First published 10 January 2012
When we say, “nobody’s perfect!” we are normally trying to find an excuse for something we have done wrong. But at the same time we all know that it’s true. We know that we have faults as individuals, and we know that everyone has different faults. We disappoint ourselves with the mess we make sometimes, and others disappoint us too.
The Bible gives the reason that this is universally true and not just an exasperated exaggeration. We sin because we are sinful, not the other way around. We are not made sinful by the sins we commit. We commit sins because we are already sinful. Human nature is corrupt and therefore we all tend to do things that are wrong. Of course, it is also true that our sins tend to further corrupt us and that we can wreck our lives by getting into sinful habits. But my point is that none of us can escape sin. Our nature is corrupt.
It all stems from Adam and Eve, the original human beings. They disobeyed God, and were punished, and their condemnation comes down on the whole of the human race (read more in Genesis chapter 3). This is taught most clearly in Romans 5:12-21. Paul says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [i.e. Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned – for sin was indeed in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam…” In other words, since death was the consequence of sin, sin must have been universal in the world from Adam onwards, even though the Ten Commandments and written law of God were not given until thousands of years later. Sin is still sin even if it does not arise from transgressing an explicit command (like the transgression of Adam).
Paul continues, “… many died through one man’s trespass… the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation… because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man… as one trespass led to condemnation for all men… by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”
Because of this, as Paul says earlier in the letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
So when Christians talk about equality of human beings, we are not just talking about being equally created – created equal and being equally responsible. We also mean that we are equally sinners.
This can seem harsh, because we have to say in all honesty that no-one in the whole world, except for Jesus Christ, is or has been perfect. And God’s standards are perfect, because they arise out of His own perfections. God’s purpose in creating the universe was to show His power, wisdom, beauty, perfection and love. But rather than following His purpose we have gone our own way. Adam and Eve’s sin was not fundamentally about a piece of fruit. It was about seeking their own pleasure and trying to set their own direction, rather than following that of their Creator.
There are obviously specific rules which people trip over – whether that be lying, gossiping, cheating, having an affair with a married man, getting unnecessarily angry, killing an unborn baby, assisting an old or disabled person to commit suicide or offending people with the language you use. But these outward actions occur because they spring from a sinful heart – a heart that is basically selfish and self-centred and does not love God above everything. And everyone has a sinful, selfish, self-centred heart. If we were honest we would acknowledge that. The foundation of all that we do is actually our own pleasure, and not the pleasure of God. But that’s the reason why we say that we are all equally sinners, even if some don’t exhibit obvious outward sins. Nice people are sinners too!
That’s something that some non-religious people also need to take note of when they accuse Christians of victimising them for their sins. And it is something that Christians need to be better at articulating. Nice people are sinners too! It is not just murderers, not just fraudsters, drug dealers and rapists. Respectable people are sinners too, because at their core they are self-centred and refuse to acknowledge God or follow His purposes and His rules.
In fact, let’s be explicit. Christians are sinners too. A lot of people who are not Christians think they are giving a great rebuttal when they point to our flaws, failings and sins. But far from disproving our gospel it actually emphasises the point! We know we are sinful. We know we are internally corrupt. We are human and therefore that’s what we are. We are ashamed of it, we don’t like it, we pray for the strength to be less so. But we are equally sinners along with the rest of humanity.
Note that I didn’t say we are all equally sinful – some sins are worse than others, as defined by God’s law; and some people, therefore, sin more than others (more frequently, more seriously, more brazenly). Some people are more sinful than others. But we are all equally sinners – we are all sinful.
If you are not a Christian this may leave you wondering why morality matters so much if every person who has ever lived (apart from Jesus) has been brought down by it. But this is the road that you must travel in order to understand Christianity. It will take another two or three chapters to fully explain this.