintuitive, I know, but I believe both personality and position have something to do with this. A Chinese friend of mine was once describing the Chinese top-down business model. “The Leaders are the ones with the vision,” she explained. Case closed. How dare the Underlings think they have any insight?
There are many churches that may have started well but have slid into a similar way of thinking. The leaders, even if they preach “I am the worst sinner I know,” do not want to be challenged. A former SGM member told me,
“When a sheep corrects an arrogant shepherd, the shepherd is no longer the worst sinner he knows. That is often pointed out to the proud (and dumb) sheep. Put another way, ‘If you really saw your sin [sheep] you would never confront my sin [shepherd].’”
CJ Mahaney declared on Twitter, “I become self-righteous when I do not consider myself the worst sinner I know.” (It was re-tweeted many times.)
I understand the fix this puts me in, to challenge this statement. It is as if ipso facto, I am self-righteous. (But because I believe this statement is an unbiblical one that has been used to oppress people, I press on with temerity, trusting in the righteousness of Christ.)
On the other hand, when a person states unequivocally that he is the worst sinner he knows, then, we assume, he must not be self-righteous or proud. It seems impossible for the two to go together.
In the interview cited above, Mahaney said:
I think that an Edwards or those with responsibility to draw attention to sin, I think it’s important for them to be walking in some degree of humility for that prophetic call to be effective. If they aren’t convinced they are the worst sinner they know, then their call to repentance will be motivated to some degree by self-righteousness, I think discerned by those who are receiving it.
And also . . .
But in Paul’s ability to say he was the worst sinner, the worst of sinners—yet who could be more corrective than Paul?—I think that’s a combination that I want to aspire to. And I want to be careful about correcting anybody if I’m not convinced that I’m the worst sinner I know, because I don’t think my correction will be humble, and it will be more difficult for them to receive.
In 2005, three years after The Cross-Centered Life, Mahaney wrote a book on humility which made no reference to his ever needing correction. This oversight may not have crossed the minds of most readers, but as a result of this ignorance, many non-insiders were stunned when in 2011 a former SGM leader began to expose the truth: that for years before the publication of this book, SGM leaders had been formally confronting Mahaney for his pride.
As fellow leader Dave Harvey observed, “To correct C.J., or to challenge his own self-perception, was to experience a reaction through e-mails, consistent disagreement (without seeking to sufficiently understand), a lack of sufficient follow-up, and occasionally, relational withdrawal. Along with this, C.J. was poor in volunteering areas of sin, temptation or weakness in himself.” In spite of his Uriah-Heep-ish ’umble talk, it appears that he considered himself above correction.
What eventually came out was that during the years he was effecting a high-handed leadership style and refusing to receive criticism, Mahaney was also allegedly covering crimes, participated in setting up a hush fund, and even blackmailing. He said he would look forward to speaking freely about a civil suit in which he was charged, but when the suit was dismissed on technicalities, he never did speak about it. In 2012, after years of preaching the importance of submitting to church leadership, Mahaney himself left his church peremptorily, starting another church with people who were loyal to him. He then went on to speak at various places about suffering like Job.
At one point in 2011, when Mahaney spoke publicly about his wrongdoing (again without giving any specifics), he said his sins were “respectable,” “routine,” and “common.”
So much for being the worst sinner he knew.
Fourth: Teaching Christians to embrace “I’m the worst sinner I know” sets up an environment for sin tolerance and covering of abuse
In the days when I was following the SGM/CLC/Mahaney story only peripherally, I made a tongue-in-cheek reference to CJ Mahaney rebuking William Wilberforce (for going up against Parliament regarding the slave trade), telling him to look for the sin in his own heart.
But sadly, I was too close to correct. When a person is deemed to be “important to the ministry,” his sins will be tolerated and covered, and the one who points them out will be the one accused. I can never point the finger, as Nathan did at David, saying, “Thou art the man,” because, as they say, there will be three fingers pointing back at me, finding me, with my own superlatively sinful heart, the most culpable, no matter what the sin is that I’m pointing out.
