Preaching to the sinners

Nothing makes a preacher more unpopular than him telling his flock that they are all sinners. Yet nothing, as Simon Manchester discovers, is more essential for them.

When I was invited to write on this subject, my first reaction was to flatter myself that such a theme, though difficult, was merely secondary. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this subject is so central, so urgent and so (ultimately) wonderful, it must occupy our mind in all we do. Knowing how easy it is to begin an article, only to pull out part-way, I want to urge you to persevere so you reach the application (‘Practical issues’) so you will grasp the urgency of the task. Is it too much to say that we will never appreciate our saviour unless we appreciate our sin? Shallow views of sin lead to shallow views of Jesus:

To say that our first need in life is to learn about sin may sound strange, but in the sense intended it is profoundly true. If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellow-men, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition of God’s answer to the problem of human sin, and unless you have that problem clearly before you, you will keep missing the point of what it says.1

Let me be more blunt and ask you why there is so little gratitude to God in our hearts. Our praise is so lukewarm, it’s nearly cold. Are you not struggling (like me) to remember why salvation is so great? Do you not find yourself dragging along in the Christian life because it’s your job, not your joy, to be a Christian? Do the people around you at church give the impression they’ve escaped ‘Big Trouble’, or that they still live in the thick of it? If you really quizzed your congregation, do they believe people are basically good at heart, in need of self-esteem, possessing of free will and victims of the system, just like the pagan world?

Far be it from me to add to you a new burden, but by facing up to sin again, we will emerge with a new (proper) understanding of ourselves and a new (proper) appreciation for Jesus. The person who says, “I will confess my transgressions” (Ps 32:5b) can then say, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous” (Ps 32:11a). More importantly, such a person glorifies God. But how do you teach this subject without being negative, depressing or self-righteous—all big no-noes in our culture?

Biblical realism

It’s not hard to get stuck into the sin of God’s people ‘back there’ in the Old and New Testaments, or ‘out there’ in God’s world; the more important and challenging question is how to preach sin ‘in here’—in our hearts and congregations. How do we do this without being judgemental, superior or discouraging? If you think this is a non-issue, consider today’s pressure to be positive, comforting, reassuring and successful—which means avoiding anything that will stop people coming!

Jesus transcends all this. In Mark 7, he exposes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but also teaches his disciples about the evils that come from men’s hearts (vv. 21-23). His realism is not only insightful, it’s deeply helpful. If the Pharisees persist in an outward view of their problem (unclean “hands”—v. 2), they will persist in an outward solution to the problem (“ceremonial washing”—v. 3 NIV), and they will completely miss the problem and the solution. They stand in the tradition of people whose diagnosis is as shallow as their useless medicine. But Jesus teaches his disciples something so profound (i.e. “All these evil things come from within”—v. 23), they will never fall for shallow solutions again. He prepares them for the real solution (i.e. his saving death). Never again will the disciples need to point away from themselves (to ignorance, poverty, social structures, etc.) to explain the problems of the world; they join those wise people of God who know where the real problem lies. Of course, for the disciples, this understanding came slowly as the Holy Spirit revealed the truth to them, but every day the Spirit convicts people of “sin and righteousness and judgment” so they appreciate the saviour (John 16:8).

Now, in our preaching, is it too difficult to begin with this basic distinction—that those who have shallow and mistaken views of sin will always have shallow and mistaken views of the solution, while those who see its reality will not? Why does the average pagan settle for a one-off baptism for their child, a 6pm Saturday confession, a conscience-relieving cheque or donation to some worthy cause? It’s because the problem (as they see it) is so small, and the solution (as they see it) is so manageable! But once you see that the problem is a heart shot through with an immovable, spiritually cancerous, unstoppable, destructive and fatal evil, you will never fall for shallow solutions again; you will call out for the one person who can save and transform you.

Furthermore, is it possible (as we teach this) to examine our own hearts in order to illustrate the pervasive nature of sin in a way that shows our listeners that we are just like them? We can’t even pray or preach without the sinister elements of sin. That’s what makes our appreciation for Jesus all the more wonderful, our fellowship all the more grateful and our evangelism all the more joyful. There is someone who cares for people like us!

I once began a sermon quoting the famous lines, “If you knew how sinful I was, you wouldn’t listen to me. But if I knew how sinful you were, I probably wouldn’t speak to you.” That morning, a visitor who had been living on the streets with no hope in the world was arrested by those words, and stayed to join the church, saying to me later, “I thought there was a hope for me after that”.

