Sinners or Saints?

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Driving home this evening, I got to thinking about what I’ve written here the last few days. Much of it centers around how we Christians perceive ourselves and what Christ has done for us. Saints of the Most High God!It’s the question of whether we see ourselves as sinners or saints.

The more I read the Scriptures, the more I realize we’re misunderstanding the extent of Christ’s work on the cross. And in that misunderstanding, we fall back into a grossly mistaken position.

The New Testament draws clear lines of distinction between sinners and saints. We, however, like to blur those distinctions whenever we call our post-conversion selves “sinners.” But I don’t see Paul going back to that well all the time. When he writes a letter to a church, he doesn’t say, “To all the sinners in the church of….” No, he repeatedly uses the word saints.

In truth, you and I are saints who are being changed by God through the putting off of our old sin nature. Our identities got swapped out. God doesn’t look at us as sinners, but saints because of the salvation purchased for us by Christ.

So why is it that so many of us go back to that hangdog “sinner” appellation? Aren’t we giving up what Christ did for us at the cross? If we truly are new creations in Christ, if He’s paid the penalty on our behalf, and He’s secured for us access to the Father, why do we fall back into thinking of ourselves as sinners and not saints?

If anything, the epistles drive this home:

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
—Romans 6:11

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
—Galatians 2:20

So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
—Galatians 4:7

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…
—Ephesians 2:19

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.
—1 John 3:1a

If we don’t have this mentality, then we’re missing out on what it means to be alive in Christ.

We then

  • set our expectations low and don’t believe God for the impossible because we still think we’re aliens and strangers,
  • fail to appropriate what Christ has purchased for us on the cross, because we mistakenly think the sinner in us is triumphant over the saint, and
  • muddle through and lament, rather than walk in our inheritance as children of God.

I’ve got to believe that our failure to move beyond identifying primarily as sinners is one reason why our churches lack power. It explains why so much of what we attempt for the Kingdom fails. It shows why so many of us limp through our days rather than rising on wings like eagles.

Church, it’s time to step out of the sinner ghetto and walk in the sainthood Christ so dearly paid for!

37 thoughts on “Sinners or Saints?

  1. Wow, I really think you’re wrong, Dan. I don’t think the mediocrity of the church has been because we think of ourselves as sinners but not saints; I think it’s because we don’t think about sin at all (making exceptions to think about the sins of others, of course). I think the American Church’s primary problem in this regard is that it thinks and teaches that the problems we face are external and the solutions are internal (self-help, therapeutic gospel), instead of facing the honest, gospel truth that our problem is internal (is us, actually) and the solution is external.

    I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy, theologically speaking, also. I just taught on this last night, so it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I preached on those same passages you cited and a few more. I think Paul’s clear teaching is that we are both saints and sinners (“Wretched man that I am!”), that we are wartorn in our bodies because of “the flesh.”
    But that he also taught that because of Christ’s finished work, sin and death no longer has dominion over us. We are free in Christ indeed.

    But a healthy, sober assessment of our sin is a good thing. It shouldn’t keep us defeated and despondent; It should keep us always trusting in the finished work of Christ on our behalf and inspiring us to walk confidently not in our own sainthood but in the sin-covering grace of God.

    • To say that Christians are both saints and sinners is the false dichotomy. I John defines the spiritual nature of the believers versus the nature of sinners, “By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil” and that is consistent with Paul and all of the other epistles (cf. Col. 1.13 – “he has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son). Your quotation, “Wretched man that I am” is from Romans 7.24 and is part of Paul’s argument and testimony of the state of a man who was under the Law. In that verse he is not speaking from the position of a born-again Christian (see Romans 7.1)

      Frankly, defining Christians as sinners, but also saying that we are free in Christ is the kind of Orwellian double-speak that has thwarted the maturity of the saints.

    • Jared,

      We don’t disagree. We agree that too often the Church tries to manufacture solutions apart from God. Any casual reading of this blog would show that this is my position, too.

