The Hebrew word for "sinner," according to Harris Theological Wordbook is, "haTTa'—Sinners, sinful. The masculine noun, haTTa' appears eighteen times in the Old Testament. It designates a habitual sinner who is subject to punishment because of his or her practices."1 In the Greek the word sinner is "hamartolos." Kittle's TDNT states:
"In the NT harmartolos, which is both an adjective and a noun, still has a derogatory nuance and is used a.) for those living in conscious opposition to God's will in the law (Mt. 9:10), or the women in Simon's house (Lk. 7:37), in distinction from respectable people (Mt. 11:19; 1 Tim. 1:9; Jms 4:8); b.) by Pharisees for those who do not keep their ordinances, i.e., most of the people including Jesus and His disciples; c.) by the Jews for gentiles, a usage avoided in Acts; d.) for guilty humanity as it is yet without Christ and unreconciled (Rom. 5:8; Gal. 2:16); e.) for individuals who have fallen into specific guilt (Lk. 13:2; 15:7, 10; Heb. 7:26); and f.) adjectivally in all the above senses."2
We find the word closely linked in Scripture with the term "ungodly":
"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful" (Psalm 1:1).
"Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous" (Psalm 1:5).
"For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish" (Psalm 1:6)
"If the righteous will be recompensed on the earth, How much more the ungodly and the sinner." (Proverbs 11:31).
"knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, or manslayers..." (1 Timothy 1:9) [all italics added].
We find in these verses that the term "ungodly" and "sinner" are used interchangeably. The sinner is ungodly—the ungodly is a sinner. The Greek word for ungodly according to Vine's is asebes—'impious, ungodly,' 'without reverence for God,' not merely irreligious, but acting in contravention of God's demands, Rom 4:5; Rom 5:6; 1 Tim 1:9; 1 Pet 4:18; 2 Pet 2:5 (2 Pet 2:6 in some mss.); 2 Pet 3:7; Jude 4, Jude 15 (twice). (Note: All the NT occurrences of the Greek word are mentioned.)"3
If a believer is a "sinner" then it would be equally true that a believer is "ungodly"? Yet this would contradict what Scripture teaches. What we find in Scripture is a sharp distinction between the "godly ones" or believers and the "ungodly" or unbelievers:
"He keeps the feet of His godly ones, But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness…" (1 Samuel 2:9).
"But know that the LORD has set apart the godly man for Himself; The LORD hears when I call to Him" (Psalm 4:3).
"O love the LORD, all you His godly ones! The LORD preserves the faithful And fully recompenses the proud doer" (Psalm 31:23).
For the LORD loves justice And does not forsake His godly ones; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked will be cut off" (Psalm 37:28).
"...then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment..." (2 Peter 2:9).
"Preserve my soul, for I am a godly man; O You my God, save Your servant who trusts in You" (Psalm 86:2).
We see then that the "godly ones" are the "faithful," the "righteous," those who trust in God, in contradistinction to the ungodly, the wicked, the unrighteous, and unfaithful.
So then, the use of the term "sinner" in Scripture is that which defines those who are walking in rebelliousness to God. They are the impious, the ungodly, the wicked, the irreverent, the unfaithful, those acting in contravention of God's demands. It is one who habitually practices sin, which is the exact opposite of the description given of the Christian in Scripture. Again, we read in 1 John 3:9, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." (Note: John does not say ou du/natai a(martei=n, 'cannot commit a sin,' but ou du/natai a(marta/nein, 'cannot be a sinner'. An act is different from a state of sin.)4
If a "sinner" then, as defined by Scripture, is one who habitually practices sin, then we would have to conclude that according to 1 John 3:9, as well as numerous other passages, that it is a misuse of the term when referencing the believer in Christ. That is not to say that the believer never sins (1 John 1:8), but that is not what constitutes a sinner from a biblical perspective. It is evident that the Jew in the time of Christ considered all those outside the covenant of God as sinners (Luke 6:31-34). However, it was not because they considered themselves to be entirely without sin, but rather because they did not, at least from their perspective, walk in the ways of the sinful gentiles.
