I’ve led thousands of people in the sweet “repeat after me” sinner’s prayer: “Dear Jesus, I am a sinner.”
What the person praying with me doesn’t know is that every timeI lead a person to repeat those words, I am saying them to God on my own behalf. I am a sinner. No kidding, I really am—a really real sinner in utter, desperate need of God’s love and forgiveness.
Paul knew this too: “…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Titus 1:15). The word for foremost in the Greek can mean ‘chief,’ or ‘worst’, but I don’t believe that is what Paul actually meant. Paul knew that he was a great sinner, a persecutor of Christians—even playing a part in murder!
He was a great sinner, but every time Paul uses this specific word, protos, he uses it to mean “first in time or rank.” Paul and all followers of Jesus are actually a new breed of sinner, a sinner now sinning in an age where freedom from sin is possible because of Jesus. We are like slaves who have been set free from the tyranny of an awful slave master only to return to do that master’s bidding again.
All of humanity is lost in the depravity of a soul sickness so pervasive that nothing on this side of heaven can save us or make us well. We are all sinners, but the Christ follower has been set free from the power of a depraved, soul-sickened heart. That is what makes my sin against God so terrible.
I sin while I’m free not to. This is what Paul meant by saying he was the chief, or the worst. I don’t know why this surprises me so often. I can go for some time without actually ‘feeling’ my inner distortions.
My struggles seem manageable, well-maintained, even presentable, but every now and then—BAM! I’m right back at the bottom of self-loathing and despair, with a sudden realization that I’m just the worst!
It is this surprise—the cyclical waking up to my sin—that is so jarring. If I were engaged in merely a theological discussion about my depravity, I would intellectually admit to all that I am a sinner. No question.
The problem is love. This is the real problem with the cycle of sin and its hold on me. The problem is that I really do love Jesus. I’m kind of a fanatic; I’ve gone all in on Jesus in all the big ways I can.
I’ve moved for Jesus, I gave up a career for Jesus, let go of financial investments for Jesus, I tithe and give for Jesus, I travel for Jesus, I risk social awkwardness for Jesus, I read for Jesus, teach and preach for Jesus, and try really hard to be good for Jesus. I do all this for Jesus, not to impress him, but because I love him. I really do, but then there it is—BAM!
Horrific sin that seems to just make it all meaningless. Nothing I do or have given up for Jesus seems to matter when I’m face-to-face with who I really am.
Refraining from sin is not some mere act of will power. If it were, I’d be as perfect as a person could be. I have tremendous will power, but at some point, I do the exact opposite of what I’ve decided I would do. Paul knew this too. He says famously, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:18-19).
This inner distortion hides like a riptide in our hearts, sweeping us away and threatening our souls. This cycle is further aided by our environment. We look around, and it seems like a sunny day on the beach, no threatening clouds on the horizon—only happy people living fun lives. The riptide is there, however. We live in a world that is always moving away from shore, towards the normalization of depravity.
In small ways, every people group over time moves from private, ‘simple sins’ into complete social debauchery. Debauchery is a special kind of sin because it demonstrates the complete, community-wide acceptance of living into the darkness of our souls.
Hosea documents the normalization of debauchery in 4:17-18, “Ephraim is joined to idols—let him alone. When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies; they love lewdness more than their glory.”
Sometimes, debauchery looks like idolatry; sometimes, orgies. Other times, drunkenness. But whatever the form, it is a community-wide expression of darkness. This is what lives in my heart, and every now and then it writhes up and reminds me of who I really am outside of Christ’s love.
When I am forgetful, my own flesh and the world around me pull me further and further away from the shore of love. I begin to practice incremental acceptance of ‘simple sins’ which chip away at my joy, lead me away from love, and steal the freedom I have in Jesus.
This is why evangelism isn’t a left turn in my struggles. Evangelism is how I break free from the riptide and begin to swim counter to my flesh and counter to my surroundings. If I merely spent all my energy trying to swim against the current of sin, I would tire and eventually drown.
When I share Jesus with someone, however, I help both them and myself see the bigger problem. I see that will power and sacrifice will never get me to love. I help them and myself see that we are sinners. I, personally, re-enter that raw moment of pure astonishment at the grace of Jesus through his blood.
As I articulate the gospel to another, I am re-articulating it to myself. When I lead a person to pray to receive Jesus, I am leading myself back in a very real way. There is a moral decay within me, a slide toward the point of no return. While there is much more to loving Jesus than just doing evangelism, spiritual formation, I believe, is centered in it. We cannot just journal and pray and read our Bibles and expect to fight the good fight.
Soldiering and will power aren’t enough. We need to re-enter the grace of the new covenant with those we share Christ with, and I do this every time I lead someone in that sweet phrase, “Dear Jesus, I am a sinner.”
R. York Moore serves as National Evangelist for InterVarsity USA.