A sinner is not just someone who is not quite perfect. Nobody is going to wake up in hell and say, “If only I hadn’t stolen that cookie when I was a child, I wouldn’t be here!”
A sinner is not someone who tried his best to be good, but fell short. No one is going to stand before God and say, “I admit I failed; but you are a God of mercy, so I know you won’t be so harsh as to disregard all my sincere efforts. So which way to the pearly gates?” Jesus didn’t die to make up for our shortcomings.
A sinner is someone who is under the dominion of sin so completely that he is usually not conscious that he is sinning.
A sinner may be very sure of his own goodness — or at least of his sincerity. But if he is, then he is just practicing self-deceit. A sinner is not good. He’s not even trying to be good. He doesn’t want to be good — he wants to do what he wants, even if he knows it to be evil. He sins from the heart. Yes, he sometimes shocks even himself by doing something that he didn’t know he was capable of. But this does not mean that he didn’t do it deliberately, intentionally.
There are three things that can make an act a sin. The sinner sins in all these ways:
1) He commits acts that are sinful as to the matter. These are acts forbidden in themselves by the moral law of God. He may keep some of the commandments of God in an outward sense, but not all; and none in the true and spiritual sense Jesus insisted on in the sermon on the mount.
2) He acts from an unlawful motive. Even when doing something lawful in God’s sight, often it is only for show, or for gain, or for other evil motives. Sometimes God’s interest happens to coincide with his own; but where self-interest reigns in the heart, you have nothing but sin. We ought to have God’s will as our supreme motive for everything we do. Self ought to be secondary; and the minute we see that God’s will and ours conflict, we must sacrifice our selves.
3) He sins in his method. He does something lawful, perhaps even with good intentions, but in a way that is not lawful.
A sinner sins in thought, word and deed, all day long, all the days of his life. He may be outwardly moral, and seem a good neighbor and a responsible citizen, but this is only the outside that he has learned to create to impress his fellow-man. God sees what is inside, and that is the only thing that matters. That is the true man.
We have all seen villains depicted in plays and movies and in novels that are so morally offensive that we find ourselves wanting very much to see them severely punished. We may be moved to anger, as if it was not play-acting, but something happening in real life! But there is no villain in any story that is worse than the common, garden-variety sinner is in real life. Listen to how Jesus describes the things that are generated by the evil heart of man:
And he said, “That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” (Mar 7:20-23)
In the New Testament epistles, written to churches, or bodies of believers, there are found “catalogs of sins”; such as Romans 1:28-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:8-11. I used to think that these lists referred only to those who have not been converted, or to believers before their conversion. I did not realize the truth of Paul’s words “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing”(Rom 7:18).
The Saints are Still Sinners
The truth is that saints are still sinners. They are no longer the blind and powerless slaves of sin, it is true. There is a new nature, and it increasingly shows itself; but the old self is still there, living within, fighting against the new self. We have stopped doing many things which we used to do; but we are very, very far from perfection. We need to hear this: we need to be humbled by our sins. We need to learn to see our sins as God sees them: to hate our sins, and to use all means to avoid them. We need to “watch”, which in Scripture means to “stand guard” against occasions of sin and sudden temptations. These things we will not do if we remain blind to the evil that is in our bosoms.
The very fact that the saints are unable to conform themselves completely to the will of God, even though they desire this most sincerely and ardently shows how completely corrupt the sinner is, and demonstrates the native strength of sin in the hearts of all men.
What it Means to be a Sinner
One of the most painful aspects of the Christian life is the knowledge of the sinfulness of man: both our own, and that of others. It is not a pretty picture that we see as we observe our own lives; and it is not encouraging to view the progress of human affairs without the illusions which most people embrace to make life more bearable.
In addition, it is grievous to realize how blind people are about their own miserable state. Our catechism teaches us that we are born into a state of sin and misery. (See Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 13-19.) The Catechism explains our awful plight in the following words:
This is a good summary of the terrible condition that we are in. There are 5 elements, which we will consider one by one:
1. The sinner is alienated from God.
2. The sinner is under His wrath and curse.
3. The sinner is liable to all temporal miseries.
4. The sinner must soon die.
5. If the sinner continues in this state until death, he will be damned forever.
1. Alienated from God
We are not born innocent, or in fellowship with God. A child does not have to be taught to rage whenever his will is crossed: he has to be taught not to. The psalmist said, “They go astray from the womb, speaking lies”. God must act to change the heart before we are even desirous of His fellowship. In our hearts, we are all God’s enemies. But alienation is a word that cuts two ways: God is also our enemy. He is, so to speak, forced to oppose us, for we are out to sabotage His holy and good plan for the world of men. Our evil words, our wicked actions, and our bad example and incitement of others to sin cannot be ignored. For example, the one who is pledged to care for the widow and fatherless cannot sit smiling while his subjects oppress them. No, we are in need of reconciliation. God is so far from being pleased with us, that he counts us His enemies. The sinner needs to understand that this is a terrible thing: the danger is extreme!
2. Under His wrath and curse
We are not to think of God as losing His temper like we do. When He is angry, it is not something He regrets and tries to repress. His wrath is like the righteous indignation with which a man fights to drive an invader from his home with deadly force. No, when the Lord God acts in wrath and fury, it is willingly, with His whole self. He is therefore “greatly to be feared”, as the Scripture says.