In Galatians 2:17 Paul says,
"But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! 'For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.'"
Here again we see the contrast between a "sinner" and one who "lives to God." The ministry of Christ frees us from the law. However, if this freedom is a freedom to sin, a freedom which even the law condemns, do we not therefore make the work of Christ an advancement for the cause of sin? Would we not have to say then that the law is superior to Christ in ministering against sin? At least the law constrains men from acting out the desires of their sinful hearts. If a government official were to come and give every man freedom from the civil laws which govern society, freeing corrupt men to do as they please, would it not be considered an evil? How then can we call the work of Christ a glorious work if its results are of the same consequence? If to be justified by Christ has the present result of remaining as sinner in practice, do we not therefore make Christ a minister of sin and an advocate for evil? Paul in essence says the same thing when he asks the question in Romans 6:1, "What shall we say then, shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Shall we continue as sinners? His answer is an emphatic, "God forbid! How can we who have died to sin live any longer in it." What conclusion can we come to other than the fact that the man who lives to God is no longer as defined by Scripture, a sinner? Again, John makes this clear in 1 John 3:10, "He who does not practice righteousness [a sinner] is not of God" (words in brackets added). Wuest's expanded Greek New Testament translates 1 John 3:9, 10 as,
"Everyone who has been born out of God with the present result that he is a born one of God does not habitually practice sin because His seed remains in Him. And he is not able habitually to sin, because out of God he has been born with the present result that he is a born-one of God. In this is apparent who are the born-ones of God and the born-ones of the devil. Everyone who is not habitually doing righteousness is not of God, also the one who is not habitually loving his brother [Christian] with a divine and self-sacrificial love."
Again, why did Christ die on the cross? Simply to give us an imputed righteousness? 1 Peter 2:24 says, "...Who Himself bore our sins in His own body, that we, having died to sins might live for righteousness."
Romans 5:8 says,
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
This verse refers to sinners in the past tense. We were sinners, but by the grace of God we are no longer.
Jesus says in Luke 6:32,
"But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you?For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back" [italics added].
Christ says even sinners do good to those who do good to them, how much more then should I expect from you who are not sinners but saints. "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil." In these verses, Jesus is making a clear distinction between "sinners" and the "sons of the most high," and he makes this distinction on a practical, moral level.
In John 9:31, the man healed of blindness says,
"Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him"[italics added].
The contrast here is between sinners and those who worship God and do His will. Peter echoes this same thought in 1 Peter 3:12, "For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil." Again, the contrast is between those who practice righteousness and those who practice evil. 1 John 3:22 states, "And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight." This is in agreement with the Apostle James when he states that, "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16). And again, "But know that the LORD has set apart the godly man for Himself; The LORD hears when I call to Him (Psalm 4:3).These verses state that God hears the believer because he is a worshiper of God and does His will by the keeping of His commandments. God hears the "righteous," the obedient, the "godly man." The only prayer God hears from the sinner is the prayer of repentance.
When Scripture speaks of judgment, it is on the ungodly and the sinner:
"For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish (Ps 1:6)."
Here, Scripture contrasts, not two positions, but two ways in which men walk; The way of the saint, and the way of the sinner.
"But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men (2 Pet. 3:7)."
"Now if the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (1 Pet. 4:18) [italics added].
"Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, 'Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him'" (Jude 14-15) [italics added].
This verse refers to the ungodly sinner. Obviously, it is not suggesting that there are godly sinners, but that all sinners are ungodly and will come to judgment.
"The destruction of transgressors and of sinners shall be together, And those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed (Isa. 1:28) [italics added].
Here, the sinner is described as one who has forsaken the Lord.
"Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it" (Isa. 13:9) [italics added].
This verse does not refer to different kinds of sinners, but states that all sinners will be destroyed.
"For surely I will command, and will sift the house of Israel among the nations, as grain is sifted in a sieve; yet not the smallest grain shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of My people shall die by the sword, who say, 'The calamity shall not overtake nor confront us'" (Amos 9:10) [italics added].
