I recently posted my second of eight adult Sunday School lessons on the topic of our identity in Christ. This lesson focused on who we were before we were Christians.
What appears below is something I expanded a bit from what I put on the back page of my lesson. It is a biblical teaching on the word “sinner”.
With the good intention of making seekers in our services feel more welcome, it is often said, “We are all sinners.” I have to disagree with this assessment. It does not tell the whole story.
Understanding how Scripture uses this word (and more importantly, how it does not use it) will add greatly to our discussion on our identity in Christ. If we know who we were before Christ, and truly understand the radical changes that happened at the moment when we became Christians, we will live out our faith with a sense of gratitude for what has been done through Christ for us, to us, and in us. Furthermore, I believe that some of these changes to us are irreversible. My observations may be somewhat controversial, but I ask you to prayerfully consider them to see if they have any merit.
A Study on the Word “Sinner”
After studying a complete listing of 62 references to the word “sinner” (20 in the OT; 42 in the NT), I found that with only a few exceptions, the Bible does not generally refer to believers as sinners. The word is used as a synonym for the wicked, the unrighteous, the lost, or an unbeliever. It is what we as human beings all were, but not what believers are referred to after they are saved. The word is also used to refer to someone in the process of becoming a believer, who recognizes their sinful condition and repents (Luke 18:13). The Pharisees used the label with pride, regarding others they perceived as living an unrighteous lifestyle (i.e., tax collector, prostitute). Ironically, they did not see that they themselves were sinners. Though they were religious, according to Jesus, they were unbelievers (Luke 24:7). They also used it, inaccurately, to refer to Jesus Himself (John 9:16).
Here are several references worth addressing:
Psalm 1:1. In context here, the words “wicked”, “sinners”, and “mockers”, are all synonymous. Those individuals do not have a happy ending, compared with that of the righteous (see verses 4-5.)
Psalm 25:8. “He instructs sinners in His ways.” Unbelievers cannot receive such instruction, so this is something different. Looking at the context (vs. 6-12), this is someone who is coming to faith; they fear the Lord and confess their sins in true humility and repentance.
Matthew 9:10-13. “Sinners” came and ate with Jesus and His disciples. This common reference applies to those known to be of ill repute (i.e., prostitutes). Jesus said that He came to call sinners to repentance. (Note: Although the word “repentance” is not specifically stated in this passage, nor in a parallel passage in Mark 2:13-17, it is implied. However, it is clearly stated in Luke 5:27-32.)
Luke 15:1-10. Jesus gives a series of three parables; the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son. One of the points He makes is that the tax collectors and “sinners” that were hanging out with him were lost (sheep, coins, sons), and were worth seeking after and rejoicing in when found.
Romans 5:8. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Our identity as sinners is clearly presented in the past tense. Does this imply that there was a change of identity when we became believers, and that this label is no longer applicable to us? I believe that it does.
1 Timothy 1:15-16. Paul, wanting to focus on God’s great mercy, states that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” He does use the present tense here, so it would appear at first glance that he may still see himself as a sinner. However, Paul does not ever use this word or extend that view to apply to all believers anywhere else in any of his writings. It is likely that his point is simply that his life as one who killed Christians and persecuted Jesus Himself illustrated the extent of the love, mercy, and grace of God towards sinners.
James 4:8. Here, James addresses his audience using the term “sinners”. This is an audience that in the greeting of his letter he refers to as “brothers” (James 1:2). Considering the context of instructions to submit to God in chapter 4, he also uses terms like “adulterous people” (v. 4), “double minded” (v. 8), and “brothers” again. Here, as in any gathering of believers, there is a mixed audience. Some are believers; some are not. This passage is the only one I can find that uses the term in this way. It is almost like that phrase, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” The title may apply to some of his listeners, but not to all of them.
Lastly, I want to address this from a grammatical point of view. Although it may be true that sinners are those who sin, by definition, the converse is not necessarily true, that those who sin are sinners. Let me illustrate.
Indeed, runners are those who run. However, those who run are not all runners. Someone may run to escape a barking dog, for example, and not be a considered a runner. We understand that being labeled a runner implies that a person runs deliberately, regularly, and works hard to improve their running skills over time. They may subscribe to magazines to help them run, join clubs to run with others, compete in marathons, buy gadgets to help them track their distance, and purchase special running clothes. They have earned that title; it is who they are.
I hope you can see where I am going with this comparison.
Sinners, in the biblical sense, are those who sin deliberately, regularly, and sin more over time. They have no intention or hope of ever stopping, apart from the transforming power of Jesus Christ. They have earned that title; it is who they are.
But this does not describe the believers’ experience. Certainly, we do sin. To say that we do not sin is a lie (1 John 1:8). However, doing so goes against the new nature we received at our conversion. Sinning is not something that Christians are to deliberately pursue (1 John 1:6). If someone does, we have to question the validity of his faith; true saving faith leads to good works (James 2:14-19).
The blessed hope that those who are in Christ have is this: through His death on the cross, Jesus has redeemed us once for all from the penalty of sin; daily, His Holy Spirit gives us strength to overcome the power of sin; when Jesus returns, we will be set free eternally from the presence of sin.
Just before I was getting ready to head to church to teach Sunday School this morning, I was pleased to find this appropriate quote from the book, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, by David Needham: “What does Scripture say? If you have received Jesus Christ as Savior, God says that in the deepest sense of personhood, you are not a sinner – no matter what you have been told, no matter how much you feel the pull of sin. You are righteous!”
So, if we should not state that we are sinners, what can we say that tells the whole story? We can humbly say that we used to be a sinner separated from God, but that Jesus called us to repentance and faith, forgave our sins, reconciled us to God, and has now declared us righteous in Christ.
There will be much more to say on this topic in the coming weeks.
For further study, here is the complete Scripture listing of the word “sinner” (NIV): Num. 32:14; Psa. 1:1, 1:5, 25:8, 26:9, 37:38, 51:13, 104:35; Prov. 11:31, 13:6, 13:21, 13:22, 23:17; Eccl. 2:26, 7:26, 9:18; Isa. 1:28, 13:9, 33:14; Amos 9:10; Matt. 9:10, 9:11, 9:13, 11:19, 26:45; Mark 2:15, 2:16, 2:17, 14:41; Luke 5:30, 5:32, 6:32, 6:33, 6:34, 7:37, 7:39, 13:2, 15:1, 15:2, 15:7, 15:10, 18:13, 19:7, 24:7; John 9:16, 9:24, 9:25, 9:31; Rom. 3:7, 5:8, 5:19; 1 Cor. 14:24; Gal. 2:17; 1 Tim 1:15, 1:16, 2:14; Heb. 7:26, 12:3; Jam. 4:8, 5:20; 1 Pet. 4:18; Jude 1:15.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.