What makes a person a sinner? This is a most important question. As we have said before, we cannot properly approach the issue of victory over sin unless we understand what we are up against.
Let us approach this question honestly, with sincere and humble hearts. I am not expecting you to believe what David Clayton says, I am not asking you to believe what the Adventist pioneers said, but the Bible is another matter altogether. If you will not believe what the Bible says, then your honesty really has to be questioned.
A friend of mine is always careful to make a distinction between eisegesis and exegesis. The Online dictionary defines both words in the following way:
eisegesis - personal interpretation of a text (especially of the Bible) using your own ideas.
exegesis - “to draw the meaning out of” a given text. Exegesis may be contrasted with eisegesis, which means to read one's own interpretation into a given text. In general, exegesis presumes an attempt to view the text objectively, while eisegesis implies more subjectivity.
In seeking to answer this question of what makes a person a sinner, we are going to be very careful to do two things. One, to use the Bible, a source with which no Christian may argue, and two, to be very careful to apply the rules of exegesis rather than eisegesis.
Before proceeding let me say this: The word sinner in its most basic meaning as we have come to understand it, signifies one who is committing sin, or one who has committed sin (sin – er). Many of us would insist that a person cannot be classified as a sinner unless he has personally participated in an act of sin. Can it be correct to describe a person as a sinner just because the person was born in a sinful condition and before the person has committed even one sinful act? Perhaps it is just a matter of how we define words but the important question is, what does the Bible say? Are we safe in using the definitions and the wording of the Bible? It seems to me that since we are speaking of a biblical issue, it is only reasonable that we look to the Bible to determine which words are proper to use. Sure, we are sinners because we transgress the law – because we commit acts of sin. But can we honestly say that this is the only condition under which the Bible describes us as sinners? Let us apply the principles of proper exegesis and see if we can arrive at an honest answer.
We must be born again
Most of us have no problem with the idea that children are born with a “fallen, sinful nature.” That is too obvious to deny and besides, the term “sinful nature” does not sound too awful and we often limit it only to what we inherited on the bodily, physical level. But what about the words, “depraved,” “corrupt” and “evil?” Are these words too terrible to stamp upon an innocent child? The question is, are they a true description of the child's state? Is not this the natural condition of every single person outside of Christ from the very moment of birth? In denying this do we deny the word of God and the reality of our experience? But let us go further. What about the words, “hopeless,” “condemned,” “lost?” Surely this cannot be the state of a newborn child who has never himself committed a sinful act!
To understand this issue properly, we must look at mankind as it would be outside of Christ's work and influence. If the punishment for man's sin had not been immediately placed upon Christ, how long would Adam have lived after eating of the forbidden fruit? He would not have lived another day. His probation would have been closed and all of us would have perished in Him. In other words, his condemnation included us. But even though Adam was granted a life of probation and consequently was able to father children, what legacy did he pass on to those children? In what condition were they born? Were they born with Adam's original heritage when he was created, or were they born with the heritage of the fallen Adam? Furthermore, were they born with only a fallen physical nature or were they also spiritually fallen at birth?
Jesus declared that no man can see the kingdom of God except he is born again of the spirit (John 3:3,5). Let us not ignore these Scriptures. Without this new birth, what is the natural state of all men? The truth is, without this new birth, all men are hopeless, lost, condemned. If, as Jesus said, such persons cannot see the kingdom of heaven then can we deny that all such are lost and condemned to eternal death?
There is often a debate about whether or not babies will be saved but the fact is, even the newborn babies cannot be saved unless their natures are renewed by God's spirit. As they come from the womb they are naturally depraved and unfit to live. Of course, it is true that Jesus died for all men. The price has been paid for all and so, in the case of babies who die incapable of choosing, it seems reasonable to suppose that rather than being lost, they will be renewed by God's spirit in the resurrection and will be saved. The blood of Christ is stronger than the heritage of Adam, and Christ paid the price for all.
However, when they are of the age where they can make conscious choices, the conditions change. Now, none can be saved who do not choose for themselves. Only on the basis of choosing Christ can their condition (state) be changed from sinful, corrupt, depraved, helpless, hopeless, condemned and lost, to a condition of being, righteous, holy, clean, justified, redeemed and saved.
The entry of sin
The most controversial passage in the Bible with regards to this question is Romans Chapter 5 verses 12-19. It is this passage which we will examine as we seek to learn what the biblical teaching on this question is.
(Rom 5:12) Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
By one man sin entered into the world: The first part of this verse presents no difficulties. One man sinned and by his action in disobeying God and partaking of the forbidden fruit, sin gained an entrance into the world. It is interesting to note that although Satan was present in the world, this did not give sin an entrance into the world. This entrance of sin into the world, then, must refer to the entrance of sin into human history and is not suggesting that Satan was not here before Adam transgressed. This entry of sin was entirely on the basis of Adam's transgression. Why does it emphasize Adam's transgression (one man) rather than Eve's? It does this because Adam was the one who was the head of the human race. All things had been put under him, not Eve. While her actions involved only herself, his actions involved the destiny of the entire human race and indeed the destiny of the whole world (including the mindless creation).
Death entered by sin: Death was introduced, found an entry into human history by way of sin. Therefore sin is the cause of death.
