“Judge not that you be not judged.” Matthew 7:1 is possibly America’s favorite verse. Almost every disapproving statement is greeted with rebuke as being judging. Declaring something is sinful is considered by some as the height of judgmental behavior. This is an important issue for Christians who are attempting to preach the gospel. The gospel message requires an understanding of personal guilt. How can anyone turn to Jesus for forgiveness of sin if he does not realize he is a sinner? Why would anyone turn to Jesus for salvation if he has done nothing deserving condemnation?
Yes, calling someone a sinner and identifying behavior as sinful is condemning. From a Christian perspective the declaration that something is a sin is the same as saying something is bad and should not be done. How does this apply to a person? Is the statement that someone is a sinner a declaration that the person is to be avoided? To be clear, saying someone is a sinner is a statement of condemnation. It is as pleasant as being told you have terminal cancer. It is a declaration that the person is not fit to stand before God and deserves eternal punishment. The statement that a person is a sinner is a statement of condemnation but it does not mean the sinner is to be avoided.
Sinful behavior must be rejected, but not sinful people. Christians have not been sufficiently clear on this distinction. Sinful people are not to be avoided, except in special circumstances. Calling someone a sinner is a socially loaded and theologically significant allegation. When a Christian declares a person is a sinner, he is doing so after having already come to grips with the reality of his own personal sinfulness. Like most others, the Christian realizes he has done bad things. However, the Christian’s recognition goes further. The Christian has recognized he deserves eternal punishment in hell because of his sin. The Christian has recognized the Son of God suffered a horrible death and endured the wrath of God because of his sin. When a Christian says you have sinned, he has already included himself in that assessment, confessed his guilt and grief and plead with God for forgiveness.
Though calling someone a sinner is a hard statement, it is not a declaration of hopeless condemnation. It is in fact much like being told you have cancer. The avowal that one is a sinner is a dire diagnosis of a disease that will end in suffering and death. Like many cancer diagnoses calling someone a sinner is the first step in treating the disease. All are sinners and if left untreated the disease will be eternally fatal. The diagnosis of guilt prepares the way to present the cure. As Jesus said, “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” Yes, calling someone a sinner is a hard statement that will agitate many. When it is said as it ought, it is not a statement of condemnation but one of compassion.