When we hear the word “sinners,” we form a mental picture of a certain type of person. The “sinner” in our mind is probably not the murderous and vile sort of person that we might instead describe as evil. Nor are we inclined to judge the tiny infractions—white lies, unethical business practices, and the like— that we all commit by labeling them as sins.
In our culture, the “sinner” is usually somewhere between these extremes. Distasteful, but not harmful. Predisposed toward vice, but easily left alone. Someone that is easy to hold in contempt, because we have risen above what he or she represents.
But does our mental picture really reflect what the Bible says about sinners?
How Does the Bible Define Sinners?
While our contextual usage of the word “sinner” is related to a person’s behavior—at least, certain categories of behavior—the Biblical words are far more robust and nuanced.
Both the Hebrew khattah and the Greek hamartolos refer not only to a person who engages in sin but also to one whose nature is sinful. To unpack this idea further, let’s look at the Biblical definition of sin:
- Sin is misconduct. In behavioral terms, it is any action or conduct that defies God’s moral law.
- Sin is relational separation. Sin is what separates us from God. Though it often manifests in our behavior, it is rooted in the fallen state of our minds and hearts.
- Sin ‘misses the mark.’ Outside of its moral definitions, ancient languages use sin to describe an arrow missing its target or a person straying off of a path.
Filling out our mental picture, we now understand that Biblically, a sinner is someone who is separated from God and has missed the target (His righteousness, Romans 3:23), and not merely someone whose actions are in violation of God’s desires for us.
Who is a Sinner According to the Bible?
Having reviewed what a sinner is, let’s examine who, exactly, the sinners are. Several verses offer us convenient lists of classifications of sinners:
But as varied and comprehensive as these lists are, they are by no means exhaustive.
Further complicating our understanding, the ancients had the same bad habit that we do, using the word “sinner” to refer to certain types of people. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors—as traitors to Israel and perpetrators of Roman oppression—were viewed as sinners (Luke 18:13), as were prostitutes (Luke 7:37-39).
But a full examination of scripture reveals that even if we are not given to personal vices or worldly hostility, each of us is a sinner both by nature and in practice.
And John cautions
What Does the Bible Say About Accepting Sinners?
In light of the reality check that David and John have provided for us, we must reexamine our acceptance—or in some cases, our rejection—of sinners. Because of our own flawed nature, we have a tendency to accept the sins that are easy to overlook, while shunning the more unsavory or egregious sinners.
But the Bible does not instruct us to overlook any sin, nor to exclude sinners wholesale from our lives or our churches. In the midst of his instructions about confronting sin within the church, Paul emphasizes that we are not meant to shut off the sinners of the world from ever coming to know God (1 Corinthians 5:10). If we did, who could possibly be saved?
After all, as Paul reminds the Romans, Jesus did not wait for us to clean up our sin mess before his arrival. Rather, he stepped right into the middle of our mess to deal with our sin himself:
How Did Jesus Treat Sinners?
Just as Jesus died to forgive our sin and reconcile us to God (by removing the relational separation of sin from our lives), his life and interactions with others demonstrated this same love for sinners.
The Tax Collector: In Matthew 9, Jesus called a tax collector, Matthew, to follow him, even while was still stationed at his tax booth and actively engaged in his (sinful) work. In response, Matthew not only accepted Jesus’ invitation, but he called together other tax collectors and ‘sinners’ to hold a feast in Jesus’ honor.
When the religious leaders questioned Jesus’ choice to eat with sinners, he answered them by stating that
The Adulterous Woman: On another occasion, the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to the temple and asked Jesus whether she should be stoned to death, as the law required. Jesus responded to her accusers saying,
One by one, they walked away.
And when only Jesus and the woman remained, he pardoned her, saying
Throughout the gospels, as Jesus interacted with sinners of all sorts, he welcomed their hospitality, accepted their gifts, and most of all, forgave their sins and invited them to repent.
How Are Sinners Dealt With in the Bible?
Jesus himself provides us an example to follow when we confront sin. We tend to gravitate toward the extremes of either judging or excusing sin, but the grace of Jesus does neither. And so he teaches us to exhibit his grace toward others by:
- Acknowledging the reality of sin. Sin is what separates us from God, and it is a problem that Jesus does not ignore. So we must be honest and not minimize or dismiss sin outright.
- Providing a solution to sin. Jesus responds to sin by forgiving. This forgiveness was ultimately completed through his work on the cross. And because our sins have been forgiven and removed, we are called to forgive others (Colossians 3:13).
- Directing sinners to repentance. Forgiveness and repentance are inseparable. When Jesus forgives sinners, he invites them to turn away and leave their sins behind. Paul echoes this call throughout his letters, encouraging believers to put away our sinful nature as we live in the power of Christ (Galatians 5:24-25).
Confronting Sin as Christians
Because sin is part of our reality, and because all believers are sinners saved by grace, from time to time we have to deal with sin in our midst. But like Jesus, we must always maintain a spirit of grace when doing so. And the Bible offers us several important instructions for addressing sinners:
- Start with self-examination. Jesus instructs us to remove the plank from our own eye before addressing the speck in our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5). But this does not mean that we ignore the speck in our brother’s eye. Instead, Jesus wants to ensure that we are prepared to deal with sin properly. Confronting sin is a delicate matter, and if we approach the task unprepared, we might inflict further harm on our brother.
What does the Bible Say about Unrepentant Sinners?
Even if we are careful to follow Jesus’s example and instructions, there is still only so much that we can do to confront and overcome sin. After all, the choices and actions of other people are beyond our control.
And so this means that for the sake of the health of the church and our relationships, if our offers of grace and forgiveness are rejected, then it may be necessary to distance ourselves from the other person until he or she is prepared to repent. Both Jesus (Matthew 18:17) and Paul (1 Corinthians 5:11) acknowledge that this is a possible—and sometimes necessary—outcome.
But we must never lose sight of the fact that our jurisdiction does not and cannot extend to the world. Jesus reminds us that at the final judgment, it will be the angels—not the fishermen—who separate the good catch from the bad (Matthew 13:47-50). Our place is to proclaim the good news of forgiveness and grace to the world as we encourage our brothers and sisters within the church in righteousness and restoration.