*Re-post from December of 2015, text unedited.
“I’m just a sinner.”
You may have heard it before. Sometimes they add a qualifier to the end, such as, “…saved by grace” or “…in need of a Savior.” On the surface, it sounds pious and humble. Such sayings are often innocent attempts at being accepting of each other’s flaws or sometimes less innocent attempts of minimizing our flaws. In general, I’m fine with it. I understand the basic idea and point. However, the more I’ve chewed on the underlying idea, the more it tastes rotten.
Romans 6 has this rhetorical question: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Paul then goes on to explain in Romans 6:6-14:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Notice Paul’s language: “brought to nothing,” “set free from sin,” “consider yourselves dead to sin,” “let not sin reign,” “sin will have no dominion.” Jesus met sin head on and killed it. For the Apostle Paul, you saying, “I’m a sinner” would have been outrageous! I’m half convinced he would grab you, shake you, and scream, “NO!” By using such a cliche description of ourselves, we are not only cheapening the work of Christ but we are refusing it. We are not just sinners. We like to talk about the “sinful nature” and there is a discussion for that, but here Paul doesn’t acknowledge it as some dualistic persona that exists in our sub-conscience. He emphatically claims that we are free from it and are to no longer live in it. Yes, we will screw up, hence the reason he gives us the imperative to stop letting sin reign in our body. Yet, he gives us this command not because sin is our second nature but precisely because it is not. The problem is our thinking: “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Living Jesus requires us to align our identity away not in sin but to what God has claimed we are. It is already true, we just need to trust it and live in it.
Paul goes on to build on the metaphor of slavery to make the point that we are no longer slaves to sin so we should stop acting like we have to obey it. On paper, this sounds good and I agree with it. Yet, phrases like, “I just couldn’t help it” or “That’s just who I am” that slip out of my mouth tell me that, while I looked at the mirror of Scripture, I forgot who I actually am. I return to the dead corpse of an old master, still buried 6 feet deep. Romans 6:14 reminds me of what God spoke to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7, emphasis mine). I wonder if this is what God has been up to all along, because, from the very beginning, God has said, “Do not let sin rule over you.”
Paul goes on into chapter 7 to use a first-person metaphor of the inner struggle we are all aware of: doing what we don’t want to do, and not doing that which we want to do. He then says, “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:20). Paul describes sin not as a part of who we are but as antithetical to who we are. Sin’s ultimate work is to convince us that we are something we are not. This is why Adam and Eve “realized” they were naked. It is not that we were blissfully unaware of their nakedness before eating of the fruit but, rather, that they were now ashamed of their nakedness. In fact, the reason they are fearful and hide when God shows up is not that they broke God’s command but that they were naked.
And this is what sin has led us to believe, that our naked selves must be covered and hid. So we do. We cover ourselves with beauty, humor, intelligence, strength, and talents while we hide behind fame, success, degrees, careers, fortune, art, friends, family, circumstances, and, even, religion. We blame others for our condition and hide in our victim-hood. We ignore our faults and publicly attack the faults of others. Terrified of our nakedness, we fight and we flee. All the while, God is asking, “Where are you?” not “What are you?”