The Inconvenient Truth:

ALL have sinned

Excerpted from “Repent: The First Sermon of Jesus”

All

“All have sinned,” wrote the apostle Paul to the fledgling church in Rome.[1] He wrote this to encourage the Roman believers by showing them how God’s grace and mercy are held out for all mankind, not just for the Jewish people. Salvation had come by way of the Jews, after all, and there was no shortage of debate over who would receive the benefits from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everyone has sinned, Paul said, and thus everyone is justified by God’s grace through the redemption in Jesus the Messiah, the blood sacrifice.

This was explosive news, and it caused no shortage of anger and conflict within the early Jewish converts. God’s promises had been for them, after all, and their faithful zeal for the Lord — their persistent loyalty — should have meant that salvation was first and perhaps only for them. At the very least, their history as God’s people should have meant that others had to become Jew-like in religious customs in order to receive God’s grace. Against all of this Paul writes: all have sinned, so all are saved by faith, Jew and Gentile alike.

Nowadays, though, this good bad news is anathema. “All have sinned” is an insult!

We carve out exemptions: what about the innocent child? What about my friend who is good all the time? What about me? Or the challenge brought by American Evangelicals ignorant of the history of Christianity prior to it ever reaching the United States: What about the tribesman in Africa who never heard of Jesus?

The core of such challenges is a kind of self-protecting optimism. We do not want to believe “all have sinned” because the ramifications are shocking. “All” would include my cute little nephew boys. It would include the authors we admire. It would mean the politicians we think will save America. It would mean our neighbors.

“All have sinned” levels my beloveds with our enemies, revealing the corruption of friend and foe alike. It is one thing to believe that Hitler has sinned; it is another to believe that I have sinned; it is still quite another entirely to believe that our precious grandchildren or people we admire are indeed twisted and morally bankrupt.

On a deep level, we know this is common sense. Plato uses the idea of the invisible man to show how corrupt everyone is on some universal level: “For that there is far more profit for him personally in injustice than in justice is what every man believes, and believes truly… For if anyone who had got such a license within his grasp should refuse to do any wrong or lay his hands on others’ possessions, he would be regarded as most pitiable”[2] People know that doing wrong profits more than doing right, and that we would all take advantage of being invisible to get away with whatever evil strikes our fancy.

We — all people — shy away from the notion of universal sin or evil. We do not want to be seen as Debbie Downers who are always pointing out the flaws in the people around us or as Negative Neds who carefully explain how the world is falling apart. Telling the truth can sound mean, and many of us hate sounding or seeming mean. We dwell in a culture that has castigated the idea of moral judgment outside of certain kinds of political correctness. We can throw stones at racists, but if we judge a serial philanderer then we seem old-fashioned and judge-y.

Cynicism can give way to hopelessness, and if there is anything that we want to experience in our lives right now, it is hope. Wracked as we are by political corruption, anger, a deeply divided nation, and every sort of vice, we need hope. Not only Christians — the culture seeks hope! What was the slogan of Barack Obama’s winning campaign: “Hope and Change?” President Trump’s is just as hope-filled: “Make America Great Again.” Rehabilitation and mental health treatments are constant sources of hope for people in crisis, never mind the terrible rates of recidivism for addicts and sufferers of mental illnesses. Suicide is running at an all-time high in America. Hopelessness abounds, and pointing the finger in someone’s chest saying “all have sinned” seems like the last and worst avenue for hopefulness one could imagine.

Yet Jesus, confronted with two hopeless and senseless tragedies claiming dozens of lives, called out “unless you likewise repent, you will all likewise perish.”[3] Clear-eyed optimism often sounds like pessimism because truth is not always, or even often, very pleasant. Fact is, folks die, often tragically. Fact is, you and I will face lives full of various suffering. Jesus was simply saying: you will die, this you know, so confront your sins now rather than later.

Speaking truth about sin will sound cynical and judge-y precisely because sin has everything to do with sadness, sorrow, judgment, and death. But ignoring such facets of human existence do not do anything to solve them. There is no hope in ignorance, no peace in positivity. If you are trapped in a hole, dying of starvation, I dare not stick my head over the side and sing “the sun’ll come out, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar, there’ll be sun!” You would lose your mind even as you lose your life. Rather, I should take stock of the real need of the moment — you are in a well, hopeless, about to die — then cast my lot with a solution that seems best fit to the situation. Here comes a rope! Here is real hope! I then rejoice with you as I pull you from despair. This is real hope, even if it starts with a clear-eyed analysis that does not sound pretty.

The idea of universal depravity is under constant threat. More pernicious than a culture which denies it are Christian preachers who soften it or narrow it to mere personal spirituality. “you may be in a tough spot now, but keep trying, keep praying, etc. etc.” They do not point to your present discomfort as being the problem, but theirs. “Send us money and all will be fine,” shows the only thing these people think is lacking is the size of their bank accounts.