This Scripture alone should settle the issue. Here God speaks of the sinners among His own people. The obvious insinuation here is that some among His people were sinners while others were not. The sinners are the fruitless chaff separated from the righteous grain that shall die by the sword. We have no reason to believe, in light this verse, that the same fate will not befall those sinners among His people the Church.
When discussing this topic the verse that is most often brought up is 1 Timothy 1:15. Paul states that he was the chief of sinners. "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." Many would argue that since Paul is speaking in the present tense he is humbly speaking of his present sinful condition. They would compare this statement with his statement in Romans 7, "O'wretched man that I am." But is this what Paul is saying in this text? Are we to believe that Paul, by using the term "chief of sinners" was actually claiming that he saw himself, at the present time, as the most sinful man among all men? Did he perceive himself as more sinful than Nero who was notorious for his despicable behavior? Did he see himself more sinful than any man in all of Rome, or even those Jews who took part in the death of Christ? More sinful than these at the present time! If so, his statement is not one of humility but lunacy. In truth, it would be an insult to the Spirit of God and a mockery of His inward work in the believer. No, he was certainly not claiming that he was in practice, at the present time, a greater sinner than all other men, but he is, as the context reveals, referring to his past (v.13) before conversion. "...although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." Paul's main point is found in v. 16 "...I obtained mercy, that in me first [as chief of sinners] Christ might show all longsuffering as a pattern to those who are going to believe in Him for everlasting life" [words in brackets added]. In other words if Christ would be so merciful to save Paul, a persecutor, blasphemer, an insolent man, the chief of sinners, he would be merciful to any man who turns to Him by faith. Paul is, in the present tense, the "chief of sinners" in that he ever remains the chief example of God's abundant grace in the saving of the soul. Matthew Henry comments on this verse:
The chief of sinners may become the chief of saints; so this apostle was, for he was not a whit behind the very chief apostles (2 Cor. 11:5), for Christ came to save the chief of sinners. It deserves to be received, to be believed by us all, for our comfort and encouragement. The mercy which Paul found with God, notwithstanding his great wickedness before his conversion, he speaks of, for the encouragement of others to repent and believe (v. 16). ...It was an instance of the long-suffering of Christ that he would bear so much with one who had been so very provoking; and it was designed for a pattern to all others, that the greatest sinners might not despair of mercy with God. Note here, First, Our apostle was one of the first great sinners converted to Christianity. Secondly, He was converted, and obtained mercy, for the sake of others as well as of himself; he was a pattern to others. Thirdly, The Lord Jesus Christ shows great long-suffering in the conversion of great sinners.5
When we come to understand the biblical meaning of the term "sinner" we find that when James says in James 4:8, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded, and in James 5:20, "Let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins," he is referring to the unsaved. John MacArthur, in reference to James 4:8, states,
Obviously, such a characterization indicates unregenerate people and they are even called, as you will remember, in verse 8 sinners, sinners...a really technical term in the New Testament referring to those who do not believe the gospel and who live a life of disregard for the law of God and manifest flagrant sin.6
In reference to the attitude of the NT writers regarding sinners, Kittel's (TDNT) states:
This is the same as that of Jesus except that the cross keeps the NT writers from regarding only others as sinners. Hence harmartolos is uncommon outside the Synoptists and does not occur in Acts, while in John only the Pharisees use it. For Paul it is a strong term that he applies to himself, signifying rejection of God's lordship. The new feature is the absence of any frontier between sinners and the righteousness, the new frontier being between those who are still subject to sin and those who in Christ are rescued from sin and put in service to God. This is a sharper frontier, but it involves no sense of superiority, since believers do not magnify themselves as righteous but magnify the grace by which they are righteous and seek to point all people to this way of grace, since it is for them too. 7 [italics added] .
It is as Paul says in Titus 3:2-6,
"…speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior..."
