The Contemplative Pastor
The word sinner is a theological designation. It is essential to insist on this. It is not a moralistic judgment. It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively “good” or “bad.” It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God. Sinner means something is awry between humans and God. In that state people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgment. The theological fact is that humans are not close to God and are not serving God.
To see a person as sinner, then, is not to see him or her as hypocritical, disgusting, or evil. Most sinners are very nice people. To call a man a sinner is not a blast at his manners or his morals. It is a theological belief that the thing that matters most to him is forgiveness and grace…
An understanding of people as sinners enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger. Accumulated resentment (a constant threat to pastors) is dissolved when unreal – that is, untheological – presuppositions are abandoned. If people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are. We already know they can’t make it. We already have accepted their depravity. We didn’t engage to be pastor to relax in their care or entrust ourselves to their saintly ways…
The happy result of a theological understanding of people as sinners is that the pastor is saved from continual surprise that they are in fact sinners….
Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry. But to see people as sinners – as rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way – that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God’s great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”