More common than prosperity preaching is preaching which isolates your heart from all others. “All have sinned” becomes “you have sinned and you need saving.” This is fine and true, but incomplete, because “all have sinned” means others are drowning in their sins just the same and cannot be saved by the right social program, politics, or progress. Oftentimes these same preachers promote politicians from the pulpit, giving sanctified weight to men and women as though their election is as important as your personal salvation. Rather than preach the gospel to these would-be kings as Paul did to King Agrippa, they tell you that you are a sinner needing saving and suggest that part of your salvation includes this or that person or program in addition to the blood of Christ.

“All have sinned,” even if you think that you agree with it, reveals some pretty nasty truths about you and me. Let’s delve in to the words more deeply.

All Means Everyone

The Greek word here indicates a vast inclusiveness. The immediate context is bridging the divide between two very distinct people. The Jews were semi-isolationist, keeping to themselves in social and religious matters. They were family-oriented and did not participate in the Roman culture, steeped as it was in cultish leader-worship, loose sexuality, and all sorts of foreign-god/idol business. The Jews were even given an exemption to the forced worship of Rome. They did their weird (to the Romans) time of worship and day of rest when others were busy with entertainment and the market. They worshipped a God who could not be seen or bought. They were as odd to the Romans as the Amish might be to Americans: set apart, different, with funky hats and hair. Some of the Jews were considered terrorists by the Romans: violent, separatist, willing to go to any end to achieve their God’s desires.

The “all” in “all have sinned” links the separate Jews and the Gentiles, a word which pretty much meant “not Jewish.” Gentiles were the barbarians and Romans and Greeks alike. They were anyone who did not worship the One True God in his Temple. “All have sinned” for the Jew meant that all their religious rule-keeping put them on equal-footing with the non-Jew, sin-wise, while for the Greek it meant that that which they thought was not a sin was actually very dangerous and sinful indeed. Their lives were in danger; they were separated from God. “All have sinned” meant that everything the Jews had been saying was correct, expressed by someone like John the Baptist: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[4] Judgment and salvation applied equally to both.

“All” tears down any assumption of moral superiority on the basis of race, nationality, age, learnedness, degree, sex, history, genealogy, religious upbringing, rule-keeping, or other category of distinction imaginable. The Jews had God’s Torah (law), his prophets, the wisdom of Solomon, the royal and holy lineage of David. But Paul asks the hypothetical in Romans 3:9: “Are we Jews doing better?” He gives the sure and unwelcome answer: “Nope. No way. We are sinners just the same.” In the same way, we Americans cannot drape ourselves in the American flag and think that it somehow guards us from the licking flames of hell. Any faith which requires “Jesus and…” is called syncretism, which is the worship of more than one god. Jesus and America. Jesus and family. Jesus and traditional values. Jesus and Israel. None of these pairs is sufficient for salvation. Therefore, we cannot ever hope to remove the “Jesus” part of “Jesus and…” then expect salvation! No flag, family, family values, clan, tribe, politics, or party gives you a leg up on repentance. If anyone could have claimed superiority on the basis of nationality and religious upbringing, it should have the Jews, not modern-day Americans, yet they were sinners just the same.

No one has any advantage when it comes to sin.

Pastoring as I do in the American South, I think I understand the religiosity and nationalism Paul confronted. Folks in rural North Carolina often think they are saved because they were raised in the church, know the hymns, and were baptized as a kid. Oftentimes they add a bit of national pride to their salvation, and being a good Christian means having a flag on stage at the church, standing for the national anthem, and dressing cars in Cross and Flag paraphernalia. Jesus called the religious leaders of his day “whitened tombs” because they looked clean and nice on the outside but were full of dead bones on the inside. How many of our American Christians are just as dead, no matter how good they look on the outside?

I want to pull my hair out from time to time when I see “pastors” in the American southeast preach a gospel of personal responsibility and nationalism devoid the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. How desperately we need repentance and salvation!

My friend, you are not less of a sinner because you were born into a church family.

You are not less of a sinner because you are American,

or white,

or black,

or rich,

or poor,

or stand for the anthem,

or kneel for it,

or salute the troops,

or protest war,

or clap for the president,

or vote the right way,

or know the hymns,

or watch Fox News or MSNBC,

or paste the flag on your truck,

or eat apple pie,

or grew up in church,

or go to Christian concerts,

or get straight A’s,

or read the Bible every night and every morning,

or — anything!

If anything, you might have the same danger the Israelites faced in thinking that you are safe from your sins because of your religious upbringing and nationalism when in fact you are closer to danger than you ever thought!

When destruction was on the doorstep of Israel (well before the time of Jesus), the prophets would go hoarse with shouting their impending doom. How the Jewish people respond? “We have the temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” In other words, we will be fine! We are Jews! God’s chosen people! Then they watched in shock as their temple was desecrated and destroyed, their homes burned before them, their children carried into slavery and exile. Patriotism of any kind requires the same clear-eyed semi-cynicism of good historians: we must see that George Washington was a sinner in need of a savior as much as me, as much as you. So, too, is Barack Obama. So is Donald Trump. No politician merits worship, and no amount of flag-adoring sing-song can save us from our sins.

