We are all sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy. This sentence stands at the heart of the cries of our faith as Christians. We have all committed sin and consequently, we are in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy to heal and repair what we have done. However, even though that sentence may seem very simple on the surface, the meaning of that sentence isn’t really THAT simple. The word sinner can be used in a couple significantly different ways that can make all the difference in the world. I want to distinguish these two uses as the descriptive use and the characterizing use.
The descriptive use of the word sinner is to simply acknowledge one’s actions and words. When I say that I have sinned, that means I have done something wrong, such as said something in anger, I didn’t tell the truth, I took something that wasn’t mine, etc. In recognizing that I have sinned, it means that I have DONE something. So, to say I am a sinner is to recognize that I am a person who has committed sin. To say I am a sinner in need of God’s mercy is to recognize that I have done things that have gone against God’s good intentions and purposes for the world, other people, and even myself.
The characterization use of the word sinner is a bit different. To characterize is to take a description about something a person does and explain that action due to some trait that person has. As such, the characterizing use of sinner starts where the descriptive usage ends. It goes beyond recognizing the reality of one’s sins and moves to treat sinful behaviors as a trait. It says it is in my nature to commit sin. The characterizing usage of the word sinner is saying something about the make up of the person that caused them to act as they did in the past and will lead them to act in the same way in the future.
When we say the word “sinner” we often use the word with both senses of the word: to both describe and characterize. Unless we are to become Pelagian in deny the active need for God’s grace in our lives, to say that someone is a “sinner” is often an expression that say something about who they are as a person that leads to sinful actions. However, at the same time, the way we characterize ourselves and others by the word “sinner” can vary tremendously. For one person, it can mean that a person needs to come back to the Lord for spiritual renewal and strength. For another person, however, it can be taken to suggest that they are inescapably lost in sin. For yet another person, it can be used with the idea that not only does a sinner commit sin, but that they commit sin voraciously and constantly. As a consequence, such a way of understanding the word “sinner” can lead to strong views of contempt towards people.
My own experience has suggested that those people who talk most about “sin” and “sinners” often have the most misanthropic view of the world, expecting people to do bad, railing against every perceived sin, with an attitude of which they look for and even long for the day that God will judge and punish those sinners. For them, the word “sinner” has become a strong form of characterization that legitimate in their mind derisive and harshly judgmental attitudes towards people. Grace may still be offered somewhere, but only to the special few who happen to be of their group, To listen to them speak, they understand God as showing grace to the third and fourth generation but God shows wrath and judgment to the thousandth generation. To hear how they understand God, it is as if there is the day of God’s favor that comes before the year of God’s judgment.
However, the word sinner is not incredibly common in the Scriptures. The Hebrew word חַטָּא is only used 19 times in the Old Testament, and it is never used to characterize all people. The New Testament uses ἁμαρτωλός more frequently in the New Testament, but even then it is not clearly used to describe all persons.
The closest we might seem to get to this is the Apostle Paul in Romans 5.8 and maybe 5.19. However, 5.19 says the “many” were made sinners in Adam, not “all,” which corresponds to the many being made righteousness in Christ, which certainly is not intended to refer to all. Romans 5.8 is regularly taken to imply all people are “sinners,” except that seems to be more of a hermeneutical assumption we make to understanding the significance of Christ’s death: if Christ died for everyone, and he died for sinners, therefore, so the train of logic goes, every person must be a sinner. However, I would contend that doesn’t fit with Paul’s purpose in Romans, which is to counteract the effect of some Second Temple Jewish literature like the Wisdom of Solomon that characterized the Gentile world as full of sinners, whereas the faithful Jews were above the depravity of the Gentiles, even if they did commit sin. Instead, part of Paul’s purpose in Romans is to say that (1) Jews are not immune to the powers of sin and death, even if they follow the Torah, and (2) that God in Christ is seeking to bring in and transform even the reprehensible characters (cf. Psa 25.8), rather than simply giving rewards and honors to those who are righteous (Romans 4.4-5; cf. Luke 5.32). Consequently, Romans 5.8 is not intended to say that all people are sinners. In fact, the argument of 5.7 precludes that notion with the idea that there are good people worth dying for. While Paul recognizes that all people commit sin (Romans 3.23; cf. Ecclesiastes 7.20), Paul does not appear to characterize all humanity as “sinners” in Romans. He doesn’t regard as all people as living in wickedness and actively hostile to God in their conduct, even as he recognizes that apart from the Spirit no one will be able to please God (Romans 8.7).