      But I’m talking about identity. What is our identity in Christ? The whole of the NT says that our identity is saint, not sinner. This does not mean that we don’t fall back into the old nature from time to time, but that does not define us. What defines us is Christ’s finished work. To Him, sinner is what we were. When Paul’s writing “and such were some of you,” he’s writing in the past tense.

      If we continue to spend all our time identifying as sinners, I don’t believe we can step into the fullness of life that Christ has bought for us. Our mentality winds up stuck on our sin and not on His redemption. That’s backward.

    • Scripture is quite clear if you want to see it. We are dead to sin and dead to the law. I encourage you to ‘really read Romans’ as my dad challenged me a couple of years back. I used to live under the awful condemnation of believing I was still a sinner. I was sin conscious, which is a sign that I was living as under the Old Covenant, not the new. (hebrews 10:1-4) It is no understatement to say the my life is completely different now that understand the Gospel more. For one thing, I don’t want to kill myself…

  2. I think both sinner and saint stand in tension and I would answer which based on the context of the question. However, I ascribe to the adage that prior to conversion Satan spends his time convincing us we are saints (i.e., we are ok and have no need for God’s plan of salvation) and after conversion he spends his time convincing us we are sinners (i.e., not worthy of God’s plan of salvation).

    Overall, the Scriptural bent is to proclaim that we are saints redeemed from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of Light. The church at large tends toward the opposite.

  3. Very good points.
    I guess we just need to be careful that we don’t slip into the Wesleyan holiness camp (I think David Peterson finds a good ‘middle’ ground in his excellent study, “Possessed by God”), thinking that the holiness is something WE HAVE, and not something God works in us.
    So often my experience has been, in congregations where the “Saints” aspect of our reality is the emphasis to the detriment of the “Sinner” aspect, that grace is greatly lacking there and self-righteousness abounds because everyone is trying SO HARD and most are MISERABLE because they’re trying to conform outwardly instead of putting themselves in a place where God is effectively changing their hearts and passions.
    Otherwise, though – very good reminder.
    blessings…
    shannon

  4. Cheryl

    I heard alot of this ‘ad nauseum’ in the word of faith church almost to the point that we became ‘god-like’. Maybe in those settings people need to hear what I wretch I am and the fact that they neglect the weighter matters of the law.
    I guess it goes back to your previous posting on balance. For christians who are dragging their feet with a woe as me attitude need to be told who they are in Christ, others need a proverbial pin ‘sticketh yea’ in the you know what!
    I remind myself that I am dust and yet Christ trusts me enough to co-labor with Him. Its pretty awesome really.

    • Peter Smythe

      Having attended Word churches for the past twenty years, I understand the gist of your comment, but there is a difference between objective spiritual identity and spiritual maturity.

  5. David Riggins

    Ah sin, that little issue that seperates us from God, which does not if we are in Christ, but we still deal with, though we are saved from, we still dwell with, and though freed from, are still shackled by…

    …nothing like an issue that divides, eh?

    So, are we sinning saints? Flawed humans, but righteous children of God, not of our own power, but by Christ, by whose death His righteousness is imputed upon us. So it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me. Once saved, my sin does not matter in the eternal scheme of things, but it entangles my feet when I should be running. It’s a reminder that I am not totally and completely giving up everything to the rule of Christ in my life.

    So, I sin.

    Get over it! Live! Love God! I need to stop beating myself over the head with my failure. Yeah, I fail, all the freakin’ time! And I confess that to God, whose grace is sufficient, to those around me who love me regardless and who hold me accountable, and I go on. Love God, and live boldly, knowing that we are given grace for that very reason. I am free to live my life to the glory of the God who saved me through the sacrifice of His Son.

    What else is there?

  6. I appreciate the author’s heart and intention, but I have to disagree.

    It’s not that we’re not saints, of course. But it’s a false dichotomy and dishonest to say we’re not sinners.

    We’re sinners saved by grace through faith. We’re saints because we’ve been declared such, and should act like such.

    Yet, we’re saints that sin. That’s the protestant understanding of justification.