There is value in loving your country, if it drives you to love and serve your fellow citizens. There is value in being raised in the church, if it drives you to the deeper truths of the faith and to love for your fellow believers. Paul longed to reach the Jews because he was a Jew, and he felt the sting of rejection by his own people very sharply. But being raised a Christian and being born an American will not do one thing to save you from the real problems eating away at your heart and eroding America’s collective soul. Genuine national pride, genuine religion necessitates a clear-eyed realization of our personal wickedness and corporate failings, and ought to prompt a turning-away from both.

You probably tend to separate those “real sinners” from normal folks just trying to get along in life. Thinking of everyone as being as bad as Hitler is simply too unbearable. The really bad people in history, those Hitlers and Stalins and so on, are real “sinners” while most folks just mess up from time to time but are mostly good. But this perspective only measures the impact of evil from the human perspective — lives lost, money stolen, nations corrupted — without recognizing the corporate nature of human evil: Hitler could not have been Hitler if he had not stood on the shoulders of a ‘Christian’ nation (the birthplace of the Reformation, even!) which populated his machines of violence. He did not pull the triggers of the machine guns that cut down his enemies. He did not pull levers or push buttons in the gas chambers which exterminated the undesirables — Jews, disabled people, homosexuals — in his culture. The vast machines of violence he directed required the collective effort of an entire nation whose wicked desires melted together to form one vast sea of putrid evil. The “ordinary men” who wiped out villages in Poland were just helping out their fellow man, doing what they were told, and following orders.[5] Their collective wickedness was not noticeable on the surface of what they were doing — hey, these are police doing their jobs! — but in their passive indifference to the way their jobs, the police became the ultimate expression of hatred and evil.

Hitler’s grand evil was made of little pieces of evil that lived in the hearts of everyone living in those days, from the American profiteers whose machines built the backbone of the Holocaust (IBM, for example), to the European bankers whose desire for profit opened the doors for Nazi wealth stolen from the crushed Jews, to the American public who treasured our lives over the lives of the Europeans suffering and thus held off on entering the war until it was too late to stop the genocide. Hitler is but a composite of collective human wickedness, and his evil genius was merely uncovering, collecting, and putting to good use the wickedness present in every human heart.

Good despots draw out the evil in their subjects while making their subjects think they are doing the right thing. “I was just doing my job” was the excuse of every Nazi under the sun after WWII, but their wickedness was to blame as much as their leaders’ for what had transpired.

Separating Hitler’s evil from the wicked men and women who enable and perpetrated it allows history to repeat itself, even here in America. We have a rich history of separating people from their evil, even prior to the Holocaust:

The Trail of Tears was not the result of one man’s deviancy, but the collective expression of wickedness and human suffering in the name of white expansion and protection. The Civil War did not occur by chance and was not the fault of just Lincoln or even only Confederate leaders. Jim Crow laws did not happen by accident but were the fruit of wicked hearts wanting wicked self-interested power. Divorcing people from evil perpetrated by their governments or leaders might make us feel better about ourselves or about the general populace who lived during those times (which might include our parents, grandparents, or other ancestors). Such separation is a lie which allows us to do the same evil they did. Instead of thinking “oh their leaders made them do all that bad stuff, but they were probably good people,” we must ask “how is my wickedness actively or passively enabling corporate evil by my government or leaders?”

No one gets a pass when it comes to sin. Victim and perpetrator are both sinners, even when the seemingly ‘innocent’ die. At best, ‘innocent’ means the person did not deserve to die in the way they did, like an innocent man being killed on death row or a civilian being bombed in war. But innocent does not and can never mean innocent from all sin. What we call tragedy is that people died in a given way, but the fact remains that death is appointed for all of us, and an early death does not make us better people than others. “All have sinned” means that the hijackers on the planes on 9/11 were only different from the thousands who suffered their wrath by the nature and degree of their wickedness, and those who died that day not knowing the saving work of Jesus were in as much danger of judgement as those who took their lives by terrorism.

All means all.

Prayer of Response

God who loves me, show me the size and scope of sin. Take down anyone I have put on a pedestal — politicians, pastors, teachers, friends, family, and myself — and show me how everyone has sinned. Especially me.”

[1] Romans 3:23

[2] Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. 360b–d

[3] Luke 13:5

[4] Matthew 3:12

[5] Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993).

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Pastor, FACWS.org — Boards: Boards: MonarchNC.org envisionatlanta.org saalliance.org — MDiv SEBTS, BA Duke

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Benjamin Marsh

Benjamin Marsh

Pastor, FACWS.org — Boards: Boards: MonarchNC.org envisionatlanta.org saalliance.org — MDiv SEBTS, BA Duke

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