In other ‘weighty Scriptures’ on the subject of sin, we can’t miss the way Paul teaches the “saints” in Rome (Rom 1:7) the deep and wide reality of sin. Even if his primary aim in Romans 1-3 is to teach the justice of God, his secondary aim is to teach that sin is at work in the Gentile as well as in the Jew, and that it is as deep as it is wide (“All have turned aside”—Rom 3:12a). Paul takes ‘all’ his readers into the depths of human sinfulness before teaching us the heights of our saved privileges. He does the same in Ephesians, teaching them that “you” were dead in your sins and that “you” followed the ways of this world, before concluding “[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:1-3). The identical principle occurs in Titus 3:3-4:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…

Does Paul sound superior in this? Does he sound negative? Does he demean his readers? Does he sound depressing? It’s the opposite! His biblical realism is cause for humility and joy. Some may object: it is recorded that when the Duchess of Buckingham heard Whitefield preach, she said, “It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting and at variance with high rank and good breeding.”2 But such breeding is rare around here, and our listeners tend to divide into optimists (i.e. things are not that serious) or realists (i.e. yes, I’m sinful).

This raises the next issue: how bad are we?

Know yourself

The best knowledge of oneself comes from a true knowledge of God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is right: “If you and I only knew the truth about God, it would not take us long to believe the biblical doctrine about man. If we only had some faint conception of God, there would be no need to argue about sin.”3 So we must preach about God and keep portraying him before our people for the truth’s sake—the truth of him and also us. (It is amazing how man-centred, and therefore how destructive, our preaching has become.) In the light of God’s glory, we begin to appreciate the reality of texts like these:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen 6:5)


The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,

there is none who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,

to see if there are any who understand,

who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;

there is none who does good,

not even one. (Ps 14:1-3)


The heart is deceitful above all things,

and desperately sick;

who can understand it?

“I the Lord search the heart

and test the mind,

to give every man according to his ways,

according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer 17:9-10)


All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one. (Rom 3:12)

It is easy to assume that this is exaggeration, and that we can ignore the red-faced preacher who seems to delight in screaming these verses at his listeners. But to swing the other way to flattering lies about ourselves is perhaps more dangerous—and more self-serving. How bad are we? JI Packer explains helpfully that human depravity is “rightly said to be total: not in the sense that everything is as bad as it could be but that nothing in man is as good as it should be”.4

The ink of sin (or better, the poison) has penetrated the whole glass of water—the mind, the heart, the will and the conscience. This does not mean that people are incapable of doing any good, for we are still made in the image of God, but our deeds never bridge a relationship with God, and can only be measured ‘horizontally’ in terms of their civic or human benefit.

When Augustine prayed his famous prayer, “Give what thou enjoinest [commandeth] and enjoin what thou wilt”,5 Pelagius was outraged. To him, if God gave any moral responsibility, he also gave the moral ability. Augustine argued no: God’s grace is needed for the willingness, ability and responsibility, faithfully representing God’s word that we need a new heart (Ezek 36:26)—in fact, a new life (Eph 2:1). But is our sinfulness helplessness or wickedness, or both? Look at how Luther unpacked the verses that describe human sinfulness (like those printed above):

According to the apostle and the simple sense of him who is in Christ Jesus, it is not merely the lack of a quality in the will or indeed merely the lack of light in the intellect, of strength in the memory. Rather it is a complete deprivation of all rectitude and of the ability of all the powers of the body as well as the soul and of the entire inner and outer man. In addition to this, it is an inclination to evil, a disgust at the good, a disinclination toward light and wisdom; it is love of error and darkness, a fleeing from good works and a loathing of them, a running to what is evil.6

Before you dismiss this, ask yourself if Luther saw as clearly into the depths of the heart as he saw into the glory of the gospel. I think he did. Likewise Calvin, in exposing ‘free will’ as too proud a title, teaches that man acts responsibly before God—“by will, not by compulsion”, and yet his will is still “bound by the fetters of sin”.7

Even the Anglican Articles (9 and 10) explain that man “is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world

… this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated … although there is no condemnation”. Again, “Man … cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God”. As the Bible says, “no one seeks for God” (Rom 3:11)! But do we ever find someone seeking God? The biblical answer is yes, if God has begun the inclination in them, and no, if they are seeking a god or religion of their own taste. So God will be glorified for salvation and we will be judged for sin. The Westminster Confession puts it beautifully:

IV. When God converts a sinner… He frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet… he does not perfectly… will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.


V. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.8

Practical issues (a sample)

Here are five:

  1. It is a great exercise in ‘meat’ (and subsequent rejoicing) to teach a congregation how astonishing and necessary the grace of God is in salvation. I know this sounds like ‘apple pie’, so take the idea of ‘calling on the Lord’. Why did you hear his call, and then why did you call on him? Because he made his call an ‘effectual’ call, and brought you, like Lazarus, out of the tomb of your sin and death, and gave you life. He prompted you to call on him, he heard you and answered with salvation! Isn’t that an astonishing thing to realize—something that puts issues and problems like money and sickness in the shade? People sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with feeling when sin and then salvation are explained. But the trend now is away from such appreciation for grace: note the proliferation of songs about what great ‘choosers’ we are!
  1. We need to kill off sensitively the idea that people are ‘good at heart’. People may not think (like Rousseau) that “man is good by nature” when they use this idea, but that a person is decent, sincere or acts from good motives. So be careful. However, it’s an unhelpful phrase in Christian circles, contradicting key texts (like Mark 7:21), and it leans to naivety and diminishes the grace of God in stooping down. Even the common idea that we are ‘worth so much’ that Christ died for us contradicts the biblical emphasis that Christ died for the unworthy, and that such love redounds to his praise, not ours. In preaching, we need to teach the sinful, though regenerate, heart—not good, but changed; not capable of pure behaviour, but capable, by God’s Spirit, of new behaviour. This teaching honours Jesus, unites fellowship and promotes gratitude—multiple blessings indeed.
  1. What about the vexed question of self-esteem? In a recent course I did for ‘Professional Standards in Ministry’, the (almost) absolute requirement for children is ‘self-esteem’. Promoting self-esteem in children is on par with promoting physical safety. Of course, no-one wants a person to fall below the biblical graph of being wonderfully made in the image of God, but nor do we want people above the graph.9 People’s real need is to know that they are loved by God: his invitation extends to the non-Christian and an adoption is secured for the Christian. Such love is objective—fixed in the cross of Christ and the promises of God—not subject to the fluctuations of human opinion. And such love promotes joy, gratitude, humility and overflowing love—not the selfishness of thinking “I’m important”. Professor Paul Vitz has shown that the self-esteem movement began in primary school circles as a slick way to achieve cooperation among children, but is now backfiring terribly as grown-ups turn around, angry that they are not as great as they were told they were.10 Where self-esteem takes its start and finish in human confidence, it can’t fail to create collisions and competition. How much is solved by biblical realism!
  1. Does God love sinners but hate the sin? It is obvious from biblical reading (and this was thrashed out by Augustine until Pelagius was condemned for such views) that separating the sin and the sinner is impossible: we sin because we are sinners; we don’t become sinners when we sin. There is no way that we can think or act as if some unconscious part of us is doing something we’re not responsible for. As John Gerstner says, “[S]ins do not exist apart from the sinner—we remain the perpetrators”11 Even Paul’s famous agony (“[I]t is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me”—Rom 7:20) is not Paul excusing himself, but owning up to himself, as his new nature both observes and longs to be rid of his old nature. This common phrase that God ‘hates the sin but loves the sinner’ is just a variation of Genesis 3: “It wasn’t me”. No-one talks like that under the influence of God’s word. Augustine thanks God for “setting before me my face that I might see how foul I was, how crooked and defiled, bespotted and ulcerous” in preparation for his conversion.12 Such language strikes us as morbid and sick, but out of such depths came great heights. We who still sing “vile and full of sin I am”13 may not like Wesley’s phrase, but that may say more about our drift than our theology.
  1. Even the philosophy of evolution (meaning macro evolution, not micro evolution) is exposed by the realism of the biblical teaching on our sin. We are not improving morally, but merely getting cleverer with our weapons. The sinful nature is lifted or transformed by no-one but Jesus Christ.

Preaching sin to sinners will never be popular with the proud. It is “uncomplimentary to us” and “the self-excusing instinct is… very strong. The temptation to water down the doctrine of sin is something good men have been yielding to since the church began”.14

We need faithful preachers who know their own sinfulness and who will preach on the subject with courage and compassion. Our world is awash with arrogance and victimization. There is no grasp of the great sin of “playing God”15 and turning from his greatest communications to this world (i.e. his Son Jesus Christ). But when people see sin and its evil—and then salvation and its wonder—they and their outlook are eternally changed. Can we communicate this for the love of Christ? Can we do it for the good of all? If we can, the truth sets us free.


1. JI Packer, God’s Words: Studies of key Bible themes, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1981, p. 71.

2. William Hague, William Wilberforce: The life of the great anti-slave trade campaigner, Harper Press, New York, 2008, p. 16.

3. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The All Sufficient God, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2005, p. 82.

4. Packer, p. 76.

5. Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, translated by Henry Chadwick, Barbour and Company, Westwood, 1984, p. 181.

6. Quoted in RC Sproul, Grace Unknown: The heart of Reformed theology, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1997, p. 124.

7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 volumes, LCC 20–21, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1960 [1559], II.ii.7.

8. Westminster Confession of Faith, IX,4-5.

9. Romans 12:3a recognizes that to be a serious problem.

10. Paul Vitz, ‘Leaving Psychology Behind’ in No God but God: Breaking with the idols of our age, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel, Moody Press, Chicago, 1992, pp. 96-98.

11. Private paper.

12. Augustine, p. 128.

13. Charles Wesley, ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul’, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1740.

14. Packer, p. 71.

15. Packer, p. 73.


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