Saints or Sinners
Historically, Christendom has divided the Church into two: prominent individuals known as ‘saints’, and a less prestigious group consisting of the rest of those who profess Christ. Furthermore, the ‘saints’ are only acclaimed to be such by proving themselves after a life of devoted service. All this runs clean contrary to the teaching of the Bible. The word saint in Scripture (αγιος) is the same as that elsewhere rendered holy, and refers to those that “have been washed … have been sanctified” (agiazw—literally, constituted saints) and “… have been justified” (1 Cor. 6: 11). Christians are saints by divine calling (see Rom. 1: 7), not because of anything we do, or will do, and the word simply means that we are set apart (or sanctified) for holy purposes. It is by God’s will that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10: 10). It is because of what Christ has done at the cross that we are constituted saints. Thus the Corinthians, though practically unholy, are addressed as saints by divine calling (see 1 Cor. 1: 2). Indeed, it is commonplace for believers in the NT to be referred to as saints.
Sadly, conversation among Christians today retains some of the old theological error, and in many quarters it is considered presumptuous to speak of believers as saints. Indeed, is not unusual to hear the convert referred to as ‘just a sinner saved by grace’ (or similar phraseology). The wording sounds humble (and the spirit in which it is uttered may indeed be humble), but it is not Scriptural language, and it actually diminishes God’s grace rather than exalts it. The prodigal son was happy to be a hired servant (see Luke 15: 19)—just a saved sinner we might say—but God would have him in His house as a son. Again, if I think of myself only as a saved sinner, then it is very easy to excuse any sin I may fall into. God expects our conduct to be “as it becomes saints” (Eph. 5: 3), but in popular theology the standard is not that far removed from the unbelieving world around. The assembly in Corinth may have been a byword for licentiousness, but God wrote to them, not as saved sinners, but saints (see 1 Cor. 1: 2), and expected them to live in accord with that calling.
In the synoptic gospels, the word sinner (αμαρτωλος) is frequently used to designate a person of ill–repute or loose morals (see Matt. 9: 10, 11; 11: 19; Mark 2: 15, 16; Luke 5: 30; 7: 34; 15: 1, 2; 19: 7; see also John 9: 24; Gal. 2: 15; 1 Pet. 4: 18). Thus the woman who washed the Lord’s feet with her tears in the house of Simon the Pharisee would be one whose sins were notorious (see Luke 7: 37, 39). This distinction between the outwardly righteous and the outwardly sinful is taken up by the Lord Himself when he declares that “I have not come to call righteous [men] but sinners” (Matt. 9: 13; see also Mark 2: 17; Luke 5: 32). As He said elsewhere, “there shall be joy in heaven for one repenting sinner, [more] than for ninety and nine righteous who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15: 7). Sadly, the Pharisees and the lawyers (the outwardly righteous) “rendered null as to themselves the counsel of God” (Luke 7: 30), seeing no need for a baptism “of repentance for [the] remission of sins” (Luke 3: 3). By contrast, “the tax–gatherers and the harlots” (the outwardly sinful) “believed” (Matt. 21: 32) and entered into the Kingdom.
In the epistles, this matter of being sinful or being righteous, is taken up, not in relation to outward appearance before men, but with regard to how God views us. Thus Paul teaches that “for as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be constituted righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). There are two companies here: the one constituted sinners, and the other constituted righteous. This is not to say that Christians do not sin, for “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1: 8), and provision is certainly made for sins committed by believers (see 1 John 2: 1). However, the Christian is no longer constituted a sinner but is now reckoned righteous (see Rom. 4: 25)—even though, when unconverted, he had no righteousness of his own. For a Christian to continue to refer to himself as a sinner is therefore incongruous, for that is not how God how views him. Indeed, the NT never refers to believers as sinners, except in cases where Christian doctrine is practically abandoned (see Gal. 2: 17), or where persons “err from the truth” (James 5: 19; see also James 4: 8). Christians are referred to scores of times in Scripture as ‘saints’, ‘brethren’, ‘faithful’ and other similar terms, but ‘sinner’ is conspicuous by its absence. God has commended His love to us “in that, we being still sinners, Christ has died for us” (Rom. 5: 8, my emphasis)—which, in itself, implies that we are no longer such. To persist in referring to ourselves as ‘sinners, even if we append the word saved, is to lessen the wondrous extent of God’s grace towards us in constituting us as righteous. Refraining from referring to oneself as a sinner is not, as is often supposed, a question of a lack of humility—for it is freely acknowledged that it is by Christ’s poverty that we have been enriched (see 2 Cor. 8: 9). Instead, I refer to myself in the terms that Scripture uses, not because it exalts me, but because it makes much of Him. Sadly, much of today’s theology is not based on the Bible, but on sound bites and song lyrics. It may sound good, but its message is not sound.