Larry Kirkpatrick

A Positive Place on the Web for the Third Angel's Message

All our Righteousnesses, part 1

Today we begin a short new series: "All our Righteousnesses." Can humans have any righteousness? What is righteousness? Is everything we do tainted? Is any of what we do meritorious? What is and is not sin? Are we born sinners?

The starting place is always, What does the Bible teach? We find the word "sinner" or "sinners" more than 60 times in the Bible. Perhaps we have assumed we are born sinners. But let us turn to these texts and see what they say.

Sinners: Earliest Occurrences

The first occurrence of our study topic in Scripture is Genesis 13:13:

"now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord."

Next, 1 Samuel 15:18 says that God sent King Saul to destroy sinners--that is, Amalekites.

In Genesis, God's own are never described by the word "sinner."

Sinners in the Wisdom Books

We move now to consider sinner in the wisdom literature (books like Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes).

Psalm 1:5 says that sinners will not stand in the congregation of the righteous. To hear some, one might be led to think there could not even be a congregation of the righteous. The psalmist knows nothing of such a viewpoint. Rather, here, one wishing to follow God is pointedly informed there are sinners and there are righteous. The righteous will prosper; the wicked will perish.

In Psalm 25 God instructs sinners. We are to plead for Him to instruct us (vv. 4, 5, 8, 9, 12). If sinners can be instructed there is hope. In Psalm 26 David pleads not to be destroyed with sinners (v. 9). In Psalm 51:13 sinners can return to God.

Psalm 104's 35 verses speak mostly of His watchcare over His creation. In verses 33 and 34 the psalmist sings praise to God and seeks thoughts pleasing to God. In 35 he requests that sinners "be consumed from the earth." The Psalmist does not class himself with those who would be destroyed.

Proverbs continues contrasting sinners and righteous. Proverbs' first chapter warns not to engage in wicked activities with sinners. The word "sinners" reappears again at 11:31 with the question, "If the righteous will be rewarded in the earth, how much more the wicked and the sinner!" All will unfailingly receive judgment according to the decisions they have made, appropriate to their case.

Proverbs 13:21-22 contrasts the sinner and the righteous:

Adversity pursues sinners, but the righteous will be rewarded with prosperity. A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, and the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.

Proverbs 14:21 points out that if you abandon your neighbor, you are a sinner, but if you help him, you are generous. And 23.17 counsels us not to envy sinners, but to "live in the fear of the Lord always."

Ecclesiastes repeatedly contrasts sinner and righteous, as in 2:26; 7:26; 8:12. In 9:2 we discover one fate for the righteous and for the sinner: both will die the first death. In 9:18 one sinner destroys much good.

It becomes clear very quickly as we work through these passages that there are sinners and there are righteous. There are those who persist in sin and those who repent of sin; those who in God's strength do what is right, and those who in human strength do what is sin. Onward now to "sinners" in the prophets.

Sinners in the Prophets

Our word appears in Isaiah and in Amos. Isaiah 1:27-28 contrasts righteous and sinners:

Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness. But transgressors and sinners will be crushed together, and those who forsake the Lord will come to an end.

In Isaiah 13:9 the day of the lord will see sinners destroyed. In 33:14-16 the sinners in Zion are afraid but the person who walks righteously will dwell with God. In 65:20 old sinners are cursed.

In Amos 9:10 it is prophesied that God will shake His people and "All the sinners of My people will die by the sword."

In the prophets, then, just as everywhere else, we have two classes: the repentant and the unrepentant, the righteous and the sinner.

Sinners in the Gospels

In the gospels we have the phrase "tax collectors and sinners" seven times. The main incident is recounted in Matthew 9:10-13, Mark 2:15-17, and Luke 5:29-32. In Matthew 9:6 Jesus calls Matthew Levi, tax collector, as a disciple. Jesus goes to eat at Matthew's house. He makes connections with several other tax collectors. The Pharisees are scandalized and ask why Jesus is interacting with hated tax collectors. Jesus' response?

It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:12-13).

The self-satisfied thought themselves better than others. Their hearts were closed to Jesus' work. His mission was for those willing to receive. Jesus came to save sinners, fallen humans willing to return to God.

A sinner is a person who has chosen to act in rebellion toward God. Whether very conservative or very liberal, no matter who he is, if he has acted against God he is a sinner. Many of the tax collectors repented and many of the Pharisees did not. Who were the greater sinners?

Tax collectors and sinners, to the Pharisees, constituted the "not us" class. They saw themselves as righteous. This was the disasterous, insulating poison in which they were encompassed. They were blinded by a misapprehension. They credited themselves as being the bearers of a fundamental goodness. But the tax collectors and sinners who were listening and responding to Jesus were closer to God than they were.

At the end of His ministry Jesus says He is being betrayed into the hands of sinners (Matthew 26:45; Mark 14:41). Who were those sinners? Judas, the mob, the Sanhedrin, the high priest. These had united against God. They had chosen the identity of rebel for themselves.

