At the start of it all, God the King made a perfect world in which humans, as the caretakers of the Earth, would live in perfect harmony with their creator. He placed the first humans, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden and gave them instructions about how to live. He told them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Humans were to populate the Earth. He told them to “subdue [the earth]; and have dominion over [all of its creatures]” (Genesis 1:28). They were to be stewards of the planet. Finally, he warned them not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). With all of the earth before them, they were only restricted from eating the fruit of one tree.
To the dismay of all who would come later, a mysterious serpent manages to deceive the woman Eve. She and her husband eat of the forbidden fruit and change the course of the world forever. Though they had been told not to eat the fruit, the serpent enticed them by saying that they could become just like God. All they had to do was take a bite. And they did. God is immediately aware of what they did and exiles them from the Garden. No longer will God and humans live in harmony.
Adam and Eve wanted to take God’s place by deciding what is right and wrong. Though God had established the law, they rejected it. As John wrote, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). To sin is to act according to our own law, instead of God’s. That is an essential understanding of what it means when we sin. We are trying to take the place of God. Unsatisfied with our place as stewards, we rebel against the great King. Ascending the mountain and gunning for the throne, we demand authority. We think we could do better. In its most fundamental sense, that is what it means to sin. It is rebellion. It is mutiny.
When a human first demands that throne, they become a sinner. They have rejected God and He has taken note. The record of this person’s sin in God’s mind is a permanent record. Without statute of limitations, it remains etched on their soul as a part of their identity. No longer can they be defined as human. They are now defined as sinner.
Not only does this identification reflect a record of past rebellion, it also reflects the rebellious nature of the person. The sinner is the person who “makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:4, italics added). Just as a cat who once found milk in a bowl on the front porch of a kind stranger will come back again and again, the sinner who once has tasted the excitement of sin will return to seek the throne again. The title sinner describes the way a person lives the same way the title traveler can describe someone’s lifestyle. The traveler is a person who goes from place to place, always looking for new experiences. They want to see new states, new countries. Always on the road or in the air, they are known to their friends as a traveler. It is natural to understand them as such because their lifestyle fits the title. So it is with the sinner. Their life is defined by the continuous breaking of God’s law. It has become second nature to them.
Finally, a sinner is a person exiled from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden because of their sin (Genesis 3:24). At that point, their relationship with God was strained. Every sinner experiences that same reality. Parents lament the distance that grows between themselves and their children when their children become rebellious. Much the same, God laments the rebellion of His children. During a time when the nation Israel had been rebellious, Isaiah the prophet explained their condition by saying, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2). God desires oneness with the people He created. But sinners cannot experience that.
The title sinner is not something to be used of other people. It is a title we have all worn. Gracefully, God has a plan to change our identity in Christ. When we put on Christ, we don’t have to be labelled by our failure. We can be fundamentally changed and brought near to God once again. The record is rewritten and our sins wiped from memory. Victory comes through dying to the sinner inside us and walking in new life.