    As Luther penned it, “simul iustus et peccator” – simultaneously justified and sinner.

    We’re sinners simply because we sin and that’s what the word means. To deny we sin is another problem in and of itself.

    Plus, Paul speaks of himself as a sinner, in fact the chief of sinners in 1 Tim 1:15. And he does so in the present tense.

    It’s not “I was the chief of sinners,” but “sinners, of whom I am chief.”

    Like the elderly Texas lady said of the KJV, “If it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me.”

    Rick wrote: “However, I ascribe to the adage that prior to conversion Satan spends his time convincing us we are saints (i.e., we are ok and have no need for God’s plan of salvation) and after conversion he spends his time convincing us we are sinners (i.e., not worthy of God’s plan of salvation).”

    I have to disagree, at least in my experience. For me, the enemy’s attack (post-conversion) has been more, “No, that’s no big deal. It’s not sin. If so, it’s only a little one and, hey, you’re a forgiven saint anyway, so what’s the big deal? Jesus will still love you. Do it. You know you want to.”

    • Peter Smythe

      Luther’s comment is not found anywhere in scripture and Paul’s statement is just an adjectival phrase of who Jesus came to save (he’s one of the group). Paul also said that he wasn’t fit to be called an apostle which, given the same kind of literalistic interpretation that you use in 1 Tim. 1.15, means that God really missed it.

      While the Reformers saw some light on faith, that revelation does not transmogrify them into being foundational apostles or even put them in a class of elevated teachers. They, for instance, failed to understand the ontological significance of verses such as 2 Corinthians 5.21 (“we are God’s righteousness”) or Galatians 6.15 (“what counts is a new creation”) with their Latinized justification template.

  7. There’s something of the dynamic tension of being saint and sinner that is powerful, don’t you think? Like Peter being told he is a rock. Or the tax collector who, declaring himself a sinner, is told he is justified. It holds the reality of our knowledge of our weakness in tension with what God declares us to be, and calls us forward into.

  8. Ferguson’s position is the classic Reformed view that we fundementally have a new identity. The “indicatives” of scripture is what this points to. We are saints, we are united with Christ, we are a new creation, we are in Christ, we are children of God, etc. These realities should have a bearing on the way we live, thus the imperatives of scripture to be holy, to forgive, to live lives to the glory of God, etc. Indicatives have to always proceed imperatives. We see this structure in the whole book of Eph where the first 3 chapters are indicatives and the last 3 are imperatives. Thus we have to affirm both. But the foundation of our nature is that we are now “in Christ” and all the is His is mine. Double imputation: I am credited as perfect as a result of his perfect obedience and my sin get placed on him as a perfect substitute.

    Does this all lead to a unbiblical perfectionism? Certainly not as we are not yet perfected. We are being perfected, but will never achieve it this side of heaven. The flesh the world and the devil are fully alive and provide the battle that we have to fight on everyday but our status as believers does not change.

    Just buy the book, it’s worth it for sure and Ferguson (Fergalicious!) says these things way more eloquently than I do. John Murray has much to say about this in Redemption Accomplished and Applied (201-213) as well as John Stott in his book Life in Christ, chapter 3.

  9. Peter wrote:
    “Luther’s comment is not found anywhere in scripture and Paul’s statement is just an adjectival phrase of who Jesus came to save (he’s one of the group). Paul also said that he wasn’t fit to be called an apostle which, given the same kind of literalistic interpretation that you use in 1 Tim. 1.15, means that God really missed it.

    While the Reformers saw some light on faith, that revelation does not transmogrify them into being foundational apostles or even put them in a class of elevated teachers. They, for instance, failed to understand the ontological significance of verses such as 2 Corinthians 5.21 (we are God’s righteousness) or Galatians 6.15 (what counts is a new creation) with their Latinized justification template.”

    Well, I’m just a caveman. I don’t really understand what you mean about transmogrified apostles or Latinized justification templates, but I do know this.

