The Convenient Vagueness of Being A “Sinner”

“I’ve sinned,” a pastor admits from the pulpit.  “I’m a sinner just like you.”

“Honey,” a Christian woman says to her friend, “I’ve been where you are.  We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

“I’m a sinner,” the Christian announces on Twitter to anyone willing to listen. “Just a good-for-nothing sinner saved by grace.”

One of the world’s most common complaints about Christians is that they are hypocrites: people who pretend to be perfect when they’re really not.  And the common response to that complaint by Christians might be summed up thusly: “Nuh-uh!  We never said we were perfect!  We all admit we’re sinners!”

But can we be honest for a minute and admit that confessing yourself as a “sinner” can be an easy and convenient confession to make?  “Sinner” is a vague term.  It’s different than “liar” or “manipulator” or “gossiper” or “adulterer” or “backbiter” (all of which people confess to with much less frequency).  Rather than summon up a specific sort of wickedness, the identity of “sinner” sort of covers all believers in an amorphous, harmless-sounding black blob of imperfection.

It’s easy to call yourself a sinner as a shorthand to mean “hey, I’m not perfect.”  But it’s far harder to confess to the actual sin.  To talk about who you are when you aren’t Christlike.  To admit what imperfection looks like when it crops up in your own life.  Real sin causes estrangement, shame, guilt, and desperation.  Sin, more than anything else, exposes us for what we are: struggling creatures incapable of righteousness and closeness to God.  But how many of us are willing to reveal that when we make our blithe admission that we’re sinners saved by grace?  Are they just words, or do our actions and attitudes back up our admission of who we are?

I suspect that in the eyes of non-believers, Christian hypocrisy crops up somewhere between our easy admission that “we’re all sinners!” and the seriousness of what it means to be a redeemed sinner.  Redeemed sinners ought to be desperately grateful for their salvation and their redemption from sin: because they have been forgiven much, they love much.  They would never dream of looking down on anyone else because they remember where they just came from; they’re aware of their own tendencies to failure; and though they strive to be better and godlier every day, they remain keenly aware of how we’re all only a step from falling back into old habits, patterns, and temptations.

But I’m not sure non-believers always see that in self-confessed sinners.  And if we’re not careful, calling ourselves “sinners saved by grace” can be just another act of lip service, a codeword that means “I’m not perfect, but I’m better than you.”  It can be a convenient way to say “I’m just like you!” without ever meaning that at all, or, worse, an assertion of superiority: “You’re a sinner, but I’m a sinner saved by grace.”

We’d do well to remember that the difference between the two can be chalked up to no particular merit on our end.  The greatest antidote to claims of hypocrisy is not to claim over and over that you are a sinner saved by grace, but to live like one: with desperate grace, depthless humility toward others, and a life defined by the awareness of where you would otherwise be without God’s love.

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