For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
There is the familiar refrain that we all hear: Jesus died for us sinners. It is right there in Romans. It is “Biblical” so shouldn’t we start talking about the problem of sin in evangelism? At the heart of much evangelism has been this notion “You are a sinner in need of grace. Recognize this and receive Jesus.”
The issue here, however, how we are using the word “sinner.” Are we using “sinner” to recognize the reality that we as humans do commit sin? Or, are we using “sinner” to say something about the person that socially devalues who they are?
In the Gospels, the Pharisees used the word “sinner” in such a way that designated “sinners” as unworthy of social connection. You don’t eat with sinners. You don’t associate with sinners. You don’t have anything to do with sinners. The kingdom of heaven as revealed in Jesus subverted this way of describing and relating to sinners. In a similar way, we often hear “sinner” used in a similar way in modern evangelism, with more of a theological emphasis on how when we sin we are going to stand before God’s judgment throne to be sent into hell EXCEPT if you believe in Jesus and get your sins forgiven. The word “sinner” conveys the notion that God will all but abandon you UNLESS you do this one thing here about faith. In both cases “sinner” is used in the context of judgment, disavowal, and disconnection. When it is used in this way, the very worldview and anthropology of the Pharisees becomes reinculcated.
But Paul uses it in Romans. So what do we do? For Paul, being a sinner is about one’s actions, not one’s sense of “relational worth.” Essentially, Romans 5.6-11 is a restatement if and expansion upon Romans 3.21-26, with 3.23 being restated in 5.7. This is what God’s grace in Jesus Christ is about: that one’s sins have not cut the lifeline between God and us but God has actually drawn near. If we can go further in Paul’s anthropology and history of sin, the whole world is mired in the problems because of the sins of Adam; Jesus Christ has made the way out of the mire that the entire world is in. to that end, being a “sinner” is a recognition of the *behavioral* reality as a consequence of the struggles of the world we live in.
What is different about this usage of “sinner” though is that it does not devalue or dehumanize the person. It is simply a recognition that they do sin. There is a deeper explanation for people’s sin, but it is connected to people’s weakness in being of flesh, where the powers of sin and death inhabit. Our human, embodied reality as lived without the leading of the Spirit as God’s presence is one where the powers of sin and death act as imperial overlords: they conquer, they control, they devastate. To recognizing that one is a sinner for Paul is essentially recognizing, “Hey, there are these things inside me that cause me to go astray of what I know about God’s will. I need someone to get me out of this condition that I can’t get myself out of.”
Yes, Paul does talk about God’s wrath as judgment for sin, but the common evangelical assumption has been that God’s wrath sends people to hell for one sin, no matter how minor or grievous, that a white lie about whether one followed one’s diet would be as serious as a murder when it comes to God and our future with him. That is not even remotely close to what Paul says, however. The eternal judgment spoken of in Romans 2.6-8 is based upon what people were motivated for in life. No mention of perfect standards of righteousness that if one falls short of one will be condemned. God is not a “perfectionist.” What one sought in one’s life is what matters, and it is Jesus who has access to people’s secret thoughts who will be able to determine this (Romans 2.16). In this context, the justification in Christ’s blood spoken about in Romans 5.9 is about the *assurance* that we have in God that God has set our trajectory towards God’s righteousness by His justifying grace, even before we have ever done anything to take us down that pathway ourselves. It isn’t about saying “we know we were destined for hell but now we know we are destined for heaven,” but rather “we didn’t know where we would stand at the time of God’s judgment, but in Christ we are now confident that we will stand with the righteous.”
So, it is important to be mindful of the way we use “sinner” and the contexts in which we use it. Without being mindful of the “implicit” narrative people have about what happens to sinners, we may be communicating that a person is devalued, disconnected, abandoned, and deserving punishment. There is nothing essential about the label ourselves as sinner so far as we recognize (a) we do sin and (b) that we sin because of our weakness in the flesh and (c) that God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit provides the way out through the weakness of the flesh (but not in a way that immediately escapes the struggles, but a way that one is instructed and empowered to overcome them by the Spirit). There isn’t some necessary recognition about one’s personal identity as sinner that is necessary to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, if we are not careful about the label, the label “sinner” may colonize people’s personal identities in such a way that they deem themselves of inherently little value or worthless because of their sins and weaknesses. This is, however, the very opposite of the Gospel and how this good news comes in the midst of our sin: God has drawn near to us so that we may leave behind the trash heap that is the condemnation that Adam brought into the world. The present world we live in has been trashed and there is something better that God invites us all to be a part of in God’s emerging new creation, but we have to be willing to let God direct and transform us to see, understand, and realize it so that we can then participate within it and communicate about it to the world.