By Ron Thomas
The word sinner is used 12 times in the New Testament, while the plural is used 31 times (ASV). Is this word ever applied to one who is a Christian, that is, one who is living the life of Christ? It is not. If not, then why do Christians identify themselves as sinners? Perhaps there are a number of reasons, one of which may be something along this line: “If I say I’m not a sinner, does that not sound a bit arrogant?” Since it does in the mind of many, there is a term used to help in making a distinction. This term is “alien sinner”, that is, one who is not saved by the blood of Christ in contrast to sinner, one who is saved by the blood of Christ. Yet, if the word sinner refers to one who needs to repent, then Christians are sinners and lost with regard to salvation.
Think about the meaning of the word as it is used in varied contexts. Here is one: Even so, Isay unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth (Luke 15:10). A sinner is one who needs to repent. If you’re living the life of Christ, do you need to repent? Here is another: let him know, that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins (James 5:20). In this reading, a sinner needs converting. As a Christian, do you need to be converted? If so, to what? Finally, Jesus said in Luke 5:32, I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Since you have been converted to the Lord, that is, you have repented of your sins and obeyed the gospel, identifying with the Lord in baptism, that means you have answered the call of Jesus to righteousness.
The passage that will get Christians to use the word sinner in relation to themselves is that which Paul said in 1 Timothy. Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief: Did Paul actually say he was the “chief of sinners” that is, he was guilty of sin more than anyone else at the time when he wrote these words to Timothy? If one presses the language, then yes, this is what he said. On the other hand, is that what he meant? It is not. Consider: 1) in 1:13, Paul was mindful of what he once was, that is, guilty of many things against God. If he was still the chief of sinners, then at the time in which he wrote these words to Timothy, he must have been guilty of the same things. If you say he was not, then what was he guilty of with the use of the word sinner? He certainly did not identify anything of which he was guilty. 2) Paul, however, said he was not that, but that he received mercy from the Lord in his state of unbelief, thus a sinner. 3) Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of which Paul considered himself the chief, guilty of those things he mentioned in 1:13. 4) Because he was the chief of sinners, he obtained mercy (1:16).
I understand fully that we all struggle with sin; maybe for some it is worse than it is for others. Still, when the New Testament uses the word, it is in relationship to those lost in sin. If you’ve obeyed the Gospel of Jesus, you’re not lost in sin. You may struggle mightily with it, but in such circumstances, My dear children, I am writing you this so that you may not sin; yet if anyone ever sins, we have One who pleads our case with the Father, Jesus Christ, One who is righteous. And He is Himself the atoning sacrifice for our sins; and not for ours alone, but also for the whole world (1 John 2:1-2; Charles B. Williams’s translation).
- Ron Thomas preaches for the Church of Christ at Rio Grande in Bidwell, OH. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org