Sinners in the Presence of a Loving Savior

When the word “sinners” is mentioned today among Christians, what first comes to mind might very well be that famous sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards in 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The word in English has a harsh tone, and one that is probably avoided in many seeker-sensitive approaches to ministry. But who were the “sinners” in Jesus’ day, and how was the word used in that culture and context?

For ceremonial cleansing, worshipers would descend into the mikvot down one side of the steps and would ascend afterwards up the other side.
Sinners in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament the sinner, who lives his life in opposition to the will of God, is contrasted with the righteous person, who loves God’s Law and seeks to live accordingly. Psalm 1 illustrates this well, where “sinner” is in parallel with “the wicked” (vv. 1, 5). In later Judaism “sinner” became a technical term for the Gentile, by virtue of the fact that he was not a Jew and failed to regulate his life according to the Law.[1]

In Jesus’ day the word was not restricted to describing Gentiles only but had a wide range of meanings. A sinner could be described as one who committed a trespass or transgression, or one who was disobedient or unrighteous. A sin could be described as “impiety,” “wickedness,” “evil,” or “a debt.” The general view among Jews and Christians in the biblical period was that everyone has sinned in the sense of having committed a sin at some time or other.[2] Thus, anyone of our mug shots could be used as Exhibit A to illustrate this word study! But in terms of the Old Testament polar opposites of the sinner versus the righteous, the average Jew probably considered himself to fall somewhere in between.[3]

Sinners in the Gospels

When we look at the word “sinner” in the Gospels, it seems that the word may have taken on a narrower or more specific connotation. Of the forty-seven occurrences of hamartolos in the New Testament, thirty-three of these are found in the four Gospels. Luke has the most occurrences (18) found in ten stories, eight of which are unique to Luke.[4] Mark’s 6 occurrences are also found either in Matthew, Luke, or both.[5] Likewise the 5 occurrences in Matthew are not unique to the first Gospel but are in those parts of Matthew that overlap with Mark and Luke.[6] John’s Gospel has the least number of occurrences of hamartolos, 4, and they all occur in the story of Jesus’ healing the man born blind.[7]

Bar mitzvah rites at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Many of the men wear a phylactery, tallit (prayer shawl), and kippah (skull cap). Adherence to religious ritual was an indicator of one’s righteousness in Jesus’ day.
Sinners according to the Pharisees

Since the idea of “sinner” is a somewhat relative term, it is helpful to see who is calling whom a sinner in the Gospel accounts. It is commonly understood that the Pharisees’ use of “sinner” was the broadest. Anyone who did not keep the Jewish Law as rigorously as they did could be relegated to this category. The uneducated common people were said to be ignorant of the Law, or at least its proper interpretation and application. So “sinners” from the pharisaical perspective included not only the Gentiles, but fellow Jews as well who were lax in following the minutia of the oral law alongside the regulations in Scripture (Mk 7:1-5; Mt 15:1-2, 12).

In addition, it seems that the religious elite may have used “sinners” to describe people engaged in despised trades. The tag name “friend of tax collectors and sinners” has a ring of contempt when voiced by Jesus’ enemies to describe those with whom He freely socialized (Mt 11:19). This judgment to group tax collectors with sinners was likely shared by all the people who suffered under the burden of the tax system.[8] Other “occupations” were also included in the sinner category as we see prostitutes linked with tax collectors in Matthew 21:31. People who worked in trades that led to immorality or dishonesty were generally considered “sinners.” And this was likely a wide-spread opinion held by the Jewish people of Jesus’ day.[9]

Jesus and “Sinners”

The amazing thing about Jesus is that these “sinners” were the very people He was drawn to and who were drawn to Him! The Pharisees, naturally, accused Jesus of being guilty by association. How could He possibly remain ritually pure by being in such close proximity to those everyone agreed were sinners? It is also likely that many people took offense that Jesus called one of these “sinners” to be his disciple—a tax collector (Mt 9:9f)! The dinner with tax collectors and other sinners was equally repugnant to the more religiously restrictive (Mt 9:10-11). But we get the sense that Jesus wore this nametag “friend of sinners” as a badge of honor.