Even in the cases of sexual abuse at Mahaney’s church, according to many first-person accounts, this is exactly the way the abused were treated when they came to church leaders for redress of grievances. A post on SGMSurvivors gives an insightful analysis on how teaching “I’m the worst sinner I know” sets up an environment for abuses of the worst kind. This is, in fact, the definition of a spiritually abusive teaching. It keeps the oppressed in bondage, silence, and confusion.
When a church teaches how to live out “the gospel” by focusing on your own personal “indwelling sin” (rather than your identity in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ in you), then the ones with hardened consciences will find a perfect petri dish environment for abusing the ones with sensitive consciences. If the accused abuser acts remorseful with claims of being the worst sinner he knows (even if true repentance is never shown), then so much the better for him—he will be absolved and restored, while the abused one is often marginalized and treated with suspicion for not being forgiving enough.
So do I see some as “worst sinners”?
Funny thing about that. In many evangelical churches, there seems to be a disparity. On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe that “sin is sin” and “all sins are equal” (which I’ve addressed before on this blog and elsewhere). And on the other hand, we’re all supposed to believe that we’re the worst sinner we know.
I would say, though, that I believe the Scriptures teach the opposite. Though it seems very clear from both Scripture and life that some sins are worse than others and that sins progress from bad to worse, I believe the Scriptures also teach that when sinners themselves stand at the foot of the cross, they stand on equal ground.
Every person is equally in need of saving.
My passion to correct this wrong teaching comes partly because I see the abuses I’ve described here. But it also comes because I see people walking away from oppressive churches who just keep walking, all the way out of Christianity, because they believe that what their oppressive church taught really is what the Bible teaches.
But for so many of these what-have-become core doctrines, this is simply not the case. There is freedom and joy in the truth of who Christ is and what He has fully accomplished for us, and it’s vital for the “saints” in Christ’s kingdom understand the truth.
Am I saying it’s wrong for Christians to believe they’re great sinners?
No. I agree that it’s appropriate for a Christian to talk about what a great sinner he was before the Lord saved him, even using the term “chief of sinners” or “worst of sinners” if he truly felt that way about himself (rather than simply because he thinks he should). For example, John Newton—who atrociously abused human rights through the slave trade, who was saved and eventually wrote “Amazing Grace”—did use the term “chief of sinners” about himself when telling his story. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, did as well. The difference, though, is that both of these men were referring to their lives before salvation.
I also know that Christians—I think especially ones who were “good” people growing up—can after their salvation come to a deeper realization or understanding of their own sin. I know this experientially because it happened to me. Though I still regularly need to repent and confess sins, in my adult Christian life I experienced three major episodes when I came face to face with noxious sin in my life from which I desperately needed to be delivered. (Through one of these experiences the Lord taught me what it meant to be released from the bondage of sin, which I wrote about here.)
Are you a sinner or a saint?
These are words defining your core identity. If Christians are truly trying to hold both of these opposing identities at once, then there is the potential for some serious identity issues.
But the fact is that the New Testament never refers to God’s people as sinners, but always as saints. If it feels too good to be true, maybe it’s because it’s the gospel.
The teaching of the cross, with its substitutionary atonement and complete forgiveness, is vital to the believer, but incomplete. Instead of limiting the gospel message to focusing on sins and then being thankful for forgiveness, Christians can understand the transformation that is offered through the resurrected life of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit that is theirs through Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and seating.
This is a life of joy and not despair. This is a life that, with a constant reliance on the power of Christ, will strip one of self-sufficiency. This is a life that will strengthen one to call out the wolves in sheep’s clothing, without fear.
When God’s people together stand in the resurrection power of the risen Christ, in their identity in Christ, in the might of the Holy Spirit, an environment will be created in which the people of God will be strengthened to love each other wisely and to stand together against evil. This is what God has promised us in Christ. This is a life of joy. This is Christianity.
I want to thank my husband, some former SGM members, and others who gave valuable input into this article.