Norman Greenbaum’s kitchy ’60s song, Spirit In the Sky is a lot of ’60s-sounding fun. Near the end of it he writes hopefully:

Never been a sinner, I’ve never sinned
I’ve got a friend in Jesus

Unfortunately Norman, I have been a sinner and I have sinned (and my guess is you have too). The good news is we still have a friend in Jesus.

I’ve been thinking about sin lately. No, I don’t mean committing sin. Necessarily. Just about the ways we misunderstand it.

On one hand it is worse than we realize because it is the source of war, starvation, cruelty, poverty, caustic competition, pollution, racism, abuse, etc. and also indirectly brings sadness, separation, insecurity, ignorance, judgementalism, anxiety, etc.

On the other hand, we can also take it too seriously, give it too much credit, as if it is a hopeless battle that we all have to surrender to.

I happened to share the subject of this post with Cheryl and she cautioned me with, ‘[But] I’m not a sinner any more because Jesus took care of it. He washed me white as snow. I do sometimes sin but I’m not classified as a sinner.’  Good point.

Cheryl and I have talked numerous times about some church culture that cultivates a fearful relationship with God. It was life changing for each of us when we came to understand that God is less an angry judge and more a loving parent. To people raised in a conservative religious environment, the belief stamped on our minds is often that we are just one misstep away from damnation. Often our sense is that we need to be rescued from God but the truth is closer to being rescued for God.

There is a delicate balance in Christianity where, on one hand is the reality that we are inherently good and created in God’s image, yet weighted on the other arm of the scale is the reality that we are inherently sinful and intent on creating in our own image.

The result is a lot of black and white thinking: godly versus sinful; saved versus condemned; Christian versus non-Christian; heaven versus hell. Paul famously describes his (our) dilemma in Romans 7:22-23: ‘So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.‘ (In fairness he is more hopeful than that but nevertheless it’s our basic problem.)

The famous American theologian and revivalist Johnathan Edwards is well known for his sermon Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God which draws some pretty terrifying descriptions of how God treats those who don’t run to him. It’s probably fair to say that Edwards’ actual theology was somewhat more gracious than his fear-driven, flames-of-hell sermons but in the early American colonies fire and brimstone preaching was an effective, crowd-moving method.

That’s all fine except, well … the whole thing may not be as biblical or mainstream as you think. More on that in the future. However as someone who has sat through more than my share of sinner sermons, I now find it very freeing to understand it in a different, healthier context: Sure I’m a sinner but that’s not the point.

First of all, lets define sin. Contrary to common belief, sin isn’t just doing bad things like lying, stealing, adulterating (yeah that’s a word), etc. The motivations for those bad actions lurk quietly in the cracks and crevices of our selfish nature. Jesus told us that our hidden motives are just as dangerous as those that are seen, so even our thoughts are captive to good and evil. On one level it’s fair to say that sin is a choice but on another, deeper level, we are actually its helpless victims.

The best definition of sin is simply ‘death’ – a separation from our Creator’s image that dehumanizes us in the present and puts us on a destructive path to the future. The Cross was the ultimate symbol of death but the human Jesus entered that death, experienced it, absorbed it, overcame it and emptied its power on behalf of we who are dead but hoping to live.

Second, and very importantly when it comes to the subject of sin, Jesus was known as a friend of sinners. I mean really, that cannot be overstated. He was vilified by religious leaders because he spent time with – enjoyed spending time with – people commonly known as sinners. Interestingly he didn’t spend energy condemning them – something tells me he found their spiritual hunger and pure honesty to be refreshing and compelling. Who did he condemn? People who didn’t acknowledge their sin.

Is that still true today? Does Jesus still prefer us to meet him as we are, with our hunger and honesty? With our anger, doubts, hurts, warts and sins?

That’s my point: when I say I am a sinner it is in the context of remembering my weakness but also confident that it’s not the main emphasis of my life. Faith in Jesus makes me a new creation. That kind of confidence and comfort only comes through being a friend of God: the Father loves me; the Son understands me; the Spirit helps me.

Note that punishment and fear was not the primary focus of Jesus and the early church. The first sermons aimed at non-believers are recorded in the book of Acts and guess what? No mention of heaven or hell and the rare idea of sin is always presented in the context of forgiveness. The common topic communicated in those sermons? God reconciling with those who are far away.

Look at Jesus’ early mission statement which he read out loud in the synagogue one Sabbath day. Luke 4 records that he stood up, unrolled the scroll and read from Isaiah (61:1):

‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,’

He concludes by rolling up the scroll, intentionally and conspicuously not reading the rest of the quote from Isaiah, ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.‘ 

So remembering that I lam a sinner is a tool in my spiritual toolbox but it is nothing more. It’s healthy to be aware of my sin but confident in God’s grace and love. Because Jesus.

‘If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 
(Psalm 130:3–4, NIV)

To go back to my wife’s earlier words, ‘I do sometimes sin but I’m not classified as a sinner.’ Good theology Cheryl.