Do not speak evil of others, Paul says, for you yourselves were once sinners even as they. You have nothing in which to boast. For the only distinction between you and the sinner is what God's grace has done on your behalf.
The distinction between the saint and the sinner is that the sinner lives according to the flesh, the saint according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). The sinner is living in his sin, while the saint is putting to death his sin (Rom. 8:13). There remains a great fixed gulf between the two. It is in humility that we understand that it is "...not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." We are not to be as the Pharisees who say, "I thank my God I am not like other men." Although we are separate from sinners by grace, that same grace, through faith, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, can unite saint and sinner as beloved brothers. When we see our enemies as potential brothers we find that what Jesus commanded in Matthew 5:44 comes to greater light, "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." In other words, put on the character of your Father. For if a holy God reconciled us to himself while we were yet His enemies (Rom. 5:10), how much more so should we who were once sinners seek for the reconciliation of our enemies. Therefore,"Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21)
We often hear the statement that we, as Christians, sin every day. However, the flippancy with which it is often stated would make it seem that it is something expected of us, rather than that which should bring great grief and sorrow to our hearts. It is true that we daily fall short of God's glory. There are the sins of omission as well as commission. A bad thought or even gross sin. But as we have seen, this is not what constitutes a sinner. The sinner has no regard for the glory of God and walks in utter rebelliousness to His will. In Romans Chapter 5 Paul uses the terms, ungodly (verse 6), sinner (verse 8), and enemies of God (verse 10), interchangeably. The sinner is an enemy of God.
This is not simply splitting hairs over words. The point is this. The Christian's battle against sin is to such an extent that any hindrance can procure his downfall. He is in need of all the support possible to aid him in the battle that he might be victorious. To refer to saints as sinners and flippantly say that we sin every day does nothing to the edification of the soul. Since it is true that the Scriptures never make such statements in reference to the believer, it would seem wise for us to refrain from making them as well. Such words trivialize sin to the comfort of the flesh, which in turn hinders the fight against the lusts of it. What fruit can the sinner expect to bear but that of sin? Likewise, what type of fruit would we expect from the saint but that of righteousness? Does it not sound contrary to our ears to hear of a saint that sins? The title of saint brings with it the expectation of holy and righteous living. Therefore, it edifies the soul in that it communicates to our hearts that which is required of us as God's children.
The term "sinner" has been used of believers primarily to guard against the haughtiness of those who would boast in their own merits and self-righteousness. However, the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that our own righteousness apart from Christ is as filthy rags. The believer need only look to the cross to keep him humble before God. Christ came to save sinners, and he who does not recognize that he is a sinner apart from Christ has never come by way of the cross for salvation. It seems as well, for the Christian, the title of saint is far more humbling than that of sinner. The title of "saint" brings with it a sense of unworthiness as we continue in our struggle against sin and the flesh, while on the other hand, the term sinner gives us a certain level of comfort in our sins. We do not generally feel humbled by the term "sinner" because the title seems so appropriate.
Without question, in contrast to the holy character of God, we are wretched creatures at best. It is not by a false humility that we understand this to be so, but by coming into a relationship with a most holy God. Those who have come into union with God through His Word have no need of anyone telling him he is a sinner to keep him humble. The Word makes it abundantly clear that the righteousness, which he practices, is not of his own merit but a result of the work of the Spirit of God within his heart. For those in Christ, it is no longer the sinner that lives but Christ that lives in the sinner, thus making him a saint. Christ has redeemed the sinner from the penalty of sin (past), the rule, or lordship of sin (present), and the presence of sin (future). He is our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption. To God be all the glory!
God Himself is the One most concerned with keeping us in a constant state of humility. If using the term "sinner" in reference to the believer were effective to that end, the Spirit of God would surely have used it in that way throughout Scripture. However, as we have seen, it is not so. In light of this truth, when we use the term in reference to a Christian, we are, in essence, thinking that we are wiser than God and that our ways are more effective than His when ministering to the saints. Let us therefore be careful not to lean on our own understanding but humbly submit to the Word of God for the edification of the Church and the glory of Christ.