    In 1 Cor 15 Paul speaks the truth, he wasn’t worthy. He doesn’t say he was “unfit” as you note, but I’ll even go that route. God made him fit.
    “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (v.9)

    How can that mean anything other than what Paul meant? God called him by grace, since he wasn’t worthy. Had he been fit as you may be implying, then it wasn’t by grace.

    Of course, there’s always Romans 7 where Paul speaks in the present tense. Some will dispute the nature of his discourse, but in the context of dealing with sanctification you have the Apostle Paul speaking of himself as struggling with sin.

    In 1 Tim 1:15 Paul speaks in the present tense of being a sinner. Sure, that’s a literalistic interpretation. Is that a bad thing? Don’t his words mean things … literally? You confused me with that accusation/jab.

    Luther’s comment, of course, wasn’t in Scripture, which was obvious since it’s Latin. But, of course, “trinity” is not found in Scripture either, but it’s a helpful way of understanding things (cf. “hypostatic union,” “forensic justification,” “substitutionary atonement,” etc.).

    Peter, are you saying that you don’t sin? If so, I have little hope we’ll come to any agreement on things of the faith.

    If so, then you’re a sinner … just like the rest of us. We all know that’s how language works.

    One who runs is a … runner
    One who swims is a … swimmer.
    One who sins is a … sinner.

    In short, I think you’re assuming the conclusion. You’re assuming a false dichotomy that we can’t be both a saint and a sinner at the same time, which is a very Roman Catholic approach.

    Given that you know we’re saints, you assume we can’t be sinners. Then you’re interpreting these texts in that light.

    Well, they can’t mean that a regenerate person is a sinner, so they must mean something else. I just don’t think you’re giving these texts a fair treatment to allow them to answer the question.

    I don’t want to come across as antagonistic, so I apologize in advance if that is perceived.

    However, this is an important issue that we not think more highly of ourselves than we ought.

  10. Peter Smythe

    With regard to 1 Cor. 15.9, the NASB translates the Greek as “not fit to be called an apostle” which is not an incorrect translation. Employing the strict literalness that you do with 1 Timothy 1.15, you’d come out with the conclusion that Paul was unfit – present tense – to be an apostle when he was an apostle.

    With regard to 1 Timothy 1.15, I was pointing out that Paul was using an adjectival phrase with regard to whom Jesus came to save.

    Is literalistic interpretation a bad thing? Depends. Go to Kentucky and ask the snake handlers what they think of Mark 16.18. 1 Timothy 1.15, just like any verse, must be interpreted within its context and with other scripture. As I indicated in my prior comment, in Romans 7, Paul is speaking as one who is under the Law.

    The Word shows us that a sinner has the nature of the devil in him (John 8.44) and that he is also “energized” by the devil as Rotherham puts it (Eph. 2.2). The Word also shows us that one who is born-again has the very nature of God Almighty in him (see John 1.2, 4; 10.10).

    As Dan posted, it is a matter of identity.

    And just a note – With regard to the reference to Luther’s slogan, we should be very careful about such things. “Forensic justification” is theological-laden phrase that is not found in the Greek and bespeaks of the denial of the New Creation as set out in the Word. “Substitutionary atonement” uses the term “atonement” which is not a New Testament term, but an Old Testament term that means “covering.” Under the New Testament our sins are not covered, but they are cleansed.

  11. marie

    Didn’t Christ conquer sin and death?

    Doesn’t that same Christ dwell within me because He cleansed me of all unrighteousness with His poured out blood and purchased me as His own?

    I pray my life speaks more of the One who dwells within than of the casing He occupies.

    In that light, I am a saint. Not because of anything I did, but because of what Jesus Christ did for me! Yes, I sin – but I learn from it, ask forgiveness and continue on being “made” by the One I follow!

    He, who is my life, purchased a sinner and transformed me into a new creation, a living temple, a saint. Praise be to the God Most High!

