Clarification is necessary when it comes to the use of the word sinner(s) in the New Testament. Sometimes the word is used to refer to a group/class of people who live in obvious rebellion to God’s word. At other times it is used to refer to those who live in subjection to God’s will, but who momentarily or inadvertently stray. And as if that were not enough, sometimes the word is used simply to refer to the fact that all of us sin from time to time, and hence, we are all sinners by that definition. As we proceed with this study, we will examine some usages of the word sinner(s) in the New Testament.
James wrote his little five-chapter book to “…the twelve tribes that were scattered abroad,” an apparent reference to spiritual Israel (believers in Jesus Christ; see James 1.1). He used the term “brethren” to address his readers on at least fifteen occasions in his epistle, again alluding to the fact that he and his readers professed a common faith (see James 2.1). Yet, the closing two verses of his letter refer to some of his brethren as erring brothers and as sinners. Note these two verses: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 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.” (James 5.19-20). These verses illustrate that fact that sometimes the word sinner is used to refer to believers who momentarily and/or inadvertently stray from the pathway of truth.
Paul once wrote: “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.” (1 Timothy 1.15). It is significant that Paul did not say, “Of whom I was chief…;” rather, he affirmed that his status as a sinner continued even up to the time he wrote. He doubtless remembered his actions as an unrepentant persecutor of the church, but that was years earlier; his lament to Timothy was in the present and not merely in the past. It is probable that he could never forget his past. As evidence of that he wrote, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15.9). Similarly, he stated, “To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,” (Ephesians 3.8). According to Paul’s own estimate, he was “the least of the apostles,” “less than the least of all the saints,” and the chief of sinners.
When we consider how God treats sinners, we cannot leave out believers; for we too transgress God’s law from time to time; we too are sinners. We will continue these thoughts as we urge you to continue considering these most vital matters.
As a closing thought, I challenge each reader to consider: “When was the last time you addressed yourself to God in prayer and admitted your own sinful ways?” I know for me it is not frequent enough. As indicated earlier, I don’t like to think of myself in those terms, but reality is reality! If Paul found it necessary to identify himself as the chief of sinners, I am forced to my knees as I consider what I must be in that regards!
1. To whom did James write? What term of spiritual kinship did he frequently use?
2. From the context of James 5.19-20, who were the sinners that could be converted by exhortation from their brethren?
3. What is the tense of the verb where Paul states that he is or was the chief of sinners?
4. What should Paul’s recognition of his weaknesses cause us to do regarding our estate?
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