Sinners or Saints?

Question from a Site Viewer
My pastor often makes the proclamation that we are all “sinful” and “just a bunch of sinners.” and therefore there is no distinction between Christians and non-Christians. Is it possible that God sees us as both (sinner and saint) simultaneously? I would acknowledge that there is still sin present in my flesh (Galatians 5:17 1 John 1:8) and that I do sin. I also wholeheartedly believe that apart from the mercy and grace of Christ we are all lost and dead in our sin. However, from my understanding of Scripture neither God nor the Apostles ever call Christians sinners. We are referred to as sons (Ephesians 1:4), children (1 John 2:1), brethren (Colossians 1:2), friends (John 15:15) heirs (Romans 8:1:17), citizens of heaven (Ephesians 2:19) and most commonly as saints (Paul’s greeting in most of his epistles). I feel that we should be defined by who God (and the Scriptures) say we are, not by our behavior. I have prayed about presenting my views to my pastor but sense that God is telling me to wait. I am interested in hearing your views this issue.

Tim’s Answer
Thank you for your question. What you are perceiving in your pastor’s language is a difference in models of sanctification. Among Christians, there are models of sanctification (or the way we are to separate our lives out to Christ) that vary from one extreme to the other. For instance, there are some who teach that Christians can reach a state of sinless perfection, where they have eradicated sin from their lives and no longer suffer even the temptation of sin. They would assert that they live perfectly without sin. Such people rely on certain language in Romans 6, 1 Peter 4, and 1 John as support.

On the other extreme, there are those who believe or appear to believe that there is no freedom from sin in this life; but that as long as we are in this body we cannot help but live continually in sin. Such people rely heavily on the end of Romans 7 for their support.

The problem with systems of sanctification is that sometimes there is a tendency to support the system notwithstanding Scripture. I think people in all camps would claim that their system is based on Scripture. But while each camp can claim a passage or two that may seem to offer some support, I think most miss the overall tenor of Scripture.

When Scripture speaks of sinners, it almost always is in contrast to the righteous. For instance, in Luke 6:32-34, Jesus says that we as believers should live better than the sinners do. Paul contrasts righteousness and sin in Romans 5-8. John does the same thing in 1 John. Peter asks the following: if the righteous (speaking of us) are scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and sinners appear (1 Peter 4:18)? And, of course the Old Testament is full of such contrasts, throughout the prophets and the writings, as well as in the Torah.

There are a couple of passages where the Scripture writers refer to the saints as sinners, but these are in reference to specific and enumerated sins. For instance, in James 4:8, James writes to the believers who were fighting among themselves and he calls for them to cleanse their hands, calling them sinners. And in Galatians 2:17, Paul speaks of those who were justified being found sinners. But in each place, the Biblical writer is contending with believers to live differently. The writers are addressing a problem. They are not saying that all believers are sinners, or that the term “sinner” should be applied normally to Christians.

In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul states that Christ came to save sinners, among whom Paul was the first or foremost one. Given the present tense of the grammar, this passage can be used to support Paul as saying that when he wrote to Timothy he still saw himself at least in some way as a sinner. But the passage can also be interpreted to say that when Paul wrote the passage, he saw himself as the first or the prototype sinner that Christ had redeemed, a past tense idea. This at least seems to me to be the thrust of the passage; that is, not that Paul was presently viewing Himself as a sinner, but that Paul was presently viewing himself as having been the foremost of sinners upon whom the mercy of God came so as to show forth a pattern of longsuffering.

Even apart from believers, Paul does not often refer to people as sinners. He states in Romans 5:8 that we were once sinners, implying that such is not our present state. He contrasts sinners and the righteous in Romans 5:19. He speaks of being Jews by nature and not sinners like the Gentiles in Galatians 2:15 and again refers to sinners in Galatians 2:17. He speaks of the law being for sinners, not for the righteous (1 Timothy 1:9). And then there is the passage in 1 Timothy 1:15 discussed above. That is extent of Paul addressing people as sinners.

The other epistle writers do not use the term any more than Paul did. We find it in Hebrews 7:26 where Christ is separate from sinners; in Hebrews 12:3 where those who opposed Christ were called sinners; the James passage mentioned above; James 5:20 speaking of converting a sinner from his way; the question in 1 Peter 4:18 as to where the sinner will appear, and the passage in Jude 15 where the wicked are termed “sinners.” That is the sum total of passages outside of the gospels in the New Testament that even use the term.

In contrast to the term “sinner,” the terms used of God’s people by God Himself and the Biblical writers are overwhelmingly positive. God calls Job “perfect and upright” (Job 1:8). Zacharias and Elisabeth were said to be “righteous” (Luke 1:6). John the Baptist is called “holy” (Mark 6:20). Joseph of Arimathea was called “good and just” (Luke 23:50). Luke calls the believers at Lydda “saints” in Acts 9:32, 41. Paul and the other writers of the epistles and Revelation repeatedly addresses the believers as saints or holy ones (Romans 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25, 26, 31; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:1, 2; 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; 4:21, 22; Colossians 1:2, 4, 12, 26; 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:27; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Timothy 5:10; Philemon 5, 7; Hebrews 3:1; 6:10; 13:24; 1 Peter 2:5, 9; Jude 3; Revelation 5:8; 8:3, 4; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:8).

Because overwhelmingly Scripture views us as you state, that is, as sons, children of God, heirs of Christ, a new creation, blameless, and saints, I think there is a strong basis for us to use the same language of ourselves. Stated another way, it is important for us to see ourselves as God sees us. And God sees us as sons of light in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. The image we place in our mind of who we are is a critical part of conforming ourselves to that image. This is Paul’s argument in Romans 6 and in the book of Ephesians and Colossians and many other passages. How we view ourselves and what we think about theology ultimately drives the way we live. We are saints and so we should live as saints.

This is not to state that we are free from the potential to sin, but nevertheless Paul argues forcefully in Romans 6 and Galatians 5 among other places that we have been granted the power to live in righteousness and not to be slaves to sin. Slavery is bondage. In Paul’s view, we are not in bondage to sin. There is nothing that compels us to sin. John makes the same argument in 1 John 1-3. Peter tells us that God has given us the power to live in godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Thus, I am in full agreement with your view that we should not be viewing ourselves as sinners. We were sinners, but we are now saints who may sometimes sin. If we are merely sinners who sometimes do good, then John would argue that we we are not born of God (1 John 3:4-10).

However, as in all things, the servant of the Lord must not strive with others about such matters, but be gentle to all. We need to seek peace among the brothers. My encouragement is to understand that all of us have areas in our theology that should be improved. But as we pray for our brothers and sisters, God may grant us opportunity to share with them the truths that we see. We should share in humility and deference.

I am glad that you are responding to the sense that God is saying to wait. Perhaps, as you interact with your pastor, you can use words like “saints, “holy ones,” “children of God,” “blameless ones,” and similar Biblical language sprinkled in your conversation as you refer to others. For instance, you might say that you really appreciate a certain person; he or she is a real saint. As you reflect the view of God in your speech, over time others will notice. Some day, people will look back and say, “He always saw God’s people as saints.” That is a great legacy to leave.

May the Lord Jesus grant you wisdom and understanding in this and in all areas.

And may the Lord Jesus bless you exceedingly.

a fellow saint,

tim

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