One of the things I find interesting is to read the messages on the reader boards many churches have out near the road. I saw one a couple of weeks ago that said, “Be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.”

When I saw that, I immediately thought of something someone wrote on social media not long ago. This person said that when she goes to bed every night, the first thing she thinks about when she lays down is what a horrible sinner she was that day. When she lays down in bed, the reality of her sinfulness overwhelms her, and she feels horrible about herself, because every day, she’s such a filthy sinner. And, she knows that before she can go to God in prayer, she must first confess to God that she is in fact an utter failure, a horrible sinner. Only after that can she dare pray to God for anything.

This, and the reader board sign, is a reflection of a belief popular in some forms of Christianity. It’s what’s called “original sin.” A man named Augustine came up with the idea of original sin about 1600 years ago.

Augustine said that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden that God told them not to eat, as punishment for that, God completely changed human nature. God changed human nature so that from then on, all human beings would be 100% evil through and through, capable of doing no good whatsoever. God made it so from that point on, all human beings born after Adam and Eve would be 100% sinners, capable of nothing but sin.

According to Augustine, God made us so that we can’t do anything but sin. Augustine said God made us so that that’s who we are at the deepest core of our being—sinners. What are you? First of all, you’re a sinner. What am I? First of all, I’m a sinner. That’s who we all are, first of all—sinners. That’s the most basic fact about all of us—that we’re sinners. Why? Because God made us that way. But, and here’s the kicker, Augustine said that even though God made us so that we can’t help but sin, He still holds us accountable for sin. Even though God made us so that we can’t help but sin, God still holds us accountable for sinning. That’s the “Doctrine of Original Sin.”

Western Christianity, which later became Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, almost immediately accepted Augustine’s idea, and the “Doctrine of Original Sin” became the single most important thing upon which Roman Catholic and Protestant beliefs are based, the foundation on which both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity are built. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity start with saying that what we are, first of all, at the very core of our being, is sinners.

That determines how Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity look at God’s relation to us and our relation to God. First of all, when God looks at us, God sees sinners. In fact, when God looks at us, that’s all He sees—that we’re sinners. He sees the filth of our sin. Some in Protestant Christianity even said our sin stinks so bad that God gets nauseated when He looks at us. Think about that for a minute. You stink so bad that God gets nauseated at you.

So that’s God’s primary relation to us—He looks at us as filthy sinners.

And what’s our primary relation to God? Well, first of all, we’re supposed to be ashamed because of what horrible sinners we are. I am supposed to always keep in mind that what I am at the very core of my being, the most important fact about me, is that I am an utter failure, a miserable sinner. My relation to God is characterized by knowing that in God’s sight, I am nothing but a filthy, miserable sinner.

That’s what Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity say is the most basic fact about God’s relation to us and our relation to God. When God looks at us, what He sees above all is a filthy sinner. And what we should feel about ourselves, above all, is guilt because we are such horrible sinners.

I don’t like Christianity expressed in those terms. I don’t believe that when God looks at us, first of all what He sees is a filthy sinner. I don’t believe we stink so bad that God gets nauseated with us. I don’t believe that who we are at the core of our being is filthy sinners.

I believe when God looks at us, first of all what He sees is someone He loves, someone who’s here because He wants us to be here. That’s what I think God sees when He looks at us—someone He loves, and someone He wants.

You see how different those are? Some people might object here and say that God could see us as sinners and still love us, and that’s true; but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about your primary identity—the most basic fact about who you are. There is a big difference between going along with original sin and saying that the most basic fact about you is that you are a filthy sinner and saying that the most basic fact about you is that you are someone God wants and loves.

There’s a big difference between saying that when God looks at you, He is repulsed and gets nauseated and saying that when God looks at you, He sees someone He wants and loves.

Which do you think it is? And how different would it make you feel?

Think about that. If you believed that when God looks at you, He is repulsed and gets nauseated, how would that make you feel about yourself? But if you believed that when God looks at you, He sees someone He wants and loves, how would that make you feel about yourself? They’re very different, aren’t they? You either see yourself as someone who nauseates God, or you see yourself as someone who God wants and loves.

And so that’s the big question: How does God see us? Who does Christianity say we are at the core of our being—someone who nauseates God, or someone God wants and loves?

While much of Christianity would say that who we are at the core of our being is sinners, I take the other position and say that who we are at the core of our being is people God wants and loves. I don’t take that position lightly; I take it from years and years of studying the Bible, studying the history of Christianity, and much serious and prayerful consideration. I really do believe that is what Christianity tells us—who we are at the core of our being is people God wants and loves.

When God looks at me, He sees someone He wants and loves. When God looks at you, He sees someone He wants and loves. And I believe when God looks at every person on earth—and I do mean every person—what He sees is someone He wants and loves.

It is a fact, though, that everyone sins. Some sin more than others, but everyone sins. I do not believe it’s like Augustine said, that we sin because God made us that way. I do not think God made us sinners. Again, from years and years of studying the Bible, studying the history of Christianity, and much serious and prayerful consideration, I believe we are sinners because we are under the sway of a power opposed to God. It is that power that makes us sinners, not God.