Jesus was accused of being self indulgent because His disciples did not fast and because He sought to win tax collectors and other Jews (Luke 7:31-35; Matthew 11:16-19). He went forward regardless of those attempts to damage His influence.

Luke has some unique bits.

Luke 6:27-36 is a powerful passage. Jesus challenges His hearers by showing that even sinners love those who love them. Even sinners often reciprocate with good behavior. But what sets apart the true disciple from the sinner? Verses 35 and 36:

Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful.

Here then is what differentiates the sinner from the repentent sinner. It's a sore spot, isn't it? Because I agree with Jesus. It's not so difficult to reciprocate kindness to kindness, to lend to those who lend to me. But to be kind to evil men, deep down I have some resistance to that. And yet, if I would be like Jesus, that is where I am going.

At Luke 13:1-5 Jesus warns His hearers not to jump to the conclusion that certain Galileans were worse sinners than others because of the indignity of their murder and their blood being mixed with the blood of their sacrifices at Pilate's vile order. Nor, says Jesus, were the 18 individuals upon whom the tower of Siloam fell particularly worse than others in Jerusalem. Jesus warns do not leap to that conclusion. Rather, the lesson to be drawn is that humans have the universal need to repent (13:3, 5).

In Luke 15 we find the phrase "tax collectors and sinners" again. The chapter is about God's working to save the lost. Verse seven: "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance." Are just persons who need no repentance lost? No, they've already repented, they are already saved, there has already been special joy in heaven over them. God rejoices when sinners turn to Him.

Luke 18:13 rejoices at the tax collector who stands at the back of the temple shamed yet repentant, who admits his guilt and repents!

Luke 19:1-10 tells the story of Zaccheus, one of our tax collectors, "a man who is a sinner" (verse 7). But Zaccheus repents of his fraud and turns to God. Each specific case is of sinners who repent.

John's gospel uses the word sinners in chapter nine only. After being healed by Jesus, the healed is asked at 9:16 how Jesus can do such signs if He is a sinner? The remainder of the chapter describes conflict regarding the man born blind. The officials ask the healed man to give glory to God the Father rather than to Jesus whom they claim "is a sinner" (v. 24). The formerly blind man refuses to draw that conclusion, pointing instead to Jesus who restored his sight (vv. 31-33). Finally, the formerly blind is cast out of the synagogue as a person born under God's curse.

But Ellen White draws the right lessons in this paragraph from The Desire of Ages, p. 475:

The manifestation of divine power that had given to the blind man both natural and spiritual sight had left the Pharisees in yet deeper darkness. Some of His hearers, feeling that Christ's words applied to them, inquired, 'Are we blind also?' Jesus answered, 'If ye were blind, ye should have no sin.' If God had made it impossible for you to see the truth, your ignorance would involve no guilt. 'But now ye say, We see.' You believe yourselves able to see, and reject the means through which alone you could receive sight. To all who realized their need, Christ came with infinite help. But the Pharisees would confess no need; they refused to come to Christ, and hence they were left in blindness,--a blindness for which they were themselves guilty. Jesus said, 'Your sin remaineth.'

Guilt is the result of willful blindness. Sin is the result of rebellion acted-out.

Sinners in the Non-Pauline Epistles

Now consider mentions of "sinner" in the non-Pauline epistles James, 1 Peter, and Jude.

In James 4:8 sinners are called to "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded." If they do this, God promises to exalt them. In 5:20 we are told "he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins."

First Peter repeats the warning from Proverbs 11:31 if the righteous barely are saved, what then shall be the end of the sinner? Finally, Jude 15 tells of God's judgment against sinners for unfair things they have said about God.

That's everything but Paul, and so far, it is universal and consistent. From among fallen humans, there are righteous, and there are sinners. Unless we are all wrong, Paul will agree with all other inspired writers.

Sinners in Paul

In this last section we start in Galatians and finish at Romans.

At Galatians 2:14-15 Paul detected the hypocracy of Peter and Barnabas:

When I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, 'If you, being a Jew live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles.'

As we all know, Paul's argument in Galatians is that the gospel to the Gentiles has been committed to him while the gospel to the Jews was committed to Peter and the other apostles. But Paul argues from his own Judaism that Jewish ethnicity does not save. Righteousness--right-doing--doesn't come through through Judaism or through personal obedience, but as a gift from Jesus. Jews are no more saved by Jewishness than Gentiles are saved by works. Salvation is via God's covenant promise to Abraham. Salvifically, all are trapped at the same level of need, and Christ is our only hope no matter our situation in life. In Galatians the theme of Jewish superiority is carefully dissolved. The whole of the creation is impacted by sin--humans and potatos. Jews also are found to be sinners needing Jesus.