  12. What is the end product of sin identification rather than that of saint? What one of my professors once called, “miserable sinner Christianity.”
    Sin consciousness can only lead to more of its namesake, it doesn’t take us a day past the cross nor can it. It leaves us stuck on the welcome mat at the vestibule of heaven. Saint consciousness leads us into life after the exchange on the cross to living in the power of the indwelling Spirit of God. Saint consciousness doesn’t inexorably lead to perfectionism, but neither does it lead to peaceful coexistence with flesh.

    • SLW,

      My experience has been that those Christian sects that severely overemphasize sinner over saint tend to succumb to a sort of Christian fatalism that thwarts the working of God in their midst. It’s one thing to admit that I sin. It’s another to wallow in that admission and fail to walk in the triumphant life Christ purchased for us on the cross.

  13. <blockquote>From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
    —2 Corinthians 5:16-21</blockquote>

    No Christian can read that passage and claim an identity as a sinner! The flesh does not matter. It’s the spirit of Man that has been made alive and the soul that is being sanctified. The flesh counts for nothing.

    Call it “The New-Birth Birthright.” Yes, we will struggle with the old nature at times, but we’re all new creations in Christ. Our address has been changed from hell to heaven. Should we go back to hell and reminisce about the old days? No. We must claim the birthright He purchased for us by living obediently with Him as our Head. That’s the position we’re in now, the position of the saint. (BTW, Watchman Nee lays this out brilliantly in his exposition of Ephesians, <i>Sit, Walk, Stand</i>.)

  14. I think where some people show trepidation at the saint appellation comes from an idea that we will gloat in self-righteousness and ignore sin altogether.

    I have a problem with that because it forces a mentality that can turn anything positive into a negative. Yes, we should watch out that we don’t get swelled heads from being made saints, but just because that tendency may exist, it shouldn’t negate the sainthood altogether!

    Lax people can corrupt anything. We can overindulge in the Lord’s Supper. Should we stop serving it then? What would the apostles say? The same goes for claiming our identity as saints of the Living Christ. We can’t throw it away based on the potential for abuse. All good gifts of God carry within their goodness the potential for abuse. A saint must live an honest, sober life rooted in the Christ, supported by the Scriptures, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

  15. Dan wrote: “It’s one thing to admit that I sin. It’s another to wallow in that admission and fail to walk in the triumphant life Christ purchased for us on the cross.”

    Amen. I’m certainly not advocated that and I didn’t see any others doing so either. Though I could have missed it.

    Peter wrote: “The Word shows us that a sinner has the nature of the devil in him (John 8.44) and that he is also “energized by the devil as Rotherham puts it (Eph. 2.2). The Word also shows us that one who is born-again has the very nature of God Almighty in him (see John 1.2, 4; 10.10).”

    I’ve not heard of Rotherham, Peter, but as you might say, even if he “saw some light on faith, that does not transmogrify [him] into being [a] foundational apostle or even put [him] in a class of elevated teachers.”

    (Just having some fun with you there.)

    Marie wrote: “In that light, I am a saint. Not because of anything I did, but because of what Jesus Christ did for me! Yes, I sin – but I learn from it, ask forgiveness and continue on being “made by the One I follow!”

    Amen. We sin, because we’re sinners and/or thereby making us sinners, but we’re also saints.

    Is anyone arguing we’re not saints? I’m certainly not.

    Dan wrote: “Call it “The New-Birth Birthright. Yes, we will struggle with the old nature at times, but we’re all new creations in Christ. Our address has been changed from hell to heaven. Should we go back to hell and reminisce about the old days? No. We must claim the birthright He purchased for us by living obediently with Him as our Head. That’s the position we’re in now, the position of the saint. (BTW, Watchman Lee lays this out brilliantly in his exposition of Ephesians, Sit, Walk, Stand.)”

    I think it’s Watchman Nee you’re referring to. You might have combined his name with Witness Lee. But, ho said anything about going back to hell to reminisce about the old days? I’m talking about the here and now. As you note, we will struggle with the old nature at times … and sin. That’s our reality, isn’t it? Saints that sin?