What is the significance of the curse of God? What does it mean to be under His curse? A curse is a maledictory oath; as a blessing is an oath of benediction. It means that God has fixed and declared His intention to destroy the sinner. God never goes back on His blessings or His cursings; for an oath of God is unbreakable. Like His wrath, His curse is not something that is owing to a moment of passion, when God “forgets himself” as we do; or “doesn’t know what he is doing” or “doesn’t mean what he’s saying”. God’s curse is deliberate, well considered. From eternity, He has always intended to oppose those who despise His good laws, and who rather choose to do evil. Nothing can make Him change His mind on this. Truly, the fact of God’s wrath and curse should make every sinner tremble!
3. Liable to all temporal miseries
There are innumerable ways to suffer; and human beings have a practically infinite capacity for pain. It requires no proof that life is filled with misery. Though we would rather dwell on our dreams and ambitions of happiness in this life, few ever approach happiness; and those who do so do not find their happiness in temporal things, nor do they live free of sorrow. Rich or poor, old or young, no one can insulate himself from pain, so that he is not touched by it. This is the will of God.
4. Soon to die
Who ever thinks about death? Our culture constantly sets before us images of death and dying; but in such a way that we rarely if ever think what it is like to die, or what it means to die. People will do almost anything rather than willingly give up their lives. The fear of death absolutely drives us. We are so afraid that we cannot allow ourselves to think that we are afraid. Billions take refuge from that fear in the various religions of the world; by trying to conciliate whatever powers there may be to be faced after death. Some try to convince themselves that there is nothing after death; but this too is motivated by their fear of death. The way that men view the world and the way they live are rarely (if ever) determined by rational consideration. The world-views that men adopt are a consequence, in large part, of the way they have chosen to hide themselves from the reality of death, and the fear of what is beyond. It may truly be said that, in the hearts of men, death reigns.
Yet, no matter how long he lives, the sinner will certainly die, and then He must stand before his Judge to give an account of his life — and enter at last into his eternal destiny as a saint in heaven, or as a sinner in hell.
5. Damned forever without repentance
Forever! What one word has more of hope or of fear in it than this one? If death is not the end — and no one really believes that it is — then what awaits us on the other side? It must needs be wonderful beyond all imagining or dreadful beyond our worst fears if only because it is our eternal destiny! Eternal life or eternal death! Everlasting joy or everlasting woe!
People refuse to confront facts that, if true, cannot be endured. If a man finds that he is ruined with no way of escape; he often loses his reason, rather than face dishonor, shame, poverty, or whatever it is in which his entire happiness consists. But no ruination that we can ever face here can compare with damnation; for all else is temporary. We find ways to bear what we must, and we have family and friends, sometimes, to help us bear up. But our chief consolation in trouble is that nothing in this life lasts forever! But damnation is forever. Oh, my friends! Damnation is forever!
What Sinners Must Do
If you have never repented of your sins and trusted in Jesus Christ to save you, you must do it now! The wrath of God is about to fall upon you with all the crushing weight of His infinity and eternity! Make your escape while you still can — tomorrow may be too late! Flee from the wrath to come! Cast away anything that will hinder you in your flight! Be assured, there is no other way! There is salvation in no other than Jesus Christ!
Stop putting it off, making excuses, clinging to the miserable life that you have been living, which is worth nothing! Go to God, confessing that you are a wretched, evil thing, that you are unworthy to be taken notice of by such a great and holy God, that you deserve to be cast away forever for the greatness and multitude of your sins. Beg Him to receive you for the sake of His dear son, who came into the world to save sinners such as you are. Remind Him of His promises to hear and receive us if we will only humble ourselves and accept His free grace. Surrender to Him unconditionally — stop your stupid, ruinous fighting against the authority of your Creator. He is your God! Fall down before Him in worship and be grateful that He deigns to invite your worship! These things you must do, or you are lost, and lost forever!
What the Saints Must Do
If you are among those blessed ones whom God has, by sovereign grace called into His kingdom and glory, this is what you must do: You must pity, preach to, and pray for those who are in such awful danger as this!
If sinners are to be saved, there must be some way for God to reconcile those who are alienated from Him. Jesus has satisfied the honor and justice of the offended majesty of God; and thus made a way for God’s forgiveness and favor. Should we not tell them?
If sinners are to be saved, there must be an appeasement of God’s righteous anger. This also was accomplished when Jesus died in the place of sinners. Is this not worthy to be proclaimed?
If sinners are to be saved, there must be a lifting of the curse. Some way must exist whereby God neither breaks His word nor carries it out. Infinite wisdom has found out the way: the curse falls on another who is by nature indestructible. He bears the awful load for us, in our place; and is not crushed because He is Divine. The elect sinner, bound to Christ in a covenantal union that has existed from eternal ages, is freed from the curse forever. Is this not good news?
God has promised to save a great number of sinners from all the families of the earth! If we are believers indeed, should we not believe this, and pray for the soon fulfillment of this blessed word? Are we not taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?
Pity, preach and pray!
Glory to God! Amen!