A church member recently sent me an article that made a distinction between sinful people and evil people. They were wondering if I agreed with such a distinction. At first glance, it seems to make sense of our experience. Most of us would freely admit that we are sinful and that the Bible clearly teaches that all are sinful (Romans 3:23). Yet, there also seems to be those who take their sinfulness a step further. They don’t just make mistakes or have momentary lapses of morality, they actually delight in their sin. And they don’t really care who gets hurt in the process. They lie, they manipulate, they cover up. We may all be sinful, but they are evil.
In order to support the distinction, the author pointed to several passages from the Psalms. Over and again we see the various writers of the Psalms calling their enemies ‘the wicked’ and ‘evil men.’ The author argued that these men were different from ordinary sinners like the rest of us. So is this true? Does the Bible identify two categories of depravity? Does it make the distinction between sinful and evil people?
I don’t think that it does. Yes, the Bible speaks of God giving people over to their sins (see Romans 1) and Jesus talked about a worse judgment coming on those who rejected His ministry (Matthew 11:20-24), but it does not seem that it ever teaches a distinction between sinful and evil. The hard truth is that we are all evil. We are the wicked in the Psalms. This is what Paul teaches in the conclusion of his argument for human depravity in Romans 3. He has argued that both Jews and Gentiles are sinners before God. Those with the Law are sinners and those without the Law are sinners (see Romans 1-2). He concludes:
“What then? Are we Jews any better off? Not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written…” (Romans 3:9)
To support this conclusion Paul goes on to quote from several different Psalms that speak of our depravity. These are the wicked, evil men. They do not seek God. They have become worthless. They do no good and regularly lie. They shed blood and scorn peace. They do not fear God. This is not Paul’s description of the ‘really wicked people out there.’ This is his description of us all. We are the wicked.
Or think about it this way, when you read the Bible, do you see yourself as the good guys in the story or the bad guys? Are you Cain or Abel? Are you David or the Philistine Giant? Are you Judas or one of the other eleven? The truth is, we need to see ourselves as both/and not either/or. We are the Pharisees. We are the prodigal son and his older brother. We are the wicked nations that God has made His chosen people through Christ.
We all want to see ourselves as better than we are. Sure we may not be perfect, but we are not wicked and evil. But the truth is that we are what we despise. We are the bad guys in the story. And the glorious good news is that Jesus came to give grace to wicked people like us. He came for the sick (Luke 5:31-32). He came to save those that Paul described in Romans 3, for the apostle goes on:
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:22b-24)
Our experience will tempt us to believe that we are not wicked or evil or as bad as the other guy, but the grace of God in Christ Jesus teaches us the opposite and compels us to share the good news with all. We are the wicked, all of us, and we are gloriously redeemed through sovereign grace! We believe what the Bible says about the bad news because we believe in the overwhelming goodness of the good news!