The biblical depiction of people as sinners is a sobering one:
There are plenty of non-Christians – along with too many Christians, sadly – who have an altogether false and unbiblical understanding of the state of unredeemed sinners. The overall biblical witness is very bleak indeed. In general there is nothing favourable being said in Scripture about the lost and their condition without Christ.
I will list a few of the many descriptions the Bible presents on this in a moment. But let me first share one passage which I recently read again in my daily reading. The Apostle Paul is describing himself in his days before coming to Christ. It is a pretty nasty picture. As we read in Acts 26:9-11 when he was defending himself before King Agrippa:
I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
He hated Christians. And that meant he hated their God. That is why in Acts 9:4 we read these words: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” To hate and persecute God’s people is to hate God himself. So this was a very damning picture of Paul before he was saved.
But some folks might look at someone like Saul and think, ‘Well, I was never that bad.’ But we are simply kidding ourselves if we think this way. The truth is, all those who are unregenerate have the same opposition and animosity to God and to believers as Saul did.
Sure, not all – or even most – unbelievers may express their deep-down hostility to Christ the way Saul did, but it is there. They are haters of God and God’s people. Paul made this clear in many places, including in Romans 1. He closes this chapter by describing the unrighteous this way (verses 28-32):
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
That is not a very flattering picture of those who are still unsaved sinners. That is quite a list, and it includes “haters of God” in verse 30. Our default position as unbelievers is to hate God. Of course in our pride and arrogance we deny this. But Paul says much more along these same lines. Consider one more text, also from Romans.
Romans 8:7-8 says this: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Or as the NKJV puts it: “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Plenty have spoken to this text. Let me share some powerful words by Charles Spurgeon. On April 22, 1855 he preached on “The Carnal Mind Enmity Against God.” He said this in part:
There is no difficulty in understanding my text; it needs scarcely any explanation. We all know that the word “carnal” here signifies fleshly. The old translators rendered the passage thus; “The mind of the flesh is enmity against God”—that is to say, the natural mind, that soul which we inherit from our fathers, that which was born within us when our bodies were fashioned by God. The fleshly mind, the phronema sarkos, the lusts, the passions of the soul; it is this which has gone astray from God, and become enmity against him.
But, before we enter upon a discussion of the doctrine of the text, observe how strongly the Apostle expresses it. “The carnal mind,” he says, “is ENMITY against God.” He uses a noun, and not an adjective. He does not say it is opposed to God merely, but it is positive enmity. It is not black, but blackness; it is not at enmity, but enmity itself; it is not corrupt, but corruption; it is not rebellious, it is rebellion; it is not wicked, it is wickedness itself. The heart, though it be deceitful, is positively deceit; it is evil in the concrete, sin in the essence; it is the distillation, the quintessence of all things that are vile; it is not envious against God, it is envy; it is not at enmity, it is actual enmity.
Nor need we say a word to explain that it is “enmity against God.” It does not charge manhood with an aversion merely to the dominion, laws, or doctrines of Jehovah; but it strikes a deeper and surer blow. It does not strike man upon the head; it penetrates into his heart; it lays the axe at the root of the tree, and pronounces him “enmity against God,” against the person of the Godhead, against the Deity, against the mighty Maker of this world; not at enmity against his Bible or against his gospel, though that were true, but against God himself, against his essence, his existence, and his person. Let us, then, weigh the words of the text, for they are solemn words. They are well put together by that master of eloquence, Paul, and they were moreover, dictated by the Holy Spirit, who telleth man how to speak aright. May he help us to expound, as he has already given us the passage to explain.
We seldom hear such preaching today about our sinful condition. Because we do not tell the unconverted how lost they really are, how much they need saving, they have little inclination to come to a Saviour. The law must first be proclaimed before we can preach grace. Spurgeon continues:
I fear many of us here must acknowledge that we do not charge the sin of it to our own consciences. Yes, say we, we have many corruptions. Oh! yes. But we sit down very contented. My brethren, we ought not to do so. The having those corruptions is our crime which should be confessed as an enormous evil; and if I, as a minister of the gospel, do not press home the sin of the thing, I have missed what is the very virus of it. I have left out the very essence, if I have not shown that it is a crime. Now, “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” What a sin it is! This will appear in two ways. Consider the relation in which we stand to God, and then remember what God is; and after I have spoken of these two things, I hope you will see, indeed, that it is a sin to be at enmity with God.
After spending most of his time discussing the bad news of the gospel, he goes on to discuss the good news of the gospel:
And to conclude, let me remind you—and it is in the text after all—that this change must be worked by a power beyond your own. An enemy may possibly make himself a friend; but enmity cannot. If it be but an adjunct of his nature to be an enemy, he may change himself into a friend; but if it is the very essence of his existence to be enmity, positive enmity, enmity cannot change itself. No, there must be something done more than we can accomplish. This is just what is forgotten in these days. We must have more preaching of the Holy Spirit, if we are to have more conversion work. I tell you, sirs, if you change yourselves, and make yourselves better, and better, and better, a thousand times, you will never be good enough for heaven, till God’s Spirit has laid his hand upon you; till he has renewed the heart, till he has purified the soul, till he has changed the entire spirit and new-made the man, there can be no entering heaven. How seriously, then, should each stand and think. Here am I, a creature of a day, a mortal born to die, but yet an immortal! At present I am at enmity with God. What shall I do? Is it not my duty, as well as my happiness, to ask whether there be a way to be reconciled to God?
He finishes by pointing sinners to God through the finished work of Christ. We must do the same. But let me run with one more quote from Spurgeon. In another place he put it like this:
Looking back on my past life, I can see that the dawning of it all was of God; of God effectively. I took no torch with which to light the sun, but the sun enlightened me. I did not commence my spiritual life – no, I rather kicked, and struggled against the things of the Spirit: when He drew me, for a time I did not run after Him: there was a natural hatred in my soul of everything holy and good. Wooings were lost upon me – warnings were cast to the wind – thunders were despised; and as for the whispers of His love, they were rejected as being less than nothing and vanity.
Before closing I should point something out. The fact that unredeemed sinners are fully haters of God does not mean salvation instantly turns us into complete lovers of God. Saved sinners do not become perfect overnight. While justification is fully the work of God and takes place at the moment of conversion, sanctification (dying to self and growing in grace as we become more and more Christlike) is the stuff of a lifetime.
But our inner orientation and disposition changes. We no longer hate God, and we grow to more and more love God. Again, this develops over time, but we are now finally in a position where we can start to truly love God for who he is. Before becoming a Christian we had no ability nor desire to love God. Hating him and loving sin was the way we were.
That is not a very flattering picture of unbelievers, but it happens to be the biblical picture. So we should proclaim it, just as Spurgeon and countless others have.