Question: "What is a sinner?"
Answer: In the most general sense, a sinner is a person who commits sin (Luke 18:13). The Greek term translated “sinner” in the Bible carries the idea of a person who is “missing the mark,” as in an archer who misses his target. Thus, a sinner is missing God’s mark and is in fact missing the whole point of his or her life.
Ordinarily, we think of a sinner as someone who is severely immoral, evil, or wicked. But the Bible tells us that every person is a sinner: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Through Adam’s original act of disobedience, all human beings inherited a sinful nature (Romans 5:12–14) and were credited with the guilt of Adam’s sin (Romans 5:18). Only Jesus Christ was sinless: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).
In theological terms, it’s correct to understand the word sinner not as a moralistic designation or judgment but, rather, as a relational word. Everyone who is separated from God through sin is a sinner. Sinner defines the broken state of one’s relationship with God. Sinners are those who have broken God’s law (1 John 3:4). Sinners are slaves to sin (John 8:34). They face the judgment of God (Jude 1:14–15). They are on the road to death and destruction (Ezekiel 18:20; James 1:5).
The gap between sinners and God could only be bridged through the Lord’s act of redemption—by God Himself coming to the human side of the gap through Jesus Christ (who is “God with us”) and the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent in His place. On the human side of the divide, the kindest, most virtuous people are sinners, and the vilest, most evil people are sinners as well. All are sinners. But God loves sinners and sent His Son to die for them (Romans 5:8).
Those who believe in Jesus Christ have their sins forgiven and are granted eternal life: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16–17).
The Bible portrays sinners in various states and modes of existence. People who do not live according to the laws of God are considered sinners (Psalm 1). Those who were unfaithful to Israel’s covenant with God and pursued other gods are described as sinners by the prophets (Hosea 1—3).
Religious Jews regarded Gentiles as sinners (Galatians 2:15) as well as anyone who did not keep the traditions and ceremonial prescriptions of the Pharisees. Transgressors who break the law are called sinners in the Bible (1 Timothy 1:9). People stained by certain crimes or vices were viewed as sinners (Luke 15:2; 18:13; 19:7). Sinner was a term used for heathen people (Matthew 26:45), the especially sinful (Galatians 2:17), and women with a bad reputation (Luke 7:37).
When Jesus entered humanity, He challenged the dominating views of His day about sinners, particularly those of the religious elite. Jesus rocked the status quo by sharing close fellowship with sinners: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1–2). The Pharisees in turn accused Jesus of being a sinner (John 9:24).
Christ’s mission on earth, His fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose, was the restoration and salvation of sinners. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17; see also 1 Timothy 1:15). Nothing brings more joy to the Lord’s heart or more rejoicing in heaven than when a sinner is restored to right relationship with God (Luke 15:7, 10).
As sinners, we all miss the mark. We all stand guilty as charged: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Sin—rebellion against God, disobedience, the violation of God’s law—must be punished. Sinners cannot pay the penalty of sin without perishing, because the punishment required is death (Romans 6:23). Only Jesus Christ’s sinless, spotless perfection hits the divine mark. Christ has made the full payment for sin. Through His death on the cross, Jesus satisfied God’s justice, perfectly vindicating and freeing from condemnation all sinners who receive Him by faith (Romans 3:25).