Sinners or saints?

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. –Oscar Wilde

I am pretty sure Oscar Wilde will never gain anyone’s “Favorite Theologian” status. His quote, however, is a good launching point for this post.

A large number of pastors and theological types spend time on Twitter. Some of their tweets are retweeted hundreds or even thousands of times. Recently I noticed a fair number of tweets having to do with sin. Here are a few:

Christians sin daily and much, and need to hear the Gospel of Christ’s forgiveness just as much as unbelievers do. [Original tweet]

When I attach God’s acceptance to my performance, the Gospel becomes the Okay News. My sin ruins me, not His love of me. [Original tweet]

To be in constant awe of the gospel is to be in constant despair of my sin but constant delight of my loving Savior. [Original tweet]

I do not mean to imply what these have written is unbiblical as the thoughts contained in these three tweets are, I believe, true. These three are representative of many I have seen with the same sentiment.

What has captured my attention is this apparent obsession with sin and sinfulness by some believers. Some even seem to go beyond the “I’m just a sinner saved by grace,” perspective. It is almost as if grace cannot be celebrated unless sin is constantly remembered. It borders perilously close to self-condemnation, one of the things God has delivered us from and against which we are warned (1 John 3:20).

I asked a friend last week about this line of thinking. “Why does there seem to be this obsession among certain folks who must repeatedly state how sinful their sin is to them?” His response was one I had considered but not confirmed. “I think it’s a kind of piety where they feel the need to demonstrate the love of God by continually looking at their sin.”

I am not sure that is piety. It sounds more like self-flagellation to me.

When Jesus died to set us free from sin I do not think He meant for it to re-enslave us through a misplaced focus.

My friend and co-worker, Trevin Wax, recently addressed this on his blog. Relating a personal conversation, his “new grandfather” had told him,

“Trevin, you are not just a sinner saved by grace…You are also a saint indwelled by the very Spirit of God!”

My contention is that our redemption goes even further than that. I believe the New Testament teaches believers undergo a category change. “Saint” is not something we also are; it is all we are. We are no longer sinners. To put it another way: we are not sinners who act saintly; we are saints who sometimes act like sinners.

Yesterday morning our teaching pastor, Philip Nation (also a friend and co-worker), said,

As we think about who we are in Christ, remember you are more than a sinner saved by grace, you are a saint living in grace.

Rather than, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace,” Christ’s followers should say, “I was a sinner, but I’m saved by grace. I was a sinner; now I’m a saint.”

The English Standard Version of the New Testament uses the word saint 60 times while the Holman Christian Standard Bible uses it 62 times. In all but one of these instances (Matthew 27:52) it refers to Christ-followers who were alive at the time of the writing or, in the Revelation, the redeemed who would live in the future. Consider these examples:
But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. Acts 9:13

Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. Acts 9:32

At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. Romans 15:25 (All from ESV.)

In each and every instance the reference is clear. The word saint is a description of those who have turned from sin to follow Christ. It is not another way of describing sinners. Rather, it is a new name for those who have passed from death to life, from bondage to liberty, from separation to adoption, from being without God in this world to being with Him for eternity.

In fact, saint is used to distinguish between those who have been reconciled to God and those who have not. Consider 1 Corinthians 6:1 (ESV), “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?” Also, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3, ESV). What was Paul’s point? Saints should not act like sinners.

Sinner on the other hand was a term used to describe those apart from God. It was used as a pejorative against Jesus (“friend of sinners” Matthew 11:19), of those who needed to come to repentance (Mark 2:11), our condition when Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8), those under the condemnation of the law (1 Timothy 1:9), and those who were opposed to Jesus (Hebrews 12:3). These would be strange ways indeed to describe the children of God.

The second chapter of Ephesians posits these two ideas in clear contrast to each other. Paul uses past tense and present tense to communicate the new reality–the new category–that children of God inhabit. Notice the language:

v. 1, “And you were dead in trespasses and sins…”

“you previously walked according to the ways of this world”

v. 3, “We too all previously lived…in our fleshly desires”

“we were by nature children under wrath”

v. 12, “you were without the Messiah…excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreignerswithout hope and without God in the world”

v. 13 & 17, “you who were far away”

Compare these to verses in the same chapter that speak either in the present tense or to our present reality:

v. 5, “You are saved by grace”

v. 6, “He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens

v. 8, “For you are saved by grace”

v. 10, “For we are His creation”

v. 13, “you…have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah”

v. 14, “He is our peace”

v. 19, we are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household

v. 22, “You also are being built together for God’s dwelling”

No more succinctly is this distinction made than in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (NLT) where the apostle writes, “Don’t you realize that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

This should in no way be interpreted as “Do not be relentless against sin.” The Bible clearly says to put desires for the old life to death (Colossians 3:5). The issue is not whether we should avoid sin; we should. The question is, “What is the ground for our avoidance?” Do we focus on our propensity to sin or on the transformation God has already worked in our lives to deliver us from its power? I believe the latter to be the New Testament ideal.

As a saint I do not want to take sin lightly, but I would rather embrace the grace that gave me sainthood in the first place. To focus on one’s sinfulness is to obsess over the chains that lay in a heap at their feet rather than leaping for joy in freedom.

Image credit

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.