We are certain that Christ died for His people, the elect of God (Matt. 1:21; Rom. 8:33). We are certain that Christ died for the lost sheep (Is. 53:6). We are certain that Christ died to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:5). For the present purposes I would like to focus attention on the concept of man as a sinner.
Christ died to save sinners. All Christians agree. The concept of sinner is very familiar to us. We hear much about sin and sinners in our culture. Whenever and wherever the Gospel is introduced, man, as 'sinner', takes center stage and, in our society, that message is everywhere. Now the term itself is a perfect term for describing man 'in Adam', or man in need of a Savior. If it were not God would not have used it. But do we fully appreciate what it is meant to convey?
Ask the average believer what sin is and they will say that it is 'missing the mark'. That's because this is one meaning of the Greek word hamartia. Other definitions, according to Vine's Expository Dictionary, are, 'to be without a share in, to err, to be mistaken, to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honour, to do or go wrong, to wander from the law of God, to violate God's law'. Okay. But do we glean everything that we should, even from these?
I believe that the Holy Spirit would have us comprehend sin properly. I believe that this will is in view when the Apostle Paul was inspired to write Romans 5:6-8. Look at the passage; "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
Certainly Paul was fully aware of the concept of sin. He uses the term 37 times in the book of Romans alone (KJV). And, as we have seen, he regarded himself to be the 'chief', or top dog, among sinners (1 Tim. 1:5). Nevertheless he does not, in verse 6, say that Christ died for sinners. He says that Christ died for the ungodly. That is a horse of the same, and of a different, color. To be a sinner is to miss the mark, etc. All very suitable descriptions. But to be un-godly is to be absolutely without any of that which is in keeping with what God ordains that a person should be, as being created in God's image and likeness. We know that this is the condition because Paul draws the analogies of someone dying for a righteous person and/or a good person (vss. 7-8).
His point is that Christ did not die for 'innocent' people or 'good' people, He died for the ungodly. This is not to imply that there are any innocent people for all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). It is not even to imply that there are any good people, in God's estimation that is. Paul tells us that among man, in Adam, there are none righteous or good (Rom. 3:10,12). Even Paul, as the redeemed Apostle, confessed that, as a man, there was nothing good in him (Rom. 7:18). In Romans 5 the issue is not that Christ did not die for righteous or good people but that there are no such people, all are, in fact, ungodly.
So what does ungodly translate into, other than what we have already said? The sinner, as ungodly, is described as a hater of God (Rom. 1:30); as having a mind that is directly opposed and hostile to God and His law (Rom. 8:7); as one who loves the darkness of evil rather than, or in direct opposition to, the light of Christ (John 3:19-20); as one who is dead in trespasses and sins, thus unwilling and unable to overcome his condition (John 6:44; Eph. 2:1); as one who has a heart that is set continually on evil and that producesonly evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness (Gen. 6:5; Matt. 15:19); as one who absolutely does not comprehend God or the things of God, does not seek after God, is positively unprofitable to God, or worthless as the creatures He created them to be, utterly dead within, having evil speech, ready and willing to inflict destruction and misery, not knowing the way of peace at all and with absolutely no reverence for God (Rom. 3:11-18).
Not enough? Add to these that the mind of the sinner operates in futility, being darkened in understanding; that sinners are estranged from God to the point that they are fully ignorant and in deepest darkness, having hearts of stone (Ezek. 11:19; Eph. 4:17-18); that they are slaves to sin (John 8:34); that they suppress the truth of God willfully and turn to idols wholeheartedly (Rom. 1:18-23).
Shall I go on? Man is so overcome by, and in the grips of, sin that they cannot, of will or works, be made free. (I know that people promote the free-will of man in the work of salvation but this idea is contrary to Scripture – see John 1:12-13; Rom. 9:15-16). So when we read that Christ died for sinners we are hearing that He died for the ungodly. And, when we hear that He died for the ungodly we are hearing a declaration of the fact that He died for those who were without any strength, or power, at all (Rom. 5:6). When we hear that He died for the powerless we are hearing that He died for what reformed theology calls the totally depraved. These are such people as described above.
Above all, what we are hearing is what Paul emphasizes in the passage, that in salvation God exhibits His one-sided love for sinners, the ungodly. This is not a love that is merited by anyone. In fact we merit only eternal damnation because we are well beyond being merely bad people or people who err from time to time. We are perfectly evil, ungodly people. If we can realize this we can fully appreciate our own salvation and we can come before God with deeply thankful hearts that are eager to worship and please the one who loved us when we hated, resisted and opposed Him with every ounce of our being. We can freely and readily give God all of the glory for Christ's saving work for we know that we could not do anything on our own behalf, indeed we did not even want to!
In closing please allow me a few lines of personal testimony. If Paul was the 'top-dog' among sinners I was doggy number 2. Yes, I was, and still am, a sinner, to whatever degree I do what God forbids or fail to do what He approves and commands. When I knew that I was a sinner and that Christ died for sinners I was glad indeed. But when I realized that He died for the ungodly, and when I understood what this means, and when I saw myself as ungodly, yet an object of God's redeeming love and mercy, I was ecstatic.