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.
***This article has now been incorporated into the book Untwisting Scriptures to Find Freedom and Joy in Jesus Christ: Book 4 Wolves, Hypocrisy, Sin Leveling, and Righteousness. You can find that book here.
I want to thank my husband, some former SGM members, and others who gave valuable input into this article.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.