Sinners or saints?

Are Christians sinners?by Barry Newton

In recent years a puzzling trend has appeared along the paths I have trod. From pulpits and the Lord’s Table, the message has pealed forth that God’s people are sinners.

When confronted by something new, I often am aware of a certain inquisitiveness welling up within me to discover the innovation’s source. As of this moment, I only possess an educated guess.

The best I can surmise is that this characterization of Christians as sinners has arisen from some amalgamation of the desire to be confessional about one’s own failings, a presumably evangelistic reaction against Christians being perceived as “holier than thou,” and perhaps a few proof texts yanked out of context such as Romans 7:14-15.

Was I absent at a particularly influential lectureship or have I skipped over a popular book?

In contrast to what might be the evolution of a recent fad, I cannot recall a single time where any of the New Testament authors chose to depict the nature of Christians as being sinners or being sinful. As far as my mind serves me, the consistent voice of the New Testament is quite to the contrary.

In spite of their failings, Paul addressed the churches in Rome, Corinth(!), Achaia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Jerusalem, along with all Christians, as being saints and those sanctified. With this choice of language Paul depicts Christians as being holy and as having been made holy.

Paul is not alone. Luke, when describing the early church in Jerusalem and Lydda, wrote that they were saints, that is holy. Likewise, both John and Jude refer to God’s people as the holy ones or saints.

Those early Christian voices within scripture had good reason for categorizing Christians as being holy, not sinful. Of the many verses which jump to mind, for me Hebrews 10:14 particularly stands out. Describing the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, the author wrote, “For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy.”

I have no desire to undermine or shortchange the power and efficacy of Christ’s blood in our lives. God’s people have been made holy, and they are called to live up to being God’s holy people.

Although Christians may find themselves in need of confessing sin and relying upon Christ’s blood to cleanse themselves throughout their lives, this does not justify calling them sinners. Nor should they view themselves as such. God’s power through Christ has made them saints.

If the source of calling Christians sinners is a modern one, Christian leaders would do well to spend more time studying God’s word and less time devoted to listening to tapes or reading books by their well-intentioned fellow human beings.

7 thoughts on “Sinners or saints?

  1. Thanks Barry. I have seen the term alien sinner many times. Is that a term used to differentiate from a non-believing sinner and a Christian? I have not been able to find a definition of it. I guess the term sinner has been used to include everyone since we all sin. Thanks for the article. You have given me something to study.

  2. I appreciate your article, I look forward to studying this more. 1 Tim 1:15 even Paul called himself the chief of all sinners.

  3. I appreciate the feedback. Since I do not use the term alien sinner, you might want to check the contexts of those sources using that terminology to discover their implied definition.

    In discussing with a friend this concept of referring to Christians as sinners or saints, my friend also referenced 1 Tim. 1:15. Perhaps this does constitute one exception. Admittedly Paul does use the present tense in 1:15, but in the larger context what is Paul’s focus/ message? Is he providing us the basis for describing Christian nature? Does his message recall his pre-Christian status? Other? What ought we to take away from this context?

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful feedback.

    For whoever might stumble upon these additional comments about sinner or saint – In my dialogue with my friend, it appeared that our difference in terminology was one of conceptual emphasis, rather than substantive distinction. My friend and I both believe Jesus forgives us and that we remain dependent upon his blood for forgiveness throughout our lives. Doctrinally, we are the same.

    However, language has power. How we name things is significant. Accordingly, when I stand back and look at how the New Testament describes God’s people through nominative and descriptive language what consistently gushes forth depicts a new creation, redeemed, saints and so forth, not sinners nor sinful.

    Does or should this typical biblical language about transformation from sinner to saint at conversion functionally influence a Christian’s self-understanding? Are we more likely to give in to temptation if we call ourselves sinners, rather than saints? Does using sinner as a self-description lighten our sense of guilt, because after all, we are forgiven sinners? Conversely, does saint remind us more about Jesus, his sacrifice and our calling? What role(s) does our language play in our lives? These are some of the questions that percolate in my mind.

    For me, my preferences lie with following the deep channels within scripture, as opposed to constructing habits and ways of thinking on the unusual or possible exceptions. That’s just me.

    Imagine if 2 Thess. 1:10 had read, “when Christ comes to be glorified among his sinners and admired on that day …” This sounds so foreign to our ears, … and rightfully so?

  4. Thanks Barry. An alien sinner is one who is not in the kingdom of God, who has never accepted Christ and never had his sins forgiven (non-Christian).

