This topic can cause a lot of controversy within the church and I make no apologies for a little theology. When we come to Jesus are we still sinners or are we saints? It might seem like a pointless argument but I believe the answer holds keys in how we impact our planet with the gospel. It is not simply an academic battle we should leave to bible scholars at seminary’s and bible colleges around the world. The answer to this questions impacts the way ordinary believers the world over behave and view God. Our perception of God will always be what we reproduce. We know we are to follow his lead in how we live our lives, the bigger question though is what does he look like. For me the question of whether believers are saints or sinners is more than mere semantics, it is fundamental. So what does the bible say on this topic?
Much of the discussion is found in the great doctrinal letter to the Romans, Paul’s masterpiece. We can see clearly from this letter that sin is a big deal, we have all missed the mark and been guilty of sin (Rom 3:23). God’s answer was Jesus coming to earth as a man, living, dying and being resurrected. A sacrifice that dealt with sin in our lives. Interestingly Jesus did not only die for what we have done wrong, He died for who we are. Sin was a bigger problem than just external wrong doing. There was the issue of our very nature and hearts being corrupted. Any attempt to redeem us would need to be an inside job. Thankfully God did a really thorough job!
When Jesus was crucified we were also crucified (Rom 6:4). We died with Him, as hard as that might be to get our heads around. We were also raised with him. When we died our old sinful nature was killed for good. We emerged with a new nature. We gain access to this through faith in Jesus. Death makes it sound pretty final! The good news is that our new nature means we no longer have sin as our master. We are slaves to righteousness. Our very nature was transformed in the instant we believed! God did a really thorough and excellent job. With our old nature we had a tendency towards sin. In our new nature we have a tendency towards righteousness! Our identity has been radically changed, who we are at our very core is different. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17).
It is because of this new nature that we are told in Romans 6:11 “…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God…”. In the original greek the word “count” carries with it connotations of accounting and finance. It could be understood as to calculate or do the sums. What this verse is saying is based on what happened with your old nature we are to do the maths, check our bank account and we will see that we are dead to sin. This is how we are to live. This section of Romans holds a key for how to grow in righteousness in our walk with God.
What Paul is not saying is that it is not possible for us to sin anymore. 1 John 1:8 is pretty clear we are just kidding ourselves if we say we no longer sin. Imagine this situation. Imagine I was the King of nation and yet I lived homeless on the street. It is still possible for me to behave like a poor person even though it was not my identity. I could forsake my identity as King and live like a pauper, it doesn’t change who I am though. In the same way God does not remove our ability to choose when we become believers. We can be saints and still act like sinners. Before we were believers this was us acting within our nature, after believing in Jesus this is us being false to our identity. We can and do still sin however and there is a process of sanctification that happens for any believer.
The point I hope to make is that our very nature and identity has changed. The word sinner does not simply mean we sin. It means that sin is our identity. It might seem like semantics but there is a difference between telling a lie and being a liar. One speaks of a one off event and the other says it is your nature to deceive. What we believe about ourselves has a huge impact on us. We are no longer sinners, we are saints.
Paul always addresses his letters to the “saints”. He felt it important to recognise their identity from the outset every time he addresses a church or region. Saint means holy. He was acknowledging their righteousness in Christ, their new nature. All references to sinners refer to the past tense. “…while we were still sinners…”.
The way we see ourselves changes how we act. Calling ourselves sinners de-motivates us to seek righteousness. Sinners expect to sin all the time. If we believe there is no hope for something we will not try for it. Seeing ourselves as saints motivates us to live up to that new calling. We are holy. Not because of anything we did or anything we could ever do to achieve it. Entirely because of God’s goodness and provision. In the New Covenant we are called to be positively motivated not negatively. We are told to walk as children of light, set our mind on the spirit and things above, endure for the joy before us and work knowing we will receive a reward. Negative motivation has very limited affects and leads us away from being internally motivated back to external rule of the law. False humility has a tendency to over-emphasise our weakness at the expense of Christ’s glorious accomplishments. Jesus has transformed us, it’s time to believe Him!
So in summary Christians are saints not sinners! Saints are called to live righteously and it is their very nature to do so! Recognising what God already did is a huge key in our personal and cooperate growth. Saints are empowered to see themselves as holy and this revelation enables them to walk in authority, grace and love and see our planet transformed radically for the better.