    Peter, you still haven’t answered as to whether or not you sin. Do you sin? If you’re not a sinner, then doesn’t the answer have to be no?

    For the record, as I’m in the minority in trying to argue for a both/and situation, I’m fully persuaded the redeemed are saints in Christ Jesus. So, if you’re trying to persuade me of that, it’s already a given.

    What must be proven is that one cannot be both at the same time, not merely because we declare it to be so, but by Scripture or logic or something. Or what must be proven is that are not sinners in any sense after conversion.

    Those are the thoughts I’m challenging, not that we’re saints, children of God, priests, new creatures, etc.

    Dan wrote: “I think where some people show trepidation at the saint appellation comes from an idea that we will gloat in self-righteousness and ignore sin altogether.”

    I’d not really thought of that, but I can see where you’re coming from on that. I wonder if ignoring sin would be in the same ballpark as denial of sin?

    Hey, I’m enjoying the banter and reparte and hope we’re all still on friendly terms during and afterward. Interesting issue(s) … thanks for the venue in which to engage.

    • marie

      The word “sinner”, in my eyes, implies a lifestyle of sin. I do not live a lifestyle of sin. My lifestyle is sanctification by the One who had no sin.

  16. Thanks for writing this, Dan! I can completely identify with the fatalism you mentioned. This is the very thing that bugs me about “the cross-centered life”; it’s all too easy to focus on Jesus’ cross (and my sin that made it necessary) and de-emphasize Jesus’ resurrection (and our new identity in him as saints).

  17. Hi Dan:

    Another stimulating post and intelligent discussion… Personally I went through a phase in my early walk where the first truth you mention (that we are saints) was something I needed to emphasize and understand more deeply.

    More recently, as I have struggled with deep-rooted sin, I have needed to recognize that despite my fundamental identity as a saint in the eyes of the Lord (solely as a result of the Christ’s work on my behalf), I still have a sin “principle” dwelling within my flesh. This principle means that when I want to do good, sin is right there also, tempting me (Romans 7:21-23).

    As some have said here already, some people (and segments of the church) may need to more fully lay hold of one or the other of these truths (I am a saint vs. I still sin because of the flesh), and adjust their walk accordingly. So although I think the main point of your article is applicable to many, there are those who at this time need to gain a greater revelation on the depth of their sin.

    I think all believers need to see the depth of our sinfulness yet at the same time see the depth of God’s grace in saving us from sin through His transformation of us into saints in Christ. We need to hold these truths together in our thinking.

    Blessings,

    Alex

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  19. K.J. Adams

    Travis said: *This is the very thing that bugs me about “the cross-centered life; it’s all too easy to focus on Jesus’ cross (and my sin that made it necessary) and de-emphasize Jesus’ resurrection (and our new identity in him as saints).*

    AMEN Travis. This was an excellent article.

    One comment I would like to state…Romans 7 is not about an unsaved person. Remember Paul said in Philippians 3 tht he thought himself BLAMELESS under the Law….that only applies to the flesh.

    We do have 2 natures, our old man, and our New Man. Since we admit we do not come to sinless perfection in this life, then we do sin. But what part of us sins…our old man or our New. Must be the old. That must be why Paul says..I die daily. What part of us dies daily? The Old or New? Must be the Old. Paul is laying the groundwork in a simplified way explaining Romans 6 that gives a clearer understanding of Romans 8…Walk in the New Man and you won’t fulfill the lusts of the Old man or flesh.

    We must see tht our history in Adam 1 ENDED at the Cross. And see ourselves as SAINTS. To think of yourself as a sinner saint???!!!??? is an oximoron. We are called to put OFF the Old man and PUT ON the New. The New is Christ in You…Colossians 1.

    This is called the Gospel according to the MYSTERY…Romans 16:25-27. The Mystery is * Christ In You, the Hope of Glory.

    It is most *humbling* indeed to be called a Saint, joint heir with Christ, and those who KNOW this in their heart are not arrogant. We are forever praising GOD for all the things HE has done, and know none of this is of ourselves.
    Blessings!

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