In 1 Timothy chapter one Paul gives counsel to preserve the Church from false teachers. Many, it seems, were ready to present themselves but they were false teachers. The law was made for sinners, says Paul. There is nothing wrong with it; it was designed to reveal and condemn the wicked. He recalls his own violence and sin and regards himself as the worst of the worst. The mission of Jesus in 1:15 is to "save sinners." Saving sinners never means setting aside truth but it does require that error be set aside.

In Hebrews 7:26 Jesus is declared to be separate from sinners. In 12:3 Jesus endured hostility from sinners in order to save sinners. Jesus is separate from sinners in that He never chose to sin, never became a sinner, never repented of sin, never executed sin. He is not separate in the humanity He took, for Hebrews states "He Himself likewise also partook of the same" and "He had to be made like His brethren in all things" (Hebrews 2:14, 17).

And finally, to Romans.

At Romans 3:7 Paul asks, if human moral failure demonstrates that God is righteous, why then is he and are all other humans judged to be sinners when they act against God? Jews and Greeks have all chosen to disobey God. They have thus sinned. Not only are all condemned for their own actual rebellion, but God is ready to save all; He is the God of the Jews and Gentiles (Romans 3:29). He is the Savior of all men who are willing to be saved (1 Timothy 4:10).

Romans 5:8 tells us that while we were still sinners--while we were still walking in opposition to Him, Christ died for us. This means everyone: Jews, Greeks, Scots, Brits, Hispanics, Japanese and Africans!

Some could be curious at Romans 5:18-19:

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so, through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

Referring to the first Adam's choice to sin, through that one transgression, the result was that all people would be condemned. And yet, the Bible is very clear: guilt is always personal. Adam's sin was Adam's choice. Our sins are our choices. Our sin is linked somehow to Adam's sin but we don't learn the mechanism here.

The next line helps: "Even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men." This refers to Jesus, the second Adam. Jesus' death on the cross atones for sin--the sin of every person who accepts Jesus' atonement for him. But as all men who would be lost must embrace the sin of the first Adam, so all men who would be saved must embrace the righteousness of the second Adam. Jesus makes possible justification of life for all men.

These propositions are restated in Paul's next line:

For as through one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so, through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous."

We are linked to the first Adam. We are "made sinners" when we link ourselves to him, when we choose to embrace his act of rebellion and join him in our own active rebellion. Likewise, we are linked to the second Adam, Jesus, when we choose to embrace His life of obedience offered to the Father at the cross. When we embrace His life, we will be made righteous.

One helpful explanation for this is given by David Weaver (who does not believe in "original sin"):

The passage of sin can be likened to the motion imparted from one object to another through collision, like billiard balls on a table. Properly speaking, motion is not a quality of the ball, but something external to it, yet it determines the ball's behavior, and can be transmitted to it by another ball. . . [sin] is like the motion, which is capable of affecting the billiard ball because of the nature of the ball, but whose transmission is extrinsic to the nature of the ball itself. . . [Adam's sin] may be truly regarded as the source of sin, as the initial action which provoked and initiated a whole series of chain reactions (David Weaver, "The Exegesis of Romans 5:12 Among the Greek Fathers and its Implication for the Doctrine of Original Sin: The 5th-12th Centuries, part II," St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, 1985, pp. 148, 149).

There is a sense in which Adam's sin initiates a series of chain reactions. But the sins that follow Adam's sin, are, just as Adam's was, chosen sins. Had Adam not sinned, we would not have inherited weakness. But because of his sin, we inherit a distorted human nature. Our humanity was damaged through His rebellion.

And so, we are not born sinners, but we are born ready to become sinners. Then we all make an intentional choice. Then we have become broken sinners, damaged rebels.

But here is hope:

"It is the Spirit that makes effectual what has been wrought out by the world's Redeemer. It is by the Spirit that the heart is made pure. Through the Spirit the believer becomes a partaker of the divine nature. Christ has given His Spirit as a divine power to overcome all hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil, and to impress His own character on His Church" (God's Amazing Grace, p. 193).


Today's message covered an enormous ground. We looked at every passage of substance which included the word "sinner." Nowhere in Scripture did we find being a sinner to be about our human nature, but in every case, being a sinner is about the fatal choice all of us make to become intentional rebels against God. Thank God, if we are willing, He "puts enmity" back after we have made our fatal choice. The choice is still fatal; Jesus takes our penalty for us and dies on the cross.

No one is born a sinner. Yet all become sinners. Everyone who can hear and understand my voice, at some time, decided to fight God. You, we, are all sinners. And sinners can only be saved by God's grace. There is nothing in today's message to lull anyone to sleep or to take away responsibility. Rather, our excuses are stripped away. We are responsible for our choices. Divine power is made available to us by Jesus that He might remake us overcomers.

You can probably think of several texts we have not looked at yet. When next we continue this series, we may turn to the very texts you have in mind. Up next is our series' title text from Isaiah 64 as we continue to study "All our righteousnesses."


Chewelah WA SDA 2018-06-30