Are Christians sinners or saints?

You know the drill. The worship leader opens his set with a catalog of petty sins he's committed in the past week. He talks about how we're all sinners, how we're unworthy of God's grace, but now we're forgiven. After that brief but necessary bath in self-pity and self-flagellation, we have the appropriate sense of guilt to begin singing songs.

I frequently hear Christians describe themselves as sinners. It's being humble and authentic and I respect that. After all, everyone is broken and messed up in some significant way. When a follower of Jesus says he is a sinner, he is coming to terms with his fallibility. He is aware of his weakness and he has the courage and humility to acknowledge that. That's a good thing. I don't want to detract from that. And yet I wonder if sin is the core identity of a follower of Jesus. Some might argue we're both sinners and saints and we must get used to the tension. Thus the fundamental question is this:

Once you are redeemed by Jesus, are you still a sinner?

No.

You are a saint. The sinner in you is dead. This is the unseen reality of who you are.

If you are a Christian, you will not believe this according to your experience. You are surrounded by the daily evidence of your sin - from the rage fantasies you wake up with, to the foul language you utter when someone cuts you off; from the coworker you throw under the bus, to the boss you spread rumors about behind his back; from the panhandler whom you ignore on the drive home and to the way you escape to your smartphone instead of connecting with your spouse or children.

But what if the evidence of your behavior is not what is truly real? What if your acts of rebellion are the physical manifestation of a lie? What if they're the product of an illusion that you have believed all your life and the world is constantly bombarding you to believe?

What's at stake here is a correct understanding of who you are. If you regard yourself as a sinner and live out of that belief, what effect does that have? Most Christians have kind of schizophrenic understanding - you're regarded by God as a saint but you feel and act like a sinner. So you live in this kind of peculiar state where God tells you you're righteous but you don't feel righteous in any concrete way. What if God has substantively changed you so that you are actually righteous? What if that's more real than the ground under your feet?

First, the term "sinner" and "saint" must be defined. A sinner is one whose life trajectory is characterized by rebellion against God. A sinner's thinking is characterized by the pattern of this world and its cultures. A sinner's behavior and emotional life is characterized by the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). And yet for many sinners, especially religious ones, there may not be outward signs of evil but rather superiority and arrogance that is internal and not obvious. For example, although Jesus does not explicitly label the Pharisees as "sinners", he has other choice terms to indicate what is inside their hearts (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:25-33). I recognize this definition of sinner is broader than the definition in the New Testament gospels. In those cases "sinner and tax collectors" meant people on the margins of society who were known for overt evil acts. And yet this broader definition captures how Paul described himself as I will explain below.

What then is a saint? Saint in the original Greek means "holy one". A saint is one whose life is characterized by the trajectory of going towards God. According to Romans 6, a saint is no longer a slave to sin and is now a "slave to righteousness". A saint is holy, blameless, and beyond reproach (Colossians 1:22). A saint

You might disagree on my definition. A saint, as defined by the Catholic church, is someone who has been vetted through the extensive canonization process. It is not a sinless person but a person who has accomplished significant things for God. This is not exactly the way Paul and other New Testament writers use the term.

Second, everyone sins - including Christians (saints) and certainly including me. This is not an argument that saints do not sin. This is an argument that the authors of the New Testament, primarily the apostle Paul, regarded followers of Jesus as "saints" and not "sinners" and that therefore, we are to view ourselves primarily as saints and not sinners.

Third, "saint" is not merely a statement about a believer's status. Being a saint is not a costume one puts on to look good. Being a saint describes a follower of Jesus both externally and internally. When one follows Jesus, God changes him on the inside. His old self dies and he is born again and given new life. He is now substantively different. One would not say that Christians have the righteous standing of saints but are otherwise sinners in every other meaningful way.

You are a saint

From the New Testament (English Standard Version) occurrences of the term "saint": Matthew 27:52; Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Romans 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25f, 31; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:1f; 14:33; 16:1, 15; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:4; 9:1, 12; 13:13; Ephesians 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Philippians 1:1; 4:22; Colossians 1:2, 4, 12, 26; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 5:10; Philemon 1:5, 7; Hebrews 6:10; 13:24; Jude 1:3; Revelation 5:8; 8:3f; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:20, 24; 19:8; 20:9

The most comprehensive argument for the fact that a follower of Jesus is a saint can be found in chapters 4-8 of Romans. A thorough exposition of those chapters is outside the scope of this post but let the following be noted: 1) the term "saint" is not used in used in these chapters but the ideas of being a "slave to righteousness", "freedom from sin", "alive to God and dead to sin" are exactly what being a saint is about. 2) It is possible to show you are a saint without using Romans 4-8 because the rest of the New Testament evidence is overwhelming and that's the intent of the rest of this post. And yet I can't resist one implicit reference to what Paul's understanding of sainthood is:

Romans 5:19  For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

What is the opposite of a sinner? A saint. A saint is characterized by a righteousness not of his own doing but that of another's. Certainly, we will indeed sin after we trust Jesus but that is not the defining pattern of our lives - we are now saints - not because of our works but Jesus'.

Ephesians 1:1  Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

In seven (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) of Paul's thirteen epistles, Paul introduces his letters by referring to the church as "saints". Was he joking? Was he being sarcastic? I highly doubt it. He is affirming the reality of who these Christians are. They are not saints because of what they have done but because they have been saved and redeemed

Colossians 1:3-4  We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,

It's possible when Paul opens this letter, he's telling the believers in Colossae that they've shown love towards a group of super Christians in their midst. But it makes far more sense to understands "saints" to mean fellow believers - either in their city or outside it.

