I became a Christian toward the end of my sophomore year in college. Jumping in with both feet, I became actively involved with a great campus fellowship. Many of the young people in our group were devoted to God and to reaching others with the gospel. Ours was a state university, and weekend drinking parties were the norm. The need for Jesus was obvious, and several campus ministries made consistent efforts to reach out to those party goers.
Sharing Our Faith
Spreading out over the campus to share the gospel was a bit awkward for me. Not only was I introverted and insecure, cold contact evangelism is not my strength. Sit me down with a non-Christian for a thoughtful conversation about beliefs, and I can talk for hours. Walk up to someone on the street and strike up a conversation about Jesus?—that does not come so naturally.
One night, while sharing our faith on campus, we ran into a guy (I’ll call him Cal) who lived in my dorm. Cal was an active participant in our floor’s party crowd, drinking on weekends and sleeping around with various women. I am pretty sure that he was either heading to or from a party as we interrupted him that evening. It fell on me to begin the conversation.
Two things stand out in my memory of that experience. The first involves the awkward feeling as we stood on the sidewalk outside of Folger Dining Hall. There was introverted me stumbling over my words as I tried to tell one of the guys from the “cool” crowd on our floor about Jesus’ saving grace. The other memory is of Cal’s indignant response as I told him about his need for salvation: “What are you saying? I’m not a sinner!”
To the best of my knowledge, Cal was not a bank robber or an ax murderer or anything like that, but neither was he a model of moral purity. He drank to excess as though alcohol were water. He illegally smoked pot in the dorm. He cussed and swore with the worst of them. And he not only spoke of women in a degrading manner, he regularly used them for sexual gratification. Those actions, most would agree, reflect a sinful lifestyle.
From Cal’s perspective, however, a sinner was a really bad person—someone in the mold of Judas Iscariot or Adolf Hitler. And, since my fellow hallmate attended Catholic mass on Saturday nights and received the Eucharist, he felt that he had all his bases covered. The cumulative result was a very short outreach attempt on my part.
What Is a Sinner?
My experience with Cal that evening awakened a question that took many years for me to answer to my satisfaction: What is a sinner? I have heard many different answers to that question and have seen several lists of supposedly sinful activities. At the time I became a Christian, there was even talk among older church members about how sinful it was to enter a movie theater. If we are to truly understand what it means to be a sinner, we must first understand the essence of sin.
One of the primary Greek words translated as “sin” in the New Testament (hamartia) finds its roots in the word hamartánein, meaning “to miss the mark.” A sinner, then, is someone who misses the mark.
The next question we must ask is: What is the mark? And it is the answer to this question that helps us grasp the essence of sin.
Do you remember Lucifer’s proclamation as recorded in Isaiah 14:12-14? “I will ascend!” If we were to read between the lines only a little, his declaration would be, “I will ascend to the place of highest glory!” God, you see, is glorious in every way. I am not just referring to the type of glory that is based on people’s opinions. God’s glory is weighty—something of true substance.
Falling Short of God’s Glory
Remember, Lucifer’s quest for glory was rooted in his ongoing treasonous scheme. It is a plot against all goodness. Self-glorification, then, is the essence of sin. From this core root, all manner of evil behavior sprouts. And accordingly, the “mark” to which sinners seek to attain—like an archer trying to hit the bullseye of a target—is God’s perfect glory. A short Bible verse ties these concepts together well:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23 (HCSB)
What is a sinner? It is someone who misses the mark. And what is the mark? God’s perfect glory. Therefore, anyone who seeks glory and falls short of God’s perfection is a sinner.
Can you name a person on this earth who has never sought a sense of significance, identity, or status through his or her appearance, performance, knowledge, or possessions? Neither can I. We are all sinners, who seek to hit the mark of God’s glorious perfection but continually fall short.
Seeking to hit the mark of God’s glory is no trite matter. Selfish pride, at its core, is an assault against heaven’s King and His kingdom. When we seek to find significance or importance within ourselves apart from God, we are staging an assault against all that is truly good.
The essence of sin is at the core of unrest. For someone who is not God, trying to be God is exhausting! Thankfully, the Lord has a better way—an ingenious plan that provides an antidote for pride and will also clothe our souls with true glory. We call that plan “the gospel.”
The gospel is our foundation for rest.
*Bob Santos has authored several books, and this post is drawn from an upcoming work titled The Search for Rest.