The religious elite in Jesus’ day excluded sinners, including those they determined stood under God’s judgment: for example, the physically disabled and handicapped or people suffering from a variety of diseases. Jesus called unto Himself all who were weary and burdened—the forsaken and rejected, the disenfranchised. Those the Pharisees considered unworthy of inclusion among the people of God were offered full salvation by Jesus. It was the sick who needed a doctor, not those who were well (Mt 9:12-13). He came for the very purpose of calling the most sinful classes of people to Himself. Yes, these were sinful individuals and they knew it; and they recognized their need for a Savior.[10]

Sinners according to Jesus

Herein lies another of the great ironies of Jesus’ interchange with the Pharisees. The self-diagnosed Pharisees thought they were healthy and in no need of a doctor (cf. Jn 9:39-41). It is to these self-deluded religious leaders that Jesus delivered his most scathing critique. He called them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, and brood of vipers (Mt 23:13, 16, 27, 33)! They may have looked like a clean cup on the outside, but inside they were full of greed and self-indulgence (v. 25). They were barred from entering the kingdom of God, while those they called “sinners” took their place (Mt 21:31-32).

Jesus uses “sinners” to describe another related group. In Matthew 26:45 Jesus announced that He was about to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. This mob came at the bidding of the chief priests, scribes, and elders (cf. Mk 14:43). They are considered by Jesus to be sinners because they oppose the work of God as it is demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus.[11] This is similar to Jesus’ description of the “adulterous and sinful generation” that rejected God’s offer of salvation (Mk 8:38; cf. Mt 11:20-24). For Jesus, “sinner” was not defined by lack of adherence to religious practices but described anyone who was opposed to the will and work of God. Regardless of a person’s background, once he or she has repented and made a commitment to follow Jesus, that individual became His disciple. No one was out of reach of God’s mercy. Though this was a threat to the very foundation and way of life of sectarian Jews, it was the heart of the gospel message.[12]

Jonathan Edwards was right to point out that it is only by God’s mercy that all of us have not already been cast into the lake of fire to be punished for our sinfulness. Christ calls each one of us to repent and turn from our sinful deeds. And amazingly enough He stands ready to receive all who cry out to Him in faith regardless of our background or past history.


[1] K. H. Rengstorf, hamartolosTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 326.

[2] E. P. Sanders, “Sin, Sinners” (NT), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 41.

[3] See the Old Testament designation concerning sins of ignorance (Leviticus 4:2, 5:17).

[4] The occurrences of hamartolos that are unique to Luke are 5:8; 6:32, 33, 34 (2x); 7:37, 39; 13:2; 15:1, 2, 7, 10; 18:13; 19:7. The occurrence of hamartolos in 24:7 is unique to Luke though the passage has parallels in Mk and Mt.

[5] Mk 2:15, 16 (2x), 17 (Mt 9:10, 11, 13; Lk 5:30, 32); Mk 14:41 (Mt 26:45). “Sinner” is also found in Mk 8:38, a passage that is paralleled in Mt 16:26-27 and Lk 9:26, though the word does not occur in those two passages.

[6] Mt 9:10, 11, 13 (Mk 2:15, 16 (2x), 17; Lk 5:30, 32); Mt 26:45 (Mk 14:41); Mt 11:19 (Lk 7:34)

[7] Jn 9:16, 24, 25, 31.

[8] It is debated as to whether the offence came from viewing tax collectors as collaborators with the Roman overlords or as cheats and thieves. Note that neither John the Baptist nor Jesus condemned men who served  in this occupation. The exhortation of the Baptist was that they should not collect more than what the law required (Lk 3:12-13). For further insight into “tax collector” see O. Michel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 88-105.

[9] J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), 109-110. Other despised trades included gamblers, loan sharks, herdsmen, and tanners. See aJmartwlovV in Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 51-52.

[10] Lk 18:13; 15:21

[11] M. J. Wilkins, “Sinner” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 759.

[12] Ibid., 760.

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