And that’s why when God looks at us, “sinner” is not the primary thing He sees. You see, what this other power made us into is not what we really are. Who we really are is what God made us—good, in His image, to reflect Him, to be like Him. Nothing can spoil that. Nothing can spoil that who we really are, at the very core of our being, is people God wants and loves.

In Romans chapter 7 Paul writes a complicated passage. In a nutshell, he says it’s not really him who is sinning, it’s something else inside him making him do it, something he refers to as “the law of sin.” In other words, “sinner” is not who he really is at the core of his being. And then he asks who can deliver who he really is from this “law of sin” in him that’s making him into something he’s really not? And he answers, “Jesus.”

Paul is saying that “sinners” is not who we are at the very core of our being. It’s the result of something else coming in and making us that way, but it’s not really who we are. How can we get free of that? Jesus will do it for us. Jesus will take that away and make us once again into who we really are. God will take away that other thing that has somehow crept in.

But that’s not going to happen as long as we’re here on earth, as Paul puts it, as long as we’re in this “body of death.” That will only happen after the resurrection, when we’re in heaven. Until then, we sin. Paul says he still sins. He says he does that which he does not want to do. And we do, too. In fact, everyone does.

That does not mean, though, that “sinner” is our primary identity. Some have used this passage to say that, but a close look at it reveals something else, for Paul plainly says “it is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells in me.” It is not the core of his being that is a sinner; it is something else that has wormed its way inside him. He says that sin “dwells in” him. It’s not him, not who he really is, it’s an intruder that has come in.

Now I’d like to go back and think about what that church reader board said. “Be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.” No matter what the people who put that up might have intended it to mean, we don’t have to look at it as saying “you’re a miserable sinner who deserves to burn in hell.” In fact, we don’t even have to look at it as referencing God at all.

We could look at that slogan as talking about how we look at other people. We could look at it as saying, “As long as we’re human beings on earth, we’ll all sin. You’ll sin. Your family and friends will sin. Your neighbors will sin. Everyone on earth will sin. When you’re criticizing others for bad things they’ve done, temper that with the realization that you also do bad things.

Yes, I know there are plenty of people out there who do bad things that are a lot worse than the things we do, that have negative effects on a lot of people, and obviously we can’t just let people run amuck doing bad things. Sometimes we have to set limits. But even when we do that, we have to keep in mind that we ourselves do bad things.

In other words, our judgment of others, even our judgment of others who do really bad things, always has to be tempered with the realization that at least on some level, we ourselves also do bad things.

There is a scene in John chapter 8 where the Pharisees and other religious leaders bring in a woman who has been caught in adultery. They tell Jesus that the law of Moses says she should be stoned, and they ask Him what He says to do. Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” No one picks up a stone to stone the woman; in fact, the crowd slowly trickles away.

It’s essential to pay attention to exactly what the Bible says. Notice that Jesus did not say, “Let the one among you who has never committed adultery cast the first stone.” He said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”

So many times, we feel justified in judging someone if it’s for a sin we have never committed, or we feel justified in judging someone for committing sins that are a lot worse than the ones we have committed. We feel OK doing that because we haven’t committed the particular sins we’re judging them for.

But keep in mind that when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus and asked if He approved of stoning her, Jesus did not say, “Let the one among you who has never committed adultery cast the first stone.” He said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” There’s a big difference.

How could our lives together be so much better if we took that to heart?

We’ve seen two very different ways of looking at things. One way says that who we are at the very core of our being, the most basic fact about all of us, is that we’re sinners. This way says that when God looks at us, what He sees most of all is sin—filthy, rotten sin. This way says that if God gave us what we deserve, then we’d all burn in hell because of what disgusting, nauseating sinners we are. That’s a horrible way to look at everything. It’s a horrible way to look at God, and it’s a horrible way to look at yourself.

But it does something else. It leads us also to see other people as nothing but filthy, rotten sinners. It leads us also to see other people as people who nauseate God. And if they are nothing but filthy, rotten sinners who nauseate God, then why should they matter to me? They’re just filth I can sweep out of the way if I want to. And who could blame me? After all, they’re worthless, they nauseate God, so if they nauseate God, how could I be blamed for just sweeping them out of the way if I want to? Who could be blamed for sweeping away rotten filth?

And hence the attitude toward others that so many in our society have.

But we also saw another way of looking at things. This way says that when God looks at us, what He sees most of all is people He wants and loves. This way says that all people sin, but sinners is not who we really are, it’s the result of something that came in and made us captives to itself. This way says that God is working now to end our captivity to that, and on the other side of this life, He’ll succeed. But in the meantime, until that happens, we all sin. Some will sin worse than other, but we all sin.

Sometimes, just to keep the peace, we have to set limits on the bad things people can get by with doing. Sometimes we have to condemn the bad things people do. It’s a necessary part of life. Society would not be possible if we took a “do as you please” attitude toward everything.

But even as we do that, we do it hesitatingly, always remembering that when they brought the woman caught in adultery before Jesus, He didn’t say, “Let the one among you who has never committed this particular sin cast the first stone;” He said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”