    As it has already been stated being a Christian does not keep us from ever sinning. An erring Christian is in need of pardon as much as the alien sinner. I think that we can run the danger of spiritual pride if we put to much emphasis on being a saint or being holy; IF we forget that we still sin (1 John 1:8-10 discusses this). We can deceive ourselves into thinking we have no sin.

    When I read the scriptures I see that we are constantly reminded that we are to be set apart and then reminded that we are also reliant on Jesus Christ who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (past and present) 1 John 2:1-2. I agree that a Christian should do his very best to live his life walking in the light (1 John 1:7). Christians are suppose to pursue lives of righteousness and when we sin we are to repent and pray about the sin in our life.

    Thanks again for a great article and one that has made me really think.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful points Trey. I suspect that it is precisely to your point – namely, that when Christians began to think more highly of themselves than they ought or at least to avoid the perception in the eyes of others of being holier than thou – that someone chose the self-designation of sinner to restore a healthier perspective. Such spiritual pride is never warranted nor should it be projected. Spot on, we need to avoid that danger.

    Interestingly enough, my discussion with my friend included two texts, the other one he referenced was 1 John 1:8-10. I guess great minds think alike! His line of thought was that if Christians must acknowledge that they are still sinning, then by implication it would be right to call them sinners. Fair enough.

    However, my understanding of this text has always been slightly different. I was certain that I had published my understanding of 1 John on Forthright but since I could not find it, maybe here’s an idea for a future article. Thanks!

    Basically, John seems to be writing to the Christian community to help them with an internal threat (1 Jn. 2:26) where the body had become divided (2:19) and a fundamental question percolating within the mind of true believers revolved around which group was right (5:13). Accordingly, 1 John constitutes a handbook providing a series of tests revealing which group truly belongs to God (4:1; 2:29; 3:9; 4:7, etc.) as well as giving the true believers confidence (1:1-4; 2:26-28; 5:13).

    John’s attack in 1 John 4:3 sounds like he is addressing some early form of docetic gnosticism. This group would certainly have made the claims John addresses in his letter such as: “we have fellowship with God” (1:6), “we know God” (2:4), and “we love God” (4:20).

    Because of dualistic tendencies within gnosticism to separate spirit and flesh, it is quite possible that the false group was also claiming that they (that is, in their spirit) had never sinned (1:8,10). As I understand it, some gnostics would claim to be innocent even though their flesh had participated in sin. Whether or not this is the background John is addressing, John certainly hits very hard the idea that God’s people do not continue to revel in sin (1:8-10; 3:8-10, etc.).

    Perhaps as my friend proposed, 1:8-10 was intended to highlight that Christians in general do sin. Or maybe John’s intent involving attacking the docetic group who claimed that they had never sinned. IF the latter is the case, then the former may not be within John’s intended scope.

    However to come full circle, 2:1-2 points to the dependence of God’s people upon the ongoing atonement of Christ for their sin. We remain forever in Christ’s debt.

    Thanks for your thoughtful feedback.

  6. Thank you for writing this devotional, brother Barry.

    I’ve often felt uneasy hearing Christians refer to themselves as “sinners”, and I’ve sometimes thought to myself, “2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”. and also what you pointed out — that many times in the New Testament we are referred to as “saints”, “holy”, and “redeemed”, etc. With some I have chalked up the phrase, “We are all sinners”, to a mistake in logic; and with others I have pondered if they were not just using that phrase as an excuse for their unwillingness to change into the person that the Lord wants them to be. My hope is that since we are all a work in progress (Phil. 1:6; Gal.2:8; Eph. 3:20) that each of us would be progressing onward to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:13, 15; Col. 4:12). It hurts to see stagnation in the body of Christ irrespective of many years

    Additionally, I have often heard part of Isaiah 64:6, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” applied to Christians when clearly the context does not lend itself to that interpretation. The verse in question applies to anyone performing good works without accompanying holiness.(vs. 5-7 cf. Matt. 7:21-21; Luke 6:46ff). Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he wrote:

    “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified” (2 Cor. 13:5).

  7. Mr. Newton,
    Thank you for your informative lesson, for many years I have given public prayers that include being thankful for Jesus’s willingness to come and die for “sinners like us”. I am always mindful of working out my salavation with “fear and trembling” Phillipians 2:12, however I like your thoughts concerning this issue. Perhaps it is the common miconception that Church of Christ Members are the “only ones going to Heaven” and our “holier than thou” attitude that has caused us to move to far the other way. Thanks again for your insight.

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