Death passed upon all men For that all have sinned: Notice, the fact that death passed upon all men is only because all men sinned, since man's sin is the cause of his death. This is the interesting part of the verse and indeed it is the part which has been the subject of many controversies over the centuries. The question is, what does Paul mean by saying, “all have sinned?” This phrase may be interpreted in two ways.
(a) It could mean that all sinned, in a similar way to how Adam sinned, that is, all men copied or imitated Adam in committing sin as he did, or
(b) it could mean that all sinned, when Adam sinned. In other words, that Adam's sin was passed on to all men, that is to say that one man sinned and by way of his single action, all of us were made sinners.
Which of these two views is correct?
It is a plain fact that all die because all sinned. That is indisputable (on the basis of Paul's statements). It must be equally plain then that if there should arise a person who had not sinned, then such a person would not die. Sin in us is the reason why all men die. Jesus was the only human who had no sin. He could not have died except for the fact that He was dying in our place. Sin and death had no right and no place in Him except as He was “made sin” for us. Has there ever been any other human who was without sin?
Sinners by copying Adam?
If we become sinners only by imitating Adam, that is, by choosing to sin like Adam did, then we must ask the question, why then do babies die? Babies cannot commit sin. They have no knowledge of law, or right and wrong, therefore they cannot transgress. Transgression requires conscious decision to disobey and even in the case of adults, God declares that, “where no law is, there is no transgression.” (Rom 4:15). If death comes upon us only because we sin, and babies cannot commit sin, then the question is, “why do babies die? When did they sin?” If we say that the verse means that we sinned similarly to Adam, then we have a dilemma because babies cannot sin as Adam did. They cannot consciously disobey, yet they still die, some of them just a few minutes after birth.
Made Sinners by Adam's sin?
If we take the second meaning of the phrase however, which is that when Adam sinned, all his descendants sinned in him, or became sinners by his action, then the verse makes perfect sense. In the light of that understanding we can see that all men (including babies) die, because all men (including babies) are sinners irrespective of whether or not they commit sin. We sinned when Adam sinned because we were in him when he sinned. We became sinners not in the sense that we personally committed sins, but sinners in that we became a certain kind of being who were inherently evil, unable to do good, fit only to be destroyed and therefore condemned to death. A careful examination of the verse and indeed of the whole chapter of Romans 5, especially verses 12-19, will reveal that this is what Paul intended to say.
(Rom 5:13) For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
In the next two verses, Paul is proving his point that all men die because of Adam's sin (and that therefore all men are sinners because of Adam's sin). It is important to Paul's argument and therefore it is important that we understand this point. Why is this so? Because only as we understand this can we get the full implications of what Jesus did for us, how He did it and the true meaning of justification by faith. This is the only reason why Paul is taking all this trouble to explain what Adam did and how it affected us.
When Paul says, “until the law,” what point in time is he speaking about? He identifies a certain section of this world's history and he says that at that time, sin was in the world. He refers to that time by the phrase, “until the law.” What does he mean when he says, “until the law?” He means that there was a time when the law (as given on mount Sinai) was not yet declared unto mankind. During this time, apparently, the knowledge of God's law was limited and there were people, perhaps many people who did not have any clear idea of how God defined right and wrong. Now in a situation like this, where there is no law, how does God deal with man in terms of sin? Paul gives us a plain answer: He says sin is not imputed (is not charged to a person, he is not regarded as guilty) when there is no law. So, although sin was in the world (men were sinning), this sin was not being imputed to them (God did not regard them as guilty of sin) because there was no law to let them know right from wrong.
(Rom 5:14) Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.
In spite of the fact that sin was not imputed to men (they were not regarded as guilty in the eyes of God) because the law was not yet proclaimed and they were ignorant of it, yet, they were dying. Death was reigning. Why were they dying? What caused death to rule over all men during this period. Now we may say Adam and Eve died because they disobeyed the command to not eat the fruit. We may also say that people after the time of Moses (the giving of the law) die because they disobey the ten commandments, but between Adam and Moses, during the time when there is no recorded law given by God, why did men die? Why did death reign over men during that period even though they had not sinned in the same way as Adam (that is, they did not sin in deliberate disobedience to a specific command of God as Adam did)? Since they did not deliberately transgress the revealed laws of God, and yet they were dying (death reigned over them), then the only conclusion to be reached is that Adam's sin is the reason why they died. Adam's sin and not their own was the reason why death reigned over them. That is the point Paul is making and this is the way he reasons it out and proves it in these three verses.
When we understand this, then we have no difficulty in getting his point in verses 18 and 19 of the same chapter.
(Rom 5:18-19) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. (19) For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
Adam killed all the human race. All men were condemned by the offence of one. In our personal absence, without any input on our part, we were made sinners, condemned and killed by Adam. This became our reality as soon as we were born.
In the same way, Jesus brought life to the human race. All men are justified by the righteousness of one. In our personal absence, without any input on our part, we were made righteous, justified and made alive by Christ. This becomes our reality as soon as we are born again. All that remains is for us to receive the reality through faith. By simply believing the declaration of God that He has done all these things for us in His Son. This is true justification by faith.