Colossians 1:11-12  May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

This makes it more clear that Paul did not understand "saints" to be a separate category of Christian but one which the church at Colossae was included. They are also saints and enjoy the inheritance along with the saints in the light. What is so awesome about Paul's statement is his emphasis: You are not qualified to be a saint according to your achievements but according to what God the Father accomplished on your behalf. You are not a saint because you did something amazing, you're a saint because someone did something amazing for you.

Colossians 1:22  [Jesus Christ] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

Again, no explicit reference to "saint" but in the same chapter where Paul makes reference to saints, he is also defining the essence of sainthood - you are holy, blameless, and above reproach.  

Outside of Paul, there are references to early Jerusalem believers in Acts, to fellow believers in Jude, references to "endurance of the saints" in Revelation. In each example, the understanding of a "saint" as a follower of Jesus is consistent with the meaning of the text. I do acknowledge the interpretation of these verses could allow you to think "Super Christian" but I disagree based on Paul's usage.

You are no longer a sinner

1 Timothy 1:15  The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

The verse above could be used to indicate post-conversion Paul thought of himself as a sinner. But if you examine the context, it's clearly a reference to his pre-conversion state. The use of the present tense is intentional - it underscores the proximity of his sin - both chronologically and the fact that he is still able, at any time, to indulge the works of his flesh, which is irredeemably evil and bears the residue of his old self. Paul was judged faithful not because of his works but because of the cleansing work of Jesus Christ.

1 Timothy 1:12-14   I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Paul was a sinner saved by grace and he is now a saint - not because of his inherent, unique gifts and spirituality but because of Jesus Christ. He indicates he was previously a blaphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent - all overt indications of being a sinner. Again, pre-conversion Saul would not have understood his behavior as sinful as he was a well-respected Jewish leader but Paul recognizes truly that's who he was. Regardless of how you come down on this passage, Paul no longer considers the primary identity of his audience to be sinners. There are no epistles where he addresses the church as "To the sinners in Rome".

Luke 5:31-32   And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

What do we call sick people who recover? Healthy. What do we call sinners who repent and are made righteous? Saints.

Galatians 2:15-17  We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!

Paul was writing to the church in Galatia to defend against a heresy that justification came by faith and works of the law. In v.17, Paul is explaining that just because a saint commits a sin, that evil act does not transform Jesus nor the saint into a sinner. Paul's point is believers have been set free from God's moral standard in the Mosaic Law and that we now have a new existence in Christ - we are no longer sinners but saints - Jesus lives his life in us.

John 9:31  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.

God listens to believers because of the cleansing and resurrecting power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who dwells in them to empower them. If you're a sinner, God will not listen to you. God only listens to saints and you are a saint because of Jesus.

Implications


Imagine waking up in the morning knowing exactly who you are - a saint. You no longer need self-pity, self-flagellation, guilt, or shame to get you moving or to prepare your heart to sing worship songs. If you gossip about your boss or cut someone off, you confess your sin and you move on to live righteously because for that moment, you forgot who you are. In fact, being a saint allows you the freedom to acknowledge and confess your sin - it does not threaten your worth or security because you are not holy, righteous, and blameless. Sorrow over your own sin is temporary and the Spirit immediately leads you into repentance to gently point you back to the truth - that you are a beloved child of Most High King and you have an inheritance in the saints - because that's who you are.

Comments

  1. Excellent stuff.

    One issue that comes up is, "Won't this just allow you to justify the fact that you continue in sin?"

    Of course Paul asks and answers his version of this question in Romans 6, but I think it's good to look at it from an "identity-based" viewpoint. If we are holy and righteous and blameless before God, and we sin, as you point out we have stepped out of our identity. But the whole point of the justification and sanctification that Christ makes for us is that we can then step back into that identity. If we continue out of our identity, we (of course) nullify its effect on us.

    It's as if in a marriage one spouse commits adultery. The other spouse forgives the sinning spouse so that the identity of "married" can continue. But if the adulterous spouse says, "I'm forgiven, so I can keep committing adultery," then the identity of "married" becomes meaningless. The forgiveness and restoration is so that the sinful spouse can step back into that identity and live it out. And note that it is costly. The sinned-against spouse must bear the pain and humiliation of the sin. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is grieved when we reject our identity, though he welcomes us back into it.

    But the most important thing is to realize that rejection of the old identity is key to living in the new identity. If a person is "married", if he labels himself "adulterer" it will make it really hard to go back. That's why "sin management" is so ineffective.

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    1. Thanks for the analogy Fred, it is very helpful in understanding the objection to keep on sinning because we are forgiven.

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    2. Totally agree Fred. I would also emphasize this is not a mind game we play. It's reality.

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  4. Excellent post Fred! Your argument that our primary identity in Christ is that of saints is very well articulated and backed by substantial biblical evidence. I have to admit that in my life, I often struggle with "being a saint, but feeling like a sinner." However, your definition that a saint is on the trajectory towards God is very helpful and encourages me that even though I might struggle with sin, sometimes making little no progress, even the struggle itself is evidence that there is a new man in me who I am learning to manifest in my life. One practical way I can live this out is: When I make a mistake or do something wrong, rather than beat myself up and doubt that I am really new, I can just say to myself and God, "This is not who I really am." No self-flagellation, no despair, just a simple acknowledgment and confession of what I did then I move on. Thanks for this post, Fred!

    -Peter C

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    1. Thanks Peter! Appreciate you and the encouragement!

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