Saints or sinners — how do we speak of Christians collectively? It’s a question many of you have asked over the years, and Mark most recently. We get to that question today. Mark writes, “Hello, Pastor John! As a pastor and preacher, I pursue the truth of God in his word. Every Sunday I strive to welcome and embrace the spiritual burden of speaking his truth and not my own opinion, knowing that his word alone has the power to save us from the consequences of our sinful rebellion against a holy God.
“In light of this truth, I was recently challenged about my use of the word sinner to collectively speak of God’s people. Can we who are saved by grace through faith still be called sinners, or is it more biblical to use the word saint? Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:15–16, and James speaks of wayward believers who are brought back into the church body as sinners (James 5:19–20). Yet there are many places throughout Scripture that refer to God’s people as saints. So, should God’s collective people be primarily referred to as saints or sinners?”
Well, first, a clarification in the way Mark poses the question. He cites Paul as saying, “I’m the foremost of sinners.” But in the context, I don’t think Paul means that now, as a Christian, he’s the foremost. I think he means, “That was true of me when God saved me,” because he supports it with the statement in 1 Timothy 1:13: “I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” He’s not that anymore.
No Sinless Christians
However, we need to be careful, because the fact that he uses the present tense — “I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15) — I think means, “I remain among all people the least likely candidate to have received salvation because of my former life.” But he does not mean that he is living as the foremost of sinners right now.
But when Mark refers to James 5:19–20, he’s right that James calls this backsliding Christian a sinner. James says, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth [anyone among you Christians] and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” So yes, that is right. James does use the word for Christians.
And of course, we know from 1 John 1:8–10 that there’s no such thing as a Christian in this life who does not sin: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his truth is not in us.”
And we know from Romans 7 that Paul treats himself, while a Christian, as one who does some sins that he hates (Romans 7:15). And Jesus taught us to pray daily, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). And the reason I say daily is because the immediately preceding request in the Lord’s Prayer is, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). We need daily bread; we need daily forgiveness.
There’s no thought of there being any sinless Christian in this life. Agreed. So, should I stop right there? “End of answer — there you have it: Christians are called sinners. We are still sinners.” Mark asks, “Can we who are saved by grace through faith still be called sinners?” Answer: yes — end of question. Next question, Tony. No, we should not stop there. We dare not stop there, because that does not get at the heart of the matter.
We ‘Were’ Sinners
Paul calls Christians saints — that is, holy ones, consecrated ones, set-apart ones, being-made-holy ones, saved, set apart for God, walking in the light — he calls Christians saints forty times in his letters, but he virtually never uses the noun sinner to describe Christians. You might think there’s one or two exceptions; I would argue probably not. At any rate, forty to almost nothing. Why would that be? I think that’s behind Mark’s question; that’s the issue. Why would that be, since we all sin?
In fact, in Romans 5:8, Paul says, “God shows his love for us while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Well, what does that mean — “while we were still sinners”? It means that Paul has a way of understanding sinner that no longer applies to us. That’s what it means. This is what gets Mark going. This is why his question is so relevant, so important.
We need to be careful here. We need to be thoughtful. We don’t want to be superficial and say, “Whoa — the Bible says we always sin. A person who sins is a sinner. So it’s right to call Christians sinners.” Well, it’s not that simple, for two reasons. First, saying someone sins and saying they’re a sinner may not mean exactly the same thing. Would you call yourself a liar because sometimes you lie? The connotation is not quite the same.
Cleanse Out the Old Leaven
Here’s the other reason why it’s not that simple: Christians really do have a different essential identity now that we’re saved. We really are new creatures in Christ. Sinner is not our essential identity any longer in Christ. That’s the nub the matter.
Consider this remarkable statement in 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out the old leaven” — cleanse out the old yeast. He’s using this for a picture of sin. “Cleanse out the old yeast that you may be a new lump [of dough], as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” Unleavened — really unleavened. In other words, because of Christ’s death for us, we are in our most essential identity unleavened — that is, sinless. And the unique thing about Christian morality, Christian ethics, is that we now fight against our sin — really fight against our own sinning — because it’s gone.
“The fight against our ongoing sinning is the evidence that we are in Christ.”
It’s not there. “Cleanse out the old sin because you’re sinless.” That’s the mystery of the Christian life. Cleanse out the old sin, kill sin in your life (Romans 8:13), because you’re sinless. That’s who you are. The fight against our ongoing sinning is the evidence that we are in Christ — and in him without sin in our inmost, essential identity.
Let me say that again. The fight — the real, living, daily fight — is evidence. That’s what pastors look for in their people. I’m looking for evidence that you’re a Christian, and the evidence is that you’re in Christ. And if you’re in Christ, you’re without sin. So fighting sin is the evidence that you are without sin.
Chosen, Holy, Beloved
In Colossians 3:9–10, Paul put it like this: “Do not lie to one another.” So kill that. Get rid of that sin. Don’t do that. Confess it. Repent. Turn away if you do that. Don’t do that. Why? “Seeing that you have put off the old self [the old identity, the old you, you’ve put it off — it’s dead; it’s crucified with Christ] with its practices and have put on the new self [the new identity, new you], which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
“Because of Christ’s death for us, we are in our most essential identity unleavened — that is, sinless.”
You have put off the old self — namely, the self that was in its essential identity a sinner. That’s what you’ve put off. That self has died with Christ. Now you are a new self. Put it on. Put on what you are. That is, cleanse out the old leaven because you are unleavened. Specifically, he says, “Don’t lie to one another. You are without sin. You are not liars. So don’t lie. So don’t sin.” That’s the glorious paradox of the Christian life, and I think that is why Paul virtually never uses the noun sinner to describe the Christian, because it sounds like a deep identity marker, and so it would not be true.
Paul gives plenty of evidence that Christians still sin. We battle sin; put it to death (Romans 8:13). But he makes plain that that’s not who we are. And listen to Colossians 3:12–13: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” This is Paul’s typical way of thinking. You are chosen; you are holy; you are loved. So put this identity on, and treat each other with love in Christ.
Shepherd the Saints
So what’s the answer then? Pastors — that’s how this all started, with the question of trying to be faithful as a shepherd of people — pastors, absorb this New Testament way of reckoning with two realities:
- The ongoing sin in the lives of your people is real.
- Their deepest identity as chosen, holy, and loved — that’s real.
Then teach them (1) who they are and (2) what they’re going to have to deal with and how they relate to each other. Speak to them according to this reality.