Upon hearing this, this might feel like heresy to many of us who have been trained again and again to think of ourselves and everyone else as sinners and that I may be trying to smuggle in Pelagianism through the backdoor. However, my point isn’t to cut against the idea that we commit sin and that we are in need of God’s mercy and grace to overcome the powers of sin and death in the flesh, but it is rather to cut against the often derisive characterization we can make of humanity by talking about all people as “sinners,” become people who are more merciful in the way Jesus was merciful, along with making us better readers of the Scriptures. While the word “sinner” has its place in the Christian lexicon, its place in the lexicon should be reserved more for the type of characters it was used in the Old Testament to describe: people who we considered detestable because of their disobedience to God. Once you get to that point and train yourself to think of “sinner” as someone we might consider to be morally worthless, then comes the next part: think of them as people who we are called to show grace and mercy to in shocking ways (although, without approving or enabling their sins). It is one thing to think of showing grace to “sinners” when we think of “sinners” as the less horrendous people and tell ourselves “we love sinners.” It is another thing, however, to think of showing grace to those who are considered repugnant. By reserving “sinners” for those who are prolific and bold in their sin, we really feel the weight of Jesus’ words and actions that we can’t get around by being nice to imperfect people.
In addition to training us to be more truly gracious and merciful like Jesus, redefining how we understand and use “sinner” will prevent us from engaging in globally negative characterizations of people. We can affirm the need of God’s mercy and grace for all people and recognize that none of us have been perfect in our service to God while avoiding misanthropic worldviews that lead us to be more pessimistic about others, quicker to judge, and more likely to endorse punishment because of how much more likely we are to see humanity as dangerous. While it is often been taught that seeing ourselves as sinners may humble us, it really doesn’t do the trick itself, as genuine humility is about how we see ourselves in relationship to God and to others and not simply how we see and look ourselves. Seeing oneself as a “sinner” doesn’t make one humble if you consider yourself less of a “sinner” than others; in fact, the very opposite can become the case. Rather, it is the recognition of our reliance and dependence upon God and also others along with their importance as being focuses of our love that humbles us and makes less of ourselves. When we allow love, in the Biblical sense, rather than “sin” to primarily define our anthropology, we become humbler and also more open to showing grace and mercy to others that is more likely to persist, even when we see a person living as a sinner. When we define our anthropology based upon everyone being “sinners,” we become prone to authoritarian, punitive, and judgmental attitudes. This harsh stance then becomes intensified towards some based upon how we see certain groups of people as “worse sinners” than others.
All this is perhaps very evident in the way that many people groups who have been oppressed and subjected to genocide in the Western world have been brutally stereotyped with incredibly derisive moral terms, which connects back to the way the West has developed an anthropology rooted in the utter sinfulness of people. It is my conviction that the doctrine of total depravity as it was conceived by the Reformed tradition has been deeply responsible for the Christian-influenced West has been one of the more prolific abusers of humanity through colonization, oppression, and genocide as all of these social process and evils were often legitimated by how morally “backward” people were, whether the powers of the West saw themselves as the helpers, leading to some of the more “humane” forms of colonization, as protectors from evil, readily leading to oppression, and bringers of ‘purity’ of various sorts, leading to barbaric genocide.1 Stories like the story of Emmitt Till remind us how negative characterizations of people, including specific minority groups, can lead to vile, abusive, and oppressive attitudes that readily result in death. To that end, when people see the world as totally depraved, it often makes those who bear power and influenced in that world to act in depraved ways; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately comes to reality among the brokers of power within that worldview, not much unlike the Pharisees who readily saw others as vile sinners who were entirely beneath them but they themselves were dark, dirty, and murderer at heart.
So, let us think differently about how we talk about people and sin. We need not deny the real problem of sin and injustice in our world in doing so. Taking sin seriously doesn’t require us to take on an ultimately misanthropic and punitive worldview, nor do we need we take sin seriously by exaggerating its extent. We can take sin seriously as we come to an anthropology rooted in love that seeks to give love in order to restore and redeem into love, so that sin and injustice can be replaced with love. While there is still a time and place for God’s judgment, just as God much prefers to show mercy in His love for the righteous and the unrighteous, so too we can in our love for humanity become much more persistent in our love for the saints, the decent people of the world, and even the sinners. Let us minimize how much we negatively characterize other peoples, which is often the first step for controlling, manipulating, abusing, oppressing, and murdering others, and focus more so describing the sins and injustice we see and observe. Not only would this makes our worldview more rooted in the way the Scriptures actually read, but it is a needed voice in our present time in the world where we regularly see vicious characterizations all throughout media, infecting our politics and our life together with fellow human beings.
- I do believe there is a modicum of truth in the doctrine of total depravity, but it is my conviction that we need to reconceive our Christian anthropology in line with the Scriptures to move away from seeing people has inherently sinful and move towards an epistemic and relational conception of our moral anthropology that recognizes sin as a byproduct of our distance from God’s close, intimate presence and our ignorance of God’s nature, which leads to our susceptibility to the powers of sin and death taking root and “colonizing” our lives.